Boat Registration Requirements

Boat Registration Requirements

All motorized boats (and many non-powered boats) are required by the U.S. Coast Guard to be registered. Registration and vessel numbering violations are one of the most common reasons for citations or arrests among U.S. boaters. And, registration citations carry serious consequences that may involve paying a fine and possibly even serving jail time.

The objective of this section is to increase boaters’ understanding of the legal requirements for boat registration and numbering to help them to evade preventable violations and their consequences.

There are two methods of registration for recreational vessels in the U.S., including vessel registration and vessel documentation.

Vessel Registration and Certificate of Number

State registration is required for undocumented motorized vessels. Each registered boat will be issued a Certificate of Number from the state of registration. The assigned number is required to be displayed on the exterior of the vessel. The valid Certificate of Number should also be carried any time the boat is in use. In instances where the boat is moved to a new state of principal use, the Certificate of Number must be replaced within 60 days.

Because requirements vary by state, it is important for boaters to check with their state for exact registration requirements. Many U.S. states require all watercraft to be registered, including boats that are not motorized and Coast Guard documented vessels.

External Registration Identification Number Display

A boat’s registration number (from the Certificate of Number) must be displayed permanently on front half of the boat in plain, vertical block letters that measure at least three inches in height. The block letters/numbers must be in a color that is in high contrast to the background, such as white on a black boat or black letters on a white boat.

In addition, a state tax sticker is required to be placed before or after the registration number, depending on state mandates. The sticker should be placed no more than six inches from the registration number, and no other letters or numbers may be placed nearby.

Boat registration number. Highlights state tax sticker

U.S. Coast Guard Vessel Documentation

As mentioned before, vessel documentation through the U.S. Coast Guard is a second method of registration for motorized vessels. Recreational vehicles that are fully-owned by a U.S. citizen or citizens and measure at least five net tons in volume are eligible to be documented.

The U.S. Coast Guard Certificate of Documentation is a national form of registration that facilitates easier commerce between the states and validates a boat’s nationality for international purposes. Vessel documentation also allows vessels into certain restricted trades. Documented vessels are not excused from state and federal taxes or state and federal equipment carriage regulations. Some states require that a documented boat pay a registration fee and display a state validation sticker. Operators should check with their state for a complete understanding of requirements.

Documented vessels are required to carry the Certificate of Documentation and any accompanying papers on board at all times. A Certificate of Documentation is only in compliance with federal regulations when:

  • It is the original document, not a photocopy
  • It is onboard the vessel
  • It has been signed by the Director of the National Vessel Documentation Center
  • It is current and not expired

US Coast Guard Certificate of Documentation


Hull Display and Interior Display

The name of the documented boat and its hailing port must be permanently displayed together in one place on the exterior hull of the vessel (usually on the stern). The letters used for display should be easily readable and should measure at least four inches in height.

Rear of Boat Classigns

In addition, the documentation number of the boat should be clearly displayed in three-inch (or larger) block numerals on a visible location on the interior of the vessel. The abbreviation “no.” is required to immediately precede the numbers. The internal numbers display is a requirement for both commercial and recreational documented vessels.