Do you need a licence to drive a boat? Not strictly speaking, but there are certain documents you’ll need to have in place.
For most private boaters, you don’t need a boat licence in the same way you need a driving licence. There’s no test you have to pass to get behind the wheel — or rather, the helm.
Even so, you still have to follow safety regulations and have insurance in place. You’ll also have to register your boat if you plan to drive it on inland waterways like rivers and canals.
In this guide, we explain everything you need to get out on the water.
Do you need a boating licence to drive a boat?
In the UK, there aren’t loads of formal boating licence requirements, qualifications or legal documents. This is largely down to an “educate not legislate” approach championed by the RYA (the Royal Yachting Association) which manages lots of boating training courses.
You’ll probably need some form of boat licence though (often called a river licence), which lets you use your vessel on specific waterways.
This is a legal requirement and covers lots of different types of boats including canal boats and Dutch barges, as well as pleasure craft (such as small dinghies), electric motor boats, kayaks and rowing boats.
This isn’t a “licence” in the normal sense. You don’t need formal training or a competency exam to get one. You will need a Boat Safety Scheme Certificate (BSSC) and appropriate insurance though, which we’ll cover in more detail below.
Note: This only applies to boating for your own private use in the UK. If you’re using your boat for commercial purposes (i.e. if money ever changes hands), there are formal training and licensing requirements. You can find more information about commercial boatmasters licences at gov.uk.
What qualifications do you need to drive a boat? Can anyone drive a boat in the UK?
For most people (driving standard canal boats and motorboats on the UK’s canals and rivers), you don’t need any qualifications to drive a boat.
Despite this, if you’re planning to sail abroad (for instance visiting European countries and waterways in France and Germany), you might need an “International Certificate of Competence (ICC)”.
This is a certificate that provides evidence of your skills and knowledge about things like navigation practices, engine power and maximum speed on open water. You might be asked for this certificate if you enter any European waters.
To apply for the certificate, you might have to attend a training centre or undertake online courses (for instance, a helmsman course or a boating safety course). This depends on what aspects you want your ICC to cover.
You can find more information about the process of getting an ICC from the Royal Yachting Association.
Where can you buy a boating licence?
So, where can you get a boating licence?
There are a few different navigation authorities responsible for canals and rivers across the UK. Each of these navigation authorities has its own rules and regulations on boat licences and fees.
This means the body issuing your licence will depend on the specific area you’re boating in. If you’re travelling across areas (for instance, from the River Thames to waterways in the Midlands), you’ll need a separate licence from each authority covering these areas.
The major UK navigation authorities are:
- The Environment Agency: Overseeing rivers across East Anglia and the River Medway, as well as the River Thames.
- The Canal and River Trust (formerly British Waterways): In charge of over 2,200 miles of historic canals, rivers, docks and reservoirs across most of England and Wales. You can check whether you’re boating on any of CRT’s 96 canals and rivers with their interactive map.
- The Broads Authority: Supervising waterways in the Suffolk Broads and Norfolk Broads.
- Scottish Canals: Responsible for many waterways in Scotland.
There are lots of smaller authorities covering local waterways. For instance, the Avon Navigation Trust manages 47 navigable miles of the “Warwickshire Avon”. The Bristol Harbour Authority, unsurprisingly, holds responsibility for the city’s harbour.
You can find a full list of UK inland waterways (as well as the responsible body) from the Inland Waterways Association.
As a general rule, you have to renew your boat or river licence each year. If you’re only using your boat for a short period, you can normally buy a “visitor registration” or “visitor licence”. These options are great for holidays or briefly exploring other areas of the country.
How much is a boat licence in the UK?
How much your boat licence or registration costs depends on the navigation authority you’re applying to.
How long you’re planning to stay on the water, what you’re using your boat for (i.e. whether you need a private licence or a business licence) as well as the width and length of the boat will also impact the cost.
If you’re boating in areas covered by the Canal and River Trust, they have a useful tool to calculate your licence fee. For example, if you’re applying for an annual “Canal and River” licence for a canal boat (with a beam of 2.5 metres and a length of 18 metres) — this would cost just over £760.
The cost also depends on the different types of boat licence.
For instance, if you’re regularly using waterways managed by the Environment Agency and CRT, you might save money with a gold licence. This means you don’t have to buy a licence with each authority.
If your boat is less than 3.5 metres wide, an annual gold licence starts at £678. The cost will increase depending on the length of your boat.
You can also choose different licence durations, from one day or week to one month, three months or six months.
For more information on the different requirements and costs, consult the navigation authority responsible for your waterways.
What do you need to get a boating licence?
In order to apply for a boat licence or registration (and use your boat on inland waters), your craft has to pass relevant insurance and safety requirements.
There are two main elements to this: the boat safety scheme and specialist insurance cover.
Here’s each in more detail.
What is the Boat Safety Scheme?
The Boat Safety Scheme (BSS) is an initiative managed by the Environment Agency and the Canal and River Trust. It’s designed to minimise risks to boat owners and river users, as well as improve our natural environment.
As part of this, boats using the UK’s waterways will need an up-to-date Boat Safety Certificate. It’s a bit like your car’s annual MOT, where things like the engine and your gas and electrical systems are assessed.
You’ll need a Boat Safety Certificate to apply for a boat licence.
You can find a qualified examiner on the BSS website. They’ll visit your boat to conduct an assessment.
Costs for a BSS examination start around £200, depending on the individual examiner and the size and complexity of your boat. Remember, if your boat doesn’t pass the assessment (and a return visit is needed), this will come with additional costs.
To give your boat the best chance of passing, follow guidance from the BSS. This includes preparing your boat appropriately, rules on things like carbon monoxide alarms and the checks involved. You could also carry out an engine service if required.
What boat insurance do I need?
You’ll also need appropriate insurance before applying for a boat licence.
In most cases, if you’re boating on inland waterways (with a canal boat, electric launch or even jet skis), you’ll need third-party insurance cover for at least £1 million.
This means you (as the owner of the boat) are protected from any injury claims as well as damage if your boat is in an accident. For example, if you’re involved in an accidental collision during mooring, this covers damage to another boat or property.
As well as third-party insurance cover, most boat owners opt for a comprehensive policy. This means your boat, its contents, crew and passengers are also protected.
In addition to powered boats, you might need insurance for other kinds of boats (for instance, static houseboats or rowing boats). Just check with the navigation authority managing your waterways.
Further information on laws on insurance requirements (including taking your boat to sea) is available on the gov.uk website.
Because boat insurance can be complex, it’s a good idea to find a specialist insurer. For instance, different insurance companies will have different policies on salvage or cover if your boat is stolen.
At A-Plan we offer various marine policies and levels of protection to fit your needs. So whether you’re in charge of a yacht or a jet ski, our specialist team can find the insurance that’s right for your craft.
Enjoy complete peace of mind and explore the waterways knowing you’re protected.