The 5 Best Scuba Diving Certification Programs of 2020

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The Rundown

Best Overall: PADI

"As one of the most popular certifications, wherever you live or plan on going on vacation, you’re likely to have access to PADI dive courses."

Runner-Up, Best Overall: SSI

"An added bonus is that the academic portion of the course is completed exclusively online, for free."

Oldest Agency: NAUI

"its ethos revolves around training a few divers well rather than many divers with weaker skills, so you get hands on training."

Best British Contingent: BSAC

"Many courses are aimed at equipping members with the skills to support club diving, while cold water specialties include Drysuit and Ice Diving."

Best for Future Tec Divers: SDI

"Many SDI instructors are also TDI instructors, giving them the ability to teach basic skills in a way that translates well to future tec courses."

Our Top Picks

01 of 05

Best Overall: PADI

PADI

PADI

In 1966, John Cronin and Ralph Erickson founded the Professional Association of Diving Instructors (PADI) with the intention of upgrading existing instruction methods and making the sport more accessible. In the years since, the U.S.-based training organization has become the largest and most recognized scuba diving agency in the world. Its motto, “The Way the World Learns to Dive” is no exaggeration, with more than 27 million certifications issued to date by approximately 6,600 PADI Dive Centers and Resorts and 137,000 PADI Professionals worldwide. This means that wherever you live or plan on going on vacation, you’re likely to have access to PADI dive courses. You can also rest assured that your certification card will always be recognized and accepted. 

The entry-level course is the PADI Open Water Course, which promotes performance-based learning through online or in-classroom theory sessions and practical training in confined and open water. In addition to teaching students about diver physiology and underwater safety, PADI courses promote marine conservation through a partnership with non-profit organization Project AWARE. After gaining your initial certification, you can choose from an impressive range of further education courses and diver specialties. Learn how to take photos underwater, or train for cavern diving, deep diving, diving at altitude, or diving with sharks. PADI also offers a full range of tec and professional courses leading all the way up to Course Director (the ability to train instructors).

If you plan on making a career out of scuba diving, PADI’s large market share gives you the best chance of employment after qualifying as a divemaster or instructor. The company is also well-known for its professional support, although the course and membership fees are higher than most other agencies. 

Interested in getting out to the reefs? Check out our round-up of the best scuba diving destinations.

02 of 05

Runner-Up, Best Overall: SSI

SSI

SSI

Scuba Schools International (SSI) was founded in 1970 and is currently headquartered in Colorado. It is the second-largest scuba training agency after PADI, with over 2,800 dive centers representing the brand in more than 110 countries. SSI courses are available in 30+ languages. The entry-level course is called Open Water Diver and is very similar in terms of skills learned to the PADI course of the same name. The main difference is that the academic portion of the course is completed exclusively online, for free. This makes certification cheaper and more flexible (you can also learn offline through the SSI app). However, some students prefer a traditional classroom environment, especially if they have difficulties with any of the subjects covered. 

The practical aspects of the course are completed through a series of sessions in confined and open water, under the supervision of an SSI instructor. A more fluid approach to teaching methods allows instructors to make small changes to the order in which skills are learned to suit the needs and abilities of specific students.

After gaining your entry-level certification, you can continue your education with a range of advanced courses. Tec diving courses (known as the Extended Range) teach you to push the limits of the underwater world with Nitrox and trimix gas blends, while other available disciplines include rebreather diving, freediving, and snorkeling. SSI rounds out its water-based offers with swim teacher and mermaid training courses. 

SSI professionals have free access to SSI job listings, whereas PADI professionals have to pay an annual membership fee to view career opportunities. However, SSI instructors can only teach courses through an SSI Dive Center and not independently (as PADI instructors are able to do). 

03 of 05

Oldest Agency: NAUI

NAUI

NAUI

If you’re based in the U.S. and like the idea of an agency that has stood the test of time, the National Association of Underwater Instructors (NAUI) could be the best fit for you. Founded in 1959, it is the oldest civilian diver training agency, along with similar European agency CMAS. Over the years, NAUI has pioneered many of the training concepts now accepted as global standards throughout the industry. Unlike profit-based businesses like PADI and SSI, NAUI is registered as a not-for-profit education association. Its motto is “Dive Safety Through Education”, and its ethos revolves around the concept of training a few divers well rather than many divers with marginal skills. Safety awareness is a focus of all courses, including the entry-level Scuba Diver course. 

Training programs are regularly updated to reflect the latest developments in dive safety, training, and equipment, while instructors are frequently evaluated to ensure that they meet NAUI teaching standards. Nevertheless, instructors have the freedom to teach in “any reasonable manner” that meets those standards, meaning that they can adapt teaching methods or the order of skills learned to suit individual students. I

f you need a little more time in the water to feel confident on your own, NAUI courses also allow instructors to exceed the number of required open water dives. Once you achieve your entry-level certification, there are several recreational, technical, and professional courses to choose from thereafter. 

Specialty courses are relatively limited, with just five offered in comparison to the 30+ offered by PADI. If you plan on becoming an instructor yourself, the ability to teach independently makes up for the fact that NAUI has far fewer dive centers worldwide than either PADI or SSI. 

04 of 05

Best British Contingent: BSAC

BSAC

BSAC

Another not-for-profit organization, the British Sub-Aqua Club (BSAC) was founded in 1953 as a recreational diving club. It launched its first instructor training course in 1960 and is now the national governing body for scuba diving and snorkeling in the United Kingdom. Many British divers choose BSAC as a less commercial alternative to PADI. The agency has a reputation for high-quality training (reinforced by the fact that diving conditions in the U.K. are typically more challenging than in tropical destinations elsewhere around the world). BSAC divers are taught to cope with cold water and limited visibility from their first open water dive, and as such certifications from this agency are typically well-respected. 

The entry-level certification is called Ocean Diver and includes theory sessions, in-pool training, and a minimum of four open water dives. It is typically lengthier than the PADI equivalent and qualifies divers for an extra 6.5 feet of depth. Further education opportunities include a full range of skill development, special interest, technical, and professional qualifications. Many courses are aimed at equipping members with the skills to support club diving, while cold water specialties include Drysuit and Ice Diving courses. BSAC primarily operates in the United Kingdom but has affiliated centers offering various levels of training in locations that range from Europe to the United States, Mexico, and Australia. 

Above all, BSAC stays true to its roots by promoting the dive club lifestyle. New divers automatically receive three months of free membership to a BSAC dive club. With locations around the UK, these community centers encourage divers to make new friends and get the most out of their sport with social events, dive trips, and overseas expeditions.

Continue to 5 of 5 below.
05 of 05

Best for Future Tec Divers: SDI

SDI

SDI

If the idea of extreme underwater exploration appeals to you, you may be planning on becoming a tec diver. Tec divers use specialized equipment, gases, and advanced training to exceed recreational diving limits, often with the purpose of reaching extraordinary depths. Scuba Diving International (SDI) is a top choice for future tec divers because it is part of International Training, a group of diving organizations that includes Technical Diving International (TDI) – the world’s largest technical training agency. In fact, SDI was founded in 1998 as TDI’s recreational diving division and as such, has close connections to the advanced diving community. Many SDI instructors are also TDI instructors, giving them the ability to teach basic skills in a way that translates well to future tec courses. 

The entry-level Open Water Scuba Diver course involves a combination of theoretical e-learning, pool sessions, and open water dives. SDI has a reputation for innovation, being the first to present online specialties including Wreck, Computer Nitrox, Deep Diving and Navigation. It was also the first to offer diving programs for children and the first to allow divers to learn to dive using a dive computer rather than traditional dive tables.

Most importantly for those that like to push boundaries, SDI offers the first and only insured Solo Diver qualification, which trains you to dive without relying on the traditional buddy system. Other recreational specialties that give you a good foundation for tec diving include Advanced Buoyancy Control, Nitrox, Deep, Sidemount, Full Face Mask, and Equipment Specialist. 

SDI has training centers in more than 100 countries. Other sister agencies include Emergency Response Diving International (ERDI) and Performance Freediving International (PFI), giving you further avenues to explore in terms of specialist diving and careers. 

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