What’s the Difference Between a Scuba Diver and an Open Water Diver?

Even though “Scuba Diver” and “Open Water Diver” are often used interchangeably, the certifications aren’t the same thing. 

The Open Water certification course allows you to dive to 18 meters with a buddy and without supervision, and the Scuba Diver course allows for 12 meters WITH supervision from a dive guide or instructor. 

In this article, we’ll look more closely at both courses and see what they entail to help you pick the right one for your diving journey.

Illustration of a scuba diver and an open water diver underwater

Key Takeaways

  • Scuba Diver certification allows diving up to 12 meters under the supervision of a dive guide or instructor, while Open Water Diver allows up to 18 meters and permits independent diving with a buddy.
  • The Scuba Diver course is shorter, suitable for those with limited time or for young enthusiasts, while Open Water Diver is more comprehensive, leading to full certification and progression to the Advanced Course. 
  • Depending on the training agency, there might be a few minor differences but the main skills taught in the Scuba Diver course is approximately the first half of the Open Water Diver course. 

Scuba Diver vs. Open Water Diver: Key Differences

Scuba Diver and Open Water Diver courses might appear similar at first glance, both offering the magical experience of breathing underwater. But the differences lie in the depth limits, diving autonomy, and course requirements, shaping the kind of underwater adventure you embark on.

Depth Limits

The depth you can explore is a distinguishing factor between the two certifications. With a Scuba Diver certification, you are permitted to dive up to a maximum depth of 12 meters/40 feet, always under the watchful eye of a dive professional. This depth allows you to explore shallow reefs, observe marine life, and get comfortable with being underwater.

However, the Open Water Diver certification offers the following benefits:

  • Extends your depth limit to 18 meters/60 feet
  • Allows you to dive independently with a buddy
  • Enables you to explore deeper dive sites
  • Opens up a wider range of underwater environments to discover

Diving Autonomy

Another distinctive factor is the level of autonomy during dives. As a Scuba Diver, you are required to always dive under the direct supervision of a dive professional, which provides a safety net for beginners or less confident divers.

Conversely, the Open Water Diver certification equips you to:

  • Dive autonomously with a certified buddy
  • Plan and conduct your own dives
  • Make independent decisions while following the guidelines learnt during your training

It’s a step towards self-reliance and opens up a whole new level of underwater exploration with an underwater navigation adventure dive, including a deep adventure dive.

Course Requirements

Depending on the training agency, each certification has course requirements that correspond to its specific limitations and freedoms. The Scuba Diver course covers approximately the first half of the Open Water Diver course content, making it a quicker and less intensive learning experience. 

It’s a great choice for those with limited time or for families with children over 10 years old, as it bypasses some of the more challenging skills required for the Open Water Diver course.

However, the Open Water Diver course offers several advantages:

  • It provides a broader coverage of skills, cultivating a more extensive skill set.
  • It prepares you for a diverse range of underwater adventures.
  • It is the first step towards more advanced training.

The Journey to Becoming a Scuba Diver

Illustration of a person completing the PADI Scuba Diver course

Now that we’ve distinguished between the two certifications, let’s dive deeper into the journey towards becoming a Scuba Diver – an efficient route to start exploring the underwater world.


Before embarking on your journey to become a Scuba Diver, there are a few prerequisites you need to meet. Firstly, you must be at least 10 years old. This makes the course accessible to young enthusiasts eager to take the plunge into the world of scuba diving.

Secondly, a medical questionnaire is required to identify any pre-existing conditions that could affect your safety while diving. Safety is paramount in scuba diving, hence it is necessary to ensure that you are in good health. Furthermore, you should possess adequate swimming skills and be comfortable in water. This isn’t about being an Olympic swimmer, but about ensuring you can navigate the underwater environment safely.

Course Structure

The Scuba Diver course is structured into three main phases: knowledge development, confined water dives, and open water dives. These phases are designed to equip you with the knowledge and skills required for safe and enjoyable diving.

Knowledge development – This phase involves learning the basic principles of scuba diving, which include understanding the diving equipment and learning about underwater signals and diving procedures.

Confined water dives – These are about two dives conducted in a pool or pool-like environment, where you’ll practice scuba skills and get comfortable with the equipment.

Open water dives – These are about two dives conducted in a natural aquatic setting where you’ll demonstrate the skills you’ve learned and get a taste of the real diving experience.

Completing these three phases will earn you a scuba diving certification.


The Scuba Diver certification comes with a host of benefits:

  • Short duration of typically only two to three days
  • Perfect for individuals with limited time
  • Become a certified diver over a weekend
  • Start exploring the underwater world in no time

Another major benefit is the direct supervision provided by a dive professional during dives. This allows beginners to dive with confidence, knowing they are in safe hands.

Lastly, the Scuba Diver certification serves as a springboard to the Open Water Diver certification, allowing you to upgrade your certification when you’re ready to dive deeper into the world of scuba diving.

The Path to Open Water Diver Certification

Illustration of a person obtaining the PADI Open Water Diver certification

Now, let’s chart the course towards obtaining the Open Water Diver certification. This certification is a gateway to diving freedom, allowing you to dive independently with a buddy, exploring the depths up to 18 meters/60 feet.


There are a few prerequisites to fulfill before commencing the Open Water Diver course. The minimum age for enrollment is 10 years, but those aged between 10 and 14 will receive the Junior Diver certification which can be upgraded to the standard certification at age 15.

You’ll also need to complete a medical statement to confirm you’re medically fit to dive. Some conditions might require approval from a physician. Lastly, demonstrating adequate swimming skills and comfort in water is a must. This is typically assessed by a 200 meters/yards swim and a 10-minute float or tread water test.

Course Components

Comprising knowledge development, confined water dives, and open water dives, the Open Water Diver course serves as an exhaustive and comprehensive training program for an advanced open water diver.

The knowledge development phase involves textbook study followed by a final exam to assess your understanding of scuba diving principles. The confined water dives, conducted in a controlled environment, allow you to master scuba diving skills before progressing to open water dives. There should be from three to five confined water dives. 

Finally, about four open water dives are conducted over at least two days, where you’ll practice skills such as mask clearing, buoyancy control, and emergency procedures in a natural aquatic setting. The course is designed to be completed within 3 to 4 days, combining all these elements into a comprehensive training program.


Obtaining the Open Water Diver certification opens up a world of possibilities. With this certification, you have the freedom to:

  • Dive unsupervised with a buddy
  • Explore new dive sites
  • Dive deeper and for longer durations
  • Participate in advanced diving courses

This certification offers more flexibility and opportunities for exploration.

The certification also permits diving to a depth of 18 meters/60 feet, allowing access to a wide array of dive sites, including deeper wrecks and reefs, enhancing your chances of encountering diverse marine species. Moreover, obtaining the Open Water Diver certification paves the way for you to take the Advanced Diver course or Specialty courses.

It could also be the first step towards a professional diving career. The best part? This certification never expires, meaning you can enjoy diving internationally without the need to recertify.

Upgrading from Scuba Diver to Open Water Diver

If you’re a Scuba Diver but yearn for greater diving freedom, upgrading to the Open Water Diver certification might be your next step. The Scuba Diver certification can act as a stepping stone to the Open Water Diver certification, with the course credits being transferable.

To upgrade, you’ll need to complete the following:

  • Additional confined water skill practice sessions
  • About two more open water dives
  • Further knowledge development
  • Pass a quiz and a final exam
  • Complete a surface swim and float test 

The Open Water Diver certification allows you to dive deeper and independently, giving you access to more dive sites and thus, greater adventures.

Anonymous graceful woman snorkeling in ocean

E-Learning Options for Scuba Diving Certifications

If time constraints or geographical barriers are a concern, many agencies have e-learning options that have got you covered. These online platforms allow you to complete theoretical scuba diving knowledge at your own pace, accommodating different learning preferences and schedules.

The typical time commitment for the knowledge development portion of the Open Water Diver course using eLearning is between 5-10 hours, with the ability to manage your learning progress through an online account. This flexibility makes it easier to fit learning into your schedule, making the journey to becoming a certified diver even more accessible.

Choosing the Right Course for You

Your individual circumstances and goals will largely dictate the right course for you. The Scuba Diver certification can be completed in as little as two days, making it ideal for those with limited time. This certification is perfect for beginners who prefer to dive under the supervision of an instructor.

On the other hand, the Open Water Diver certification is for those who desire greater diving freedom. This certification allows you to dive independently and access a wider range of dive sites. It’s also a crucial step for those considering a professional diving career. Consulting a dive shop can provide personalized advice, helping you choose between certifications based on your individual goals and circumstances.

Dive Centers and Instructors: Finding the Perfect Match

Securing the right dive center and professional dive instructors is a pivotal step in ensuring a successful and enjoyable learning experience. When assessing dive centers, check for reputable agencies like PADI, SDI, NAUI, or SSI, inspect the condition and maintenance of the dive center, and consider personal recommendations.

As for instructors, choose one whose teaching style and problem-solving methods align with your learning preferences. An attentive and experienced instructor can greatly enhance your learning experience. Also, consider the total cost of the course, including all necessary materials and rentals, and ensure that the course schedule fits your availability.

Man in Black Wet Suit and Diving Goggles in Water With School of Fish

Discover Scuba Diving: A Taste of the Underwater World

The Discover Scuba Diving (DSD) experience could be an excellent starting point if you’re intrigued by scuba diving but not prepared to commit to a multi-day course. This program is designed for newcomers to try scuba diving without the need for a multi-day commitment.

The DSD experience can spark an interest in scuba diving, with the skills learned being credited towards the Open Water Diver certification if you decide to continue your education. The experience takes about 2 to 3 hours and can vary in cost depending on the session type and inclusion of an open water dive.


In conclusion, both the Scuba Diver and Open Water Diver certifications open doors to the thrilling world of scuba diving. The choice between the two comes down to your personal goals, circumstances, and the level of diving freedom you desire. 

Whether you’re dipping your toes in with a Scuba Diver certification or diving headfirst into the Open Water Diver certification, the underwater world awaits with its myriad wonders!

Frequently Asked Questions

What type of diver makes the most money?

Saturation divers, particularly those with specialized skills like underwater welding or project management, can earn over $180,000 per year, making it one of the highest paid diving jobs. Commercial diving is also a well-paid position, with divers making over $1,000 a day. Both roles come with significant risks but offer high earning potential.

How deep can open water divers go?

Open water divers can generally descend to 18m/60 feet, while those with Advanced Open Water certifications can go as deep as 30m/100 feet. 

What is the difference between a diver and a scuba diver?

The biggest difference between a diver and a scuba diver is that scuba divers can dive independently to a depth of 18m/60 feet, while divers are limited to 12m/40 feet and need to be with an instructor or dive guide.

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