A History of the USCG’s Merchant Mariner Licensing and Documentation Program

1990 - 2007



As a result of the Exxon Valdez casualty, Congress enacts the Oil Pollution Act of 1990 (OPA90) that becomes effective in August 1990. OPA90 mandates future tankships to be double-hulled, and also many other vessel construction and operating requirements. Included in OPA90 is authorization for the USCG to conduct National Driver Registry and criminal record reviews at mariner license transactions. Before the specific OPA90 authorizations become effective in USCG regulations, the criminal records checks were done after licenses/MMDs were issued. Any discrepancies between the mariner’s answers to the conviction questions on the application form and the background check results were referred to a USCG Investigating Officer for action against the license/MMD. So between the date a license/MMD was issued and the date of the Investigating Officer’s action, a mariner with an adverse criminal record was allowed to work in the maritime industry. This system would remain in effect until the “live-scanning” era in 2003 for MMDs and 2006 for licenses.

OPA90 also requires 5-year renewal periods for MMDs, and limits the term of validity of all previously-issued MMDs that were never issued with expiration dates.

OPA90 also requires every mariner who applies for the issuance of or renewal of a license or MMD to be tested for the use of dangerous drugs, even though the USCG already has a rulemaking in progress to test mariners for dangerous drugs.


The USCG requires a DOT drug test for original, renewal, and upgrade license/MMD transactions where a new credential is issued with a new expiration date. The drug testing regulations (and the associated cost/benefit analysis) did not require a DOT drug for a license or MMD endorsement transaction that did not extend the expiration date of the license or MMD. This drug testing rulemaking project was initiated before OPA90 in conjunction with other DOT transportation modes (Federal Aviation Administration, Federal Railroad Administration, etc.). Before OPA90, the USCG did not have specific authorization from Congress to mandate drug testing in the marine industry, so the USCG used its “superintendence over the merchant marine” authority at 46 USC 2103 for the pre-OPA90 drug testing rulemaking project.



The USCG publishes a final rule establishing user fees for services relating to the issuance of licenses and MMDs. User fees are deposited into the U.S. Treasury, and do not go directly in support of USCG missions.



Due to drug testing and user fee requirements, the Coast Guard considers the requirement for “letters of commitment” for MMDs unnecessary. Mariners can now obtain entry level MMDs without a letter of commitment from a marine employer.


The USCG starts issuing MMDs with the OPA90-mandated expiration date 5 years after issuance.



The USCG starts a 5-year phase-in schedule to make previously-issued MMDs without expiration dates to become invalid. This causes mariners still working in the maritime industry to renew his/her MMD that was previously issued for the lifetime of the mariner.


The OPA90 drug testing “fine-tuning” regulations become effective.  These regulations still do not establish a requirement for a DOT drug test for license/MMD endorsements where the license and/or MMD expiration date would not change.

The USCG starts to approve courses to substitute for the examination requirements for Operator of Uninspected Passenger Vessel (OUPV) licenses and master licenses up to 100 gross tons. Previous applicants for those levels of licenses had to apply for the license, and then only after the application was approved could the mariner schedule the required written exams at a REC or with a TET. After passing the exam given by the USCG, the license would be issued. Potential licensees have to study on their own, or pay a marine educator to prepare them for the USCG exams. Animosity had been created between the USCG and some marine educators. The USCG’s exam questions are not always prepared meeting educational standards, and often there is more than one correct answer choice for a question even though the USCG would give credit for only one of the correct answers. And the USCG suspects that some marine educators are not actually educating the mariner, but simply preparing mariners to pass the USCG’s exam.

The USCG’s solution is to regulate marine educators with the USCG approving courses offerred by schools. The USCG maintains oversight of the classroom conditions, course content, and end-of-course exam proctored by the school. When the student passes the end-of-course exam, the school issues a course completion certificate that the student submits to the USCG as proof of completing the license written exam. This system becomes widely popular for entry level licenses in the marine industry, and even many recreational boaters purchase courses to pursue licenses. Some RECs become so overwhelmed with license applicants that processing backlogs grew.


The USCG publishes Navigation and Vessel Inspection Circular (NVIC) 02-1998 to establish mariner medical and physical evaluation guidelines. This policy expounds on the regulatory guidelines that are fairly generic in nature.



Over the previous decade, the USCG realized that license requirements for towboats and tugboats were outdated and needed improvement. So the USCG establishes specific requirements for licensing mariners who operate towing vessels to enhance training and operating experience including practical demonstrations of skill. It also requires towing vessels to be manned by officers holding licenses specifically authorizing service on those types of vessels. This change reverts to the tugboat/towboat ideology that was in effect from 1973 to 1987. Generous grandfathering provisions are allowed until 2004 for mariners who started working on towing vessels before the regulations were published in May 2001.


The act of terrorism at New York’s World Trade Center causes long term effects on United States security, including the USCG mariner licensing program.



International Standards of Training, Certification, and Watchkeeping (STCW) becomes fully implemented. At this point the USCG embarks on a dual licensing scheme. Many mariners do not need or want licenses for use on vessels subjected to international requirements. So the USCG continues to issue some licenses for domestic use only, and concurrently issues STCW certificates for mariners using licenses outside of domestic waters. The STCW requirements start to become more complex and cause additional workloads and backlogs at many RECs.



The USCG is transferred to the newly-formed Department of Homeland Security. Applicants for MMDs must appear in person at a USCG REC to be ID’d and live-scan fingerprinting. The mariner must clear background check vetting before the MMD is issued. And if the MMD is a renewal, the old MMD must be surrendered to the USCG. This new issuing process and the ensuing new format tamper-resistant MMDs are a major step towards increased maritime security.


The USCG addresses the issue of “license creep” by allowing an approved renewal application to sit in a “tickler” file at a REC so the license can be renewed within 30 days of expiration. Previously a renewal application submitted and approved up to a year before license expiration was issued immediately upon approval. Thus the mariner would lose some of the validity of the previous license.



Grandfather period ends for towing vessel licenses.

2004 – 2005

The USCG realigns many types of units/commands into Sectors who in turn report directly to a District Commander. Various USCG units such as Marine Safety/Marine Inspection Offices (with respective RECs), Groups (who specialize in search & rescue and law enforcement), Vessel Traffic Services, etc. become one USCG unit under command of a single USCG officer. This Sector Commander becomes the OCMI for mariner licensing, even though Sector Commanders typically have absolutely no marine safety experience.



The USCG requires licensed mariners to be ID’d and live-scan fingerprinted RECs. After having been allowed to conduct mail transactions since the early 1980’s, licensed mariners must now travel great distances to a REC for most transactions even if a written exam is not required.


Since RECs were created in 1982, each REC was under the command of an OCMI. Now the USCG authorizes the National Maritime Center (NMC) in Arlington, VA to perform certain mariner credentialing functions, though RECs are still authorized to process and issue mariner credentials. This is the first step in an incremental restructuring and centralization plan that will eventually bring all RECs under the direct authority of the NMC.


Addressing mariner privacy concerns, the USCG removes Social Security Numbers (SSNs) from all credentials that it issues. Mariners are assigned a computer-generated “mariner reference number” and SSNs are no longer printed on licenses/MMDs/STCW95 certificates.


NMC establishes a Medical Evaluation Branch (MEB) staffed by a licensed physician and medically trained personnel. This branch reviews physical exams of mariners with serious medical issues.

New USCG regulations require vessel pilots to have yearly physical exams (rather than one every five years for a license renewal).

RECs become so overloaded with work that NMC establishes a mariner Call Center in an effort to provide mariners with answers to simple/routine licensing questions.



NMC establishes an online status system so mariners can keep track of their transaction from any internet connection without having to call the USCG for updates. The USCG also allows credit cards to be used for user fees.


RECs Anchorage and Juneau are the first RECs to transition to centralized operations and begin sending applications to NMC for processing.

The USCG approves an online course offered by a marine educator for entry-level licenses. Instead of sitting through many days in a classroom course, mariners now can take a USCG-approved course online at their leisure in their own home or shipboard. When complete, the student then travels to an exam site established by the school (not at a REC) where the exam is taken under direction of a school proctor. Upon passing the exams, the school issues the course completion certificate for submission to the USCG.


NMC temporarily moves to Kearneysville, WV.