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Military to Mariner

What is the Military to Mariner Program?

First, what is a mariner? A mariner -- or merchant mariner -- is an employee of the U.S. Merchant Marine (USMM). The USMM is managed by the Department of Transportation's Maritime Administration (MARAD) and consists of privately-owned, U.S.-registered merchant ships and vessels that provide waterborne transportation for passengers and cargo moving in domestic and international commerce. It supports international trade, disaster relief, military conflict and the general infrastructure of America's waterways. Mariners are the men and women who run it all -- from our ports and connectors, to vessel management and shipping around the world. United States Military Veterans have a wide range of technical, logistical and managerial experience from their time in services, some of it already tailored waterborne operations. The Military to Mariner program is designed to help veterans capitalize on their experience and get on a fast-track to a role in the U.S. Merchant Marine.

Can't I just visit a USMM recruiter?

Technically, the U.S. Merchant Marine isn’t a governmental service, which means there is no central hiring facility or recruiting stations. Still, there are identification and credentials issued by the federal government for standards purposes, so there is a process that requires a bit of paperwork and travel to an evaluation facility. Below, we list, step-by-step, how to apply using your Navy or Coast Guard experience. For Army, Air Force, and Marine Corps guidance, click here.

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What is the basic application process?

It's simple. You present your military credentials and all elements of this application to authorities of the United States Coast Guard (USCG), the regulatory agency responsible for seagoing credentials for U.S. merchant mariners. If accepted, you will receive a United States Coast Guard license or certificate and complete any with additional USCG training as needed. Then you will serve as a U.S. merchant mariner. Jump to the detailed process

What will my "title" be in the U.S. Merchant Marine?

That depends on your experience, training, interests, and goals. Merchant Mariners are generally divided into two categories that correspond roughly to commissioned and enlisted statuses in the military:

  • merchant mariners with licensed endorsements (an officer with a "rank")
  • merchant mariners with unlicensed endorsements (a mariner with a "rating")

Licensed mariners fill many of the Merchant Marine's leadership and training positions, directing the organization and making key decisions across the board. Think of them as professionals with advanced training in their field (significant maritime-related experience and knowledge) that require a special designation (a license) who provide critical functionality to Merchant Marine Operations. Like surgeons to their operating room staff or airline pilots to their flight crew.

Unlicensed mariners are the backbone of the Merchant Marine workforce, an army of skilled and newly-trained workers with little or no prior experience afloat. These mariners hold "certifications" rather than licenses, though they can and often do advance into the licensed ranks.

After you complete the application process and pay the required fees, the Coast Guard will evaluate your experience and determine which endorsement (licensed or unlicensed) is appropriate for your skillset.

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Will I feel like I am in the military?

Yes. The U.S. Merchant Marine is a disciplined organization similar to the traditional five service departments (Army, Navy, Marine Corps, Air Force and Coast Guard) under the Department of Defense. It has leadership heirarchies, codes of conduct, vast support networks, and legislative backing. The key difference is that you remain a civilian who must follow special laws and regulations designed for merchant mariners and enforced by a military body -- the U.S. Coast Guard. If posted at sea, you will only serve on commercial vessels, which can share similarities with military vessels, such as position titles and lifestyle. For example, the head of the engineering department is called the Chief Engineer and the vessel master – who commands the ship — is formally addressed as “Captain.” Your vessel will also run more efficiently than a standard commcercial vessel, and all those aboard must be ready to change course and support a United States mission anywhere in the world.

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How much will I be paid?

The Merchant Marine is not a government agency or a military service, so there is no central hiring agency. This means there is not a common pay scale that applies across the agency or industry roles within it. Each vessel owner or operator sets a unique pay scale, especially in the deep-sea industry, and pay is often linked to trade or labor union agreements. The Department of Labor tracks wages in over 400 industries, including those used in the merchant marine. This DOT page lists the typical wages for waterborne transportation.

Useful documents

Below are some documents and resources to help you with your decision.

Application, Step 1: Understand the process and hiring authority

A few things to remember before getting started:

  1. The National Maritime Center (NMC) is the U.S. Coast Guard command responsible for credentialling Merchant Mariners. They will review your application and approve if you meet the stated requirements. 
  2. NMC oversees 17 Regional Examination Centers (RECs) and Monitoring Units, located at various places around the country. You will deliver your completed application materials to any one of these locations. Do NOT send your materials directly to NMC. Your local REC should be your first step to obtaining your document, certification, or license.
  3. NMC, RECs and public access to all USCG functions are available through the Coast Guard's webportal Homeport.
  4. As you are preparing for and completing the items below, don't hesitate to contact the National Maritime Center’s Customer Service Center by email ( or by telephone at 1-888-427-5662 (1-888-IASKNMC) with questions.
  5. Before you begin, go the NMC website and then the Merchant Mariner Credential (MMC) page.

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Application, Step 2: Gather your military record and sea-service documents

Step 2a. Visit the NMC Forms page and download:

Step 2b. Collect copies of your:

  • Transcript of Sea Service (TOSS)
  • History of Assignments (HOA). This includes discharges or other documentary evidence of service that indicate the name/tonnage/propulsion power of the vessels, dates of service, capacity in which the applicant served and on what waters.
  • DD-214, Report of Separation (if you’ve been discharged)
  • Records of any maritime-related courses you’ve taken that are not listed on the DD-214, Report of Separation.
  • A summary of your military record, including training. Do this by executing a Request Pertaining to Military Records(SF-180). You can request a paper copy of the form by contacting the closest VA Vet Center. Vet Centers are also listed in the phone book in the federal government pages. If you have any kind of afloat experience through your military service, write “Sea Service Transcript” in Section II, subsection 2 “OTHER INFORMATION AND/OR wp-content/uploads/pdf REQUESTED”, of your SF-180.
  • A list of any other sea-service-related experience, which the NMC will evaluate on a case-by-case basis.

NOTE for Navy and Coast Guard service members and Veterans. The NMC has determined that your recruit training meets most of the requirements for U.S. Merchant Marine Basic Safety Training. Some Navy and Coast Guard ratings will be evaluted further and potential constitute a higher level of training and sea time for merchant marine service. The list of approved ratings is the USCG’s Marine Safety Manual, Volume III.

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Application, Step 3: Obtain your Merchant Mariner Credential (MMC)

Step 3a. Determine the USCG Regional Examination Center (REC) closest to you. A list of the 17 RECs is here. Remember, RECs perform evaluations, administer examinations, issue U.S. Merchant Mariner credentials and conduct oversight of approved courses. They will represent first and most important contact with the USCG and NMC. You can also call the NMC (1-888-427-5662) and ask for the address and telephone number of the closest REC.

Step 3b. Get a drug screen. All Merchant Mariner applicants who are required to undergo a physical examination must also pass a drug screen for prohibited substances. Methods to satisfy this requirement are found here.

Step 3c. Obtain your MMC. Most employment in the U.S. Merchant Marine requires an Merchant Mariner Credential, or "MMC" (often referred to as a “Z-card”), is issued by the U.S. Coast Guard (USCG). Information about obtaining an MMC is available here, or by downloading the package of forms here. The USCG is required by law to charge a fee for the MMC, 100% of which is paid to the U. S. Treasury. The fee schedule is here.

Step 3d. Deliver your complete application package to your selected Regional Exam Center. After the NMC officially accepts your application package, which must include any required fees, the NMC’s Mariner Evaluation Division will evaluate it and contact you with their decision.

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Application, Step 4: Apply for your TWIC

The Coast Guard will issue merchant mariner credentials only to applicants who have applied for a Transportation Worker’s Identity Credential, or TWIC, which is issued by the Transportation Security Administration (TSA). The TSA is required by law to charge a fee for the TWIC, 100% of which is paid to the U. S. Treasury. Visit the TSA TWIC page to apply.

Application, Step 5: Complete required training

The United States is a party to the International Convention on Standards of Training, Certification, and Watchkeeping for Seafarers (STCW), which sets qualification standards for masters, officers and watch personnel aboard seagoing merchant ships. Most mariners aboard U.S.-flag vessels will require some level of STCW training, even Veterans with little or no prior/formal water-based experience. The National Maritime Center certifies and/or accepts most maritime-related training conducted in the United States, and there are hundreds of courses options, from the basic classes that take someone with little or no maritime background through an apprenticeship, to advanced classes that prepares you for specialized ranks and ratings.

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Application, Step 6: Ship Out

Where will I serve? The U.S. merchant marine has over 10,000 ships and vessels. Deciding on which vessel to sail/serve is an important decision. Click here for guidance.

What type of work should I do? Most commercial vessels have three departments: Deck, Engine and Steward. Most mariners will spend their careers in only one of these departments. Common job descriptions are here.

Using the G.I. Bill (a Veteran benefit)

As a Military Veteran, you might have access to education-training funds under the G.I. Bill, a set of education assistance programs administered by the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA). The VA maintains a website to answer questions about the GI Bill, and many USCG-approved training institutions accept GI Bill benefits. These include, but aren’t limited to:

Review this complete list of Coast Guard approved courses, which includes contact/email information for institutions in your area accepting GI Bill funds.

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Other Paths to Merchant Marine Service

Attend and graduate from one of the six state maritime academies or the United States Merchant Marine Academy (USMMA). This is the traditional path to become a licensed United States Merchant Marine Officer. Any one of these USMM-approved U.S.-based institutions will provide you with the following set of credentials:

Join the Merchant Marine as an unlicensed merchant mariner. Like most jobs, unlicensed members of a merchant vessel’s crew are either skilled or entry-level (unskilled) or skilled. Entry-level mariners do not have afloat skills. As a Veteran with military experience that likely equates to at least some afloat skills, you can pursue and most likely achieve the skilled unlicensed mariner classification. However, to be deemed skilled, you must have a certain amount of sea-time and often some formal training.

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For questions about any aspect of our Military to Mariner program, contact the Office of Public Affairs.