A Guide to the Open Water Diver Course

A French Angelfish with coral

Diving is my passion and my stillness. As soon as I hit the water, I’m left with a feeling of pure adventure. I can’t think of anything more gratifying than descending into the deep blue, ready to be humbled by whatever Mother Nature puts in my path.

The entry level open water diver course teaches you about the basic science behind diving, the required equipment, and the best safety practices. Passing the course allows you to dive with a buddy, rent equipment, or dive with a dive operation. You are certified for life to dive down to 18 meters/60 feet from anywhere around the world.

Take “for life” with a grain of salt. Any decent shop will require some form of a refresher course if you have been out of the water for over 1.5 years. The longer you have been out of the water, the more thorough the review will be. Think of it as a good incentive to go on dive vacations at least once a year.

I want to share the underwater world, so I’ve put together this guide to help anyone interested in getting certified. Each decision is highlighted in order to help you set yourself up with the best possible experience.

I want to thank Rika of Cubicle Throwdown for her help with the finer details. She’s a knowledgeable and hilarious diver who worked for 5 years as an instructor and shop manager in Roatán, Honduras. Rika now teaches English in Japan, and you can check out her latest stories on her blog.

If you want to prepare yourself even further, these are the things that I wish I had known before my first dive.

Certifying Agencies

There are a number of agencies that provide entry level open water diver certifications. Despite the fact that the requirements vary at more advanced levels, the entry level course remains relatively constant across each agency.

PADI Open Water Diver – The most popular and widest spread certifying agency

SSI Open Water Diver – The second most popular agency

NAUI Scuba Diver – Known for having a more thorough entry level course

CMAS One-Star Scuba Diver – Known for a more physics-based entry level course

RAID Open Water 20 – Once for rebreather training, they have expanded their focus to recreational courses

BSAC Ocean Diver – A British-based scuba club that conducts training within its locations

Waves from the dive boat

Focus on the quality of the teaching when selecting an instructor, rather than their certifying agency. Most agencies accept each other’s certifications, no matter where you choose to dive. All follow the standards detailed by the World Recreational Scuba Training Council (WRSTC). This guarantees that all programs meet a set of minimum requirements.


Most people are eligible to begin entry level scuba diving training, but you must first verify whether or not you meet the age and health requirements. These requirements apply specifically to the PADI and SSI entry-level programs.


The minimum age to begin training is 10 years old. Both PADI and SSI consider divers under 15 years to be Junior Open Water Divers.

There are additional considerations, such as teaching techniques and instructor-to-student ratios, when working with someone under 15 years of age. Kids 10 t0 11 are restricted to 12 meters (40 feet) and are often required to have a private guide with them when diving in a bigger group. Kids 12 to 14 are restricted to 18 meters (60 feet). Keep in mind that these come with additional costs.


All students must be in good health in order to participate in training. If you answer ‘YES’ to any of the questions on this WRSTC questionnaire, you must seek written approval from a doctor in order to verify that your condition is compatible with diving.

Don’t try to fudge the health stuff. Scuba is an extremely safe activity but it can become life-threatening if you choose to ignore critical health concerns. That goes for seizures, heart problems, gastric obstructions, pregnancy, poor fitness, and severe inner ear or sinus issues.

Course Outline

The entry level certification consists of four sections: theory, water skills, confined water dives, and open water dives.

Me during my open water course


The theory component helps you understand scuba theory, diving skills, the equipment, problem management skills, safety practices, and environmental concerns. Each student will read the open water manual and watch an informational video. You will complete a series of knowledge checks for each chapter, along with a final exam at the end.

Water Skills

You don’t necessarily have to be a great swimmer to become a scuba diver, but need to demonstrate basic comfort in the water. The skills to do this include a 200-meter continuous swim and 10 unassisted minutes of treading water. Don’t worry about speed, you can swim as slowly as needed.

Confined Water Dives

Each student must complete five sessions in a pool or shallow water on a beach. You will practice several essential dive skills until they are properly mastered. If you are only trying the skills out and not redoing them until they are mastered, I would encourage you to find a more attentive instructor. It’s true that some people are naturals, but almost everyone has to redo at least one skill. These five sessions may be combined as needed.

Open Water Dives

You will go on four open water dives. The main objective is to repeat some of the skills that you learned from the confined dives. Once you have shown mastery in the open water, you will go on to have a fun dive. After all of that training, it’s a great reward to see what scuba diving is all about!

Additional Considerations

Before going full speed ahead into a random program, all students should take the following items into consideration: where you will obtain your certification, who will instruct you, and how you will take the course.

A green turtle in Honduras

Where to Certify

When you consider the best geographical location, you’ll want to consider the diving conditions, underwater attractions, and course cost. Warm, clear, and calm water is the easiest to dive in and will make the open water course much easier. However, you may become a stronger diver from the start if your course happens in cold water with poor visibility.

In terms of environment and cost, you will want to find the right balance between attractions and affordability. South East Asia and Central America, particularly Thailand and Honduras, offer some of the cheapest deals at the world’s best diving sites. Getting certified at home may save you more money in terms of travel costs.

Selecting an Instructor or Shop

Once you settle on a destination, you will need to decide on an instructor or shop. Experience taught me that not all dive shops are created equally. I have gone diving with PADI 5-Star shops that have given me a terrible experience. Even Trip Advisor can be misleading. Most reviews are 5-stars and come from people who have no other diving experiences for comparison. The limited number of poor reviews highlight giant issues, but overwhelmingly positive reviews may not highlight significant shortcomings.

I suggest that all students ask prospective shops about their instructional practices. Student ratios should be small in order to maximize attention. Instructors should be approachable and patient, and should not rush you through any exercises. If they are not addressing your concerns, you should find someone else to work with.

Keep in mind that shops do schedule courses over a finite period of time, but that does not mean that they should hand over a certification if a student is not yet qualified. In that case, you may need to schedule more time (and unfortunately pay more) in order to finish the course.

Pre-dive safety check on the boat

It may seem like this should all go without saying, but I have seen novice divers unaware of certain extremely essential practices. The majority of these issues pointed back to poor quality instruction. They didn’t know how to check their air, couldn’t tell me what a safety stop was, and hadn’t been shown a weight belt (or similar weight system) before.

The environment within a facility can also say a lot about the quality of an organization. Be on the lookout for a lack of maintenance or poor customer service. You can also look at the quality of the dive gear. Don’t necessarily focus on newness, instead determine whether or not the gear is regularly serviced and up-to-date.

Course Delivery

You can also customize how you will do your certification (in case the above decisions weren’t already enough). These range from fully at home to fully at a destination.

Entire Course at Home

This option is frequently used by students who want to save vacation for the fun stuff. They may require a timeline that fits their schedule, ranging from one weekend to several weeks. Some people are simply more comfortable learning something new around the comforts of home. With this style of learning, you can dive locally or take your skills on the road.

Open Water Referral

Some students want to complete the majority of their learning at home. This can be anything up to and including theory, water skills, and confined water dives. They may just want to save the open water dives for vacation, or they may not be interested in the dive sites near home. Your local dive shop can send a referral to your new dive shop. Your new instructor will pick things up where you left off.

PADI eLearning at Home, Rest of Course at Destination

Most people agree that theory is the most boring component in your training. If you want to avoid reading your manual in paradise, you can use PADI eLearning. This knocks out the videos, knowledge reviews, and final exam prior to arriving at to your destination. From there, you can complete the rest of the course with your instructor.

Entire Course at Destination

If you have the time or are looking for potentially the cheapest option, you can get certified at your destination of choice. Yeah, that may mean sucking it up to get through the theory, but this may save you some money. Many people choose this option if they are also short on time at home.

Discover Scuba Dive/Try Scuba Diving, then Entire Course at Destination

This option more or less happens to those who can’t predict how much they would love the underwater world. They may want to confirm that they actually like diving before committing to the full course. I know of several individuals who decide to finish up the course after an incredible experience.


The pricing of an entry level course can be difficult to unravel and usually ranges from $300 to $600. There are a series factors that go into a given price, ranging from course delivery, materials, lodging, equipment, and additional dives.

Back roll technique into open water

Course delivery is a function of your local dive shop, your destination dive shop, and the certifying agency. Some shops price competitively by location, while the certifying agency sets other rates. Different shops choose whether or not to include educational materials, such as manuals or RDP tables.

Others will require that you rent or purchase equipment in order to complete the course. This price may be included at some shops, but may not be in at others. Some places go as far as to offer diving packages that include lodging and additional dives at a discounted rate. You should discuss the price breakdown with each shop in order to communicate your needs and find the best fit.

Equipment – What to Buy First?

Should you buy a whole starter set for certification or not?

You should wait to see if you dive frequently enough to warrant the added costs. Remember that the start-up costs are high and that it is not a cheap hobby. Diving not only requires expensive equipment, but it usually involves travel costs to exotic destinations. Portability can be a priority for travelers, and scuba equipment is bulky. Many people prefer to travel light by only bringing specific items with them on their trips.

If you do choose to buy equipment, I would do it in this order: mask, dive computer, fins, surface marker buoy with snap clip, regulator, wetsuit, and BCD. I consider how essential each item is to my comfort in the water with how portable it is to pack. If a dive computer is too expensive, opt instead for a waterproof timing device. That way you can still complete a safety stop should you get separated from your group.

Steve diving upside down

Next Course: Advanced Open Water

If you want to take your skills to the next level, consider the Advanced Open Water Diver certification. This allows you to fine-tune certain skills while developing new ones. The course consists of multiple specialty dives where you learn more about deep diving, underwater navigation, buoyancy, wreck diving, fish identification, drift diving, and other specialties.

If you obtain this through PADI, you can begin this five dive course immediately after finishing your entry level certification. If you obtain this through SSI, you receive the certification after completing 24 dives and four specialty courses.

Don’t Forget to Tip

Scuba instructors are in this industry for their love of the underwater world, not because it is a high-paying job. Tips go a long way for these folks, especially if they provide you with an experience for a lifetime.


Disclaimer: This guide is based on my own personal research and should not be treated as an official document. These reflect the information at the time of writing, along with my experiences and opinions.

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  1. Rika | Cubicle Throwdown June 24, 2017 at 7:58 pm - Reply

    Happy to help out chica! This is one of the most accurate, concise and thorough guide I’ve ever read. Love all the breakdowns. Every new diver should read this!
    Rika | Cubicle Throwdown recently posted…Creative Freelancing: Interview with Monika KanokovaMy Profile

    • Katie Fitton July 7, 2017 at 9:19 am - Reply

      Thanks for the vote of confidence, and for always being an awesome knowledge source!

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