British Canoeing are the national governing body in the UK for paddlesports, and provide a waterways licence that covers most stretches of water

What is the waterways license?

Whether you’re kayaking, canoeing or paddle boarding, kicking off your paddling career can be confusing. The advice about where you are allowed to paddle can often be difficult to find or contradict what you have already been told. We've got everything you need to know about where you are allowed to paddle and to learn more about the waterways license.

When we think of needing licenses to travel, our minds usually go to driving licenses, which can take over a year to prepare for and attain. This is not the case with a Waterways licence. It’s available for everyone, and certainly worth getting if you plan to go on a paddling water adventure in England and Wales. There’s no need for a test, just an annual payment of £45 for around 4,500km of waterways.

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Where do you need a waterways license to paddle in Britain?

In England and Wales, you will need a Waterways License to paddle on all Environment Agency and Canal & River Trust waterways, plus a few other stretches of water across the country.

If you are unsure if the waterway you want to paddle on needs a license, your best option is to contact the waterways authority for that stretch of water, or alternatively, you can contact British Canoeing to check. This membership is available to anyone living in England.

Canoe Wales also offers a similar membership here.

Some of the well-known spots that need a waterways license are:

  • Avon Navigation Trust
  • Basingstoke Canal Authority
  • New Bedford River
  • Old Bedford River
  • Grand Union Canal including; Brentford to Braunston, Napton to Birmingham
  • Leeds and Liverpool Canal, although this excludes the Liverpool Link and Docks
  • River Lea from Limehouse Basin to Hertford
  • Stourport to Gloucester on the River Severn
  • Llangollen Canal
  • Norfolk and Suffolk Broads
  • River Thames – Cricklade Bridge to Teddington. This also includes the Jubilee River and Maidenhead Waterway
  • Trent & Mersey Canal
  • Regent's Canal
  • River Wey
  • Sheffield & Yorkshire Canal and including sections of River Don Navigation
  • Shropshire Union Canal
  • Wey and Godalming Navigation
  • Wiltshire and Berkshire Canal
  • Worcester and Birmingham Canal

Due to the country’s 2003 land reform act, it will not be necessary to have a Waterways Licence in Scotland.

That said, if you are a regular paddler and living in Scotland, it may well be worth becoming a member of the Scottish Canoe Association, and gain access to a whole range of benefits, including a selection discounts and liability insurance for when you are on the water.

While you won’t need to get a licence for your watercraft in Northern Ireland, for use on inland waterways, there are numerous facilities for which you will need to register for. However, to register for these certain waterways, you’ll likely need to get a Boat Safety Scheme certificate (BSS).

Affiliated clubs

If you are part of an affiliated boat club, they will be required to hold a waterways licence that covers the Canal & River Trust and Environment Agencys Waterways.

The licence will come from British Canoeing and at a reduced rate, is an excellent opportunity to enhance your club. Not only will it give your fellow club members Waterways access, but opens up a range of possibilities, including access to grand aids, combined liability insurance cover, access to British Canoeing promotional campaigns, as well as being able to be part of the British Canoeing family.

Click here for more details.


How do you get a waterways license?

It’s really simple. Simply visit the British Canoeing site and pay the purchase fee.

If you aren’t a regular paddler, there’s also the option to select day licenses from organisations such as the Canal & River Trust or broads authority (which also gives you the option to purchase yearly licences). However, the most comprehensive paddling licence will be through British Canoeing or your respective home nation equivalent, as they include group discounts and liability insurance.


Pricings for licences in England and Wales waterways

  • British Canoeing Membership - £45 a year
  • Canoe Wales Membership - £45 a year
  • Canal and River Trust Licence - £51 a year
  • Norfolk Broads Licence - £27 (only Norfolk Waterways covered)

Why do you need one to use British waterways?

The money collected from the sale of waterways licences is reinvested into the waterways by the authorities such as the Canal & River Trust, the Environment Agency, or other private bodies.

This ensures that the waterways are in tip-top condition for you when you're paddling, and makes sure that they can be enjoyed for many more years into the future too! Also, if you don't you risk receiving a fine!

Your licence fee will go towards a number of different facilities and areas, including:

  • Damage repairs after flooding.
  • Checking the water quality and managing the levels.
  • Clearing the river of debris that can cause blockages.
  • Removing invasive non-native species, such as floating pennywort, which can clog up entire rivers and canals in a matter of days after being transported from boats or kits during travel.
  • Preventing the spread of such invasive non-native species by installing ‘check, clean, dry’ stations.
  • Repairing and protecting the rivers from bank erosion.
  • Continuing maintenance of towpaths, put ins and take outs.

What if I don’t have a waterways licence?

You can be fined up to £1,000 if you’re caught on an inland waterway and the following applies.

  • You're neither licensed or registered
  • You're not licensed or registered for the waterway you’re using
  • Your licence or registration is not displayed
  • You're in breach of the terms and conditions of either your licence or registration

So considering the waterways licence only costs £45, it would be silly to risk it!


Paddling without a licence - where can I go?

As you can probably tell by what’s been said so far, the best approach is to purchase a Waterways licence. However, there are so many places where it is not required.

If you are at sea, on an estuary or tidal water, or even a river or canal that specifically doesn’t require one, then you are in the clear. But do make sure to check licence requirements before you set out on your boat.

These are some of the well known rivers and Canal Navigations where a licence is not required and navigation rights are recognised

  • Bristol Avon: Bristol City Council
  • Royal Military Canal: Folkestone & Hythe District Council
  • Grand Western Canal: Devon County Council
  • Chelmer & Blackwater Navigation - Essex Waterways
  • Chichester Canal
  • River Severn between Pool Quay near Welshpool and Stourport.
  • River Wye below Hay-on-Wye.
  • East Sussex’s River Rother downstream from Bodiam
  • River Lugg from Leominster


I've purchased my licence, what now?

Then you're all ready to go.

Remember to be considerate of other waterway users and also of the environment your paddling in, we all have a responsibility to look after this! Remember to stay safe too. We highly recommend that you wear a buoyancy aid or personal flotation device and carry a mobile phone with you in a watertight pouch so you can call for help if needed.


British Canoeing Insurance

While it’s important you purchase your waterways licence in order to escape being fined, to be a member of British Canoeing also means being involved with insurance policies that will help look after you and your watercraft whilst out paddling.

Individual Members' Cover

Whether you’re an individual member of British British Canoeing,Canoe Wales or Canoe Association of Northern Ireland or the Scottish Canoe Association, you will be protected and covered by Public and Products Liability insurance.

This means you will be protected against having to pay compensation to any third party for accidental damage to their property or injury to them during the period of which you are insured.

This includes:

  • Property damage or bodily injury
  • Nuisance and/or trepass
  • Malicious prosecution or false arrest

For more information on Individual Member Insurance, click here.

Craft insurance

While it is only possible to take out this insurance as part of your British Canoeing membership, at just £45, it’s an excellent way to protect your watercraft.

Your craft insurance includes:

  • Cover for up to two watercrafts for up to £2,000 each (including kayaks, paddleboards and canoes)
  • Up to £250 per paddle.
  • Theft cover (applies only when your craft is suitably secured)
  • Accidental damage (denting or bruising whilst in transit is excluded)

Click here for more information on craft insurance.


This is just the start…

Whether it’s just a Waterways Licence, you’re interested in the insurance, or looking for even more ways to play your part with UK paddling, there is so much on offer with a British Canoeing Membership.

Click here to discover even more benefits, and why it’s the perfect initiative to get involved with before you begin your next water adventure.

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