Deciding whether you should work towards a recreational pilot license or sport pilot license can be a tough choice.

While both licenses have several things in common, they also differ in key ways.

Knowing the differences between the two, especially when it comes to requirements, and privileges and limitations, should make the decision of which license to work towards much easier.

9 Differences Between Recreational and Sport Pilot Licenses


While you can be any age to fly a plane or take flying lessons, to be eligible for either a recreational or sport pilot license, you must be at least 17 years old.

To fly gliders and balloons under an SPL, you can be 16 years old.

There is no maximum age requirement for either license.

Medical Requirements

One of the most important differences between the two licenses is concerning medical requirements.

Recreational pilots require an FAA medical certificate to fly, which involves visiting an Aviation Medical Examiner who will test a few things, including your vision and hearing, to see if you qualify for a third-class medical certificate.

Sport pilots, on the other hand, have much less stringent requirements.

You only need a valid U.S. driver’s license to become a sport pilot, though can choose to get a medical certificate if you want to and expect to progress towards higher certifications in the future.

There’s also the option to fly under BasicMed, though this does not apply to everyone.

If you have previously been issued a medical certificate anytime after July 14th, 2006, you can operate under BasicMed, otherwise, you will not be able to.

This, therefore, would rule out most student pilots.

BasicMed also has several restrictions attached to it.

While this applies more to a private pilot license than any certification below, if you want to work towards a private pilot license in the future, BasicMed probably isn’t the right choice.

This is unless you are unable to meet the requirements for a medical certificate.

Flight Hours

To be eligible for a sport pilot license, a minimum of 20 flight hours must be logged.

This includes 15 hours of flight training and 5 solo flight hours.

A written knowledge and practical test (checkride) must also be taken and passed.

A recreational pilot license requires a minimum of 30 flight hours.

This includes 15 hours of flight training, 3 hours of solo flight time, and 2 hours of cross-country flight time.

Again, a written knowledge and practical test must also be taken and passed, which will be more challenging than what is involved with an RPL.


A sport pilot license only covers Light-Sport Aircraft (LSA), such as small airplanes, gliders, powered parachutes, trikes, balloons, and airships.

Aircraft in this category must also weigh less than 1,320 pounds, have no more than 2 seats, have a maximum speed of no greater than 120 knots, and use fixed instead of retractable landing gear.

A recreational pilot license opens up a world of more powerful aircraft, including single-engine aircraft of no greater than 180 horsepower with up to four seats

Carrying Passengers

Both licenses only allow you to carry one passenger at a maximum.

However, while you can’t be paid for carrying passengers (or cargo), you can split any flight expenses with your passenger on a pro-rata basis, including aircraft rental fees, oil, fuel, and aircraft expenditures.

If you want to be able to carry more than one passenger, the step up to earning your private pilot license is required.

With a PPL you are only limited by the number of passengers an aircraft can legally carry.

There are also other private pilot privileges that make getting a PPL worth it.

Night Flight

With a sport pilot license, you are unable to fly at night.

Under a recreational pilot license, you can fly at night but only under instructor certification to earn additional ratings/certification.

In other words, you are unable to solo flight at night unless you are working towards higher certification/ratings, like an instrument rating or private pilot license.

Domestic/International Travel

Both an SPL and RPL restrict flight in Class B, C, or D airspace without additional flight instruction and endorsement.

Neither license allows you to fly internationally, outside United States airspace.


A sport pilot can lift certain restrictions, including flight in B, C, D airspace, through additional instruction and instructor endorsement.

A recreational pilot can also lift certain restrictions through additional instruction and endorsement.

This includes flying in Class B, C, D airspace, or to any controlled airport; flying to an airport that is further than 50 nautical miles from departure; flying above 10,000 ft MSL; command of complex airplanes; and aircraft with engine ratings in excess of 180 hp.

At a certain point, it becomes much more practical to work towards obtaining a private pilot license than getting all these endorsements under an SPL, which is what most pilots eventually choose to do.


If you are starting from zero, you can expect to pay approximately $4,000-6,000 to earn your sport pilot license. For a recreational pilot license, expect to pay $6,500-8,500 if starting from zero.

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John is a highly skilled and dedicated Certified Flight Instructor with a passion for teaching students of all ages how to fly, and takes enormous pride and satisfaction seeing his students become licensed pilots.

After holding various roles in the aviation industry as a pilot, John decided to become a flight instructor, and for the past decade has worked at several flight schools that offer pilot training programs of all levels, due to the rewarding nature of the job.

John's teaching approach is tailored to each student's individual needs and learning style, ensuring that they receive the best possible instruction and support. He takes pride and satisfaction in seeing his students progress and become licensed pilots, and his enthusiasm for teaching is infectious.

With John as their instructor, students can rest assured that they are in good hands and on their way to becoming confident and competent pilots.

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