How to Get Your Captain's License
Jun 30, 2020 | 4 minute read Comments
46
Reading Time: 4 minutes

Thinking of becoming a fishing charter captain? First, you need to know how to get your captain’s license from the United States Coast Guard!

a captain's fishing license – the merchant mariner credential

If you want to make money fishing by running fishing charters, the first thing you need to do is become a USCG licensed captain. The document that proves you are a licensed captain is called the Merchant Mariner’s Credential, more commonly known as the Captain’s License.

Where do I start?

The information provided by the USCG on their website can be confusing and hard to digest. Therefore, we’ve decided to make a simple breakdown of what the requirements are to apply for a USCG license, what documents you need, and how much it will cost you.

How do I prepare?

First off, you need to decide which type of captain’s license you need. There are several different types, but the most relevant for the fishing charter business are:

  • The OUPV license (Operator of Uninspected Passenger Vehicle license, more commonly called 6-pack license)
  • The Master’s license

The 6-pack license is what most charter operators will need. As the name suggests, this license allows you to carry up to six paying customers on your fishing charters.

There are two different categories (called ‘routes’) of six-pack licenses that are relevant for most charter boat captains: Inland and Near-coastal. The Inland route covers bays, rivers, and lakes (note that the Great Lakes have some extra regulations and requirements for the license). The Near-coastal route covers everything the Inland route covers, plus ocean waters up to 100 miles offshore. Since the Near-coastal category covers everything you will ever need, we recommend you go for that license.

Smiling captain driving a boat by the beachfront

The Master’s license allows you to carry more than six paying customers on a boat up to 100t heavy. Most headboat captains will need this type of license. However, this article will only cover how to get the 6-pack license, as that one is sufficient for the vast majority of captains.

Spend enough time on the water

The first requirement for applying for a USCG captain’s license is having spent enough time on the water. For an OUPV license, you must have spent 360 days piloting or crewing a boat. At least 90 days in the last 3 years. Additionally, 90 days have to be in the ocean in order to quality for a near-coastal license. To get a master’s license, you need 720 days of sea time, 360 of which need to be offshore and 90 of which need to be within the last three years.

If you own a boat, you can count the time spent on it towards your requirements. If you’re building up your hours on somebody else’s boat, they will need to certify that you were crewing or piloting it, not just riding as a passenger. Time spent crewing a boat or ship as part of military service can also count towards your hours, although it requires more detailed documentation.

Find yourself a school!

In order to apply for a USCG license, you’ll need to have passed the coast guard exam or an exam provided by a captain’s school. The second option is probably the safer one, because such schools thoroughly prepare you for the exam.

Moreover, they will help you choose the right license category for your needs, and show you what to do after you’ve passed the exam. Following a course for the Near-Coastal route should cost you somewhere between $500 and $800.

Show me the list!

Once you’ve successfully passed your exam and if you’ve spent enough time on the water, you’re ready to apply for your 6-pack license! Of course, you’ll need a fair number of documents to submit alongside your application – this is bureaucracy, after all.

This is what you need:

  • Your United States Social Security Card
  • Proof of U.S. citizenship (or Green Card for foreign nationals)
  • Proof that you have paid the application fee
  • Proof of completing your captain’s exam
  • A copy of your TWIC card. If your application for the TWIC card is in process, you can submit proof that you have applied.
  • Three written character references
  • Medical certificate including vision testing, no more than 1 year old
  • Valid first aid and CPR certification
  • Results of a random drug test, taken in the last 6 months

It’s a bit of a list, but once you gather these things you will be able to obtain your much-desired captain’s license. The whole process should cost you a little over $1,000. But then, finally, you’ll be a certified charter boat captain!

This is the first and most important step in becoming a paid fishing guide. Now you just need a boat and the appropriate state licenses (and sufficient insurance is highly recommended).

In our next three articles, we will cover the state licenses needed for charter fishing in some of the major fishing states in the US: Florida, California, and Texas. Stay tuned!

Please note that, although we research thoroughly for each article we write, this information should be considered “as is” and is not legal advice. You can find more information about this here.

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Comments (46)
  • John

    Nov 26, 2020

    Hi, Sean –
    I’ve got kind of a random question. If my boat is actually owned by an LLC (of which I am the sole member/owner) would the time I spend on the water in it qualify as being on ‘my own boat’ so I wouldn’t need certification from the owner (the LLC) of my time spent on the water?

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      Sean

      Nov 27, 2020

      Hi John,

      That’s a very good question.

      According to the USCG, if you want to self-certify your time on the water, you need to submit a proof of ownership of the boat that you’re claiming days of sea time on with your application. Therefore, if the document lists your name along with the name of your LLC, there should be no problem.

      However, I do recommend checking this through the USCG customer service line at 1-888-427-5662, just to be sure.

      I hope this helps.

      Have a good one!

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  • Tim

    Sep 12, 2020

    So 90 days in the last 3 years needs to be on the sea for a near shore license. If I buy a motorized boat, use it on the ocean for personal use for at least 90 days and keep a personal log, and I have over 270 days of time spent on various boats living in Michigan on inland water ways throughout my youth and younger years, this would meet the requirement ? Just want to be sure before I buy that boat! 😉

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      Sean

      Sep 15, 2020

      Hi Tim,

      Thanks for reading.

      Yes, that’s correct. Keep in mind that for the time you spent on other boats, you’ll need to provide a sea service form signed by the owner of the boat you spent time on.

      I hope you’ll find this helpful.

      Have a good one!

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  • Will

    Sep 1, 2020

    Hello, I have my chief engineers unlimited license. Can I use the engine time I have acquired for my six pack license?

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      Sean

      Sep 1, 2020

      Hi Will,

      That’s a good question.

      The answer is yes, you can count your time spent in the engine room towards your sea service. According to the USCG National Maritime Center, “A day of sea service is any day that a mariner served upon a vessel in an assigned position in either the deck or engineering department of a vessel”.

      I hope you’ll find this helpful.

      Have a good one!

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  • Braxton

    Aug 29, 2020

    Who can give the character references? Do these references need to come from other captains?

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      Sean

      Aug 31, 2020

      Hi Braxton,

      Thanks for the question.

      No, the references can be signed by any person who knows you well and can attest that you are an upstanding individual well-suited for the responsibilities and duties of a licensed captain. The only condition is that these persons are not your relatives.

      I hope you’ll find this helpful.

      Have a great day!

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  • Heorhiy Horlenko

    Aug 14, 2020

    Good day ,
    Can I apply for OUPV captain license using sea time on commercial fleet as chief engineer under Marshal island flag.
    Thanks .

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      Albert

      Aug 14, 2020

      Hi Heorhiy,

      Yes, you can!

      According to the USCG, “sea service is a measure of a mariner’s lifetime experience on boats, whether recreational, commercial, or military”.

      This means that, as long as you can document your hours properly, your time as chief engineer should be fine. The flag you flew under shouldn’t matter, as long as your hours are properly documented.

      How you document your hours depends on the size of the vessel you were working aboard. However, you’ll generally need the name and details of each vessel, the dates and hours you worked aboard it, and somebody from that vessel to sign off on it all.

      You can find the full details here.

      I hope this helps!

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  • Roger

    Aug 6, 2020

    I just have a question. I have been researching everything I can find (including this forum). I want to get my USCG Captain’s License to operate tour boats on inland lakes and rivers. I’m very confused as to what specific license I need as well as the process ( steps 1, 2, 3, 4…). Can you give me some direction as to this process?

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      Sean

      Aug 7, 2020

      Hi Roger,

      Thanks for the question.

      To operate boat tours on inland lakes and rivers, you’ll need an Inland OUPV License.

      To get this license, you’ll need to complete 360 days of sea service. You can consider this Step 1. To see how to document sea service, check out this document.

      Step 2 is finding a USCG certified school, and completing an Inland OUPV License course.

      Step 3, obtain the following documents:

      – Your United States Social Security Card
      – Proof of U.S. citizenship (or Green Card for foreign nationals)
      – Proof that you have paid the application fee
      – Completed application form (CG Form 719B)
      – Proof of completing your captain’s exam
      – A copy of your TWIC card. If your application for the TWIC card is in process, you can submit proof that you have applied.
      – Three written character references
      – Medical certificate including vision testing, no more than 1 year old
      – Valid first aid and CPR certification
      – Results of a random drug test, taken in the last 6 months

      You can print out this document if that’s easier.

      Upon completing these steps, you’ll be able to send your application. You’ll also need to pay several fees to get your license. To check out the exact fees, I recommend you checking out this document.

      This might seem like a lot, but don’t worry, you won’t need to do all of this in a day. Your school will provide you with guidance, and you’ll also be able to get in touch with USCG should you need any additional assistance.

      I hope you’ll find this helpful.

      Have a great day!

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      Roger Hancock

      Aug 7, 2020

      Thank you so much, Sean. This really clears things up for me. Wasn’t sure what to do first. It seemed like everything I read conflicted with another source. You really made sense of it – and that you for the links.

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      Sean

      Aug 10, 2020

      You’re more than welcome, Roger,

      I’m happy to hear that.

      Good luck, and tight lines!

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  • Irene

    Aug 5, 2020

    Hi,

    You mentioned the whole process should cost you a little over $1,000.
    Would you please share the breakdown of those cost?

    Also, any advantage of 2 people getting this liscence the same time?

    One shouldn’t take courses and exam until they meet the 360days requirements?

    Thanks
    Irene

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      Sean

      Aug 6, 2020

      Hi Irene,

      Thanks fore reading.

      The most significant fee you’ll have to consider is the license course. The cost of the courses varies depending on the school, but most fall in the $500 and $800 range.

      You can find the required mariner fees for evaluation, examination, and issuance here.

      As for the advantages for two people applying at the same time, there aren’t any that we’re aware of, I’m afraid.

      You may take a course before you reach your 360 days of sea service, but you won’t be able to take your exam. I’d recommend you getting in touch with the school you’ll be attending before deciding whether to start a course without completing the required sea service time. For more details on sea service, check out this National Maritime Center-issued document.

      I hope you’ll find this helpful.

      Have a great day!

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  • iggy

    Aug 5, 2020

    Hello
    I was wondering if anyone could help me on information on becoming a captain on lake Huron
    The location of the school for my six pack license
    And any general information would be helpful thank you
    Respectfully iggy

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      Sean

      Aug 5, 2020

      Hi Iggy,

      Thanks for reading.

      To get an OUPV (6-pack) license for guiding fishing trips on the Great Lakes, you’ll need to complete these examination modules.

      The exams are typically held at one of the Regional Exam Centers. However, seeing as the COVID-19 pandemic has disrupted the usual process of examination, I would recommend you reaching out to the USCG directly to learn if there are any approved online courses and exams you can take.

      I hope you’ll find this helpful.

      Have a great day!

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  • Ray

    Jul 20, 2020

    Is there a way to look up captain licenses by first name?

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      Albert

      Jul 21, 2020

      Hi Ray,

      I don’t think so.

      So far as I’m aware, you need the captain’s last name and reference number in order to search for their credentials. You can find out more here.

      I hope this helps!

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  • Louie juco

    Jul 4, 2020

    Hello Dean,
    I been wanting to start a charter captain business. I used to own a boat when I was in Michigan. I just moved to Florida and maybe I can start a small boat for business. I loved to fish and really good with it. I was hoping this might help me to make extra $ as a part time captain. And hopefully will be able to quit my job and be captain for a living. I need your honest advice on how can I make this happen.
    Thank you kindly.
    Louie.

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      Albert

      Jul 6, 2020

      Hi Louie,

      Thanks for getting in touch.

      The first thing you need to do is get licensed, both from the USCG and from your state authorities. This article covers all the basics in terms of paperwork and procedures. After that, it’s a question of getting the word out.

      Once you’re licensed, you can consider signing up on FishingBooker. We’re the world’s biggest marketplace for chartered fishing trips and a great place to grow your business. Social media and offline marketing can also be effective ways of getting customers.

      I’ve also linked to a bunch of other articles that you might find helpful below.

      Think carefully about the trips you offer and what makes them special. Set your prices right and really focus on the overall experience once customers are aboard. Good photos and videos are also essential to marketing your business.

      Be aware that running a charter business is very hard work. Just like any other business, good communication, customer focus, and investing in your product are all key to building a brand that people trust. This takes time, but it’s worth it in the long run.

      I hope this helps. Good luck, and be sure to get in touch if you need anything else.

      Tight lines!

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  • Dean Hambrick

    Jun 23, 2020

    I have spent much of my time sailing in the Mediterranean. Can a captain with a IYT liscence sign for my sea time?

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      Albert

      Jun 24, 2020

      Hi Dean,

      I believe they would need a USCG Captain’s license to sign for your hours. However, I can’t say for sure that an IYT one wouldn’t do. I’d recommend contacting the USCG directly on this one, just to make sure.

      Sorry I can’t be of more help, be sure to let us know how you get on!

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  • Joe

    Feb 29, 2020

    If I am applying for my OUPV what type of documentation do I need to have to prove my time/hours on my boat?

    I have been operating my own boat for years but I have not kept a trip log. I have logged more than enough days on the water but am wondering how I provide the documentation?

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      Sean

      Mar 2, 2020

      Hi Joe,

      That’s a great question.

      To document your time on the water, you’ll need the Small Vessel Sea Service Form CG-719S.

      You’ll also need a proof of ownership for the boat you spent your time on the water on.

      I hope you’ll find this helpful.

      Have a good one!

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  • Samantha

    Jan 2, 2020

    i am going to be purchasing a small luxury yacht for both fishing and vacation charters. I want to hire a captain and i will be on board as the owner/host/chef etc.
    Is this something that i can do legally and take people out for fishing vacations?
    Or does the captain need to be part owner of the yacht?

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      Albert

      Jan 6, 2020

      Hi Samantha,

      The captain doesn’t normally need to be the owner of the boat. Many professional charter captains work for somebody who owns a fleet of vessels.

      However, the rules for running charters vary from state to state. I’d recommend talking to your local authorizing body (usually the Wildlife Commission) to get information for your state.

      Sorry I can’t be of more help. The best I can tell you is that you should probably fine, as long as you hire a captain with the right licenses and permits.

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  • Mike Gottlieb

    Dec 10, 2019

    Question if I was going to guide inshore with each client in a motorized kayak by themselves would I still need a Captains license.

    Thank you.

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      Sean

      Dec 11, 2019

      Hi Mike,

      Thanks for reading.

      The short answer is – yes. If you’re running trips for paying customers, most states will require you to have a valid Captain’s license.

      While some states do have exceptions depending on whether you’re fishing in navigable or non-navigable water, guiding inshore fishing trips will most likely require you to have a license. For guiding trips from motorized kayaks, you’ll also need a boat registration document.

      I hope you’ll find this helpful.

      Tight lines!

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  • Pat hendrix

    Nov 3, 2019

    Im 51 years old and have been fishing lake Erie in my own 21ft boat since ive been 30. I average 35 to 45 days a year on lake Erie. Is this sufficient enough for hrs on lake Erie to get my license. Or do i have to be with a licensed captain. Im confused on how I can prove ive been on the water for 90 days.

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      Albert

      Nov 4, 2019

      Hi Pat,

      According to the USCG form for logging your hours, you can indeed self-certify your hours, as long as you are the owner of the boat.

      I hope that clears things up.

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  • Curtis

    Apr 13, 2019

    I have cystic fibrosis. I am 53 years old retired police officer. I saw that a lung disease may disqualify me from obtaining my 6 pack license. I should mention I was commander of my departments boat patrol division and have extensive time on the water, as well as owning my own boat since I was 11. My doctor does not see any barrier to me performing the duties of a captain on a primarily, inland bay boat. Will the coast guard consider a waiver with the proper doctors recommendation?

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      Sean

      Apr 16, 2019

      Hello Curtis,

      Thanks for reaching out.

      In this case, I’m honestly not sure what to tell you. The fact that you were actively in command of your boat patrol division certainly speaks to the fact that you are capable of running trips as a captain. However, a potential waiver decision in a case like this is something only the Coast Guard can tell you about.

      I would recommend contacting the USCG through this link. I sure hope you’ll be able to get your license, Curtis.

      All the best from FishingBooker!

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  • Mario Moreno

    Mar 23, 2019

    Do we need to renewe the license periodically?

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      Sean

      Mar 26, 2019

      Hello Mario,

      Thanks for reading.

      Yes, the OUPV (six-pack) licenses need to be renewed every 5 years.

      You’ll need a fill in a few forms to renew your license. You can get these forms from the National Maritime Center.

      I hope this helps.

      Have a great day!

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  • Thomas

    Dec 11, 2018

    I guide inland on the snake river in Idaho. Does my time on the river ( in a drift boat and jet boat ) count towards that 360 hours or no?

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      George

      Dec 11, 2018

      Hi Thomas,

      Thanks for reading, good question.

      Time on a jet boat can count towards your 360 hours, but time on a drift boat cannot (because it’s not counted as a motorized boat).

      Remember that you will also have to spend a minimum of 90 days (out of the 360) offshore on sea in order to qualify for a near-coastal OUPV license. If you intend to guide only in inland areas, this is not necessary.

      I hope that answers your question!

      George

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  • Will

    Oct 10, 2018

    My buddy was dishonorable discharged from the military and is attempting to get his captain license is he still able to acquire a license ?

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      George

      Oct 10, 2018

      Hi Will,

      Thanks for reading, good question.

      It may mean that they can’t get a TWIC card, depending on the reason for the discharge.

      Most actions that result in a DD fall under Part B of the TSA’s Disqualifying Offences. As such, the person would be disqualified for 7 years after being found guilty, or 5 years after being released from incarceration.

      If the action falls under the Part A offences, they will be disqualified for life.

      Even if enough time has passed to not be instantly disqualified, there is no guarantee of approval.

      Good luck,
      George

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  • Cody B

    Jul 9, 2018

    So I’m interested in becoming a guide in florida, any advice on how to successfully acquire 360 days on the water with a full time job? I’m not sure how to accomplish this when bills need to be paid? I’m not sure if there’s a become a mate on a boat craigslist page! Any advice would help

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      George

      Jul 10, 2018

      Hi Cody,

      Excellent question, thanks.

      There’s different ways to find captains to help you out with that.
      – Craigslist is actually a good one, several of the guides we work with recommend this.
      – Another great place to look is the Hull Truth forum. It’s a forum for captains and you can ask there.
      – Finally, if you don’t live too far from the coast, you should go to the docks and talk to captains directly. Many of them will be glad to help you or point you in the right direction.

      You shouldn’t have too much trouble finding a captain who can take you on as crew and work around your work schedule. Depending on your schedule, you could do it before or after work, or on the weekends.

      Hope that was helpful, I wish you the best of luck and hope to be able to book trips for you in the near future!

      George

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  • Al Campbell

    Apr 6, 2018

    Thank You for your help, this is the information that I am looking for. Until the next step, what do you recommend for advertising on the Site Fishing Booker?
    Al

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      Stefan

      Apr 10, 2018

      Hi, Al,

      Thanks for reading the blog.

      The first step would be to sign up for free, after which someone of my colleagues will reach out to welcome you to the crew and also help you advertise your listing to its full potential.

      Generally, it would be good to let your potential customers know about your experience, your unique fishing trips, and provide videos and photos from your previous customers.

      If you would like to read some more about it, you can have a look at some tips on how to promote your charter service..

      Hope this helps.

      Let me know if you have some more questions,
      Stefan

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      Bucketmouth charters

      Aug 25, 2019

      Stefan
      My name is Jody and I am getting started on applying for my Fishing Charter license. I see that they recommend on getting a coastal license although I will never be chartering offshore. I live on The Saint Johns River in Saint Augustine Florida and fish semipro Bass tournaments. I have been pretty successful so my name is getting popular and people are wanting to learn how to fish artificial baits to catch a lunker Largemouth instead of just floating a big shiner. I will not be chartering in saltwater, although saltwater fish like Redbass and Stripers do come in the river and can catch them basically catch them all year. Anyway my question to you is can I just get a inland captains license or do I need to get a coastal license as well being sometimes I will be targeting saltwater fish. Any info you can help me with would be greatly appreciated. Also, I have more than 360hrs of time on the water professionally. Tails up Sincerely Jody

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      Albert

      Aug 26, 2019

      Hi Jody,

      Thanks for getting in touch.

      The species you target don’t affect the license you need, so you should be fine with an Inland Captain’s License as long as you’re only fishing the St Johns River.

      Congratulations on starting up your charter business! Once you’re licensed and ready to go, consider signing up on FishingBooker if you want to get more bookings.

      Tight lines!

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