What is the best scuba diving certification? We compare all them here

The short answer is that there is no best diving certification, just the one that best suits your personal needs and preferences.

Scuba diving certifications
Diving certifications issued by different organizations

As a PADI diving center, we would like to add that this organization is the one that has certified the most divers worldwide and is active in the largest number of countries.

This is why PADI certifications have reached the highest level of popularity around the world. PADI has trained around 70% of all scuba divers on the planet.

PADI confined water dives requirements
PADI confined water dives requirements

Almost all dive organizations issue worldwide, lifelong certifications and teach much the same knowledge. In this article we will explain some of the differences between the organizations, so that you can make a more informed decision and thus be able to decide which diving certification best suits your needs.

What you will find in this article?

In this article we will talk about diving certifications, as well as the the different organizations that issue them. We will explain what a diving certification is, how they originated, and what you can do with them.

We will discuss the differences and similarities between the leading organizations.

If you are thinking of becoming a certified diver and you are not sure which organization to choose, you’re in the right place! You will undoubtedly find useful information in this article that will help you make the best decision.

What is a diving certification?

A diving certification is a document or file created in the database of an accredited diving organization. In this file the instructors record the evidence of the training received by their students.

To make things easier, after completing the course, the student is given a card similar to a driver’s license with which they can easily prove that they have been educated and what their level of knowledge is.

Four divers at open water course inside the pool
Open Water Certification training in Costa Rica

With the advancement of technology, many people do not use the cards but save their certifications digitally. It is also possible for most dive centers to directly consult the database of the certifying organization.

Diving licenses or certifications are similar to driver’s licenses in some ways. Obtaining a diving license is very important if you have decided that you want to explore the underwater world.

In the same way a driver’s license is necessary to undertake a trip by driving a vehicle.

Later we will compare some of the benefits and differences of obtaining your certification and explore the 5 most recognized diving organizations worldwide.

Importance of diving certifications

The practice of diving is relatively recent since it had its beginnings during the 1940s thanks to the contribution of enthusiasts, explorers and scientists. In the beginning, diving was created for military and scientific purposes.

Diver with a turtle in Costa Rica
A certification will allow you to enjoy diving safely.

Thanks to the contributions from pioneers like the renowned Jacques Cousteau and Emile Gagnanse, scuba diving became a recreational activity, and for safety reasons had to be regulated.

For this reason recreational diving organizations were created and consequently the certifications.

Every day thousands of people are certified as divers.

Even though diving is a very safe activity, it requires proper training to be able to do it safely. Certifications establish a diver’s level of training and allows dive centers and other divers to know in advance the capabilities and limitations of their fellow divers.

Obtaining a license or certification also allows a diver to rent equipment and refill tanks at authorized dive centers.

Can I dive without a dive certification?

Yes and No. As we will explain later, the different diving organizations have created a test level in which a person without certification can participate in dives accompanied by a qualified instructor.

However, scuba diving on your own without a dive certification is dangerous.

What are the main diving organizations and what are the certification levels?

As we mentioned before, diving certifications are issued by diving organizations. There are several dive organizations that have developed educational programs to safely certify students. In this article we will talk about 5 of the most recognized:

Professional Association of Diving Instructors (PADI), the World Confederation of Underwater Activities (CMAS), the International Diving School (SSI). Scuba Diving International(SDI) and the National Association of Diving Instructors (NAUI).

Scuba Diving Organizations
Best known diving certifiers

If you want to learn more about diving organizations you can look at our article: Top 7 diving organizations and certification programs in 2022

For a better understanding we have divided the most common diving certifications into five levels: Test level, Basic level, Advanced level, Rescue level and Divemaster level.

Comparative Table of Diving Certifications

Each organization has a structure of courses and certifications to teach diving to those who want to learn. Although there are some differences, most certifications have equivalencies between organizations.

This is positive. Let’s say for example that you have obtained an Open Water license with CMAS and later you want to get the Advanced Open Water certification in PADI, you can apply without problem.

Below is a cross table with basic diving certifications. This comparative chart shows the main Diving Organizations and their certification programs.

Scuba Diving Certifications Equivalences

Types of diving certifications

When we talk about diving certifications, we can find four main levels:

  • Recreational Diving Certifications – for recreational divers
  • Professional Diving Certifications – for those working in the diving industry.
  • Technical Diving Certifications – for divers exceeding recreational limits
  • Commercial Diving Certifications – to perform work underwater, such as repair or welding.

This without considering other certifications such as free-diving, which also has various courses and levels.

In this article we will focus on recreational certifications and the first professional level.

Divers at Surface during scuba course
All certifications have similarities in their structure

There are several types of diving certifications. Most of the content and activities of each certification have differences.

However, most certifications have a similar structure. All of them require a number of hours of theoretical training, either face-to-face or virtual, and a certain number of supervised activities in the water. That are carried out partly in a swimming pool, where there is a more controlled environment, and partly in the ocean or a lake.

These activities allow an instructor to teach and test the knowledge and skills necessary to dive safely.

Recreational Diving Certifications – For Recreational Divers

Test Level – Recreational Diving Certifications

Most organizations have a trial level. These courses in fact do not issue a certification but rather an introduction to diving that allows the student to experience breathing underwater without having to invest a lot of time or money.

In this way, a space is created so that the person can decide if they want to take the next step or if diving is not what they expected.

Scuba divers testing diving
The test level is ideal to enter the world of diving.

Logically, the vast majority of people after completing this experience are willing to continue the process towards certification.

This option is also ideal for those people who during their vacations do not have enough time to take a complete course and want experience scuba diving for few hours under the supervision of a certified instructor.

Normally, the student must take a brief theoretical course, followed by approximately 3 hours of training in a pool. That allows them to scuba dive in shallow waters accompanied by a qualified instructor immediately.

It is important to note that as they are not certification courses, the student does not obtain a license and in most cases must repeat the theoretical and pool part every time they want to dive.

You will also not be able to dive on your own or rent diving equipment.

Test Level Certifications Comparison and Requirements

PADI Test Level

With PADI, the name of this experience is Discover Scuba Diving.

It requires a minimum age of 10 years and participants can go up to 12 meters deep in the company of their instructor.

Scuba Diving Programs - SSI (Scuba Schools International)

SSI Test Level

SSI offers the Try Scuba program which requires a minimum age of 8 years and allows reaching a maximum depth of 5 meters.

Diving Programs - SDI (Scuba Diving International)

SDI Test Level

SDI has a program called Scuba Discovery which requires a minimum age of 10 years.

This course is a little more demanding since it covers topics such as equipment assembly and the use of a dive computer, which is not common at this level.

Diving Organizations - CMAS (Confédération Mondiale des Activités Subaquatiques)

CMAS Test Level

CMAS has created the Discover Scuba program for which it has set a minimum age of 8 years and recommends doing two open water dives instead of one.

Diving agencies - NAUI (The National Association of Underwater Instructors)

NAUI Test Level

NAUI has divided the content of this course into two parts: the Try Scuba, which includes only the pool part and for which the minimum age is 8 years, and the Passport Scuba, which includes the open water part and requires a minimum age of 10 years.

Unlike other organizations, NAUI recognizes this course for a period of 12 months and allows the student to continue doing dives under the direct supervision of a certified instructor without having to repeat the theoretical part.

First Level – Recreational Diving Certifications

This level is very important as it is the gateway to the world of recreational diving.

After completing this training, the student will be able to plan dives and conduct them safely on their own. This level will lay the foundations for training as a diver and will open up a range of possibilities for the future.

The student can happily remain at this level for the rest of his life, or he can continue his training in different directions: As an advanced, rescue, technical, scientific or even commercial diver.

PADI Open Water Certificate Poster
Recreational Diving Certifications

Something that all divers share is the basic and essential knowledge obtained during this training. This is where the diver learns the fundamentals of physics and physiology that will accompany you throughout your journey. Assemble and disassemble the equipment, safety procedures before, during and after each dive. In short, the knowledge that will allow you to perform as a diver.

Certifications at this level are usually lifelong and will also allow the diver to rent equipment from most dive centers around the world.

Two students at First Level Dive Certification
First Level Dive Course in Costa Rica, Uvita

First Level Certifications Comparison and Requirements

PADI First Level

The PADI organization has designed the Open Water Diver course in which a theoretical section is carried out. This portion of the course is available online.

In addition, five pool sessions and four open water dives are required.

The minimum age is 10 years. Although at that age the degree obtained is “Junior” Open Water Diver and when they reach 14 years of age the status of the license automatically changes to PADI Open Water Diver.

The maximum depth to which the diver can go when obtaining this certification is 18 meters. The duration of this course is 4 to 6 days.

Scuba Diving Programs - SSI (Scuba Schools International)

SSI First Level

SSI offers the Open Water Diver course in which the minimum age is also 10 years old, 6 theoretical sessions, 6 pool sessions and 4 open water dives are carried out. The organization suggests a time investment of 36 hours.

Diving Programs - SDI (Scuba Diving International)

SDI First Level

SDI has created the Open Water Scuba Diver which is very similar to the PADI courses. With a minimum age of 15 years you can reach a maximum depth of 18 meters.
Also, SDI has a Junion Open Water Scuba Course with the requirement of 10 – 14 years old with parental consent.

Diving Organizations - CMAS (Confédération Mondiale des Activités Subaquatiques)

CMAS First Level

CMAS offers the One Star Diver certification with which you can reach a maximum depth of 20 meters and in some countries up to 25 meters.

The organization requires at least 5 open water dives to complete the course. This course includes some rescue and CPR skills that are not needed in other organizations at this level.

Diving agencies - NAUI (The National Association of Underwater Instructors)

NAUI First Level

NAUI with its Scuba Diver course requires a theoretical part, a pool part and at least 5 open water sessions.

Advanced Level – Recreational Diving Certifications

This is the second of the certified diving levels.

This level is very important since it allows Open Water divers to expand their knowledge on specific topics of great importance, allowing them to enjoy other areas of diving that were previously unattainable.

PADI Open Waters Advanced
Advanced Diving Certification

Even though some of the topics to be studied are mandatory due to their importance, others can be chosen by the students depending on their tastes and their geographical location.

This gives each person the opportunity to develop a little more on the topics of interest to them.

One of the most important achievements when obtaining this certification is the ability to dive deeper than 18 meters and up to 30 meters deep.

Wreck Diving Certification
Wreck Diving Specialty Course

Specialty dives Comparison and Requirements

PADI Advanced Level

For this level of certification, PADI has created adventure dives, also known as specialty dives. These are dives preceded by a small theoretical portion in which the aim is to obtain knowledge and develop a specific skill. The most common PADI adventure dives are:

  • Deep Diver (Deep Diving),
  • Peak Performance Buoyancy (Maximum Buoyancy Performance)
  • Search and Recovery
  • Digital Underwater Photography
  • Dive Against Debris (Ecological Diving)
  • Fish Identification
  • Night Dive (night dive)
  • Search and Recovery
  • Underwater Naturalist
  • Underwater Navigation
  • Wreck Diver

To become certified as a PADI Advanced Open Water Diver the student must complete 5 of these dives. Two are mandatory and three are optional.

Two are mandatory and three are optional. The required dives are Underwater Navigation and Deep Diver while the other three dives can be chosen from the list. It is possible to do these dives independently.

Another option is to obtain a specialty by completing the same adventure dive several times.

The number of dives required varies depending on the specialty that you want to obtain, but they are usually between three and five.

Scuba Diving Programs - SSI (Scuba Schools International)

SSI Advanced Level

SSI has created the Advanced Adventurer program. To achieve this certification, the student must complete 5 different programs called Adventurer Programs or Specialty Programs, which are listed below:

  • Boat Diving
  • Deep Diving
  • Dry Suit Diving -Enriched Air Nitrox (EAN)
  • Navigation
  • Night & LimitedVisibility
  • Perfect Buoyancy -Photo & Video -Scooter/DPV Diving
  • Search & Recovery
  • Waves, Tides & Currents
  • Wreck Diving
Diving Programs - SDI (Scuba Diving International)

SDI Advanced Level

SDI has called their course Advanced Adventure Diver and it also requires you to take five specialty dives. Some of them are:

  • Advanced Buoyancy Control
  • Altitude Diver
  • Boat Diver
  • Computer Nitrox Diver
  • Drift Diver
  • Marine Ecosystem Awareness
Diving Organizations - CMAS (Confédération Mondiale des Activités Subaquatiques)

CMAS Advanced Level

In the case of CMAS there are no specialty dives since their rating is based on stars and skills are developed in a different way. During the CMAS two Star course the student develops comparable skills and knowledge which allow him, for example, to reach a depth of up to 30 meters.

Diving agencies - NAUI (The National Association of Underwater Instructors)

NAUI Advanced Level

NAUI, for its part, requires 6 dives to achieve the Advanced SCUBA DIVER certification. Three of these dives are required: navigation, low visibility and deep diving. The remaining three can be chosen from the following list:

  • Search and recovery
  • Boat diving
  • Light salvage
  • Hunting and collecting
  • Exploration and underwater mapping
  • Wreck diving (non-penetration)
  • Observation and data collecting
  • Diving in surf or currents
  • Altitude diving
  • Salt Water diving (in areas where most diving is in fresh water)
  • Fresh water diving (in areas where most diving is in salt water) -Shore diving
  • Diving for photos and videos
  • Using dive computers

Rescue Level – Recreational Diving Certifications

Despite being one of the most demanding levels, it is one of the most exciting. At this level the diver stops thinking about himself and begins to pay attention to the safety of others.

PADI Rescue diver. Scuba diving lessons in Costa Rica
Rescue Level Certifications

One of the objectives of this level of certification is to teach divers to act in risk or emergency situations and to rescue divers in trouble. At this level, it is also taught how to apply emergency oxygen in the different situations that warrant it. This always within the legal limits of each country.

Rescue Level Certifications Comparison and Requirements

PADI Rescue Level

PADI offers the Rescue Diver course. One of the requirements to participate in this course is to have training in Primary and Secondary Care (CPR and First Aid) in the last 24 months.

This is a course also offered by PADI although under a different brand name known as Emergency First Response.

To obtain this certification, two pool sessions and 4 open water dives are required.

Scuba Diving Programs - SSI (Scuba Schools International)

SSI Rescue Level

The SSI organization teaches the Stress and Rescue course for which the minimum age is 12 years.

It requires at least six theory sessions, three pool sessions and three open water sessions.

This course is estimated to last 15 hours. The theory for this course is also available online.

Diving Programs - SDI (Scuba Diving International)

SDI Rescue Level

SDI has developed the Rescue Diver course which has as a particular requirement to have at least 40 dives and a minimum age of 15 years.

Diving Organizations - CMAS (Confédération Mondiale des Activités Subaquatiques)

CMAS Rescue Level

CMAS incorporates the knowledge gained within this level into its star system so there is no one specific course that can be equated.

Diving agencies - NAUI (The National Association of Underwater Instructors)

NAUI Rescue Level

NAUI has created the Scuba Rescue Diver course. For this course it is essential to have previous training in CPR.

Something that is interesting is that you can take this course as an Open Water Diver, so the advanced level is not a requirement.

Professional Diving Certifications – for those working in the diving industry.

Divemaster Level

This is the first level in professional diving, which implies that you will be able to develop your leadership and take charge of different activities.

On the other hand, working in the diving industry will allow you to recover some or all of the money you have invested in your education and even turn it into your main income.

Divemaster Certifications allow you to develop your leadership

Few things are as satisfying as getting paid to do something you truly love while helping others fulfill their dreams.

The knowledge obtained during this course is one of the most advanced in the world of recreational diving.

Some of the most interesting topics learned during this level are the physiology involved in diving, physics, taking care of equipment from a more technical perspective, and caring for and guiding other divers.

Due to the responsibility of being in charge of these activities, the minimum age in most organizations for this level is 18 years.

Divemaster level diving certifications comparison and Requirements

PADI Divemaster Level

PADI offers the DIVEMASTER course for which it is required to have at least 40 dives at the beginning of the course and 60 at the end.

It is also necessary to be a rescue diver and have a CPR certification issued no more than two years ago.

Scuba Diving Programs - SSI (Scuba Schools International)

SSI Divemaster Level

SSI is Divemaster certified. It also requires a minimum of 40 dives although some professional training centers require 50.

SSI offers the option of obtaining a certification known as a Dive guide which is a step before the Divemaster but at the same time counts as part of your curriculum.

To obtain the Dive Guide it is only necessary to have the Stress and Rescue certification, complete five academic sessions, four confined water sessions and five open water sessions.

Diving Programs - SDI (Scuba Diving International)

SDI Divemaster Level

SDI teaches the Divemaster course. This course is very similar to the one created by PADI and requires that you be a rescue diver and have completed 40 dives.

Diving Organizations - CMAS (Confédération Mondiale des Activités Subaquatiques)

CMAS Divemaster Level

In the CMAS organization, in order to be able to guide, the Three Star Diver certification is necessary with which you can also dive up to 40 meters deep.

With this certification you can guide other divers.Of those mentioned in this article, this is the only organization that allows minors to become guides when they are only 16 years old.

Yes, with the consent of your parent or guardian. Requires a minimum of 15 dives after having obtained the CMAS Two Star certification of which at least 10 must be done at depths greater than 30 meters.

Diving agencies - NAUI (The National Association of Underwater Instructors)

NAUI Divemaster Level

NAUI offers the Divemaster certification which requires, among other things, having completed 50 dives.

Their requirements are very similar to those described by PADI and SSI and SDI.


In summary, with the exception of CMAS, the similarities between the diving organizations that we have talked about and their certifications are many.

Their differences in terms of requirements are few. So it is up to the student to decide which organization they want to choose since they all have with the same validity.

It’s important to note that not all organizations are available in all areas. Our advice is that when choosing who will give you your diving education, look for a professional training center where the facilities, boats and equipment are in optimal conditions. That is always a good sign.

Look for a professional who makes you feel comfortable and who you feel you can trust not only because of their appearance but also because of their background and experience.

And if you are passing through the South Pacific area of Costa Rica it will be our pleasure to certify you as a PADI diver at all levels in our Costa Rica Dive and Surf training facility.

If you have any questions or comments, do not hesitate to contact us and we will reply to you shortly.

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