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Types of Pilot Licenses – A Guide for New Pilots





This article provides a comprehensive overview of the various types of pilot licenses available for aspiring pilots.

In the US, a pilot license is issued by the FAA and allows an individual to fly a variety of aircraft. In this article I’m going to break down the different types of pilot licenses.

You’ve heard the terms, private pilot, commercial pilot, instrument-rated, multi-commercia to someone just diving into aviation these terms can get pretty confusing.

Example of a pilot's license

To understand this, it’s important to know the difference between a certificate and a rating.

This can be confusing- but to oversimplify it: A certificate is the pilot’s license, and a rating lets you do additional cool stuff with that license.

Pilot Certificate or Pilot License?

Ever wonder, private pilot certificate vs license?

Technically speaking, a “pilot’s license” is not proper terminology. When people say pilot license, they’re usually referring to a certificate- although it is used so frequently that correcting it is considered pedantic (but many pilots are pedantic.)

Your certificate is what gives you flying privileges. There are multiple types of certificates, each providing additional privileges.

Exploring Types of Pilot Licenses

In the US, pilot certificates are Student, Sport, Private, Commercial, Flight Instructor, and Airline Transport Pilot. There is also a Flight Instructor certificate that may be held in addition to a pilot certificate, but we will discuss that further at the end of the article.

When exploring aviation careers, understanding the different pilot licenses available is key to choosing the right path for you.

Each certificate has specific requirements, including hours flown, current certificates and ratings, and certain medical requirements.

Now, let’s delve into the different types of pilot licenses, each with its unique set of requirements and privileges.

Student Pilot License

As the name implies, this pilots license is strictly for students training to obtain further certificates. A student cannot solo without a Student Pilot Certificate. There are a few requirements in order to receive a student pilot certificate.


  • Must be 16 years old for airplane, 14 for glider/balloon
  • Proficiency in English
  • Meet certain TSA security requirements


Sport Pilot License

Sport Pilot is a certificate that allows you to fly a Light Sport Aircraft with a number of limitations. It is the only certificate in the airplane category that only requires a driver’s license, not a medical.

Typically this certificate is ideal for individuals that do not want to go through the hassle of obtaining a medical and only wish to fly for purely recreational purposes.


  • Must hold a Valid Driver’s License or at least a Class 3 Medical
  • 20 hours minimum flight time logged
  • At least 17 years of age (airplane)


  • Only fly light sport aircraft
  • No more than 1 passenger
  • Only fly during the day, and only under 10,000 feet MSL (mean sea level.)

Private Pilot License

In order to acquire further certifications needed for flying as a career, you must start with your private pilot license.



  • Cannot fly for commercial purposes

As we move from basic to advanced pilot license types, it’s important to understand the additional requirements and privileges each one offers.

Commercial Pilot License

This is not the final certificate you will need as an airline pilot, but it does open up other job opportunities to you such as corporate jet, tour guide, crop-duster and other types of flying jobs.


  • At least a second class medical to fly for hire
  • At least 18 years of age
  • Private Pilot License
  • 190 total hours logged part 141, 250 logged part 61.


  • Not qualified to fly for an airline

Understanding pilot license levels is essential for aspiring pilots to chart their training and career progression effectively. If you’re pursuing a career, you’ll likely want to obtain an airplane transport pilot certificate after your commercial certificate.

Airline Transport Pilot Certificate

To fly for an airline, the FAA requires you to hold an Airline Transport Pilot Certificate.

This is the goal for most career pilots, and is the certificate with the most requirements. Typically if you are starting from 0 hours, it takes around 2 years to complete your Airline Transport Pilot Certificate. The biggest reason it takes so long is the required hours.


  • First Class medical
  • At least 1500 hours total flight time in most cases
  • Commercial Pilot Certificate with Instrument Rating (because of this, your instrument rating is not listed on your certificate if you hold an Airline Transport Pilot Certificate.)
  • An Airline Transport Pilot Certification Training Program must be completed.


  • Can’t fly rockets to the moon… unless you own a rocket. Then you totally can.

Types of Pilot Ratings

Apart from licenses, pilot ratings are also important for pilots to operate different types of aircraft and in various conditions. Every one of these certificates comes with at least one rating (with the exception of Student Certificate.) On the physical certificate, these ratings state the “Category” and “Class”.

Let’s look at the differences between category, class, and type of aircraft.


Category is the broad type of aircraft. Some examples of “Categories” are airplane, glider, helicopter, etc.


Categories consist of “Classes”. Each category will consist of its own unique classes. For example, in the “Airplane” category you have the “single-engine” class and the “multi-engine” class, as well as “land” or “sea” class.

So when you combine all of this information onto the certificate, you get the full spectrum of how and what you are permitted to fly. For example you could hold a Private pilot certificate with an Airplane Single Engine Land Rating (typically abbreviated to ASEL.)

Type Ratings

Stay with us, this is the last confusing part.

“Types” are a section further broken down from “Classes”. These refer to specific types of aircraft. In FAA speak, a “Type” is a make and model of aircraft such as a Cessna 172 or Piper PA28. Under the Airplane category, you must receive a specific type rating if:

•The Aircraft is Over 12,500 lbs

•The aircraft is powered by a turbojet or turbofan engine

Instrument Rating

This isn’t overly complicated to understand, VFR stands for Visual Flight Rules and IFR stands for Instrument Flight Rules. It gets more complicated than just weather conditions, but for the sake of this article let’s just say that VFR is for clear, cloudless days and IFR is for overcast, bad weather days.

Your instrument rating allows you to fly in clouds (“instrument meteorological conditions”) and can be obtained with a minimum of a Private Pilot Certificate.


What certificates and ratings do I need to fly a Boeing 737?

Alright so let’s take all of this information and look at what a pilot would need to fly a common commercial airliner for an airline, a Boeing 737 for example.

The pilot would be flying as an airline transport, so his or her ATP certificate would certainly be needed.

The Boeing 737 is a multi-engine land aircraft that is both over 12,500 lbs and utilizes turbofan engines, so a rating for Airplane Multi-Engine Land is needed, as well as a type rating. The FAA lists the Boeing 737 type code as B-737.

So to fly the Boeing 737, a pilot needs to be an Airline Transport Pilot with an airplane multiengine land B-737 Rating. These certificates and ratings would appear as the picture below.

Example of a pilot license

Wow, that’s a lot! What types of pilot licenses do I need to fly something smaller?

Let’s look at a little less extreme example. What certificates and ratings would you need to fly you and a friend in a Cessna 172 on floats through the fog in Alaska?

The Cessna 172 is a single-engine aircraft, and since it is on floats it’s class is considered “sea”. You are not flying for compensation, so you do not need your commercial certificate.

Because there will be fog you will not be flying VFR, so will need to be rated to fly IFR. A sport pilot certificate will let you fly with a friend, but you need an instrument rating, which you can only get with private or higher.

So in this scenario the pilot needs to hold a Private Pilot Certificate with an Airplane Single Engine Sea class and Instrument Rating. The license would appear as the picture below.

Example of a pilot license

Flight Instructor

We have one more topic to cover, Flight Instructor Certificate.

A common practice is to obtain your Instructor Certificate after receiving your commercial certificate and then instruct in order to finish the 1,500 hours needed for ATP certification.

Flight Instructor certificates are different than Pilot Certificates, so the FAA issues a second certificate to flight instructors. There are also Ground Instructor Certificates, which is yet another plastic certificate, but we won’t get into that here.


  • Commercial or ATP certification
  • At least 18 years of age
  • Knowledge received according to Part 61.183


  • To train a student in a multi engine aircraft or toward instrument ratings, you must receive additional instructor ratings, MEI (multi engine instructor) and CFII (Certified Flight Instructor – Instrument)

In summary, this guide covers various pilot license types, each tailored to specific flying goals and career paths in aviation. This article largely focuses on the Airplane Category, so if you are interested in other categories you will need to learn more about their specific classes, types and other ratings. Understanding these types of pilot licenses is crucial for anyone embarking on a journey in aviation.

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