Boat Registration Requirements


Your boat’s registration is essential and must be aboard whenever you're on the water. 

Just as cars are required to have license plates, your boat or PWC must be properly numbered as well. States require registration numbers for various reasons, but they primarily serve as identification tags to determine vessel ownership. 

The specific rules and requirements can vary from state to state, or change based on the type of vessel you have. Generally speaking, however, all mechanically-powered watercraft must be registered to be legally operated in a state.  

Here are some additional details on boat lettering laws and registration requirements. 

What Is Boat Registration? 

Boat registration allows a state to keep track of the vessels operated by its residents. Registering a boat usually requires that you pay a fee to the state, provide information about yourself, your vessel, and proof of ownership. In certain cases, you may also need a bill of sale if you bought the boat/vessel from a private party instead of a dealer. 

In return, you will receive proof that your vessel has been registered with the state – typically with a current state use sticker and state-issued certificate of registration. It usually expires every year or two, at which point you’ll need to renew it. 

Do I Need to Register My Boat?

In most states, boats that require registration include: 

  • Vessels powered by a gasoline, diesel or electric motor.
  • Watercraft documented by the U.S. Coast Guard for recreational purposes, such as yachts and other pleasure boats. 
  • Sail-powered boats/vessels over a certain length or using gasoline, diesel, or electric motors for auxiliary power.
  • Dinghies, houseboats, and commercial vessels over a certain weight.  

Generally, non-motorized boats–such as kayaks, canoes, rowboats, paddle boats, or anything that use paddles or oars–are exempt from registration. But there are some exceptions, largely depending on where you live. 

Where Do I Go to Register My Boat?

The department to register your boat will depend on the state in which you register it. The Department of Motor Vehicles, the Department of Fish and Game, the Department of Licensing, and the Department of Finance are the state departments that typically handle boat registration. 

Do Boat Trailers Need to Be Registered? 

Most states require you to register and display a license plate on your boat trailer no matter the size, type, or intended use. For example, Florida, Connecticut, Illinois, Maine, New York, Texas and many more states require titles and registrations for all trailers. 

Check with your local government to determine the exact boat trailer registration/plate requirements for your state.

» MORE: Boat Trailer Tips

What’s the Difference Between Titling and Registering a Boat? 

 The title certificate is a declaration of ownership of the vessel, whereas registration documents provide authorization to operate the vessel in the state.  

What is a Vessel Registration Number? 

When you register your boat/vessel, you will receive a vessel registration number. You can think of it like the boat’s license plate. Most states require you to display the vessel registration number on your boat (typically on the front third of the boat).

What are Registration Decals?

Registration decals (also known as validation decals) are similar to registration stickers issued for cars. They prove evidence that your vessel has been registered for that year. Typically, you need to request new registration decals annually and they are only issued by the state. 

What is a Hull Identification Number (HIN)?

Since 1972, all watercraft manufactured in the U.S. have come with a Hull Identification Number (HIN).  

A hull identification number (HIN) is similar to a VIN number on a car. It is a serial number provided by the manufacturer that uniquely identifies the boat. It also helps a potential buyer track the ownership history of the vessel. The hull identification number is permanently attached to the starboard side of the transom.

What is USCG Documentation? 

US Coast Guard documentation of a vessel is a method of recording ownership of your boat with the government. This is a national form of registration that provides evidence of nationality for international purposes, permits commerce between the states, and admits vessels to certain restricted trades, such as fisheries.  

Recreational vessels over five net tons have the option to document the boat with the USCG, but it is not necessary.  

» MORE: USCG Requirements for Recreational Vessels 

Do Personal Watercraft (PWC) Need to Be Registered? 

Personal watercraft (PWC) are typically smaller, one to two person vessels, like jet skis, waverunners, and seadoos. Registration requirements will depend on the individual state, but in most cases, they are considered motorized watercraft and must be registered.

» MORE: Buying a PWC - Top 5 Things to Know

Can I Register My Boat in Multiple States?

A boat cannot be registered in two states simultaneously. However, many states allow vessels that are registered in another state to operate for 60 days before making the switch.  

Key Takeaways

  • Certificate of Registration: State-issued Certificate that serves as proof of your current registration and ownership. In most states, vessel operators must carry the original certificate of registration on board. 
  • Display of Number: States require that the registration number is painted or permanently attached to the vessel. The numbers should be a contrasting color to the craft and read from left to right. This number cannot be transferred to another vessel. 
  • Hull Identification Number (HIN): Vessel manufacturers must permanently assign a HIN to every vessel created. This is a 12-character identification number that assists in product safety, vessel recovery, etc.
  • USCG Vessel Documentation: Larger vessels owned by U.S. citizens are required to be documented with the U.S. Coast Guard. This documentation is important for international boating.  
  • Title Certificate: The title acts as proof of ownership. When buying or selling watercraft, it must be surrendered to the new owner at the time of transfer. 
  • Registration Renewals: Most states will send you a registration renewal after a specific interval - usually every couple of years. Renewing your registration will generally come with a fee and should be filed a few weeks before expiration.
  • Trailering Registration Requirements: Most states require that trailers are registered through the state (typically with the DMV) and obtain valid registration documentation.
  • Registration Fees: Registration fees are typically dependent on the length of your vessel and will vary from state to state. 

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