how to get open water scuba diving certified on a budget

If you like adventurous activities and you’re looking for a new hobby to take your mind off the stresses of day-to-day life, then you’ll probably LOVE scuba diving. It’s got the magic of snorkeling but with so much more freedom to explore a world usually only accessible through ocean documentaries and Pixar films like Finding Nemo. Getting scuba diving certified can be daunting, but it’s actually cheaper than you might think and can be life-changing.

From the moment I was first submerged below the ocean’s surface and the vibrant world beneath the sea became visible through my goggles, I knew I would be scuba diving forever.

This post goes over what certification types, locations, companies, and gear I recommend when getting scuba diving certified in general (and especially when you’re on a tight budget).

Interested in adventure travel? Check out my other adventure travel blog posts.

There are a few things to consider when looking for a place to get your Open Water Scuba Diving Certification. In my opinion, it can be broken down to the type of certification, location, safety, and price.

PADI vs. SSI Scuba Diving Certifications

There are hundreds of companies that offer scuba certificates, but there are only two agencies that offer internationally recognized scuba diving courses and certifications: PADI (Professional Association of Diving Instructors) and SSI (Scuba Schools International).

When all things are considered, they are both internationally recognized and almost interchangeable in what each agency’s course teaches you, but SSI is cheaper because you “rent” your training books instead of purchasing them. SSI does however give you access to digital books through their free app.

After extensive research, I chose to get my SSI certification.

How do I get open water scuba diving certified?

You get certified to scuba dive in open waters, by taking an open water dive course that typically spans 3-4 days.

There are academic coursework sections you’ll have to complete which will teach you about your diving equipment, safety standards, and more. Each of these sections will have questions and quizzes at the end to make sure you understand the material.

Once you finish the theoretical training, then you are ready for a pool dive (or dives), and finally, you’ll get to do your open water dives in the ocean or a lake.

Note: PADI and SSI both offer a hybrid online/in-person course if you’d prefer to do the coursework at home. SSI even offers it’s online coursework for FREE!

Where should I get my scuba diving certification if I’m on a budget?

Koh Tao, Thailand

There are countless places to get scuba certified around the world, and you should choose a location that feels comfortable for you.

That being said, my recommendation is to choose somewhere beautiful (both under and above water) and warm. Honestly, I think where you dive the first time will make a huge impact on if you continue diving.

While you can find a local place near you (usually inland) that will provide you with the certification from doing your training dives in a murky lake, I DO NOT recommend this! Not only will the visibility be very poor which makes learning to dive much more difficult and unenjoyable, but these settings can also be very cold and lack the diverse marine life that you’re learning to scuba dive to see in the first place.

Reef Shark in Belize

Plus, the costs of dive schools in countries like the U.S. are typically going to be much higher (inland or coastal), than some of the more beautiful diving destinations with much more affordable rates around the globe.

If you are on a budget and want to incorporate getting scuba diving certified into a vacation (because why not make it an incredible experience?), I recommend one of these 5 cheap places to get scuba certified below:

  • Koh Tao, Thailand ($250- $450)
  • Utila, Honduras (~$300)
  • Sharm El-Sheikh, Egypt ($250-$350)
  • Amed, Indonesia ($250-$400)
  • Cozumel, Mexico ($350-$500)

The five budget dive locations listed above will help you save money on your course, because the cost of living in these countries is typically cheaper than in Western countries. Plus, most of the dive courses in these budget destinations will also include accommodation and still cost less than half of what just the course will cost in the United States.

For example, in Florida, the average cost for the open water certificate is $550 USD and I got certified with BOTH my open water and advanced certificates in Thailand for $450 (which also included my accommodation for 6 nights).

I decided to get scuba diving certified in Thailand because of the plethora of affordable dive schools and world-class dive spots. Koh Tao Island, in particular, is one of the cheapest places in the world to become a certified diver and it flaunts some incredible diving locations, beautiful views, and an affordable cost of living for travelers!

getting open water scuba diving certified

If you’re thinking okay that all sounds great, but the cost of airfare will make the trip way more expensive–not necessarily! Check out my 10 Cost-Saving Travel Hacks and Travel Resources, to find out how you can make a big international trip way more affordable.

Choosing a Dive Company

When choosing a company to get your certification with, here are some things you’ll want to look for:

  • small class sizes (no larger than 5 people per group)
  • quality of their dive equipment (you don’t want to skimp on safety)
  • knowledgeable and experienced instructors (certified by PADI or SSI)
  • good reviews
  • affordable rates

When it comes to your dive course budget, remember, cheap doesn’t necessarily mean bad quality (for the reasons mentioned above), but you want to make sure that you are saving money on the right things and not compromising on gear or instructor quality.

I also recommend small class sizes to ensure that you get more individualized instruction and don’t get lost in a large group. Even the best instructors will struggle to manage a large class.

If you are planning on incorporating your dive course into a vacation, then I’d also recommend looking to see if your prospective dive shop provides comfortable accommodations or any meals.

I chose Phoenix Divers Koh Tao for my scuba diving certification company after going door-to-door visiting various dive shops on Koh Tao Island and inspecting their gear, accommodations, and chatting with their dive instructors.

Phoenix Divers is a relatively small diving operation on the beautiful Sairee beach on Koh Tao and they offer a 3-and-a-half day internationally recognized SSI Open Water Certification course.

Cost: $247 USD (8,500 TBH)

Phoenix Divers Open Water Course Price Includes:

  • 4 Nights accommodation at their dive resort
  • 4 breakfasts
  • Taxi pick up from the pier
  • Internationally recognized SSI certification card and logbook
  • Rental dive equipment
  • 1 training dive and 4 open water dives in the ocean

Getting An Advanced Scuba Diving Certification

If you are interested in picking up diving as a hobby, I highly recommend getting your advanced diver certificate (PADI calls it the Advanced Open Water Diver and SSI calls it Advanced Adventurer).

Your advanced certificate and training will allow you to do night dives, deep dives up to 99ft, and shipwreck dives if you are so inclined. They also teach you how to use a diving computer, navigate with a compass, and get a handle on your buoyancy through fun underwater obstacle courses.

After getting open water certified, I quickly became addicted to diving and decided to pursue the next step in training. I didn’t want to be limited to only diving down to 18 m/60 ft (which is how deep you can dive with your open water certificate), so I continued my training with Phoenix Divers and got my 2-day Advanced Adventurer Certification for an additional $204 USD.

Most places will offer a discounted rate if you do more than one course with them, so keep this in mind when planning and budgeting.

Pheonix Divers offered a 10% discount on the advanced certification after doing the Open Water Certification with them.

The Phoenix Divers Advanced Adventurer course includes:

  • 2 Nights accommodation
  • Taxi pick up from the pier
  • SSI certification card
  • Rental dive equipment (including dive computer and compass)
  • 5 dives including the night dive

Total cost of Open Water and Advanced Adventurer Certifications with Phoenix Divers Koa Tao (including 9 open water dives and 6 nights of accommodation during both courses):  $451 USD

All and all, your dives will become more comfortable and relaxed the more you know and the more dives you get under your belt.

Liveaboard Scuba Diving

Liveaboard dive experiences are a really cool way to get the most out of your dives. Basically, your accommodations are in a bunk or private room on the boat (depending on your budget), and your meals are all included and prepared for you in between your dives. You also get to explore different dive sites further than those accessible from dive tours that depart from shore, and they allow you to just focus on the underwater experience since your meals and accommodation are all right there on the boat with you.

After getting my scuba certifications in Koh Tao, I headed to the Similan Islands to try out Khao Lok Fun Divers 2-day liveaboard diving experience.

My liveaboard experience included some epic dives alongside giant manta rays, an unforgettable sunset, island hopping, beach lounging and hiking on the islands.

After going on over 25 dives around Belize, Thailand, and Australia, the dives I did during my liveaboard in the Similan Islands in Thailand are still my favorite!

What to bring on your dives…

Dive Computer

I usually rent most of my gear (e.g. mask, fins, wetsuit, regulator, bcd, weights, oxygen tank), but the one piece of gear I own is a dive computer. I highly recommend a diving computer because it helps you digitally keep track of all your dives and relevant dive information, and keeps you safe while you’re diving by telling you your max depth and length of your dive. This is the diving computer I have and highly recommend.

Waterproof Camera

You’ll definitely want a camera to capture the incredible moments you’ll experience underwater, and take photos of any marine life you might encounter. I highly recommend GoPro as an all-around adventure camera, but they are especially convenient for scuba diving because they are already waterproof. I use the GoPro Hero 7 with the extendable grip tripod and a red camera filter. If you plan to dive deeper than 10 meters (30 feet), I recommend a waterproof casing rated for up to 45 meters.

Reef Safe Sunscreen

Even though you’ll be underwater while you’re diving, you’ll want to make sure your skin is protected between dives when you’re lounging on the boat. I highly recommend Manda as a quality sustainable, organic, and coral reef-safe sun creme!


Scuba Diving Accident Insurance

No matter where you choose to scuba dive, you should always make sure you get yourself covered with travel insurance. I like World Nomads because they cover adventure activities like scuba diving. I had a $115 hospital bill in Thailand from an ear injury while scuba diving that World Nomads 100% reimbursed me for.


Logistical Tips for Booking Your Trip
Booking Flights
I typically use Skyscanner to book my flights because it allows you to search through websites and airlines worldwide all in one convenient search engine. You can also get price alerts for flights you’re interested in. Compare prices on flights with Skyscanner.
Booking Accommodation
I always book my hostels through Hostelworld. If I’m not staying in a hostel, then I book an AirBnB.
Using a VPN for Online Bookings
I also use a VPN (a powerful virtual tool that provides you with a private, anonymous, and secure internet connection) when searching for flights, accommodation, and rental cars. Since websites track your online activity and location, then use these factors to make the rates you are given dramatically higher than their true value, a VPN ensures that you get the best rates, by eliminating artificially high prices based on your country and internet search history. I recommend an affordable VPN like Surfshark to make sure you are getting the best travel deals online!
Travel Insurance
I always travel with insurance, because I know all too well how many things can go wrong while traveling (and sometimes even beforehand). Travel insurance protects you against certain cancellations, theft, medical emergencies, and more. I have been using World Nomads for the last seven years, and they haven’t disappointed me yet.
Other Travel Resources
Check out my Travel Resources Page to see the best companies, apps, jobs and other resources I use when traveling on a tight budget.

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About Author

Anna is an optimist with pessimistic tendencies who enjoys making a short story long, her coffee black, and watching Friends re-runs. These days you can catch her in her natural habitats wandering through forest roads in her van, hiking to a waterfall or glacial lake, and learning about off-grid living the hard way. You can also find her on YouTube as Anna French.

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