Can You Fly a Drone in the United States of America?
The United States is comprised of 3.797 million square miles of land spread out across 51 states in North America.
According to the U.S. Census Bureau, 331.9 million people live in the US as of 2021, while Condor Ferries knows 2.29 billion people travel here every year.
Since it’s such a happening space, can you fly a drone in the USA?
You can fly a drone in the USA, as all 51 states in the country (and Puerto Rico!) permit drones under the FAA. However, once you break it down to a statewide and local level, drone laws can prohibit pilots from going where they wish.
Whether you already live in the US and have just gotten into drones or you’re visiting here from another part of the world, this guide is for you.
Ahead, we’ll break down further where you can operate a drone in the USA and where you can’t, so don’t miss it!
Can you fly a drone in the US?
The FAA is the aviation authority in the United States. The agency permits drone operation throughout the US on a commercial and recreational basis.
» MORE: Drone Laws in the United States
Since the FAA is a federal entity, its law reigns supreme.
However, each state in the US has its own statewide laws. While those laws can’t supersede the FAA’s, state laws can legally prohibit drone use.
Many states in the country also implement local ordinances and rules. These apply on a village, city, town or county-wide level but can further restrict drone operations.
As a general rule, here are some places in the US where you can’t use a drone.
Here’s a hard and fast rule to remember when launching and landing a drone across America.
No matter which state you visit or call home, you cannot fly closer than five nautical miles from the nearest airport.
The FAA instituted this rule to protect the manned aircraft that use airports all the time. Drones can damage manned aircraft, possibly knocking the aircraft off-course.
That would put all the passengers at risk.
Even if the only person in the manned aircraft was the pilot and their crew, their lives would still be in danger if you flew your drone too close.
You can sometimes enter airspace near an airport, but you must have authorization to do so.
Without that authorization, you’re committing a federal crime and could receive a fine and/or jailtime.
It’s difficult to fly around airports when visiting a smaller state or city in the US, but it’s what you have to do.
Another area where you’re restricted from flying in the US is around or over a military base.
The same rule applies as when flying over an airport. That is, you cannot use your drone within five nautical miles of a military base.
You never know if the staff at a military base are conducting flight training or otherwise using equipment that your drone could possibly collide with or interrupt if you got too close.
That’s why the FAA wants you to stay five miles away.
It’s a federal crime to fly over a military base. The same punishments as above would apply, but now your drone is at risk of getting shot down.
Not every last state park in the US strictly outlaws drones, but most do.
That prohibits pilots from accessing 14 million acres of US land, as the country has 6,600 state parks in all.
If you find a state park that allows drone pilots, always be respectful and courteous when operating your drone.
Look for signs designating drone use, rely on a drone map, and follow FAA guidelines.
The US has its fair share of Wilderness Areas, with 803 of them scattered across the country.
They altogether make up 111.7 million acres of land in all, so Wilderness Areas take up even more of the country than state parks.
The very nature of Wilderness Areas make them off-limits to drones.
Created under the 1964 Wilderness Act, Wilderness Areas are designed to resist industrialization and give wildlife and plant species a safe place to grow and thrive.
More than drones cannot enter Wilderness Areas but most vehicles.
From Wildlife Management Areas to other protected zones, if you come across one of these when exploring this great country with your drone, know that you’re usually not allowed to fly in these areas either.
They’re protected by various government-managed entities.
Another place where drones cannot often fly in the US is populated cities.
This varies on a case-by-case basis, but if you can think of a major city in this country, the chances are good that said city has an ordinance prohibiting or limiting drone usage.
For example, you can’t fly in Las Vegas’ most popular spot, the Strip. You also can’t launch or land a drone in Times Square in New York City (or the rest of NYC, for that matter!).
How do I know where I can use a drone in the US?
As the last section proves, the US is comprised of varied places with different drone laws. What applies in one part of the country might not apply in another, so how do you know where you can fly your drone?
The safest and most surefire method is to use a drone map. If you haven’t already downloaded an app with a real-time map showing restricted and unrestricted zones, do yourself a favor and change that.
These maps come in handy because they also display temporary flight restrictions, which government entities like the FAA or the National Park Service can institute on a short-term basis.
To complement the intel you got from the drone app, you should also look for signs in the area mentioning whether you can or cannot use drones.
We also put together a comprehensive guide of all the drone laws in the US right here on the blog. You can search for your state and read up.
Make sure you study the state and local ordinances, especially if your city or town has an ordinance.
An ordinance isn’t always a blanket ban. Sometimes, the ordinance prohibits certain drone usages, and in other cases, prohibits certain types of pilots from engaging in drone use.
For example, if you’re using a drone commercially but not recreationally, you might be allowed to operate it in certain ways.
FAA guidelines for flying a drone in the US
Since FAA rules are federal law, no matter where in the US you fly your drone, the following rules always apply.
Be ready to show your license and registration
The FAA only allows pilots to operate a drone if they have a license, either the TRUST license or the Remote Pilot Certificate.
The former is for hobbyists and the latter for commercial pilots.
You must pass a knowledge exam to hold either license. The TRUST license does not expire while the Remote Pilot Certificate does.
If you’re a commercial pilot carrying an expired Remote Pilot Certificate, that’s just as bad as not having brought a license at all.
You should also register your drone if the FAA requires it. Under their laws, you must register a drone if using it commercially. Hobbyists must register drones weighing 0.55 pounds or over.
Only fly by day (unless you have permission)
If your drone has bright enough illumination and you’ve received permission, you can launch at night. By default, though, you can’t, so you should plan to only fly your drone from sunrise to sunset.
Do not ascend beyond 400 feet
Whether you’re sticking to an idyllic countryside or the urban streets during your drone exploration, you cannot ascend beyond 400 feet.
Follow VLOS rules
VLOS stands for visual line of sight. You must always be able to see your drone when operating it, as that’s how you maintain control.
If you need a spotter or observer to work with you, that’s allowed under the FAA.
Do not use your drone in poor conditions
If you can’t see two feet in front of you because it’s an overcast, foggy day or it’s pouring down rain, it’s not the best time to use your drone. The FAA prohibits drone operations in low visibility and inclement weather.
Don’t fly over people or moving vehicles
The FAA has two laws–Operations over People and Operations over Moving Vehicles–that limit your drone usage around both.
Under the Operations over People law, unless you have a drone that weighs 0.55 pounds, you cannot fly over or around people unless those people consent to your drone use.
The Operations over Moving Vehicles law makes it illegal to use your drone over a moving vehicle.
The United States is an exceptional place to fly a drone. In one country, you can experience a rich variety of landscapes.
Stay abreast of state and local laws, use a drone map to confirm restricted airspace, and follow FAA guidelines and you’ll be ready to explore the country!
1. Condor Ferries (link)