What is a USCG Captain's license?

Jun 14, 2022

Why do Americans apply for their Captain's licenses through the United States Coast Guard? Are you enlisting into some type of Military Reserves by applying for a license? What are the differences between a National License and STCW endorsement? What does this all mean?

If you're similar to me at the commencement of my career, this question truly perplexed me. Even worse, knowing how to formulate these questions and finding who to ask regarding these topics were equally difficult. In order to properly explain the questions above, we will define: What is the USCG? What do they do? How does this affect civilians? What governing body assigns licenses and which are available? How do they apply to those working aboard yachts?




United States Coast Guard



The United States Coast Guard is one of the eight uniformed services within the US comprised of over 46,000 men and women. In short, this identifies them as a distinct group of uniformed employees of the state pertaining to the Armed Forces.[1] However, the USCG is not technically part of the Department of Defense like the other branches of the Armed Forces. During times of war it becomes absorbed into the Navy, but during peacetime the USCG falls under the Department of Homeland Security since 2002.[2][3] 

Since its inception the USCG pertained to the Department of Treasury for over 175 years. After the Revolutionary War, the nation nearly reached bankruptcy and desperately needed to raise money. One of the nation's founding fathers, Alexander Hamilton, suggested creating an armed customs department to collect duties on imports at America's largest ports. Thus, the Revenue Marine (their name at the time) was born. They quickly received other tasks and duties from their respective ports of call.[4] Later in 1915, under Woodrow Wilson's Coast Guard Act the US Revenue-Cutter Service joined together with the US Life Saving Service to become the modern-day United States Coast Guard.[5] 


National Maritime Center

So how does this apply to modern day mariners? Isn't the USCG focused on countless goals such as law enforcement, drug interception, port and coastal security, as well as many other missions?[6] For instance, on an average day the Coast Guard seizes over 300 lbs of cocaine, conducts over 100 Search and Rescue missions, and board a similar amount of large vessels for port inspections.[7] Among these countless duties, the USCG is also responsible for a subsector called the National Maritime Center. This is merchant mariner credentialing authority who issues maritime credentials to fully qualified mariners in the United States.[8] 


Merchant Mariner Credentials

The National Maritime Center issues credentials called Merchant Mariner Credentials (MMCs) to American seafarers, BOTH civilian and enlisted.[9] This qualification serves as a 20-page Seafarer Identity Document and is in the style of a US Passport. This document is the American equivalent to a Seaman's Book in other countries. Within this document are any licenses, endorsements, or certifications held by the mariner. This keeps all licenses in one centralized document that can be examined easily. As such, any American crew applying for any USCG licenses must FIRST obtain an MMC. Despite the unusual name, yacht crew applying for these licenses are not technically Merchant Mariners but still utilize the same licenses.


Licenses and Certifications

Lastly, the NMC licenses and endorsements structure are another bewildering subject to the uninformed. Regardless of department, they are divided into Licensed Officer Endorsements and Unlicensed Ratings. This distinguishes "entry-level" or qualified seaman (unlicensed) from higher ranking Officers and Masters (licensed). In the both category, however, one will note varying National vs. STCW Endorsements/Ratings. National restrictions refer to a mariner qualification recognized only whilst operating in US Territorial Waters, whereas STCW endorsements apply to the High Seas as well as other nations outside of the US' jurisdiction. 


If all of this vocabulary seems confusing, I promise you are not alone. In fact, this is specifically why I'm writing on the topic. The NMC website is incredibly perplexing and far from clear. Stay tuned for step-by-step walkthroughs and guides on navigating through the NMC's labyrinth of USCG applications.


Quick Definitions

Uniformed Service - the armed forces; the commissioned corps of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration; and the commissioned corps of the Public Health Service.

United States Coast Guard (USCG) - Established January 28, 1915; a military service and a branch of the armed forces of the United States at all times.[10]

National Maritime Center (NMC) - the merchant mariner credentialing authority for the USCG under the auspices of the Department of Homeland Security

Merchant Mariner Credential (MMC)a credential issued by the United States Coast Guard in accordance with guidelines of the International Convention on Standards of Training, Certification and Watchkeeping for Seafarers (STCW) to United States seafarers in order to show evidence of a mariner's qualifications. [9]

USCG Ratings - Serve as distinctions between qualified seaman and entry-level mariners in either the Engineering or Deck Departments. Examples for deck may be: Able Seaman, Tankerman, Lifeboatman.

USCG Officer Endorsements - These licenses include: Captains, mates, operators and pilots supervise ship operations on domestic waterways and the high seas

National Endorsements/Ratings - These licenses apply to US Territorial Waters, Inland Waterways & Rivers, and all bodies of water within U.S. jurisdiction. Some have equivalents according to the STCW Convention (worldwide standards), others are specific to only the United States.

STCW Endorsements/Ratings - All endorsements/ratings here fall under the International Convention on Standards of Training, Certification and Watchkeeping for Seafarers, 1978 (STCW), which sets minimum qualification standards for masters, officers and watch personnel on seagoing merchant ships and large yachts.[11] These are valid worldwide in accordance with stipulations set up by the IMO, International Maritime Organization.

International Maritime Organization (IMO) - The International Maritime Organization is a specialized agency of the United Nations responsible for regulating shipping.



  • The USCG is a multi-missioned uniformed group of the Armed Forces, although it does not belong to the Department of Defense.
  • Amongst the countless jobs performed by the USCG, they are also the head of the National Maritime Center (NMC).
  • The NMC issues Merchant Mariner Credentials (MMCs) to qualified American seaman. These licenses are available for mariners even if they do not work in the Merchant Marine.
  • Endorsements offered by the NMC fall into the categories of National and STCW, depending on the ability for the license to extend outside US waters.
  • Holders of USCG licenses do not need to be affiliated with the Armed Forces or any type of military reserves.


Further Reading

  1. 14 U.S. Code Subtitle I
  2. Homeland Security Act 2002
  3. 1967 – United States Coast Guard Transferred to the Department of Transportation
  4. National Maritime Center
  5. Go Coast Guard
  6. USCG Homepage



  1. 10 U.S. Code § 101 - Definitions. Legal Information Institute. Retrieved from

  2. 2003 - Coast Guard Transferred to the Department of Homeland Security. Coast Guard Aviation History. Retrieved from

  3. Coast Guard joins Homeland Security Department. CNN. Retrieved from

  4. 1790 Tariff Act, Historic Documents & Publications, U.S. Coast Guard Historian's Office.

  5. United States Revenue Cutter Service. DBpedia. Retrieved from

  6. Missions. United States Coast Guard. (n.d.). Retrieved from

  7. The Unique Role of the US Coast Guard. Retrieved from

  8. USCG Merchant Mariner Credential (MMC) @ National Maritime Center (NMC). Archived from the original on 12 June 2018. Retrieved 6 June 2018.

  9. USCG Merchant Mariner Credential (MMC) - EduMaritime. Retrieved from

  10. 14 U.S. Code § 101 - Establishment of Coast Guard. Legal Information Institute. Retrieved from

  11. What Qualifications Do You Need to Work on a Yacht? YPI Crew. Retrieved from


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