What is the best training agency? The answer depends a lot on how you define best. I could make the argument that you are much better off owning a truck instead of a car because it is much more useful. Someone else may argue that a motorcycle is better because you can use the carpool lane without a passenger, and yet someone else may argue that a horse is the only truly environmentally friendly way to travel. Who is right? What one is best? It really depends on how you want to get where you are going and what is available to you. The short answer for most of us when it comes to scuba certification agencies is that they are all the same. There really are no major differences that most divers are going to notice. It is only the individual instructor that actually makes a difference in the quality of the course. There are well over 100 training agencies around the world offering scuba certification so while you may think choosing the right one is an impossible task; the good news is that you probably really only have a few to choose from.
Training agencies each have their own unique attributes but they have much more in common than they have differences. There is no single authority that oversees scuba certification programs. Worldwide acceptance is based on agreements between agencies. All major agencies agree to recognize each other’s certifications because it makes good business sense to do so. Not doing so would limit your customer base to divers who originally certified with your agency. In order to recognize certifications from other agencies there has to be some standardization between certification levels.
The International Standards Organization (ISO) created standards for recreational diver training based on the original C.M.A.S programs (the agency first headed by Jacques-Yves Cousteau). The two ISO standards most relevant to those looking to become certified are: Diver Level 1 – Supervised Diver ISO 24801-1 and Diver Level 2 – Autonomous Diver ISO 24801-2. These correspond to the Scuba Diver Certification and the Open Water Diver certification. If your certification card says it complies with one of these standards then your training covered the same basic material as everyone else at that ISO level, regardless of agency. That means you can get open water certified with one agency, take advanced open water with another agency and take rescue or Nitrox with yet another. The names of the courses may change a bit between agencies and how the class is delivered may be different but the ISO level is what determines the content.
I know, we all have that know-it-all friend who says that divers from this agency are the best and divers from that agency are dangerous. Really? When I hear comments like this I immediately know that I am dealing with someone who knows very little about the overall dive training industry and likely has very poor critical thinking skills. Most “agency bashers” are people with big egos and low self-esteem who feel it is very important to impress you with how much they know about scuba. Sure maybe they can cite an example but would that same person say you should never shop at Walmart because he heard someone bought something there once and they weren’t satisfied with it? It’s about the same thing. Don’t agency bash; it makes you look stupid.
What about recognition?
Everyone is worried if their card will be recognized as valid when they travel. Generally, it will, unless you got it online from one of the known certification mills. Yes, there are places you can go online and complete your training without ever meeting an instructor in person or even getting in the water and they will mail you a card. We all know who they are and we won’t accept those cards. You should also never purchase training online on your own. Always purchase it through your shop or instructor so you are sure you get the right thing. Also, when you buy direct from the agency instead of the shop you will pay full retail. Shops never charge more than this but they often charge less. You can't save money by "cutting out the middleman" and you may buy the wrong thing. Online training is almost always non-refundable. Other than that, you shouldn’t have any problem. If you are still worried, the big three are PADI, SSI, & NAUI in order of current market share. PADI currently certifies more divers than SSI, NAUI, and all other agencies COMBINED so there is no chance they will be giving up their number one spot any time soon. Some of the smaller agencies have big reputations that make up for their smaller market share. NASE, GUE, RAID, SDI, TDI, PSS to name a few are known for their high quality training and high standards for instructors.
While there is not an actual requirement for a
training agency to be approved by any specific organization, The WRSTC
(RSTC in the US) has appointed themselves as the "keeper of the
standard" and offers membership to agencies who agree to comply with
ISO standards. While membership and recognition by the RSTC or WRSTC
does mean that your certification should be recognized worldwide, it
certainly is not a requirement. There is no law or regulation stating
that only RSTC members are recognized, it is just good marketing. Even
mega-agency NAUI has been around since 1960 and did not finally break
down and join until 2017 and nobody would ever say NAUI wasn't
worldwide. Since you are probably wondering, every agency I teach for
is an RSTC member.
So how do I choose?
Step 1. What is available near where you live or where you are willing to travel. For most of us it will limit the choices to 1 or 2. It is best to complete or at least start your training at home. We never get enough vacation time so you don’t want to use it taking classes. At the very least you can complete the academic portion online at home and then do the in-water training on vacation. This works great for winter vacations.
Step 2. Interview the instructor. This is what really matters when you look for quality training and why the agency is meaningless. An instructor can be certified by multiple agencies and deliver the same quality of training regardless of the brand on the card. If you made your choice just based on agency you could end up with the same instructor if you chose the other agency. You are looking for an instructor who meshes with your personality and will deliver training in a style that is comfortable for you. Most importantly, your schedules must match up. It is also good to look for an instructor with more than just a few years diving experience and experience as an instructor. Someone who teaches a large number of specialties is an indicator of broad experience and even if the instructor does not teach a large number of specialties at least make sure they teach the ones that interest you. Make sure your instructor can actually teach you all the classes you want to take. Independent instructors often provide much better quality training than instructors working for a large shop in a tourist area. The large shop instructors are given continuous flow of students and a limited time to complete each class. Independent instructors are able too take their time and make sure you are not left behind if the group advances faster than you do. The downside is they may lack some of the big shop resources.
Step 3. Cost—this one is tricky because you often get what you pay for. The best instructors often charge more because they can. Some charge less because they can. Do not shop based on cost. It should be your least important factor but make sure you can afford it. It is also very important that you understand what you are paying for. One shop may advertise a price that seems high but includes absolutely everything. Another shop may advertise a much lower price that actually is more than the other shop when you add up all the costs that are required but not included. Make sure you know what the total cost is. One trick to save money is to find out if an instructor teaches for more than one agency. Instructors often do this because one agency is in high demand due to their marketing program but charges very high fees (to pay for their marketing program) and another agency may be less well known but charges lower fees. You can choose either certification card but will get the same quality program because you will have the same instructor either way.
Does choosing an agency ever matter?
Yes, but not until the professional levels. When you decide to get a job as a divemaster or instructor your agency choice suddenly becomes very important. Pick the wrong one and you may have to switch to get a job.
Method 1: You know where you want to work and the shop you want to work for—Get certified for the agency that shop represents. If they represent multiple agencies, find out what one they have the greatest need for. If you know the town or area you want to work find out what agency is most popular in the area and go for that one. Don’t be afraid to give that one shop a call that seems to be different than everyone else though. They may be short on instructors and turning away customers because they offer something different.
Method 2: You have no idea where you are going to get a job. You just want to get certified and then look for a job. Choose PADI. They are the biggest and have the most shops so the odds will be in your favor. That isn’t an opinion, it’s a fact. It’s math.
Through my many years of diving in several countries I have always ended up in PADI shops. There was no plan or effort to do this. It just happened this way. All the way through instructor, all my certifications have been PADI just by chance. The only exception is when I did Nitrox training in the early 90s and the only instructor offering it was a TDI instructor. After a year of teaching for PADI I also earned authorization as an instructor for NASE Worldwide. I didn't do this because they are better than PADI but they do offer my customers another choice and a different way to meet the same goal. Two years after that, I became an instructor with PSS because of their incredible electronic learning management system and their high quality training programs.
The fact that I am certified as an instructor for PADI, NASE, and PSS further goes to illustrate my point that the instructor is the important factor in choosing where you are trained, not the agency. I am able to take the best from a variety of programs and my students do not have different skill levels based on the brand of their card.