Getting Started with Drones Part 2: How do I know if I can legally fly my drone in a specific area?

Missed Part 1? Read my 7 quick and easy questions to consider before your first drone flight.

There are many spots in the U.S. (and around the world) where you cannot legally fly drones. That being said, there are many, many more places where you CAN legally fly drones!

Don’t be discouraged. Just because your local park bans drones or you can’t bring a drone with you on your vacation. There are many excellent places to fly! This guide will show you how to tell if your specific spot is legal or not.

General rules for flying drones in the U.S.

Rules in the U.S. vary from rules in other countries. Some rules even vary by state, city, and down to individual parks!

The FAA regulates outdoor drone flights. However, individual land operators can have their own rules. While some flights might be okay with the FAA, they might not be okay by other entities. For example you’re flying in Class G airspace, but it’s a National Park, which is a no-no. Here’s how you can ensure your drone flight is legal:

A screenshot of AutoPylot, one of the four, FAA-approved B4UFly service providers.

Make sure it’s FAA compliant: Check with the B4UFly approved service providers

The best way to know whether your flight is okay in the eyes of the FAA is by checking in with one of the FAA’s B4UFly approved service providers. As of February 1, 2024, the four, FAA-approved B4UFly service providers are:

  • Airspace Link
  • AutoPylot
  • Avision
  • UAS Sidekick

Each of them offers their own app for iOS and Android, and most also have a desktop app. While most of those apps have paid components, the B4UFly functionality is free. In fact, the FAA has mandated that logins cannot be required to access B4UFly flight information.

Among the things you can do with any of the above B4UFLY apps:

  • Use the clear “status” indicator to know if your flight is safe to fly or not.
  • Filter out by types of flight or controlled areas.
  • Get free information about controlled airspace, special use airspace, critical infrastructure, airports, national parks, military training routes and temporary flight restrictions.
  • Check whether it’s safe to fly in different locations by searching for a location or moving the location pin.
  • Gain access to additional FAA drone resources and regulatory information.

If you fly a DJI drone: use DJI’s GEO System to tell you if you can legally fly your drone

Rather than force you to navigate the FAA’s website, DJI makes it super easy for its pilots to make sure they can legally fly in that airspace.

DJI’s GEO System, implemented in most of its drones, actively shows where it is safe to fly. It also identifies areas where flight may raise concerns and marks zones where flight is restricted.

Often, it prohibits you from flying in those off-limits zones (like airports, power plants, and prisons) unless you take an extra step to unlock them (GEO allows users with verified DJI accounts to temporarily unlock or self-authorize their flights, though the unlock function is unavailable for some sensitive national-security locations). The system is even smart enough to take into account temporary restrictions, like major stadium events, forest fires, or other emergencies.

Keep in mind, that DJI wants you to know that their system is “advisory only.” So, you should still check with the FAA to be crystal clear.

“Each user is responsible for checking official sources and determining what laws or regulations might apply to his or her flight,” DJI said in a statement regarding their GEO software. “In some instances, DJI has selected widely recommended general parameters without making any determination of whether this guidance matches regulations that may apply specifically to you.”

Be aware of city-specific and other local drone rules

Much to the dismay of both the FAA and many drone pilots, many cities pass ordinances around flying drones. This is incredibly frustrating, as there is no one database for searching city-specific rules. Alas, the map above only references federal rules.

Cities technically cannot pass rules about airspace. After all, only the FAA has jurisdiction over the air. But, cities bypass the FAA by creating rules regulating the land. That’s generally in the form of rules making it illegal to take off or land drones in city parks.

For example, San Francisco (home of Drone Girl headquarters) issues citations of up to $192 for taking off or landing drones in city parks. (San Franciscans, check out my guide to flying in our beautiful city here.)

I strongly recommend that you check local city and park ordinances before flying drones, to ensure safety. Typically your city will have its website with a search feature, indicating whether there are rules about whether you can legally fly drones. Before flying in a new city, I typically run an Internet search for that city’s website. Once I’m there, I search that site for the words “UAV” and “drone” to assess whether that city has any established drone laws. Also, look out for signs in those areas noting any possible drone laws, and of course, adhere to them.

Rules around how to legally fly drones in foreign countries

Rather than reinvent the wheel here, I’m going to direct you to my friends at UAV Coach. They have an excellent master list of drone laws by country. There you can find out if you need to register, if you need a license, and if you can even bring that drone into the country. However, sometimes it seems laws change on an almost daily basis. Given that, check with each country’s aviation regulatory agency’s website as well.

Other FAA rules for flying drones recreationally

  1. Your drone must be registered.  Registration costs $5 and lasts 3 years. Register with the FAA here.
  2. You must have a completion certificate to prove you passed the Recreational Drone Pilot Safety test, which is called TRUST. Learn more about how to take (and pass) the FAA recreational drone test here.
  3. Broadcast your Remote ID information (in most cases). There are a few exceptions, such as drones flown within a FRIA or drones that weigh under 250 grams. Learn more about drone remote ID here.
  4. Adhere to the following guidelines:
    • Keep your drone in eyesight at all times, and use an observer to assist if needed
    • Remain clear of manned aircraft
    • Do not intentionally fly over unprotected persons or moving vehicles. Remain at least 25 feet away from individuals and vulnerable property
    • Contact the airport and control tower before flying within five miles of an airport or heliport. (Read about best practices here)
    • Do not fly in adverse weather conditions such as in high winds or reduced visibility.
    • Do not fly under the influence of alcohol or drugs.
    • Do not fly near or over sensitive infrastructure or property. That includes power stations, water treatment facilities, correctional facilities, heavily traveled roadways or government facilities.
    • Check and follow all local laws and ordinances before flying over private property.
    • Do not conduct surveillance. Similarly, don’t photograph people in areas where there is an expectation of privacy (without the individual’s permission).
Drone Pilot Ground School TheDroneGirl

Other FAA rules for flying drones professionally

If you’re flying drones for commercial purposes (e.g. making money), there are a few more steps you’ll have to follow). We’ll dig deeper into this in Part 3, but the tl;dr is:

  1. You must be at least 16 years old.
  2. You must pass a written test, which is formally called the Part 107 Aeronautical Knowledge Test for UAS operators. You can take this at an FAA-approved Knowledge Testing Center (there are hundreds around the country). Most people learn how to pass this test by enrolling in a Part 107 online test prep course.
  3. Register your drone and broadcast your Remote ID information — just like the folks flying recreationally.

Read next: Part 3 of Getting Started with Drones: Flying drones commercially? How to get a drone pilot license