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Picture of a flight simulator, a common technology used to gain familiarity with flight controls and techniques before the flight hours portion of your pilot’s license requirements.

Pilot's License Requirements

What do you need to do to earn a pilot certificate? Pilot’s license requirements vary by certificate, so first you need to ask yourself: Why am I learning to fly?

Whether your goal is to fly airliners across the country for a living or simply soar across the county for the fun of it, there’s a pilot certificate for you. Each certificate conveys specific privileges and capabilities to a pilot. Depending on where you want to go, some may be only steppingstones to a more advanced credential. Training requirements listed here are minimums; you’ll train until your performance meets the standards, and almost all students exceed these minimums.

Here's the Heirarchy

Sport pilot.The sport pilot certificate has the lowest minimum training requirement, at 20 flight hours, which may help you get flying faster. It’s also the only powered aircraft certificate that does not require an FAA medical certificate (gliders and hot air balloons are the others).

It also conveys the fewest privileges—for example, you can’t fly an aircraft with a maximum gross weight of more than 1,320 pounds or more than two seats, you can only carry one passenger, you can’t fly at night, and additional training is required to fly anywhere communication with air traffic controllers is required.

Recreational pilot.This certificate can be earned in as little as 30 flight hours, and an FAA medical certificate is required. However, you can fly larger, faster aircraft with up to 180-horsepower engines and as many as four seats; you’re still limited to one passenger and cannot fly at night. Additional training is required to fly longer distances or to talk with air traffic controllers.

Private Pilot.This offers the most privileges of any initial pilot certificate, and puts few restrictions on where and what you can fly (additional training might be required for certain aircraft types). A minimum of 40 flight hours and an FAA medical certificate are required.

Commercial pilot.If you want to get paid to fly, you’ll need at least the commercial certificate. It’s a prerequisite to work as a flight instructor, corporate or charter pilot, or fly banner towing or crop dusting aircraft, among many others. You’ll learn additional maneuvers beyond the private pilot syllabus. You’ll also need as many as 250 hours of flight time; there also are requirements for pilot in command and cross-country experience.

Airline transport pilot.To fly for an airline or certain other employers, you’ll have to earn an ATP certificate. You must be 23 years old, of good moral character, hold a commercial pilot certificate with an instrument rating, have logged as many as 1,500 flight hours, and complete an Airline Transport Pilot Certification Training Program. Depending on where you trained or if you served as a military pilot, you may qualify for a restricted ATP—which allows you to fly for an airline as second in command—at age 21 and potentially with fewer flight hours.

Instrument rating.Train for this any time after the private pilot certificate to learn how to fly in the clouds, by reference to aircraft instruments (and not the horizon). It increases your skill and the value of your certificate, and is a requirement for the ATP.

Drone pilot.Considering a commercial drone pilot certificate? Earn the FAA’s Part 107 remote pilot certificate to fly small unmanned aircraft systems—drones—commercially. There are different methods for obtaining an FAA remote pilot certificate, depending upon whether you are already a pilot. No flight test is required.

Adapted from “Your License to the Sky” by Mike Collins, as featured in the You Can Fly issue of Flight Training. Find more flight school finder.

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