< Back to Boating
Campfire Collective May 19th, 2018

Iowa Boating Laws and Regulations

Group of people picnicing on the shore of an Iowa lake.

Who needs a Boater Education ID Card in Iowa?

Iowa requires any operator between 12-17 years of age, who will operate a motorized boat over 10 horsepower, or who will operate a personal watercraft (PWC), to obtain a Boater Education Certificate, commonly called a boat license.

Those operators who are required to obtain a Boater Education Certificate must carry the certificate on board during boat operation, as well as ensure that the certificate is available for inspection by law enforcement

Operators under 12 years of age:

Are permitted to operate a boat with a motor of more than 10 horsepower, if they supervised by a person on board who is at least 18 years of age, and who is experienced in boat operation.

Operators between 12-17 years of age:

Are permitted to operate a boat with a motor of more than 10 horsepower, including personal watercraft (PWCs), if:

  • They have completed an Iowa Department of Natural Resources-approved Boater Education Course or;
  • They are being supervised by a person on board who is at least 18 years of age, who is experienced in boat operation

Get your Official North American
Boating License

The Official NASBLA and State-Approved Boating Course, Test & License.

Get your Official North American
Boating License

The Official NASBLA and State-Approved Canada Boating
Course, Test & License.

Iowa Life jacket REquirements

The law states “a person shall not operate a vessel in Iowa unless every person on board the vessel who is age 12 and under is wearing a U.S. Coast Guard approved life jacket.” A lifejacket must be worn when the vessel is underway, which means when a vessel is not at anchor, tied to a dock or the bank/shore or aground.

A child age 12 and under in an enclosed cabin, below deck, or aboard a commercial vessel with a capacity of 25 persons or more is exempt.

Boat REgistration Requirements in Iowa

In order to legally operate a boat in the state of Iowa, you must obtain a Certificate of Number and validation decals.


  • Boats that have been registered in another state, and are temporarily using Iowa’s waters for 60 days or less (within one calendar year).
  • Inflatable boats under 7 feet in length.
  • Canoes and kayaks that have no motor or sail and are 13 feet in length or less.

Registration certificates must be carried on board the boat at all times while the boat is being operated and must be available for inspection by law enforcement at all times. A registration certificate and registration decals can be obtained through the County Recorder. Boat owners must submit an application and a fee to the Country Recorder in their county of residence, or the county where the boat is primarily used.

Boat registration certificates are valid for 3 years and expire on April 30th of the year indicated.

Boats that are 17 feet in length or longer must have a title when they are:

  • Newly purchased, or;
  • Transferred, or;
  • A lien exists against the boat.

Inflatables, kayaks, and canoes are exempt from Iowa’s boat titling requirements

Registration Number and Decal Placement

  • The number must be applied as a decal, painted or permanently affixed to the boat’s bow (boat owners are not permitted to display any other numbers in this area).
  • The number must be affixed where they can easily be seen.
  • The number must be read from left to right on each side of the boat.
  • The number must be in bold block letters that are at least 3 inches high, and in a color that contrasts with the color of the boat.
  • The numbers in the registration number must be separated from the letters by a hyphen or by an equivalent space.
  • Validation Decals must be affixed to each side of the boat, behind the registration number (towards the stern)and must be within 4 inches, and in line with the registration number.
  • These placement requirements also apply to personal watercraft (PWCs) 


On boats powered by sail, registration numbers can be placed in a position where they provide maximum visibility (including placing the number of the mast of the boat, if required).


Sailboards are not required to display registration numbers, however the decal must be affixed to the bottom surface of the bow.

Other Registration Information

If the registration certificate or registration decals are lost or destroyed, boat owners must pay administrative fees in order to obtain a replacement.

If a registered boat is abandoned or destroyed, or if a boat owner changes their address, or changes their name, the boat owner is required to notify the County Recorder within 10 days of the change.

Owners of boats that require registration must apply for registration within 30 days of purchasing their boat, or within 30 days of a transfer of ownership.

Boating and Alcohol

Boating and alcohol laws vary from state to state. In Iowa is illegal  to operate any boat, or manipulate any waterskis, surfboard or similar device while under the influence of alcohol, marijuana, a narcotic, hypnotic or other drug, or any combination thereof.

In Iowa, a person is considered to be under the influence if:

  • They are impaired by alcohol, drugs or a combination of such substances
  • They have a Blood Alcohol Concentration (BAC) level of 0.08 or more
  • They have any amount of a controlled substance is present in their body, as measured in their blood or urine

In Iowa, a person convicted of operating a boat while under the influence will be subject to the following penalties:


Upon a first offence: A fine of up to $1,000, a minimum of 48 hours imprisonment and a loss of operating privileges for 1 year.

Upon a second offence:  A fine of up to $5,000, a minimum of 7 days in jail and a loss of operating privileges for 2 years.

Upon a third offence: A fine of up to $7,500, jail time for up to 1 year and a loss of operating privileges for 6 years.

Any person operating a boat is deemed to have given consent to a breath and/or blood test to determine if they are impaired by drugs and/or alcohol. Refusal to submit to testing can result in a fine of up to $500 and the loss of operating privileges for up to 1 year.

Boating laws in Iowa are enforced by:

  • Iowa Department of Natural Resources Conservation officers.
  • The Coast Guard (on federal waters).

Law enforcement officers have the authority to stop and board boats that are being launched, operated, or moored in Iowa waters, to conduct an inspection and ensure that operators are in compliance with equipment and documentation requirements.

It is illegal to attempt to elude law enforcement, or to fail to stop your boat when signaled to do so by law enforcement. Enforcement officers will give a visual or audible signal by displaying their flashing blue or red lights, or by using their horn or siren.


The operator of a boat involved in a boating accident is required to:

  • Stop their boat at the scene.
  • Render assistance to any person who has been injured or who is in danger so long as they can do so without risking their safety or their passenger’s safety.
  • Provide their name, address and boat information in writing, to any person who was injured, and to the owner of any property that was damaged as a result of the accident.

An accident must be reported to the Iowa DNR within 48 hours if:

  • A person is killed.
  • A person is injured and requires treatment beyond first aid.
  • A person disappears from the boat.

An accident must be reported to the Iowa DNR within 5 days if:

  • Property damage totals more than $2,000 or there is total loss of the boat.


For more information about safe boating in Iowa, contact the Department at:

Iowa Department of Natural Resources
502 East 9th Street, 4th Floor 
Des Moines, IA 50319-0034 

You Might Also Like

Campfire Collective truck icon.



Go boldly, tell your story. Campfire is building a collective of ambassadors who share a passion for the wild. If you’re an influencer, publisher or sport expert drop us a line. Let’s hook up and inspire others.

Campfire Collective high five icon.



Stay in the loop. Sign up for our newsletter
to get the latest stories from around the fire.