Cessna 172 airplane flying - stock image used with permission from Cessna Aircraftby Kate Bernard
last updated: 12/30/14

In the United States, there are three entry-level pilot certificates: sport pilot, recreational pilot, and private pilot. Each has different training requirements, medical requirements, privileges, and limitations as shown in the table below.

Which certificate should you pursue? It depends on your goals.

What kind of airplane do you want to fly? Where will you go? How many passengers will you carry? Will you fly at night?

Questions like these – and your budget – will help you decide which certificate to earn first. You can change your mind during training. You can also go on to earn other certificates. For example, a sport pilot can upgrade to a private pilot certificate.

No matter what, you’ll start off with a student pilot certificate. All three entry-level certificates require solo flight experience during training. You’ll need a student pilot certificate for that. A student pilot certificate is like a learner’s permit in driver’s ed. It gives you limited freedoms under an instructor’s supervision.

You can obtain a student pilot certificate from an Aviation Medical Examiner (AME) at the same time as a medical certificate. If you are a sport pilot student, you can obtain a student pilot certificate from an FAA Designated Pilot Examiner (DPE). Your flight instructor can help put you in contact with the right person.

Note: The information on this site assumes you want to fly airplanes. If helicopters, gliders, powered parachutes, hot air balloons, or other flying machines are more your cup of tea, you’ll need to research the rules for those, which differ.

The training requirements for everything from airplanes to airships are found in part 61 of the FAA regulations.

Comparing the Sport, Recreational, and Private Pilot Certificates

Note! An asterisk (*) means the restriction can be removed with further training, experience, and/or endorsements.

Minimum Flight Hours Required Under Part 61
Sport: 20
Recreational: 30
Private: 40
Medical Requirements
Sport: Driver’s License or third-class (or higher) medical certificate
Recreational: Third-class (or higher) medical certificate
Private: Third-class (or higher) medical certificate
Kind of Aircraft
Sport: Light-Sport only
Recreational: Single-engine, up to 180 HP, up to 4 seats, fixed landing gear
Private: Single-engine, fixed landing gear, up to 200 HP*
Max Number of Passengers
Sport: 1
Recreational: 1
Private: Unlimited
Flying Outside the U.S.
Sport: Prohibited Except the Bahamas
Recreational: Prohibited
Private: Allowed
Airports & Airspace
Sport: Non-towered only*
Recreational: Non-towered only*
Private: Towered or non-towered
Cross-Country Flying
Sport: Unlimited
Recreational: Within 50 nautical miles*
Private: Unlimited
Night Flying
Sport: Prohibited
Recreational: Prohibited
Private: Allowed
Maximum Altitude
Sport: 10,000 ft above sea level, or 2,000 ft above surface, whichever is greater
Recreational: 10,000 ft above sea level, or 2,000 ft above surface, whichever is greater
Private: 18,000 ft*
Flight Without Visual Reference to Surface (above clouds in visual conditions)
Sport: Prohibited
Recreational: Prohibited
Private: Allowed
Minimum Flight Visibility
Sport: 3 statute miles
Recreational: 3 statute miles
Private: 1 statute mile
Comparing the Sport, Recreational, and Private Pilot Certificates
Note! An asterisk (*) means the restriction can be removed with further training, experience, and/or endorsements.
Sport Pilot Recreational Pilot Private Pilot
Minimum Flight Hours Required Under Part 61 20 30 40
Medical Requirements Driver’s License or third-class (or higher) medical certificate Third-class or higher medical certificate Third-class or higher medical certificate
Kind of Aircraft Light-Sport only Single-engine, up to 180 HP, up to 4 seats, fixed landing gear Single-engine, fixed landing gear, up to 200 HP*
Max number of Passengers 1 1 Unlimited
Flying Outside U.S. Prohibited except Bahamas Prohibited Allowed
Airports & Airspace Non-towered only* Non-towered only* Towered or non-towered
Cross-Country Flying Unlimited within U.S. & Bahamas Within 50 nautical miles* Unlimited
Night Flying Prohibited Prohibited Allowed
Maximum Altitude 10,000 ft or 2,000 above surface, whichever is greater 10,000 ft or 2,000 above surface, whichever is greater 18,000 ft
Flight Without Visual Reference to Surface Prohibited Prohibited Allowed
Minimum Flight Visibility 3 miles 3 miles 1 mile
Towing Objects Prohibited Prohibited Prohibited*
Passenger-Carrying Charity Airlifts Prohibited Prohibited Prohibited*
Acting as a Safety Pilot Prohibited Prohibited Allowed
Performing Preventive Maintenance Light-Sport Aircraft only (except standard category) Allowed Allowed
Flying for Compensation or Hire Prohibited Prohibited Prohibited
Carrying Passengers or Cargo for Hire Prohibited Prohibited Prohibited
Sharing Expenses (pro-rata) Allowed Allowed Allowed
Flying in Furtherance of a Business Prohibited Prohibited Allowed

 

Read More on the Web:

Become a Pilot – Student Pilot’s Certificate Requirements – Information from the FAA on the student pilot certificate required for solo flight

Sport Pilot Rule Synopsis – Defines Light-Sport Aircraft and explains Sport Pilot privileges and limitations (from EAA)

How do I Become a Pilot? – Compares the Recreational and Private Pilot Certificates (from AOPA)

Pilot Certificate Options – Explains the student, private, recreational, and sport pilot certificate (from AOPA)


Frequently Asked Questions:

  1. What are the Entry-Level Pilot Certificates?
  2. What are the Eligibility Requirements for a Pilot Certificate?
  3. What are the Medical Certification Requirements for Pilots?
  4. What is Ground Training Like?
  5. What is Flight Training Like?
  6. What Tests are Required to Become a Pilot?
  7. How Much Does it Cost to Become a Pilot?
  8. How Can I Find a Flight School or Flight Instructor?
  9. How Does a Pilot Stay Current and Proficient?
  10. What Additional Certificates and Ratings Can a Pilot Earn?
  11. How Do I Sign Up for an Introductory Flight Lesson?