By January 1, 2025, subject to certain exemptions*, anyone who operates a recreational motorized vessel on California state waterways will be required to have their California Boater Card in their possession or face a fine.
The requirement for having a California Boater Card (sometimes called a 'boating license') is currently being phased in.
"Motorized vessels" includes motor boats and jet skis. But the category may include less well known watercraft such as motorized hydrofoil surfboards.
The cost of the card is currently $10, which is an amount that covers the cost of the program. Once you have a California boater card, it's valid for your lifetime.
The card is issued by the Division of Boating and Waterways (DBW), which falls under the California Department of Parks and Recreation.
Safety Course and Application
The requirement for having a card is for safety reasons and not for revenue. As such, an approved boating safety course must be taken and the corresponding exam passed before a boater card is issued.
There are 11 safety course providers that are approved by the State of California. Some are free and some have a cost.
When you are ready to apply, here is the online form.
By What Date Do You Need a California Boater Card?
The phase-in schedule runs from January 1, 2018, to January 1, 2025.
As of January 1, 2018, boaters who are 20 years of age and younger who planned to operate a recreational motorized vessel on state waterways was required to have a California Boater Card.
On January 1st of each year through 2025, a new age group has been or will be added.
The cutoff age jumps by either 5 years or 10 years, depending on the year.
As of January 1, 2018 anyone 20 years of age or younger must have a card
As of January 1, 2019 anyone 25 years of age or younger must have a card
As of January 1, 2020 anyone 35 years of age or younger must have a card
As of January 1, 2021 anyone 40 years of age or younger must have a card
As of January 1, 2022 anyone 45 years of age or younger must have a card
As of January 1, 2023 anyone 50 years of age or younger must have a card
As of January 1, 2024 anyone 60 years of age or younger must have a card
As of January 1, 2025 everyone must have a card, regardless of age
To save you from having to figure out your future age, we worked up this birth year-based cheat sheet:
You can add your cutoff date as an event on your calendar and send yourself email reminders ahead of time. Here's an example for someone born in 1978:
*California Boater Card Exemptions
According to California law, the following individuals are not required to have a boater card to operate a motorized vessel on California waterways:
A person operating a rental vessel.
A person operating a vessel while under the direct supervision of a person 18 years of age or older who is in possession of a California Boater Card.
A person who is a resident of a state other than California who is temporarily operating a vessel in California for less than 60 days and meets the boating requirements, if any, of his/her state.
A person who is a resident of a country other than the United States who is temporarily operating a vessel in California for less than 90 days and meets the boating requirements, if any, of his/her country.
A person operating a vessel in an organized regatta or vessel race, or water ski race.
A person who is in possession of a current commercial fishing license.
A person who is in possession of a valid marine operator license, for the waters upon which the licensee is operating, issued by the United States Coast Guard, or who is in possession of a valid certificate issued pursuant to the International Convention on Standards of Training, Certification and Watchkeeping for Seafarers, 1978, as amended.
A person who has successfully completed a boating course approved by the Commission on Peace Officer Standards and Training Post.
Here is a PDF with a complete list of California Boater Card FAQs.