Open Water Referral Scuba Diving Certification

Scuba diver near the surface.
Scuba divers must understand the how depth and pressure are related to dive safely. © Getty Images

What is the best way to learn to dive? Should you get certified back home or on vacation? One of my favorite open water certification options combines the advantages of studying back home with the thrill of diving in exotic locations – the open water referral course.

What Is an Open Water Referral Course?

Open water referral courses in segments allow student divers to complete their training in distinct segments.

Students enrolling in a referral course finish all theory and pool work at home with a local dive shop. The local shop issues the student referral forms, which a different dive shop uses to verify the students' training before allowing them to complete their open water check out dives.

What Are the Advantages of Open Water Referral Programs?

By completing the theory portion of the scuba certification course before leaving on vacation, student divers eliminate the need to study on vacation. Students who study dive theory back home usually have a longer period of time to learn the information than those who try to cram studying into vacation hours. In general, referral students tend to have a better grasp of dive theory than those who study on vacation.

Divers who enroll in a scuba diving referral program complete all their pool work with their local dive shop. Referral students save time on vacation because they show up ready to dive (after a brief pool check out).

Pool classes back home usually allow students more time to practice and to become comfortable with basic dive skills because there is no pressure to cram an entire open water course into a client's limited vacation schedule.

Divers can pick from anywhere in the world to complete their open water check out dives.

This is an especially appealing option for those whose local open water sites may not be appetizing given the conditions or time of year – such as a cold lake in January.

Referral students get to dive in whatever exotic location they choose, but they do not miss out on one of the most important aspects of diving – being involved in their local dive community. Local dive shops are a great resource for questions, gear, trips, and training, and are also a great way to meet like-minded, adventurous friends.

What Are the Disadvantages of the Open Water Referral Program?

Many students delay completing the open water portion of the course. Depending upon the training organization, a maximum of 6 months to a year is allowed between completion of the pool and theory work and the open water dives. It is unlikely that a diver who has waited 6 months to hit the open water dives will able be able to jump straight in the ocean and feel comfortable. Divers planning on completing an open water referral course should try to book the pool and theory work as close to the dates of their check out dives as feasible. If more than a few weeks have passed, students would be wise to hop in the pool with an instructor for a quick review of basic scuba skills before heading to the ocean.

Students will not complete the whole course with the same instructor. This is only a disadvantage if a student likes his local instructor but dislikes the instructor completing the course. Most local dive shops have trustworthy contacts. Completing training with a different instructor can even be an advantage because divers learn different techniques and tricks from different instructors.

If student divers are renting gear, they may end up using different brands or styles of equipment during their open water check out dives. Students will benefit from a brief pool review to become accustomed to their new gear before diving in the ocean. Most dive shops recommend that each diver purchases his own mask, fins, and snorkel because these are the most fit-sensitive items.

Completing the open water course as referral usually costs more than a standard open water course because the diver splits the segments between shops.

Which Agencies Offer Referral Programs?

Most scuba diving agencies, such as PADI, SSI, NAUI and a host of others, offer some form of the open water certification referral. Ask your local dive shop whether this option is available.

The Universal Referral Program

Most of the well-known scuba certification agencies participate in the Universal Referral Program. Using the Universal Referral Program, a diver can complete the pool and theory portion of the open water course with his local dive center's certification agency, but finish his open water check out dives using a different certification agency vacation. SSI, NAUI, PDIC, YMCA, and NASDS are among the many agencies that issue and accept Universal Referrals. PADI accepts universal referrals from other organizations.

What Documentation Is Required to Complete a Referral Program?

Most agencies have their own inter-agency referral form. This form lists dive theory segments and pool sessions a student has finished. In the case of an intra-agency referral, a Universal Referral Form is necessary. This is a specific form that all agencies participating in the Universal Referral Program will have. Either form must be signed off by both the instructor and student.

The diver's medical statement that students complete before beginning training will also be required. The diver will need to show the signed medical statement to the dive center where he plans to do his open water dives. In some locations or if certain medical conditions are present, a doctor's clearance may also be required. Students should research the requirements of the certification organization and location they plan to use.

Most agencies issue or offer logbooks for divers to record their dive training and subsequent dives. Don't forget to bring the logbook on vacation. A completed and signed logbook can serve as additional proof of certification in the event of a delayed, lost, or stolen certification card.

In most cases, divers will fill out liability releases specific to the dive shop and instructor(s) with whom they will be diving.

How Long Is the Open Water Referral Course Valid?

Depending upon the agency, referral courses can be completed up to 6 months or 1 year after the initial pool work and theory is finished. To be fully prepared to dive, divers should brush up on skills and theory before hitting the water if more than a few weeks have passed since completing their initial training.

What to Expect When You Complete Your Open Water Referral Course

Expect to review forms and basic theory with your instructor. While most divers study well and show up prepared, a quick review of theory will ensure that vital information is fresh. Even in the best of circumstances, referral students have had a few days to forget important details, a fact which is exacerbated by the distracting vacation and underwater environment.

Many instructors administer a brief dive theory quiz. Don't worry, this is not a pass/fail test, but a tool to detect any areas where a diver's understanding may be lacking. The instructor can then efficiently review only the information that needs to be clarified.

A quick skill review in the pool makes a huge difference in a diver's comfort level during his first few open water dives. Even if only a short period of time has elapsed before pool training and open water dives, that first leap into the deep blue will be much more comfortable if a diver has a few minutes to become re-accustomed to the underwater environment and rental gear. Divers should request a pool review if one is not offered.

Author's Opinion

As an instructor working in a vacation destination, I love getting referral students. In my experience, a good referral student has had ample time to absorb the information and truly master skills. I sometimes have trouble getting students on vacation to focus on the dive theory portion of the course because there are so many distractions. In general, I find students who have studied back home more prepared and relaxed than students who try to rush through an entire open water course in 3 or 4 days.