How to Become a Certified Scuba Diver

TV shows like “Sea Hunt” and “The Undersea World of Jacques Cousteau” gave American audiences their first taste of the beauty and excitement that lay beneath the seas. Then, as now, learning to scuba dive gave entry into that new world of adventure and discovery.

The word scuba is an acronym for Self Contained Underwater Breathing Apparatus and refers to the equipment which allows properly trained scuba divers to safely explore the underwater environment. At the heart of a scuba diver’s training is learning how this equipment works and the procedures and techniques for its safe use in a course of study that leads to certification.

Scuba training is done by instructors who are themselves trained and certified to conduct courses for beginning divers by one of more than a dozen organizations known as training agencies*. With a couple of nonprofit exceptions, scuba training agencies are for-profit companies that design and publish training manuals and materials, promulgate training standards, certify and monitor the performance of instructors and issue diver certifications, the coveted C-Cards which serve to vouch for a diver’s qualifications.

Instructors operate under the rules and regulations of the agency to which they belong and teach scuba classes either independently or, more commonly, employed by and under the umbrella and supervision of a dive store and training facility.

Diver training consists of three components: 1. Academic or classroom study, 2. Confined Water or pool training and 3. Open Water training. Entry requirements, training procedures and qualification tests vary around the world. The purpose of this article is to make the reader aware of the requirements and training necessary to qualify as an entry level scuba diver in the United States and throughout most of North America and the Caribbean.


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    Qualify by age. You must be at least 12 years old to begin scuba diver training although those younger than 12 may be able to participate in restricted, junior diver, training programs sponsored by certain training agencies.
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    See if you’re fit for diving. Scuba diving is an active sport that requires a reasonable level of good health and physical fitness. Potential divers can help determine if they are fit for training and participation in the sport by reviewing a simple questionnaire that can be downloaded from the World Recreational Scuba Training Council or International Diving Safety Standards Commission web site (see below). The WRSTC or IDSSC guidelines will serve to familiarize you and, possibly your doctor, with the medical issues involved in scuba diving and help you to make an intelligent decision.
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    Find someone to teach you. Locate a scuba instructor either through a referral from a friend or associate, an advertisement or through a local dive store. You should try to find one that is both well qualified (number of years diving and training divers, number of dives made and divers trained, breadth of experience, etc.) and whose instructional methods seem compatible with your way of learning; some people learn well from authority figures while others want hugs or high fives along with their lectures. When you find someone you think you like ask to audit one or two of his or her classes before committing.
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    Find a place to learn. Convenience is a big factor when selecting a dive store or instructor to conduct your training. You will be spending days or perhaps even weeks learning to scuba dive depending on how the course is structured so you may want to select a facility convenient to your home or place of work. Ideally, find a dive store with an on-site pool (heated if you’re taking your training in cold weather) with hot showers and changing facilities. Since classroom studies are often combined with pool sessions in a single afternoon or evening not having to travel to go to the pool is a real plus.
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    Find out exactly what your training will cost. Some instructors and dive stores charge a flat rate for complete certification while others charge incrementally as training progresses. Some include books and classroom materials in a single price while others charge extra for these usually-required items. Know what the total classroom and pool training will cost and also the charge for the final Open Water training. This may take place at a local lake or quarry or at a resort location and is often priced separately. If you are taking your scuba training with your family or a group of friends ask about a group discount and/or a more flexible schedule. Learn if there is an extra charge for the C-Card processing and the photo needed for it. Some divers will choose to complete their certification (Open Water) dives on a tropical vacation following their classroom and pool training. This is permitted by many training agencies provided it is done within a year of the completion of the pool and classroom training. Instructors and dive stores may charge a fee for completing the paperwork needed to transfer your record of training progress to another instructor - ask if yours does.
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    Find out what equipment you will need* and how much it will cost. Scuba diving is an equipment intensive sport and divers need a full complement of scuba gear in order to participate. Some or all of this gear may be included in your course fee or you may be able to rent or borrow it*.
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    Pass the required watermanship test. The most basic prerequisite to becoming a qualified scuba diver is comfort in the water. In order for you to begin a scuba training course you must first demonstrate to an instructor your ability to swim continuously for 200 yards (182.9 m) and float for 10 minutes, both without aids. Alternatively, if you would like to swim using a mask, fins and a snorkel, you must swim continuously for 300 yards (274.3 m) and then float for 10 minutes without any aids.
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    Register in a class that fits your needs. One of the great luxuries in scuba diver training is finding an instructor and a training facility that will cater to you if you have a challenging schedule or in case you need extra classroom time or, particularly, extra pool time. It takes pool time to learn to dive, the more the better so find out if practice pool sessions are available and if there is any charge.
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    Take care of the legal stuff. During class registration you will be asked to fill out and sign a version of the WRSTC or the ISSDC medical and fitness guidelines form certifying yourself fit to dive (in the US, a doctor's written approval is required only if you answer YES to any of the questions on the form). You will also be informed of the inherent risks of scuba diving and must sign appropriate forms acknowledging and assuming those risks prior to being allowed to participate in any water activities. These forms may include one of the following which are used by various training agencies, or one similar in purpose and effect: Liability Release; Waiver and Release of Liability; Affirmation and Liability Release; Assumption of Risk; Limitation of Liability; Safe Diving Practices Statement; Standards for Safety; Statement of Understanding; etc. These liability releases, as their names imply, serve to release your instructor, the dive store and the training agency from all liability, including negligence, should you be injured during your training. In court decisions these liability releases have been found to be legally binding contracts and you should understand exactly what rights you are giving up by signing. However, these forms are universally required in the United States and you should also be prepared to be refused lessons if you will not sign or if you demand revisions.
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    Learn the academics. Read the book, watch the tape or DVD or do the on-line course and the class work. Scuba diving is one of those activities where safety comes with and depends on a certain amount of specific knowledge. The academic portion of a scuba course teaches you the theory of diving and the procedures necessary to do it safely. Academics are divided into short segments with quizzes generally following each topic and a final exam at the end to assess your understanding of the material. Students must pass with a certain grade to move on to Open Water training - retests are allowed.
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    Practice, practice, practice. The Confined Water, or pool, portion of a scuba course is where the heart of the training occurs. This is where you will learn the function of all that equipment and how to use it safely. You will be taught to clear water from a flooded mask, breathe from a regulator, use fins properly and control your buoyancy by adding or venting air from your buoyancy control device, along with a myriad of other skills that may seem foreign and intimidating at first but, with practice, will become second nature.
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    Complete your Open Water training and certification dives. The final step toward becoming a certified scuba diver is to complete four open water training dives under the supervision of an instructor. These dives are conducted in a large body of water like the ocean or a lake to depths between 15 and 60 feet over two or more days. On these Open Water dives your instructor will have you demonstrate to him or her that you are capable of doing in open water what you learned to do in the pool, things like flooding and clearing your mask, descending to the bottom, recovering a misplaced regulator, ascending to the surface, etc.
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    Once you successfully demonstrate these diving skills and complete the four required dives your instructor will advise the training agency to issue a C-Card in your name. Your C-card vouches for your training and qualifies you to obtain air fills or rental tanks, buy or rent scuba equipment, and engage in recreational open water diving in conditions similar to those under which you trained without further supervision.


  • If you need corrected vision on land you probably will underwater as well. Much of diving is sightseeing and you won't fully enjoy a world that you can barely see. Gone unsaid is your obvious need to be able to read your depth gauge, tank pressure gauge and dive table or computer. Glasses are not a good solution because they generally don't fit or attach easily to the inside of a dive mask but divers need vision correction just like the rest of us and there are products on the market to satisfy them. Soft or gas permeable contacts work as well underwater as they do on land and many divers use them successfully. For those with basic + or - diopter correction needs there are inexpensive, flexible, silicone lenses which stick to the inside of any dive mask. Some mask manufacturers sell pop-in lenses for their masks that are preground to common prescriptions, generally in 1/2 diopter, +/- increments, while some will grind your exact prescription into the lenses of one of their masks. Another solution is to have the actual lenses of just about any 2-lens mask with removable lenses replaced with lenses custom ground for you. If you favor a mask with a single faceplate, lenses ground to your prescription can be permanently bonded to the inside. Lenses ground for scuba masks can correct for just about any vision problem. Your local dive store will be your best starting point for underwater vision correction.
  • While a divers C-Card never expires instructor certifications do, annually, and must be renewed. Be sure your instructor has a current membership in his training agency and is in "teaching" status. His or her C-Card will tell you this. You cannot be certified by an instructor who is not renewed, insured against liability and in good standing with his or her training agency.
  • There is no substitute for owning and training in your own equipment. Scuba diving accident studies done by Divers Alert Network (DAN) confirmed that one of the leading causes of scuba diving accidents is diver unfamiliarity with their equipment. DAN is a Dive Safety Association that does continuing research on diving physiology and provides insurance in the event of a dive accident. Your dive instructor should offer the "student insurance" while you are training and before you go diving. It is always a good idea to have membership benefits and dive insurance in the rare event of a dive accident.
  • The World Recreational Scuba Training Council - WRSTC - or *The International Diving Safety Standards Commission - IDSSC -are organizations that represent themselves as being dedicated to the safety of the recreational diving public. They are made up of some of the scuba training agencies and have promulgated a set of standards, written by representatives of those agencies, that is the least restrictive set of standards that could be written. Agencies are not required to bring their standards up to a defined level, rather the WRSTC's or IDSSC's standards were designed to not force any member to change their existing standards.
  • Some of the larger and better known training agencies are: NAUI - the National Association of Underwater Instructors, PADI – the Professional Association of Diving Instructors, PDIC – the Professional Diving Instructors Corporation, SSI – Scuba Schools International, YMCA Scuba – the Young Men’s Christian Association Scuba Program, SWAT Diving Division – Sub-Aquatic World Agency Training, ACUC – American Canadian Underwater Certification.


  • Scuba diving is a sport that requires specific knowledge, equipment and skills to be done safely. Please do not attempt scuba diving, even in a pool, without complete training unless you are under the supervision of an instructor.

Things You'll Need

  • Student materials vary from one training agency to another but generally consist of a student manual, log book and dive table with, perhaps, a training DVD or videotape.
  • Minimum student equipment for scuba training consists of the following: Fins, mask, snorkel, buoyancy control device with low pressure inflator, weight system, thermal protection (depending on conditions), scuba cylinder and valve, regulator with alternate air source and tank pressure gauge. Other gear like a depth gauge, dive computer and additional safety devices such as communication slates or dive tools may be also required.

Sources and Citations

  • World Recreational Scuba Training Council - [1] - Click on Downloads and then on the link This will take you to the health and fitness questionnaire.
  • Divers Alert Network - [2]
  • National Association of Underwater Instructors - [3]
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Categories: Scuba Diving