Life Jacket Laws By State


Wearing a life jacket while onboard a boat or any water vessel is mandatory not only in the country and in other places in the world as well. There is a reason why authorities make us wear these often large, bulky, and uncomfortable personal flotation devices (PFDs): life jackets save lives. They help to keep the wearer afloat in the water, which then keeps the wearer from drowning and gives rescuers more time to initiate a rescue. Although there are federal laws concerning the use of life jackets in general, some states have their own regulations and guidelines regarding the said issue. That said, aside from learning the federal laws regarding the use of life jackets and life vests, you should also acquaint yourself with the different life jacket laws by the state just to make sure that you’re always on the right side of the law (of the state you’re in, at least.)

But before jumping into the different rules and regulations about the use of life jackets, let’s take a quick overview of the different types and classifications of the different PFDs available. It is quite important to know these things because some states have particular laws concerning the use of each type.

Types of Life Jackets

Accordingly, there are three major types of life jackets: inherently buoyant life jackets, inflatable life jackets, and hybrid life jackets. There may be other types out there in the market, but they’re usually a modified version of any of these three major types.

Inherently Buoyant Life Jackets

Inherently buoyant life jackets are primarily constructed from foam and are the most common type of life jackets around. These types of life jackets are quite popular because they are durable and can outlast other types of life jackets being sold in the market nowadays (with proper care and maintenance, of course). They are also pretty easy to maintain, which makes them the preferred choice for most passenger boats. Lastly, they come in a variety of sizes including adult, youth, and child. You can also find infant life jackets versions of these.

Inflatable Life Jackets

Inflatable life jackets and life vests are those that can be filled with air and relies on the trapped gas inside the jacket chambers or bladder for buoyancy. There are two types of inflatable life jackets or vests: those that can be inflated manually by blowing air into the jacket’ or vest’s air chambers, and those that have air canisters that can be turned on to inflate the air chambers. Some people actually prefer inflatable life jackets over inherently buoyant life jackets because they aren’t as bulky and are thus more comfortable to wear. Like inherently buoyant life jackets, inflatable life jackets are also available in various sizes, from adults to children and everything else in between.

Hybrid Life Jackets

As the name suggests, a hybrid life jacket is a combination of the two types of life jackets mentioned earlier, which means that hybrids have both foams and inflatable air chambers. Accordingly, they are more comfortable than inherently buoyant and inflatable life jackets, and they are also available in various sizes. Also, this type of life jacket is only recommended for use by swimmers, so non-swimmers are encouraged to use either an inherently buoyant life jacket or an inflatable life jacket while engaging in water-based activities. Keep in mind that most hybrid life jackets are not recommended for use in water sports or activities where immersion is expected such as whitewater kayaking, surfing, and others.

Life Jacket Classifications

Life jackets are further classified into five different categories depending on their design, purpose, or function. You must be familiar with them so that you know which classification is most suitable for which water sports or activities. If you are a boat owner, you may also be required by law to have several types of life jackets in your vessel whenever you go sailing.

Type I: Offshore Life Jackets

Offshore life jackets are considered to be the most buoyant among the different life jacket classes and are designed to turn an unconscious wearer face-up in the water. Because of their high degree of buoyancy, they can increase your chances of survival in man-overboard situations.

Offshore life jackets are larger and heavier than most other life jackets, especially the inherently buoyant ones. This is why some people usually consider them less comfortable to wear.

Offshore life jackets are most recommended for use in rough water conditions, in the open ocean, in remote waters, or in any situation where you’re boating considerably far from shore and where rescue may not be immediately possible.

Type II: Near-shore Vests

Unlike offshore life jackets, near-shore life vests are recommended for use in calm waters and when boating or swimming near the shore or in sedate inland and protected waters. Most (not all) near-shore life vests are designed to turn an unconscious wearer to a face-up position. These types of vests are still large and bulky, but they are considerably smaller and thus more comfortable to wear than offshore life jackets. This is true especially for Type II inflatable life vests.

Type III: Flotation Aids

Compared to the other two classes mentioned above, flotation aids are more acceptable to the general public because they are more comfortable to wear. It also allows for more freedom of movement, which makes them the perfect choice for water sport enthusiasts and sailors. In fact, most of the life vests you see worn in towed or paddling sports belong to this classification.

Flotation aids made from foam can also help wearers to put themselves in a face-up position, but they’ll have to tilt their heads back to avoid being face down in the water. Inflatable flotation aids on the other hand are generally designed to float a person with their heads tilted back.

Type IV: Throwable Devices


Throwable devices refer to cushion or ring buoys and are not designed to be worn. Instead, they are thrown into the water so the person in the water (or victim in case of man-overboard situations) can hold on to them, after which the rescuers pull them towards the boat and into safety.

There are certain guidelines about the use of throwable devices. For one, they are required for most water vessels except for dinghies, canoes, or kayaks. They are also not allowed for use in rough waters since the water condition will make it difficult for the victim to reach for and grab the throwable device. Lastly, the hooks or brackets where the device is hung should be designed in such a way that it allows the device to float freely if your boat sinks.

Type V: Special-use Devices

Special-use devices are specialized personal flotation devices (PFDs) that are tailored to perfectly suit the activity for which they are intended to be used. Type V devices include PFDs designed for specific activities like kayaking, water skiing, windsurfing, and others. Life vests for snorkeling also fall under this category. There are also specially designed life jackets and vests that inflate automatically once you enter the water, and still, there are others that are designed to be used in colder climates and may help protect from hypothermia.

The US Coast Guard has strict regulations regarding the use of these particular types of life jackets. For instance, manufacturers should explicitly include in the label what specific activity the life vest is supposed to be used for.

Life Jacket Guidelines and Laws

Laws regarding the use of life jackets usually vary from state to state. However, some general regulations and guidelines apply to all regardless of the place.

Coast Guard Approval

All life jackets and vests found aboard water vessels must be approved by the US Coast Guard. People should refrain from using life jackets and vests that do not have this approval since it means that they didn’t pass the safety standards set forth by the authorities. Unapproved life jackets and vests may have issues with their construction, material, or performance, which then puts the wearer’s life at risk while in the water.


Life jackets and vests must be worn at all times while the vessel is underway. However, there are some states where this rule doesn’t apply. For instance, some states allow the boat passengers to remove their life jackets or vests when they are inside an enclosed cabin. Note also that there are some states which provide a no exception rule, meaning passengers must wear their PFDs at all times wherever they may be in the boat.

In places where removing life jackets and vests onboard are allowed, succeeding rules state that the PFDs should be placed or stowed within easy reach of the passengers in the event of an accident.


When life jackets are not worn, they should be stowed away properly. This means that they should be placed in areas where they can be easily seen and grabbed by the boat passengers. They should not be kept in closed compartments or they should be easily visible, which means that there should be no other gear or equipment on top of the life jacket or vest when stowed.


Life jackets must be in good working condition at all times. Even the best life jackets will age and suffer from wear and tear over time, and it is the responsibility of the owner to maintain their life jackets and vests often and have them serviced when necessary. They should also be tested for wear and buoyancy at least once a year. Waterlogged, faded, or leaky life jackets should be discarded and replaced according to the manufacturers’ instructions.


All recreational vessels are required to have enough life jackets for every person onboard the vessel. The life jackets must be the appropriate size for the intended user and fit properly. Also, boats that are more than 16 feet should have at least one type IV throwable device. This should be in good working condition and be within sight and reach and immediately available for use.

Other Guidelines

Aside from those mentioned above, here are some more general guidelines concerning the use of life jackets and life vests.

  • Each state may have additional requirements aside from those stated in the federal laws regarding the proper use of life jackets and life vests. This is especially true when it comes to certain water-based activities like water skiing, personal watercraft operations, white water boating activities, and others. Be sure to check each state’s regulations to ensure that you do not violate their laws.
  • To increase your visibility to other boaters or people in the water, it is recommended that you wear brightly colored life jackets or life vests. PFDs with reflective tapes on them are also recommended for use.
  • Be sure to read and understand the information and instructions on the life jacket’s label before buying or wearing them. The label information should include the intended use of the life jacket, sizing information, securing the life jacket on the wearer, care and maintenance, and other relevant details.
  • Remember that it’s illegal to use life jackets and life vests in any other way than the manner recommended by the manufacturer. Thus, you should never use your PFDs as a seat cushion or for any other purpose for which it is not designed to be used.
  • It is recommended that you wear your life jacket or life vest as soon as you step onto the boat or any water vessel. It is easier to put on a life jacket while you’re still on port than it is to put it on during an emergency when you’re out in the water.

Federal Regulations for Inflatable Life Jackets

It was sometime in the 1990s when inflatable life jackets have been approved for public use by the US Coast Guard and the government. This was because they believed that inflatable life jackets were more appealing to the public, thus it would be easier for them to encourage the public to wear life jackets while enjoying their water-based activities.

Despite the approval, not everyone was allowed to wear inflatable life jackets. For instance, inflatable life jackets are only approved for people 16 years old and above. They are also not recommended for non-swimmers or poor swimmers.

Regarding the use of inflatable life jackets for children, the US Coast Guard has decided that children are too young to fully understand how to properly and effectively use inflatable life jackets. This is because these types of life jackets require the manipulation of certain mechanisms to inflate them. During emergencies, children may panic and forget how to inflate them properly. As such, the US Coast Guard has recommended that other types of life vests be given to children.

Because inflatable life jackets are somehow more complicated to use, the US Coast Guard set forth certain rules for the manufacturers to follow. For one, manufacturers must label their products properly and clearly. They should also issue pamphlets with detailed explanations on how to use the inflatable life jacket. They should also explicitly mention in their labeling and advertising that inflatable life jackets should not be used by non-swimmers.

Aside from those, the US Coast Guard has also issued certain guidelines for the use of inflatable life jackets and life vests. For one, inflatable life jackets are not approved for use on a personal watercraft or for participants of towed sports like wakeboarding. Also, Boat owners are required to check that their inflatable life jackets have a full and unused gas cylinder and all status indicators must be green. They should also check the condition of their inflatable life jackets from time to time and replace them when necessary.

You might also like: Everything You Need To Know About Life Jacket Buoyancy

Laws Concerning Children and Life Jackets

As responsible parents, it is important to keep your children safe and secure whenever you’re in the water. Whether you’re teaching you’re taking your kid for a boating trip in a kayak or canoe or simply swimming in public beaches or pools, you should make it a point to let your kids wear a life jacket.

Most states have laws and regulations regarding the use of life jackets for children, and these laws may differ from one state to another depending on the children’s specific ages, the length of the vessel they’re in, and the boating situation.


Most states like South Carolina, Colorado, California, and others require that all children aged 12 and below wear a life jacket while onboard a water vessel. However, in other states like Louisiana, the age limit can be as high as 16 years old. In Florida and Michigan, only children aged six and below are required to wear PFDs while on board.

Vessel Length

The length of the vessel where the children will be riding is also another consideration and again will differ from state to state. For instance, both the states of Washington and Arizona require children 12 years old and below to wear a life jacket while on a boat. However, in Washington, this law applies only to children who are in a boat that is less than 19 feet, while in Arizona the rule applies to children aboard boats of any length.


Some states have exceptions regarding the wearing of life jackets while others don’t. For example, laws in Nevada and Oklahoma require that children 13 years old and below must wear a life jacket or a life vest while on the boat. However, in Nevada children can remove their PFDs while they are in an enclosed cabin or below decks. On the other hand, life jacket laws for children in Oklahoma makes no exceptions, which means that children aboard a boat must wear a PFD at all times regardless of where they are on the boat.

Application of Federal Laws

Some states like Wisconsin and Virginia have no existing laws regarding the use of life jackets for children. In states where no such law exists, the interim rule of the US Coast Guard shall apply. This particular law states that children under 13 years old are required to wear US Coast Guard-approved life jackets while onboard a moving water vessel (all lengths) and sailing in federal waters. Keep in mind that this law only applies to states that have no life jacket laws for children in place, and does not change or supersede the existing law of the state.

In most states, people on board a boat, whether they be children or adults, are required to wear a life jacket while they’re on the water. This is quite logical since anyone, regardless of age, can drown even if they consider themselves to be competent swimmers. Along this line, adults are encouraged to wear life jackets so that they set a good example for the children. As many child experts say, children tend to imitate their parent’s actions, which is why teaching and showing children the importance of wearing life jackets during their developmental years is so crucial.

Globo Surf Overview

Life jackets are a vital piece of safety equipment and could save your life when an emergency arises. Because of their importance in preventing casualties that result from drowning, authorities (state and federal) have set forth laws and regulations considering their use, even making them a mandatory requirement for everyone who is engaged in boating, surfing, or any other water-based activities. Keep in mind that life jacket laws by the state may differ from one another, so it is best to check the laws in the state where you’re in. Lastly, it is highly recommended that you make putting on a life jacket a part of your pre-trip preparation, and never remove it for as long as you’re in the water. Remember, a life jacket can save your life, but only if you wear it.

More Life Jacket Safety Guides:


  1. State Requirements for Life Jackets
  2. Life Jackets… So Many, So Different
  3. Types of Life Jackets