last updated: 1/22/19
All pilots must self-certify that they are medically fit to fly prior to any flight. Pilots must also adhere to any limitations on their medical certificate (or driver’s license in lieu of a medical certificate).
Recreational pilots, private pilots, and recreational or private pilot students flying solo need at least a third class medical certificate.
Sport pilots, sport pilot students, and anyone exercising sport pilot privileges may normally substitute a driver’s license for a medical certificate. There is a very important exception. Anyone whose existing medical certificate or most recent application has been denied, revoked, withdrawn, or suspended cannot use the driver’s license as a substitute.
If you can’t use a driver’s license as a substitute, then you need at least a third class medical certificate, even if you are operating under sport pilot rules. Beware of this “catch-22” in the regulations.
You may have heard about the FAA’s new “BasicMed” option, which eases the medical certification burden for pilots who have held a regular or special-issuance medical certificate anytime on or after July 15, 2006. BasicMed is not designed for new student pilots, because it only applies to those who have previously had a medical certificate. If you are pursuing a recreational or private pilot certificate, you will need to obtain a medical certificate at least once. Later, you may be able to fly under the rules of BasicMed.
If you have any medical concerns, you should consult with an Aviation Medical Examiner (AME) before actually applying for a medical certificate. You can also refer to online resources such as AOPA’s online medical information. People are often surprised at the types of things that are disqualifying. You will also want to find out ahead of time if you have any conditions that will require extra paperwork.
Types of Medical Certificates
The three classes of medical certificates are first, second, and third. Each has different standards.
The expiration date depends on your age at the time of the exam, as shown in the table below. “Calendar months” means the certificate expires the last day of the month.
When a medical certificate expires, it automatically reverts down to the next lower class of certificate. For example, if a 20-year-old pilot’s second-class medical expires at the end of a year, he or she can keep using it as a third-class medical certificate for another four years.
Medical Certificate Durations
|Under Age 40||Age 40 or Over|
|First Class||12 calendar months||6 calendar months|
|Second Class||12 calendar months||12 calendar months|
|Third Class||60 calendar months (5 years)||24 calendar months (2 years)|
When Should you Obtain a Medical Certificate?
Recreational and private pilot students should obtain a medical certificate either just before starting training, or as soon as possible after starting training. The medical certificate is not required until your first solo flight. However, going in for the exam as soon as possible will help you avoid unnecessary investment in flight training in case you are medically disqualified from becoming a pilot.
Sport pilot students do not need to obtain a medical as long as they can use a driver’s license as a substitute (see above).
How to Obtain a Medical Certificate
- Find an Aviation Medical Examiner (AME), a physician authorized by the FAA to conduct flight physicals and issue medical certificates. You can use the FAA’s online aviation medical examiner database to search for an AME near you.
- If you have any medical concerns, have a consultation with the AME before making an appointment for the actual exam. You’ll learn if something might be disqualifying or if you’ll need to gather special documentation.
- Make an appointment for the medical exam. If this is your first visit as a student, mention that you will also need a student pilot certificate.
- Use the FAA’s MedXpress online medical certificate application website to fill out the application before your appointment.
- During your appointment, the AME will review your application form and administer a basic physical exam. If you’re eligible, you’ll receive your medical certificate before you leave. If there are any issues, you might still be eligible for “special issuance.”
If you do not meet all of the established standards for a medical certificate, but can still pilot an aircraft safely under certain conditions or limitations, you may be eligible for a special issuance medical certificate. Depending upon the reasons for special issuance, you might experience a lengthy delay in receiving your medical certificate. This is one of the reasons it’s recommended you seek the medical certificate early in training. Some conditions allow for an “AME-assisted special issuance,” while others require the application to be referred to the FAA’s Federal Air Surgeon in Oklahoma City.
The regulations are evolving. In 2004, the new sport pilot rule began allowing certain pilots to fly without a medical certificate. In 2008, the FAA extended the duration of first and third class medical certificates for people under age 40. More recently, aviation organizations such as EAA and AOPA have been encouraging the FAA to remove the medical certificate requirement for more types of operations. This led to the new BasicMed third class medical reform rules that took effect in 2017.
Read More on the Web:
Find an Aeromedical Examiner (AME) -Searchable directory of AMEs, provided by the FAA
Pilot Medical Certification Questions and Answers – The FAA’s answers to frequently asked questions about medical certificates, flight physicals, disqualifying conditions, and more
AOPA’s Medical Certification Center (members-only) – Information on medical certification, special issuance, and conditions that may affect certification
Frequently Asked Questions:
- What are the Entry-Level Pilot Certificates?
- What are the Eligibility Requirements for a Pilot Certificate?
- What are the Medical Certification Requirements for Pilots?
- What is Ground Training Like?
- What is Flight Training Like?
- What Tests are Required to Become a Pilot?
- How Much Does it Cost to Become a Pilot?
- How Can I Find a Flight School or Flight Instructor?
- How Does a Pilot Stay Current and Proficient?
- What Additional Certificates and Ratings Can a Pilot Earn?
- How Do I Sign Up for an Introductory Flight Lesson?