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Can You Fly a Drone Without Registering It?

Drones have become commonplace in our skies and neighborhoods, and it seems they let anyone fly one these days. Even my six-year-old daughter has gotten the itch to fly her toy drone any chance she gets. But before you tear the packaging off your new drone and get it up in the air, take a couple minutes to register it with the FAA.

The FAA requires that any drone weighing over 0.55 lbs (250g) and strictly used for recreational purposes must be registered. Drones falling below this weight limit, including toy drones and a few mini drones, are exempt from the registration requirement.

The registration requirement encourages responsible flight practices among drone flyers, and is simple and inexpensive enough to really leave no reason not to register your drone. Not to mention that if you get caught flying an unregistered drone, the penalty is big enough to be really unpleasant.

What Are the Registration Requirements Exactly?

If you’re a hobbyist, that is, flying a drone strictly for recreation and not for financial gain in any way, you are required to register any drone weighing over 0.55 lbs (250g). That’s going to cover most consumer drones. You can easily find out the weight of your drone from the packaging material, which will list the weight of the drone. If you’re buying it second hand, or don’t have the original packaging for some reason, you can find out the weight of your drone through a simple manufacturer/model search online, or by weighing your drone on a kitchen scale. 

Keep in mind that this weight for the official requirement includes the full airborne weight, including the batteries and any add-ons. If it weighs under 0.55 lbs without the camera attached, but over with it attached, you need to register the drone if you ever want to fly with the camera on board. 

If your drone weighs under 0.55 lbs, then you don’t have to register it. Mostly this will include toy drones and some mini drones – in general drones that are meant to be flown primarily indoors. 

If you are planning to make money in any way, shape or form through flying your drone, the requirements are quite a bit different. Making money with your drone includes things you might not think of like selling drone photos, monetizing a YouTube video shot with a drone, winning a cash prize in a drone race, etc. 

If you might find yourself in this situation, you really need to have a Part 107 drone license to stay on the right side of the legal requirements. And if you are flying a drone commercially, you must register any drone, regardless of weight. So that includes drones under the 0.55 lb mark. 

Getting a Part 107 license is a bit more involved than simply jumping online to register your drone, so if you want to do some recreational flying before you’ve completed your Remote Pilot Certification process, go ahead and register your drone under the Exception for Recreational Flyers, and then you will re-register your drone as a Certified Drone Pilot after you’ve gotten your license. 

Other Requirements

It’s important to know that registering your drone is not the only thing required of you as a recreational drone flyer. As part of the registration process you will be prompted to certify that you understand and will comply with the rules for safe flight as outlined by the FAA. But even if you are flying a drone that is below the weight minimum, and you don’t need to register it, you are still expected to abide by the rules for safe drone flight. 

The basic rules are:

  • Keep your drone at or below 400 feet altitude. This helps to ensure you are not entering manned aircraft zones.
  • Always keep your drone within line of sight. Losing sight of your drone’s location means you are at greater risk of losing connection with the controller, and have limited ability to navigate obstacles. 
  • Keep your drone at least five miles away from an airport. Also, be aware of other restricted airspace, and stay away. Apps such as AirMap can show you no fly zones if you’re not sure.  
  • Never fly over groups of people. This includes public events, stadiums, etc. 
  • Only fly at night with appropriate navigational lighting. You need to be able to see your drone and tell which way it’s headed. 
  • Don’t interfere with emergency response efforts. Get out of the way so the trained experts can do their job.
  • Never fly under the influence. This includes over the counter medications that might impair your judgement. 
  • Don’t be reckless or careless. Make conscious choices to respect and protect the safety and privacy of those around you. 

Coming Soon…

The FAA has proposed a change in the process of registration that would require all drone flyers, not just commercial drone pilots, to complete a knowledge test before being able to fly a drone. This has not yet been implemented, but when it does it will likely make the process of registering a drone for recreational purposes a little bit more time consuming and possibly more difficult and expensive. 

How Long Does It Take to Register a Drone?

If you’ve just bought a drone and you’re feeling a little skeptical of the whole registration thing (why do they need to know it’s mine, anyway? And, I don’t have time for this!), consider this: by the time you’ve got the drone battery charged up, you can easily have the entire registration process completed three or four times over. 

The whole process of creating an account and registering your drone through the FAA’s DroneZone can be completed in around 5 minutes. Then all you need to do is make sure your registration number is clearly visible on the outside of the drone, and you’re ready to fly, fully compliant. 

The first step when you get to the FAA’s registration website, the DroneZone, is to create an account.

You must be 13 years old to register, and must have a valid email address. Follow the simple steps to create an account, fill in the basic information about yourself and your drone, pay your $5 fee by credit or debit card, and you’re done. Print out your proof of registration to carry with you any time you are out flying.

You will be issued a unique identification number that will apply to you and all the drones you own. This number must be clearly visible on the outside of your drone or drones. 

There are several ways you can label your drone with a registration number, including: 

  • Engraving the number on the drone
  • Showing the number on a label or sticker attached to the drone
  • Writing the number with a permanent marker on the drone

As a hobbyist, your registration number applies to as many drones as you own, so if you have more than one, they will all have the same registration number. The registration is valid for three years, so you’ll have to walk through the simple process and pay the $5 again after three years. 

What Happens If I Don’t Register My Drone?

If you’re toying with the idea of skipping the whole drone registration thing, thinking again. If you are caught flying an unregistered drone, here are the penalties you could face:

“Failure to register an unmanned aircraft that is required to be registered may result in regulatory and criminal penalties. The FAA may assess civil penalties up to $27,500. Criminal penalties include fines up to $250,000 and/or imprisonment for up to three years.”

For someone out there to have fun with a cool hobby, it’s just not worth the risk. Sure, the chances of getting caught are slim, unless you’re flying recklessly or doing other things you shouldn’t, but the registration process is so easy and inexpensive that it clearly outweighs the potential risk. 

The benefit of registration is clear as well. By removing the apparent anonymity of drone flyers, each pilot is held accountable for their actions. This helps you as an individual to be a responsible citizen, knowing that irresponsible flight choices can be traced back to you. 

It also helps the whole community of drone pilots. By keeping each drone pilot accountable, it helps build the public trust for drones in general. Responsible drone usage also helps to prevent an increasingly tightening system of regulations that would result from misuse. Do yourself and the rest of us a favor and just register your drone. 

What Drones Don’t Need to be Registered?

If it weighs less than 0.55 lbs, your drone does not need to be registered with the FAA. There are actually a lot of drones out there that are exempt from the registration requirement, and most of them are toy drones. Some more sophisticated mini drones are also lightweight enough to dodge the registration requirement.

By toy drones, I mean the really small ones, usually $50 and under, that are designed to be flown indoors. They typically come with a dedicated controller, usually don’t have a camera, and lack most of the fancy bells and whistles that come with a camera drone. They’re probably safe for your 4 year old to fly (with supervision). See our top recommendations for toy drones. 

There is one mini drone that stands out from the crowd, as it has a lot of advanced features typically found on mid-range consumer level drones, yet weighs in under the 0.55 lb mark, meaning it doesn’t need to be registered. That is the DJI Mini 2. It doesn’t weigh much, but it’s no lightweight when it comes to camera quality, ease of operation and controller range or battery life. Check out our DJI Mini 2 review for a full rundown of features

Note: If you are operating the Mini 2 as a professional pilot (that is, making money with it in any way), you still need to have a Remote Pilot License, and will need to register the drone under Part 107.

The bottom line here is that drone registration is simple and easy, doesn’t cost much, and benefits the drone community as well as the larger population. It’s not a huge deal, so if you’re going to fly it out of doors, just go and register your drone. 

Frequently Asked Questions

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