Do You Need a License to Scuba Dive?

After watching exciting underwater scenes in movies or on TV, or when browsing underwater videos for hours on YouTube (no? Just me then?), you may end up wanting to try scuba out for yourself. Do you really need all that training to get licensed to dive?

Yes, you do need certification and a license to dive. It is not technically illegal to scuba dive without one. But the skills taught in scuba courses are used on every single dive to keep you safe. This is why dive shops will not rent equipment or fill tanks for non-certified divers.

It would be reckless to scuba dive without training and certification. Technically, you could research everything online, practice in a pool, and get prepared to try scuba gear by yourself without ever having to pay for or attend a class. But virtual learning can only get you so far. On-site training with a professional instructor who is trained to make sure that you know everything necessary for safe diving is still an essential step, as shown in this short PADI video.

Why Should You Get a Scuba Diving License? 

Getting licensed will fully open the world of diving and its many benefits. Not only can you explore seldom or even unseen parts of our world, but the ability to breathe underwater and move freely will leave you feeling like you’re a part of that marine magic. But is more complex than just putting on a mask, strapping on a tank and jumping in. There’s a lot more involved to get started safely.

Ensures Your Safety

You will want to get certified because the alternative puts you and your dive partners in grave danger. Plenty of things can go wrong with your gear while diving, and it’s important to know how to handle those situations. We go over the various injuries and risks or scuba divers in this article.

What if you drop your mask? Would you know how to put it back on and clear it of water so that it works properly again? What if something goes wrong with your dive buddy’s dive gear? What if you’re not using your gear properly or you come up too fast, getting the bends (read my post on Why do Scuba Divers Ascend Slowly for more.)

In your scuba dive classes for certification, you will be trained for safety and gear. It may be invaluable, as it can and possibly will save your life on even simple dives. I’ve seen divers with poor training first-hand. I’ve been able to prevent a few from making potentially dangerous mistakes.

I’ve kept others from getting lost or drifting too deep. And I’ve seen a few just get lucky when they popped to the surface from 50 feet under because they ran out of air without telling anyone.

It Can Be Life-Saving

The statistics available for scuba diving deaths have some surprising information. The following statistics come from Wikipedia, here:

Over a ten-year study, 41% of scuba deaths were due to insufficient air. Because it’s difficult to tell what precedes a drowning, especially when local authorities may not understand the sport of scuba diving, it’s impossible to tell if these were stress-related. Heavy, panicked breathing can affect how much air you have in your tank. Getting properly trained will help divers learn to control their breathing, even in emergencies. 

  • 41% of deaths were due to insufficient air.
  • 20% of deaths were due to entrapment.
  • 15% were to equipment malfunction.
  • 90% of scuba deaths happened while the diver was still wearing their weight belt
  • 85% died while alone, whether they were diving solo or if they were separated from their diving group or buddy. 
  • 50% of scuba divers that died in the ten-year study did so without inflating a buoyancy compressor. 
  • And of all the deaths, 25% first had technical difficulties before they even entered the water. 

Proper training and certification will be the first line of defense against unknown variables and emergencies. Skipping this crucial step will put you or others at risk of drowning and death. 

Diver over orange reef showing neutral buoyancy and no touch
Neutral buoyancy protects our valuable reefs

Explore Marine Ecology without Causing Harm

Our oceans and lakes are full of breathtaking dive sites and historical wrecks to explore. There are breathing techniques that are good for everyday stresses. It’s good exercise, and you can even get paid to do this with the right licensure. 

For some, scuba diving becomes more of a lifestyle than a recreational hobby. It’s no wonder why, as many rare creatures live underwater. The explorable portion of our globe expands tremendously with diving skills. 

For others, like marine biologists, conservationists, and even engineers, learning about our oceans and lakes is necessary for their work. Exploring our water helps humanity move forward, and hopefully aids ecology through understanding and education.

Getting properly trained and certified will ensure you’re taking the necessary steps to explore marine ecology safely and not to leave a negative impact on the reefs and wildlife you encounter. ALWAYS BE A NO TOUCH DIVER. Take only photos, bring home only memories.

Access to Scuba Diving Organizations

Beyond the risk of death, there are other factors when considering a license for scuba diving. As mentioned, dive clubs and organizations won’t let anyone join that hasn’t had proper training. They will not rent gear to anyone without a license. This means you will be on your own for purchasing all equipment, which can get costly for new hobbyists.

Not being able to join such established groups also means you will be denied their experience and knowledge about cool dive spots and advances in the sport. 

If you love scuba diving and want to keep expanding your skills, not being licensed will pose problems in the future. Not being certified means you can’t get paid to do what you love, whether it’s through being a dive instructor, working in mining engineering, or even photography.       

What Does Getting Licensed Entail? 

Diving certification courses typically run about three to five days. Students may start in a pool to learn the basics and safety before moving to the open water portion. Getting the right license for you will make sure you’re able to handle the terrain you will be diving in, whether that is lakes and small bodies of water or reefs and open water. 

You will learn what the buddy system means in the scuba world and universal hand signals for things relating to your dive. It is important for everyone’s safety that divers can clearly communicate danger and problems while underwater. If you read our scuba communication article, you’ll see why it’s important to have this as a standardized system.

Diving classes also make sure you understand all of your gear and how it functions. Gear checks pre-dive are an integral part of responsible diving. Not knowing how to do this properly can result in accidents and even death.

Part of the certification process is studying. Part of your classes will come from books, as there is a lot of background information to cover before beginning any new, dangerous hobby. The good news is that with the right precautions and training, scuba diving becomes safer. 

Be sure to read our full article on reasons to get certified, which covers this in even more detail.

Types of Certification

Beginner certifications allow you to dive a maximum depth of 40 feet, but that also means that you will still need a certified instructor to dive with you each time. As you move through the ranks of different levels, your skills and ability to handle yourself underwater will continue to grow. The goal is to get certified for open water, so you can rent and operate dive equipment on your own.


Two of the top providers for certifications are PADI (Professional Association of Diving Instructors) and NAUI (National Association of Underwater Instructors.) Both will teach you scuba safety and get you ready for diving. Dressel Divers has a handy guide to PADI certifications.

However, both providers also have their subtle differences. For example, there are slight variations in their teaching philosophies. Here is an overview and comparison between PADI and NUAI. You can also read more about NAUI hereand PADI here

Once you complete your basic open water training, you will be qualified to take more advanced classes. Advanced classes include specialties like rescue diving, photography, and shipwreck diving. We have night diving, advanced open water to get to some wrecks below 60’, wreck diving and tunnel diving. We have not done or obtained cave diving certification.

How to Get Certified

There are three ways that prospective divers can obtain their license to scuba dive:

Find a Dive Shop

Local dive shops will have all the information you need. If you live near a body of water, chances are there is a dive shop within driving distance. The staff at the shop may even offer certification classes, or at the very least, point you to the easiest path in your area. 

Go on Vacation

There are plenty of scuba diving vacations. These are built around the idea that you travel to instructors,  and classes will be part of your vacation curriculum. The benefits here are that you can explore a new place and get all the perks of a vacation while still learning something useful. 

Examples of Scuba Certification Vacations

There are hundreds of destination scuba certification options on the market. It may be easier to research exotic locations and find packages that way, but here is a small sample of offerings. Prices may vary depending on the season and company, but these should be approximate enough to help you start planning. 

PADI also has a list of training vacations that can be found here. If you don’t see a destination that appeals to you here, this website has an additional list of 488 destinations for scuba training. You can even get started in a cruise vacation. Here is a good cruise review site.

The Route of Combination

You can work with your dive shop and talk to a scuba vacation agency. Some will allow you to learn the basics from books or e-courses before you head out on your voyage. You can learn the basics at home or your dive shop, and then finish the water portion in an exotic location.

My wife and I did this in our land-locked state and then finished in Freeport, Bahamas. Both of my kids did exactly this 25 years later. Although one certified in a cold as hell quarry in April while the other got to finish in the USVI in June due to a broken ankle in April. I’ll be hearing about that for years, no doubt.


PADI and other organizations often offer the book-learning portion of their classes online. This will help you prepare for your certification from home before hitting the water. Knowledge is power, so they say, and helps keep you safe. 

If you’re still unsure if you want to get licensed for scuba diving, there is free information here that could help you decide. 

This is a list of websites with e-learning options for scuba licensing. It is in no way comprehensive but should be enough to get you started if you choose to learn the basics before hitting class:

Remember, while you may not be breaking laws by teaching yourself to scuba dive, you may be putting yourself or others at risk. 

Getting properly certified will open many doors for you on your exploration of our wet planet. You can safely dive with groups, rent gear in exotic locations, and even increase your skills until you’re getting paid to do what you love. 

Skipping the certification process can result in accidents or death. You will also have to purchase all of your gear and can miss out on opportunities to dive with experienced scuba divers and see amazing things. 

Besides, learning is fun! 

Things You Need to Know Before Getting a License

There are a few things to keep in mind before you sign up for a scuba diving course for certification:  

Medical Fitness

If you decide to get licensed to scuba dive, you will want a physician to clear you as medically fit to dive. Since diving is a sport, there is physical exertion involved. Not only do you need to be able to swim, but you also need to be able to carry the life-saving equipment used underwater. 

There are psychological factors to consider, as well. How one responds in an emergency, if they exhibit risk-taking behaviors, and other behavioral factors will contribute to overall fitness. You never want to dive under the influence of drugs or alcohol. 

Instructor Licensing 

Diving instructors have different certifications than regular divers. There are many more steps to complete before you’re fully trained at a high enough level to teach others the sport. 

For example, through PADI, you need to pass all of the basic diving classes: open water, advanced open water, divemaster, rescue diver, CPR & Emergency First Response instructor classes. There is a 10-day course, the Instructor Development Course, and you need to have completed 100 open water dives. 

Then there is the “final exam,” called the Instructor Evaluation. This takes several days and involves mock situations, written tests, and presentations. 

If you find yourself diving for fun frequently, consider getting instructor-level certified, as it opens many full or part-time work opportunities at resorts and dive shops. 

My happy family with the Mantas in Kona

Top Diving Destinations in the World

Of course, once you’re fully certified and ready to hit the water, you’ll want to visit some of the below top diving destinations to show off your new skills! The following list was composed using experienced divers’ top choices and votes; the complete list can be found here.

  1. Barracuda Point, Sipadan, Malaysia – You can dive here in Malaysia’s largest marine park, where the government has put in a lot of work towards marine conservation. 
  2. Blue Corner Wall, Palau, Micronesia – With 20 dive sites, Palau hosts over 40,000 divers a year, many who go just to swim with sharks. 
  3. Yongala, Australia – The Great Barrier Reef hosts the amazing Yongala shipwreck, teeming with exotic marine life. 
  4. Thistlegorm, Egyptian Red Sea – Thistlegorm hosts a famous large shipwreck from 1941. 
  5. Shark and Yolanda Reef, Egyptian Red Sea – This reef hosts a variety of unique wildlife, including manta rays and sharks.
  6. Manta Ray Night Dive, Kailua Kona, Hawaii – Spectacular night dive with manta rays, what more is there to say? 
  7. Great Blue Hole, Belize – This is the largest barrier reef in the Northern hemisphere. 
  8. Liberty, Bali, Indonesia – This is the third best-rated wreck dive and considered the easiest to access.
  9. Richelieu Rock, Thailand  – This is a gorgeous location for small wonders like seahorses to larger wildlife, like whale sharks.
  10. Navy Pier, Western Australia – Considered one of the best shore dives, and teeming with wildlife. 

Final thoughts

While you don’t technically need a license to scuba dive for legal reasons, you do need a license for safety. The gear is complicated and has to be properly set up every single time. The cons of not getting certified and receiving training include drowning and death. 

Read more at Can you dive with no experience?

It is worthwhile to get certified if you’re medically fit for such a sport, as there are many gorgeous places on our planet underwater. Being able to submerge and breathe underwater will allow you to experience things that few people have experienced before. Diving, when done properly, can add to conservation efforts and give divers beautiful underwater photography moments. 

Increasing our connection to our planet is a worthwhile endeavor. Getting properly trained and licensed is the appropriate way to get into this amazing sport and its plethora of benefits. You can travel the world and see rare creatures, but not if you don’t know what you’re doing. 

Please keep safety in mind. Not knowing how to properly use and care for your gear can endanger you or your loved ones. Please explore this topic carefully before making your decision, as scuba diving accidents do result in death. It is recommended you go through the proper channels to get certified before trying to scuba dive on your own. 


Cruising Isn’t Just For Old People

Tim Conner, M.D.

Tim Conner, M.D. started boating in 1974. He has been involved in recreational boating continuously since then. Dr. Conner has been active in boating and watersports safety education for decades. He rode his first jet ski in 1997, and rejoined the personal watercraft arena in 2012 with a Sea-Doo GTX 155, followed by 2 supercharged SeaDoos. Scuba certification came in 1988, and he and the family have traveled the world snorkeling and scuba diving for decades. The family has recently taken up paddle boarding. Click the photo for a lot more.

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Getting properly trained and licensed is the appropriate way to get into this amazing sport and its many benefits.  Not knowing how to properly use and care for your gear can endanger you or your loved ones.