North Carolina Turtle Laws Explained | Turtle Owner (2023)

Sometimes the law is formulated in a way that makes it a little hard to understand, and this also happens with laws about owning turtles and selling turtles as well. In this article, I am going to tell you in plain English what are the laws about turtles in North Carolina.

Before diving into the exact laws let me answer a couple of the most asked questions.

Is it illegal to own turtles in North Carolina? No, you can legally own a turtle in North Carolina, it all depends on the species. There are certain endangered species that are protected by the law that are illegal to own, but most of the common ones are not endangered and you can own them as pets.

Is it illegal to sell turtles in North Carolina? You can legally sell turtles in North Carolina only if you have a license or a permit. If you don’t own one it is illegal and punishable by the law.

When it comes to laws on broad topics you can’t always get the right answer by simply answering with a yes or a no, so let’s take a closer look at what the laws have to say.

Note: The term “turtle” includes all animals commonly known as turtles, tortoises, and terrapins.

Turtle Ownership Laws in North Carolina

You can own up to 5 turtles without a permit from the state. If you want to own more than 5 you will need to get a permit.

It is illegal to own the following species:

  • Bog Turtle
  • Diamondback Terrapin
  • Eastern Spiny Softshell
  • Stripe Neck Turtle
  • Musk Turtle
  • Spotted Turtles

It is illegal to release pet turtles into the wild.

It’s illegal to own any of the seven sea turtle species: Loggerhead turtles, Green sea turtles, Leatherback turtles, Hawksbill turtles, Kemp’s ridley turtles, Olive ridley turtles, and Flatback turtles.

It’s illegal to own an endangered turtle species, without a license or permit from the state.

Turtle Commercialization Laws in North Carolina

If you want to commercialize turtles in North Carolina you will need a license from the state.

You can sell turtles without a permit, only if you sell fewer than 5 per year.

It’s illegal to sell or commercialize in any way any of the seven sea turtle species: Loggerhead turtles, Green sea turtles, Leatherback turtles, Hawksbill turtles, Kemp’s ridley turtles, Olive ridley turtles, and Flatback turtles.

It’s illegal to sell or commercialize in any way endangered or vulnerable turtle species.

The 4 Inches Law

In 1975, the US government passed regulations with a stated goal to protect sea turtle eggs, reduce environmental damage, and reduce health risks. In short, this law makes it illegal to sell turtles that are smaller than 4 inches. Here is the law.

Code of federal regulations, title 21, volume 8, part 1240 ‘Control of communicable diseases’, subpart D ‘Specific Administrative Decisions Regarding Interstate Shipments’, section 1240.62 ‘Turtles intrastate and interstate requirements.’

(a) Definition. As used in this section the term “turtles” includes all animals commonly known as turtles, tortoises, terrapins, and all other animals of the order Testudinata, class Reptilia, except marine species (families Dermochelyidae and Cheloniidae).

(b) Sales; general prohibition. Except as otherwise provided in this section, viable turtle eggs and live turtles with a carapace length of less than 4 inches shall not be sold, held for sale, or offered for any other type of commercial or public distribution. [emphasis mine]

(c) [I’ve omitted this part. It deals with eggs, consequences, how to report, how to appeal, penalties, etc.]

(d) Exceptions. The provisions of this section are not applicable to:

(1) The sale, holding for sale, and distribution of live turtles and viable turtle eggs for bona fide

scientific, educational, or exhibitional purposes, other than use as pets. [emphasis mine]

(2) The sale, holding for sale, and distribution of live turtles and viable turtle eggs not in connection with a business.

If you want to read the entire act here is a link to it: FDA Title 21, Volume 8

Laws About Wild Turtles in North Carolina

Without a permit, you can only catch 4 turtles per season.

The only turtles that you can take from the wild are:

  • Snapping Turtles
  • Mud Turtles
  • Musk Turtles

North Carolina Native Species

Bog Turtle Glyptemys muhlenbergii

Carolina Diamondback terrapin Malaclemys terrapin centrata

Common Musk Turtle (Stinkpot) Sternotherus odoratus

Common Snapping Turtle Chelydra serpentina serpentina

Eastern Box Turtle Terrapene carolina carolina

Eastern Chicken Turtle Deirochelys reticularia

Eastern Mud Turtle Kinosternon subrubrum subrubrum

Eastern Painted Turtle Chrysemys picta picta

Eastern River Cooter Pseudemys concinna concinna

Eastern Spiny Softshell Apalone spinifera spinifera

Florida Cooter Pseudemys floridana floridana

Gulf Coast Spiny Softshell Apalone spinifera aspera

Northern Diamondback terrapin Malaclemys terrapin terrapin

Northern Redbelly Turtle Pseudemys rubriventris

Spotted Turtle Clemmys guttata

Striped Mud Turtle Kinosternon baurii

Stripe Neck Musk Turtle Sternotherus minor peltifer

Yellowbelly Slider Trachemys scripta scripta

North Carolina Laws About Sea Turtles

There are 7 different sea turtle species, and all of them are either endangered or vulnerable. So in all states, they are protected by law. This means that you can’t own or commercialize sea turtles, no matter which species it is.

It is also illegal to destroy or disturb sea turtles’ nests. Also, the sea turtle’s eggs cannot be sold or disturbed in any way.

Sea turtles also have specific nesting sites, and all of them are usually on beaches. So making any kind of major change to the nesting area is also prohibited.

If you want to be able to study sea turtles you are going to need a Service and/or a State permit. Any activity that exceeds the limits of State authority for an endangered species will require a Federal permit in addition to the State permit.

A permit from the State or the Service is needed to capture or remove sea turtles from the wild. That permit may allow retention of specimens in captivity and, if so, sea turtles may be transferred by the permittee to a facility for holding in accordance with their authorization.

States may issue permits for capture and retention of sea turtles under the auspices of their ESA section 6 agreements with the Service. However, a Service permit will be needed for endangered species in the following circumstances:

  • The death or permanent disabling of a sea turtle
  • The removal of a sea turtle from that State
  • The holding of a sea turtle in captivity for a period of more than 45 consecutive days

NOTE: Under the Emergency provisions of their section 6 cooperative agreements with the Service, States can authorize holding endangered sea turtles for more than 45 consecutive days if such holding is necessary to aid sick or injured turtles.

If the original permit for taking a sea turtle from the wild allows for it, the specimen may be transferred between the original holding facility to others, even out of state, without additional authorization from the Service. Note that both parties of a transfer should generate and maintain documentation to demonstrate that a sea turtle has been taken and possessed lawfully. Copies of applicable permits should be enclosed with shipments of sea turtles.

This information should cover the basics of what you need to know about the laws regarding sea turtles. If you want to obtain a permit to work with sea turtles you should check out the Fish and Wildlife government site where you will find every detail that you have to know:

Why Those Laws Exist

A lot of turtle species are endangered or vulnerable at the moment so a lot of those laws are in place to ensure their safety. Without laws that protect turtles, people would still be hunting them to extinction or taking them from their natural habitat without thinking about the consequences.

Another reason why those exist is to protect the environment. A lot of people believed that if they don’t want to have a turtle as a pet they can just release them in the nearest forest or lake without any consequences, but that’s not the case. Every ecosystem has its own balance and adding or extracting a species from it can greatly destabilize that balance. This is another reason why those laws exist.

So in general those laws exist to protect the turtles and the environment. It is completely possible that the laws might change at some point. After all most laws aim to protect and help endangered turtle species to grow in number. After a species will reach again a good healthy number there is a good chance that the laws will be less restrictive.


Those are the North Carolina laws regarding turtles. Laws can sometimes be very unclear and hard to understand, so I did my best to simplify them, without losing their meaning. One final thing that I want to mention is that state laws don’t always completely cover all turtle species, they are usually focused on native species, so if you still don’t know if you can own or sell a certain turtle species you should check out the resources section, there you will find a link to the state department that deals with wildlife, this is the place where I did the research for this article, their website also contains a contact page where you can get into contact with them if you have any specific question.

*This article has been updated in April 2022


North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission

*Note that I am not a lawyer and this is not legal advice. The materials available on this website are for informational purposes only and not for the purpose of providing legal advice.

North Carolina Turtle Laws Explained | Turtle Owner (1)


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Is it illegal to own turtles in North Carolina? ›

In North Carolina the eastern box turtle is classified as a nongame species with no open season, meaning that it cannot be hunted or trapped. It is unlawful for any person to take from the wild, have in their possession, purchase or sell 5 or more eastern box turtles (defined as commercial take).

Does turtle recognize owner? ›

Turtles Know Their Owners! Most people don't realize this, but many turtles recognize the sight and sounds of their owners! In fact, many owners comment how their pets swim right up to the water surface to greet them when they walk in the room.

What turtles are legal to own in NC? ›

It is illegal to keep the majority of native turtles as pets in North Carolina. The only species that are prohibited to possess as pets are the Eastern Mud turtle, Striped Mud turtle, Common Musk turtle, and the Common Snapping turtle. All other species are forbidden.

Are red-eared sliders illegal in NC? ›

It is now thankfully illegal to buy and sell them in North Carolina, but the Red-eared Slider has already established itself in many lakes and ponds in throughout the Triangle area. Unfortunately, they are not just here in our state.

Is it illegal to keep turtles as pets? ›

There are a lot of exotic pets and species of endangered animals that are listed as “banned pets” in India. While you may think owning a parrot or a tortoise is harmless, keeping them as pets is not just unethical but illegal, and can land you in jail.

Can you own turtles as pets? ›

Turtles are one of the oldest kinds of reptiles on the planet. Their hard shell and slow-moving mannerisms make them unique pets. They're hardy creatures and can be fun to care for. They may seem like low-maintenance pets, but most turtle species can live for decades, which makes them a lifelong commitment.

Do turtles love their owners? ›

Tortoises and turtles are very intelligent, so it is not hard to believe that they can form bonds and love their owners.

Do turtles bond with owners? ›

Yes, turtles do get attached to their owners. They can sometimes express their emotions by showing playful behavior when they are around their owners.

Do turtles cry? ›

As reptilian kidneys are unable to excrete large volumes of salt via urine, sea turtles evolved specialised secretory glands (lachrymal glands) located in the corner of each eye to remove excess salt. The liquid secreted gives the appearance of tears, hence why turtles are often reported to “cry” .

Are box turtles protected in NC? ›

Eastern Box Turtles are not listed in a category of special protection in North Carolina. However, a law passed in 2003 prohibits the commercial collection of this species and other turtles from the family Emydidae. They are listed as a priority species in the North Carolina Wildlife Action Plan.

Are diamondback terrapins legal in North Carolina? ›

The diamondback terrapin also is a Species of Greatest Conservation Need in the N.C. Wildlife Action Plan. Because diamondback terrapins are a protected species, they cannot be collected or taken except under a special permit issued by the Wildlife Commission's Executive Director.

How many types of turtles are there in North Carolina? ›

Overall, twenty species of turtles, belonging to six different families inhabit North Carolina. Five of these species are sea turtles and one (the Eastern Box Turtle) is primarily terrestrial. The rest are semi-aquatic, inhabiting North Carolina's ponds, wetlands, and other water bodies.

Are box turtles protected in NC? ›

Eastern Box Turtles are not listed in a category of special protection in North Carolina. However, a law passed in 2003 prohibits the commercial collection of this species and other turtles from the family Emydidae. They are listed as a priority species in the North Carolina Wildlife Action Plan.

Can a tortoise live outside in North Carolina? ›

Yes, of course a tortoise can live outside – well, to be specific, wild tortoises live outside and are able to survive in a wide range of terrains and climates.

Are there any tortoises in NC? ›

The Eastern Chicken Turtle gets its name from the way its meat tastes like chicken. It has a long-striped neck that is almost as long as its shell.
12. Eastern Chicken Turtle.
Species:Deirochelys reticularia reticularia
Good to own as a pet?:Yes
Adult size:4–10 inches
1 more row
Jan 14, 2022

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