To become a master (unlimited tonnage) in the United States, one must first accumulate at least 365 days of service while holding a chief mate's license. The chief mate's license, in turn, requires at least 365 days of service while holding a second mate's license, passing a battery of examinations, and approximately 13 weeks of classes. Similarly, one must have worked as a third mate for 365 days to have become a second mate. There are many special cases in license upgrades at the individual level, as licensing regulations change from time to time. A sizable portion of mates still working received their licenses before current laws went into effect.
There are two methods to attain an unlimited third mate's license in the United States: to attend a specialized training institution, or to accumulate "sea time" and take a series of training classes and examinations.
Training institutions that can lead to a third mate's license include the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy (deck curriculum), the U.S. Coast Guard Academy and U.S. Naval Academy with qualification as an underway officer in charge of a navigational watch, any of the state maritime colleges, the Great Lakes Maritime Academy, or a three-year apprentice mate training program approved by the Commandant of the U.S. Coast Guard.
A seaman may start the process of attaining a license after three years of service in the deck department on ocean steam or motor vessels, at least six months of which as able seaman, boatswain, or quartermaster. Then the seaman takes required training courses, and completes on-board assessments. Finally, the mariner can apply to the United States Coast Guard for a Third Mate's license.
A master of 1,600 ton vessels can, under certain circumstances, begin the application process for an unlimited third mate's license.
If approved the applicant must then successfully pass a comprehensive license examination before being issued the license. Hawsepiper is a maritime industry term used to refer to an officer who began his or her career as an unlicensed merchant seaman, as opposed to earning his Third Mate's license by attending a maritime college or academy. The term derives from a ship’s hawsepipe, the opening on the ship's bow through which the anchor chain passes. A mariner is said to have "climbed up the hawsepipe," a nautical metaphor for climbing up the ship's rank structure. Since the requirements of STCW '95 have been enacted, there have been complaints that the hawsepiper progression path has been made too difficult because of the cost in time and money to meet formal classroom training requirements. These critics assert that the newer requirements will eventually lead to a shortage of qualified mariners, especially in places like the United States.
Several merchant seamen's unions offer their membership the required training to for career advancement. Similarly, some employers offer financial assistance to pay for the training for their employees. Otherwise, the mariner is responsible for the cost of the required training.