Most countries have introduced boating license systems to ensure that Bootsführerschein people operating or skippering pleasure craft have a basic level of boating competency. These licensing requirements are designed to promote safety for both boaters and other water users. Licensing systems can be set up and administered by either national or regional governments.

For example, in the United States and Australia, licensing laws are written and administered by the state governments. In comparison, in Canada, the licensing system is written and administered at the national level. The responsible administrative authority is the national bureaucracy known as Transport Canada. The law is enforced by a mix of various federal and provincial peace officers such as the Royal Canadian Mounted Police and the Ontario Provincial Police, as well as various other provincial police forces.

Most jurisdictions set thresholds for the size of recreational vessels above which a boat license is required. For example, in Queensland (QLD), Australia, a boat license is required to operate a recreational craft powered by an engine greater than 4.5 kilowatts (or 6 hp). In addition, a Personal Watercraft (PWC or Jetski ) license is required to operate a personal watercraft. No license is required to operate other recreational vessels.

In contrast, Australia in New South Wales (NSW) applies a speed criterion rather than a size criterion. In NSW, a boat license (known as a general license) is required to operate any vessel of ten knots or more, with the exception of jet skis. A special license is required to drive a jet ski at any speed. To obtain a general license, individuals must be at least 16 years old; alternative permit regulations exist for persons aged 12 to 16 years. In order to get an initial PWC license, the general license must be purchased first.

A captain for pleasure boats

Many countries or jurisdictions issue different categories of recreational boat licenses based on vessel type or other criteria. For example, in QLD, the categories are a recreational boater, a recreational boat captain, and a recreational speedboat license.

It is important to distinguish between boating license schemes and certification schemes. Licenses may be revoked or suspended and generally (though not always) have a specific expiration date. In contrast, boating licenses cannot be revoked or suspended and have no expiration date. The recreational boating regulatory systems that apply in most countries are licensing systems.

However, the system operated in Canada is a certification system. Pleasure craft operators in Canada receive a Pleasure Craft Operator Card (PCOC). This card cannot be revoked or blocked and has no expiry date. The PCOC is known as the competency map.

Fortunately, in a federal system like the US and Australia, boating licenses issued by one state are recognized by other states. As a result, a boater licensed in, say, Sportbootführerschein California is generally able to operate the prescribed class of vessel in other US states. This general principle also applies in Australia where a license issued in one state will be recognized in another state.