Washington Boating Safety Requirements

Personal Flotation Devices (PFDs aka Life Jackets)

California boating laws for life jackets

Washington State requires at least one U.S. Coast Guard approved Type IV PFD (ring buoy OR seat cushion) on all recreational boats in excess of 16 feet in length, in ADDITION to the wearable PFD required for each person onboard.

Exceptions to the requirement for carrying a Type IV PFD include the following: Personal Watercraft Canoes and kayaks


All persons being towed behind a vessel are considered to be onboard.

All PWC occupants must be wearing their PFD while underway.

Child PFD Law

All boaters or passengers 12 years of age and under must be wearing a PFD while onboard a vessel that is less than 19 feet in length while underway.

Alcohol & Boating Under the Influence (BUI)

Boaters need to be aware that it is illegal to drink and operate a boat just as it is to drink and drive a motor vehicle. Most of the laws pertaining to the operation of a vessel under the influence of drugs and alcohol apply in the same way as they would for a car, truck or motorcycle on the road.

It shall be a violation for a person to operate a vessel while under the influence of intoxicating liquor or any drug.

A person is considered to be under the influence of intoxicating liquor or drug if

  • The person has 0.08 grams or more of alcohol per two hundred ten liters of breath, as shown by analysis of the person's breath
  • The person has 0.08% or more by weight of alcohol in the their blood as shown by analysis of their blood
  • The person is deemed to be under the influence of or affected by intoxicating liquor or any drug.

The penalties for boating under the influence of intoxicating alcohol or drugs include the following:

If convicted of an offense:

  • Imprisonment in a county jail for up to 90 days
  • Fines of up to $1,000

The operator may also be subject to the payment of compensation for any damages or injuries which may have occurred as a result of the offense.

  • Homicide by watercraft - When an individual involved in a boating accident dies as a result of injuries incurred during that accident within three years following the accident the operator of the vessel implicated may be charged with homicide by watercraft if:
    • They were found to be under the influence of either alcohol or drugs (or any combination of the two)
    • They are determined to have acted in a reckless manner which resulted in the accident
  • Assault by Watercraft - When an individual involved in a boating accident experiences serious bodily injury such as risk of death, permanent disfigurement, or loss of function of a part of the body or organ the operator of the vessel implicated may be charged with assault by watercraft if:
    • They were found to be under the influence of either alcohol or drugs (or any combination of the two)
    • They are determined to have acted in a reckless manner which resulted in the accident

Boaters are required to respond to any law enforcement officer's request to stop his or her boat when asked to do so by said officer. It is illegal to elude law enforcement officers.

Any new or used motor driven boat or vessel, other than open motorboats with outboard engines and personal watercraft, sold within Washington State must display a carbon monoxide warning sticker on the interior of the vessel.

Washington State Boat Registration

The Washington State Parks & Recreation Commission is responsible for regulating the state boating laws of Washington State.

All vessels propelled by machinery, including gasoline, diesel and electric motors, and principally operated on Washington State waters must be registered and issued a Washington Registration Card and Number by the state, which can be obtained through the office of vehicle licensing or Auditor in the boat owner's county.

Exceptions for the boat registration requirements include:

  • Non-motorized vessels including sailboats under 16 feet in length.
  • Vessels currently registered in another state or country using Washington waters for up to 60 consecutive days.
  • Vessels measuring less than 16 feet in length propelled by a motor that is no greater than 10 horsepower operated exclusively on non-federal waters.

Note: By law, any new or used motor vessel, other than a Jet Ski type personal watercraft, must display a sticker that warns passengers of the dangers of carbon monoxide (CO) poisoning.

Note: Sticker should be provided when you renew or register, or by the boat manufacturer or previous owners. If they do not receive one, you may contact your local vehicle licensing office.

Certificate of Number

Boat owners must have at least a temporary Registration card before they can operate in state waters. Upon receipt of the Registration Card please note the following:

  • It must be signed and carried onboard when operating the vessel.
  • The Department of Licensing must be notified within 15 days if the boater changes residences.
  • The Department of Licensing must also be notified within 15 days if the vessel is either destroyed, lost, stolen or abandoned.
  • The Department of Licensing must also be notified within 15 days for a lost registration card.
  • The Washington registration period is from July 1 through June 30 each year.
  • Washington registration and decals are valid for 1 year.

Cost to Register a Boat in Washington State

Successful registration results in a registration card along with a registration decal for each side of the vessel. Physical boat numbers must be purchased separately. Boat numbers must:

  • Be affixed on both sides of the bow;
  • Be block letters, three inches high and contrasting with the color of your boat;
  • Letters must be separated from the numbers by a space or a hyphen;
  • Read from left to right.

For example: WN 1234 BX or WN-1234-BX. This is a federal and state requirement.

The decal which is provided to you by the state must be displayed aft of the registration numbers on both sides of the vessel.

Lack of the correct documentation will result in delays and fines.

Make sure all boats are properly marked and documented. It's important to keep your papers with the boat – be particularly aware when transferring ownership of your vessel.

Boat Registration Fees

Description Fees Other applicable fees

Annual vessel registration fee


Subagent fee (if filing at any licensing office except a county auditor): $4

Vessel excise tax: 0.5% of taxable value of vessel ($5 minimum )

Vessel owners may submit registration or title applications as well as fees by mail to the following:

Department of Licensing
Vessel Licensing
P.O. Box 9909
Olympia, WA 98507-8500

More information with regards to registration and titling applications may also be obtained by contacting your local county auditor or the Department of Licensing at 1-360-902-3770.

Aquatic Nuisance Species

Aquatic Nuisance Species (ANS) are plants and animals that threaten the aquatic environment which is important to boaters. ANS are also called invasive species or non-native species.

Because ANS have no naturally occurring enemies that would keep them in check, these plants or animals can out compete and feed on native species. These species threaten the diversity or abundance of native species, the economic, agricultural and recreational activities that depend on our native species and water quality.

Of the species listed under the Endangered Species act, 42% are listed as a result of the deliberate or accidental introduction of non-native species into a new habitat.

Both plants and animals are spread in a variety of ways: through commercial shipping ballast water, introduction through aquarium water disposed of incorrectly, through plants and animals from landscaping/nurseries, introduction from hitchhiking on cargoes, and transported by recreational boaters.

The introduction of non-native species into Washington's waters is a problem which affects everyone. Introducing non-native species into Washington can upset the balance of the ecosystem, hurting the environment. When transported into new waters, these organisms proliferate, displacing native species, damage the water resource, damage the sports and commercial fisheries, damage Washington's large shellfish industry, pose a threat to industrial and public drinking water supplies, can weaken and damage banks and levees by burrowing into them, as well as prey on salmon and sturgeon eggs.

Always do a walk-around inspection after cleaning the prop area and bottom of the hull at the launch area before leaving with your boat. Where available, pressure washing the hull and motor parts exposed to the water is advised. Note that some species especially zebra mussels get into tight areas and may be over looked.

You can help prevent the introduction and spread of non-native species from one body of water to another.

  • Inspect your boat and remove aquatic plants or animals before you leave any body of water.
  • Flush raw-water cooling systems and clean sea strainers before moving your boat from one body of water to another.
  • Empty bait buckets and remove any plant fragments from bait wells, fishing gear, trailers, dive gear or props. Dispose of the plant fragments on land, in a garbage receptacle.
  • Drain water from your motor, live wells and bilge.
  • Wash your boat before putting it into a new body of water
  • Report any new infestation of non-native aquatic species to the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service.

Invasive Sea Squirts

There are three species of invasive sea squirts present at various Marina's in Puget Sound and Hood Canal. This has become a real as well as a critical issue.

One animal is a colonial tunicate called Didemnum; the other two are solitary tunicates that have taken over certain areas to the exclusion of other species.

  • The Didemnum infestations are currently in British Columbia in the areas surrounding Okeover Inlet and Vancouver Island. The smallest piece of the colony (a half inch square or less) can reproduce and form a new colony.
  • The second sea squirt is Styela clava, and has very heavy infestations at Pleasant Harbor, Neah Bay, and Blaine. It tends to get on docks, boats, aquaculture lines and cages. It is really nasty, and reproduces rapidly. Anyone who spends more than a day or two in those harbors needs to have their boats cleaned.
  • The third species, Ciona saviginy, may be moved on boats - it is present at Eagle Harbor and Des Moines marinas. We are seeing it taking over geoduck beds on S. Hood Canal. We don't know as yet how much of the canal is infested, or how the tunicate got there.

Washington State Boating License Regulations and Laws

Q. What are the Washington Boat license requirements for boat operators?

A. All operators born on or after January 1, 1955, must have the Washington Boater Education Card to operate a vessel powered by a motor of 15 or more horsepower.

Anyone under the age of 12 years may not legally operate a vessel powered by a motor of 15 or more horsepower. Anyone between the ages of 12 and 15 years may operate a vessel powered by a motor of 15 or more horsepower only if he or she has the Washington Boater Education Card. Anyone 14 years of age or older may legally operate a personal watercraft (PWC) only if he or she has the Washington Boater Education Card.

You can get your Washington Boater Education Card by taking and passing an approved Washington State boater safety course like BOATERexam.com®.

Q. What kind of boats require the operator to have a Washington Boater Education Card?

All watercraft which have a motor larger than 15 horsepower require the operator to carry a valid Boater Education Card, including personal watercraft such as jet skis.

The law does not require operators of manual-powered watercraft, such as kayaks, canoes, rowboats and sail-only boats, to obtain a boater education card.

Q. Who doesn't need a Washington Boater Education Card?

A. A Boater Education Card is not required:

  • If you were born before January 1st, 1955.
  • If your watercraft has a motor smaller than 15 horsepower.
  • If you hold a valid U.S. Coast Guard Marine Operator's License.
  • If you are not a resident of Washington state and holds a current out-of- state or out-of- country certificate or card that is equivalent to the rules adopted in Washington.
  • If you are not a resident of Washington state and do not operate a motor driven boat or vessel with an engine power of 15 horsepower or greater in state waters for more than 60 consecutive days.

Q. What if I'm renting a boat?

A. Washington boating laws do not require you to have a State Boater Education Card if you are renting, chartering, or leasing a motor driven boat or vessel with an engine power of 15 horsepower or greater.

However, you must complete a Washington State Parks and Recreation Commission-approved motor vessel safety operating and equipment checklist each time you before operating the vehicle. For more information

Q. What are the age limits?

A. Children under the age of 12 may not operate a watercraft with a motor larger than 15 horsepower. Children aged 12 and over may operate a watercraft with a motor larger than 15 horsepower if they have their Washington Boater Education Card.

Operators of personal watercraft, like jet skis, must be at least 14 years of age and have a Washington State Boater Education Card.

In Washington, it is illegal to lease, hire or rent a personal watercraft to children under the age of 16.

Q. What if I already have a boating license or proof of education from another state?

A. Washington State now joins at least 36 other states, as well as all Canadian provinces and territories, that require some form of mandatory education for operating a boat.

Boater education cards issued in other states are recognized in Washington. The Washington State Boater Education card is recognized in other states as well as in Canada.

Q. How are Washington State boating regulations enforced?

A. Depending on where you are boating, Washington State Boating regulations are enforced by Washington State Park Rangers, Department of Fish and Wildlife agents, or local police authorities. The United States Coast Guard patrol federally-controlled waters and enforce the laws there.

The fine for not carrying a Washington State Boater Education Card is $87.

Q. What are the Washington state license requirements for a boat versus the operator?

A. You must title and register your boat in Washington State within 60 days of moving to Washington with the boat or within 15 days of buying the boat, if you live in Washington and bought the boat in another state.

Out-of- state boaters who are visiting Washington may stay on state waters for up to 60 days without a permit, so long as as the vessel is registered in another state or has current U.S. Coast Guard documentation.

Canoes, kayaks, and other human-powered watercraft do not have to be registered Read more about how to register your boat on the Washington State Department of Licensing website.

Personal Watercraft Laws & Regulations

In addition to the laws that apply to all vessels, there are additional laws that apply specifically to personal watercraft.

Do not underestimate PWCs – they are very powerful for their small size and demand the same respect as any boat. In fact, PWC operation must adhere to the same rules and regulations as any other powerboat – including registration with the state and a B-1 class fire extinguisher aboard.

PWCs have some additional requirements:

  • The operator as well as all passengers on a PWC must be wearing an inherently buoyant U.S. Coast Guard approved Type I, II, or III PFD.
  • When towing someone on a tube or on water skis, there must be capacity on the PWC to accommodate the operator, the observer as well as the tuber/skier(s).
  • PWCs must stay at a distance of 200ft from other water skiers or others being towed behind a vessel.
  • PWCs must operate at slow-no wake speed, maximum 5 mph limit when:
    • Within 200ft of a swimmer, surfer, diving flag, bank or wading angler, dock, swim float, boat launch, ramp, pier, marina, floating home, moorage area, or boathouse;
    • Within 100ft of any anchored or non-motorized vessel; or
    • Within 200ft of shoreline on all lakes, reservoirs, and bays.
  • PWC operators in Washington State must not exceed 10mph when approaching within 100ft of a motorized or sailing vessel that is underway.
  • A person shall not operate a PWC in a reckless manner including weaving through congested traffic, recklessly jumping the wake of another boat unreasonably or unnecessarily close to the boat, or when visibility around the boat is obstructed. A person shall not recklessly swerve at the last possible moment to avoid a collision i.e. ‘spraying’ another boater.
  • A person shall not lease, hire or rent a personal watercraft to a person under the age of sixteen.

Hours of Operation: Personal watercraft may not be operated during hours of darkness (sunset to sunrise).