How to Get Certified to Scuba Dive

Two young women being taught to scuba dive by an instructor

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Over 70 percent of the Earth’s surface is covered in water, so if you have an adventurous spirit and a yearning to see more of the planet’s wild places, learning to scuba dive is an obvious choice. Like most activities with an element of danger, however, becoming a scuba diver isn’t as simple as watching a few YouTube videos and purchasing the necessary equipment. To become legally certified to dive, you need to sign up for theory and practical lessons with a professional training organization. In this article, we give you all the information you need to turn your dreams of exploring reefs, wrecks, and aquatic wildlife into a reality.

Choosing a Training Organization

There are many different training organizations offering entry-level scuba certifications. The most respected and well-known include the Professional Association of Diving Instructors (PADI), Scuba Schools International (SSI), the National Association of Underwater Instructors (NAUI), Scuba Diving International (SDI), Confédération Mondiale des Activités Subaquatiques (CMAS), and the British Sub Aqua Club (BSAC). 

Of these, CMAS and BSAC are most popular in Europe and Britain respectively. NAUI was founded in 1959, making it the original American scuba diving organization; while SDI is often preferred by those that ultimately want to go on to become technical divers (the practice of exceeding recreational diving limits by using mixed gases and advanced equipment to go deeper for longer). SSI is the second-largest training organization globally. 

Wherever you live, though, PADI is by far the largest and best-known organization, with more than 6,600 PADI dive centers and resorts located around the world (compared to circa 2,800 for SSI). Its global presence and the international recognition of its certifications make this organization our top choice, and as such, this article will detail how to get qualified as a PADI diver. The essential steps are similar for the other five organizations too, although the exact process, timeline, and costs will differ.

Types of Certification

PADI offers three main, recreational and non-professional scuba certifications. The entry-level course is known as Open Water Diver. This is the course that qualifies you to dive independently to a maximum of 60 feet (18 meters), although you must always dive with at least one other certified diver in a buddy pair. The next certification is Advanced Open Water Diver, which broadens your scuba education and qualifies you to dive up to 100 feet (30 meters). The third certification is Rescue Diver, which teaches students how to help other divers in an emergency situation.

In addition to these three main certifications, PADI offers a countless array of continuing education or specialty courses that can be taken once you are a qualified Open Water Diver. These range from Deep Diver and Enriched Air Diver to Cavern Diver, Night Diver, Peak Performance Buoyancy, Underwater Navigator, and many, many more. You can also opt to enroll in a supervised Discover Scuba Diving course before your Open Water course or opt to move onto professional and technical diving courses after completing your Rescue Diver qualification.

Hoping to go diving as a family? PADI offers specialized courses for minors, starting with the Bubblemaker Program for children aged 8 and older. 

Steps to Becoming a Qualified Diver

Whether you take a Discover Scuba Diving course first or decide to jump straight in at the deep end, the PADI Open Water Diver course consists of three main parts.

Knowledge Development: Before you even get into the swimming pool or try on a regulator (the apparatus that allows you to breathe underwater), you will learn about the basic principles of scuba diving on dry land. There are several ways to do this. The most traditional is to learn in the classroom under the direct supervision of your certified PADI dive instructor at your chosen dive center. Alternatively, you can study independently using a hard copy of the PADI course materials or enroll in a PADI eLearning course. With the help of course texts, illustrations, and video footage, you will learn essential information ranging from how to assemble and use your equipment, to the physical effects of breathing compressed air at depth, to the best ways to deal with a diving emergency.

Confined Water Dives: The next step is to put all this theory into practice, in a safe setting. Confined water dives take place in a predictable and controlled underwater environment (i.e. one that has no current, excellent visibility, and is shallow enough for skills to be performed imperfectly without posing a safety risk). Typically, confined water dives will take place in a swimming pool but may also be conducted in a shallow cove or bay. 

Your instructor will give a step-by-step demonstration of each skill, before inviting you to attempt it yourself. You can take as long as you like to get it right, but complete mastery of all skills is a course requirement. Examples of skills include the basics (like descending and ascending using the proper hand signals), learning how to navigate underwater, and how to react in the event of emergencies ranging from a free-flowing regulator to running out of air. 

Open Water Dives: When you have mastered each of the required skills in confined water, it’s time to experience the wonder of the real underwater world for the first time. The PADI Open Water Diver course includes four open water dives. Depending on where you are, these can take place in the ocean, in a lake, dam, or flooded quarry. On each dive, you will start by performing some of the skills you learned in confined water, before having the opportunity to explore the surrounding features and/or wildlife with your instructor and fellow students. Dives will never exceed 60 feet (18 meters), and there should never be more than eight students to each instructor in your group. On successful completion of your fourth dive, you will be a fully qualified entry-level diver. 

Pre-Requisites for Open Water Course

To enroll in the PADI Open Water Diver course, you must be:

  • At least 10 years old. Children aged 10 to 14 will be qualified as Junior Open Water Divers and will only become fully-fledged Open Water Divers once they turn 15. Restrictions apply for Junior Open Water Divers: Those aged 10 to 11 must dive with a PADI Professional or a certified parent/guardian and may only dive to 40 feet (12 meters). Those aged 12 to 14 must dive with a certified adult. 
  • Medically fit for diving. You will be given a medical questionnaire to answer before enrolling. If you answer “yes” to any of the questions, you must visit a physician and receive a signed letter confirming that you are physically fit enough to scuba dive. 
  • Able to swim. All prospective divers must pass a basic swim test. You have to be able to swim 200 meters (219 yards) without stopping or 300 meters (328 yards) with the help of a mask, fins, and snorkel). You also have to be able to tread water for 10 minutes unassisted. 

All course students must also have their own personal set of learning materials, whether they opt for the paperback PADI Open Water Diving Manual or the eLearning software. 

Certification Time and Costs

The time it takes to complete your PADI Open Water Diver course depends on several factors including the course schedule designed by your specific dive center, how long it takes you to master each skill, and whether you choose to complete the Knowledge Development section independently ahead of time. Generally, the confined and open water diving sections take three to four days to complete and classroom theory sessions add an additional one or two days.

Cost is also very variable. The location of your dive center is a big factor (the cost of running a dive center in Florida is considerably higher than it is in Thailand, for example, so you can expect the latter to offer much cheaper courses). Some of the most affordable places to get scuba certified include Thailand, Honduras, Egypt, Mexico, the Philippines, and Indonesia. However, you will also need to consider the cost of getting to these places from wherever you’re based. 

Locations that require boat diving rather than shore diving are usually more expensive due to the cost of fuel, crew, and vessel maintenance and class size will also impact costs. Before choosing a center based on their cheap rates, however, be sure to confirm that everything is included in the quoted price—from equipment rental to course materials and certification fees. In the United States, $550 to $650 is a reasonable all-inclusive price to pay for your PADI Open Water Diver qualification.