Boating Safety Blog
Disclaimer:   I am not a spokesperson for the US Coast Guard. For an official interpretation of regulations you must contact the US Coast Guard or other organization referenced..   More..... 

Boat Registration And Documentation

This page will only address boat registration and documentation in the U.S.A. 

In the United States, recreational boats are required to be registered with a state (or territory) or if they meet certain requirements, Documented with the Coast Guard.  The terms registrated and documented have different meanings and different legal ramifications.  Many boat owners confuse the two.

If you are purchasing a boat much under 30 feet it will probably have to be registered, not Documented with the Coast Guard.  However, a larger boat that meets the 5 net tons requirement may be Documented.  Documentation has some advantages such as easier international travel, obtaining boat loans and insurance. Scroll down to the section on documentation.  However if you have the typical trailerable power or sailboat you most likely don't qualify for Documentation.


Boat registration is handled by the states and territories.  Each state has it's own requirements but the minimum on Federal Waters is that all vessels powered by propulsion machinery (an engine) must be registered.  There are some states that require all recreational boats, regardless of type or size to be registered. Some states require small sailboats, canoes and kayaks to be registered.  On the other end of the spectrum some states only require power boats of 10 HP or more to be registered.  In at least one state (Washington) if the boat is under 10 HP and is used only on sole state jurisdiction waters (no Federal Jurisdiction) it doesn't have to be registered, but if used on Federal jurisdiction, or joint (both) jurisdiction waters it must be registered if it has propulsion machinery of any HP. 

For instance I have a boat that has a 2.5 HP outboard, but because I use it on a lake that has both State and Federal Jurisdiction, it has to be registered. 

If you are purchasing a boat from a dealership, in all likelihood the dealer will handle this for you.  But if you are buying from an individual you may have to do the paperwork yourself.  Any boatowner should familiarize themselves with their state's boat registration requirements. Every state and territory in the US has an offical called a Boating Law Administrator (BLA). It is is this persons responsibilities to administer all boating laws in their state including registration laws.  Your BLA can be found through the directory at the National Association Of Boating Law Administrators (NASBLA) or you can just do an internet search on the state name and boat registration.

The states also have the information you need on-line.  You can also access this through the NASBLA directory, or by an internet search.

Some documents you may need to register a boat.

For new boats

Manufacturer Certificate of Origin (also Manufacturers Statement of Origin)

Bill Of Sale

Trailers: same as for a car.

For used boats:

 Bill of sale

Old registration

Old Title (in states that require a Title for a boat.)

Documents for a trailer:  Same as for a car

Manufacturer Certificate of Origin. Most state require a Manufacturer's Certificate of Origin to register and title a new boat. A majority of the states have passed laws requiring boats to have a Title, just as cars have a Title. A Title is usually considered a proof of ownership.  To get a Title a consumer has to show a legitimate bill of sale and Manufacturer's Certification of Origin.  In some states this is called a Manufacturer's Statement of Origin.  This is not a Federal or Coast Guard requirement.  The manufacturer/dealer should give the consumer this form as well as a bill of sale with each boat.   Without this you may not be able to register the boat. 

This does not apply to older or home built boats.  MCOs (MSO) started to be used in the 1980's and were not widely required until the 2000's. So older boats won't have this document.  The exception to this is vessels that will be documented. Builders building boats that are to be documented have been required for many, many years, to provide the buyer with a Coast Guard form,  CG Form 1261 Builder Certification and First Transfer of Title. This is also called a Manufacturers Certificate of Origin or a Master Builders Certificate. It is only used for Documenting a vessel with the Coast Guard

Homebuilt boats: (also called backyard built boats)

This category includes all boats you build yourself, including kit boats. Obviously you will not have a bill of sale or a MSO.  Each state has a process for this. On the registration form or on a separate form you will be required to attest and certify that you built the boat. However many states also have personal property and sales tax on boats, so you will be required to show proof you built it. 

Keep your receipts for materials you purchased to build the boat.  The state may ask to see them. They are trying to establish the value of the boat in order to assess what tax should be charged.  Without this they may refuse to register it.  In some states they may also require that a law enforcement officer actually eyeball the boat.

If you built the boat from a kit you can show them the receipt/invoice for the kit. The kit manufacturer is required to provide you with a Hull Identification Number for the boat.

If you built the boat from scratch the state will assign the boat a Hull Identification Number. See HIN101 for boat owners.

Old Boats: built before 1972.

Boats built before 1972 were not required by Federal Regulations to have a Hull Identification Number.  When the state registers the boat they will assign an HIN to the boat.  You are required to affix this number to the boat.

Junk boats/project boats:

Many people like restoring old boats. Often these boats have been allowed to sit in back yards, barns or pastures for years. If you buy or obtain a boat like this there may not be any paperwork, or it has been lost and the owners have no idea where the paperwork is.  The boat may have belonged to a parent or grandparent and not used for decades.  In this case you will have to start establishing a paper trail for this boat. 

First, make sure you get a bill of sale from the owners that adequately describes the boat, such as make, model, and year if known.  Length, breadth, color, type, outboard or inboard. If it's on a trailer and you plan on registering the trailer you will need this information too. On some boats the builders mounted a metal builders plate with their name on the plate, or a logo that they used.  Look on the boat for these.

If the boat has registration numbers on it, the department that registers boats may be able to look up the info on the boat.  If it was made after 1972 it may have a HIN on the transom. 

If there is no information on the make and model you may be able to find help identifying the boat by posting photographs of it on website forums such as, (they have wood boat and aluminum boat info as well), The Woodenboat Forums,,  or if the make is known there are websites that deal exclusively with certain boat makes. Often people on those sites will recognize the make and model and give you a good idea when it was built.

The more information you have on the boat the easier it will be to get it registered.

What I said about receipts applies here too.  The registration people will want to establish a market value for the boat in order to assess sales or property tax.  Keep your receipts and a record of the cost to restore the boat. 

Note:  Contacting the manufacturer of the boat, if known, and if they are still in business,  may not yield you any information at all. Manufacturers are only required to keep info on the first purchaser, and after 2000 only for ten years, only five years before 2000,  and not at all before 1972.  Manufacturers go in and out of business frequently, and if the company was sold there is no requirement to transfer sales records to the new owners. Even manufactures like Chris Craft and Sea Ray that have been in business for generations,  have changed ownership many times.  So, if the manufacturer is still in  business and you do contact them do not be surprised if they have no information on your boat.

Chris Craft is a bad example, even though they have changed hands many times.   Chris Craft donated all the company records on their designs to the Mariners Museum in Newport News Virginia. So there is information available on the boats, but not on the boat owners. See 

Contact and ask about the Chris Craft Collection.

Display of state registration Numbers:

 The state will issue a registered boat a set of numbers and a validation sticker.  The numbers begin with the state initials. These are not the same abbreviation used by the US Postal Service.  They were devised before the Postal Service came up with standard state abbreviations so they may vary from those, for instance, Washington is WN as opposed to the USPS WA.  Then there will be 3 or four numbers, and one or two letters.

The numbers must be:

Displayed on the forward half of the hull

 Be of contrasting color to the hull

 Be block characters

 Be three inches high and clearly visible.

They must read from left to right on both sides of the boat.

There must be a one letter space between the state letters and the numbers and a one letter space between the numbers and following letters.

The Validation Sticker must be displayed immediately towards the stern of the boat but within four inches of the registration numbers and displayed on both sides.

The exception to the above is a documented vessel.

State Registration of Dcoumented boats. 

Documenting a recreational boat does not shield the owner from paying state sales or personal property taxes.  Federal Regulations allow for states to require registration of documented boats to facilitate collection of taxes.  However, if the vessel is documented you do not have to display the state registration numbers on the boat.  However, all states also issue a color coded sticker for the current year, that must be displayed.  This is so any law enforcement observing your vessel can see if the taxes have been paid and are current.


When you document a vessel with the Coast Guard it becomes a "Vessel of the United States".  In other words it is a U.S.  flagged vessel. It also becomes an entity in itself, that can be held liable for payment of fees, port entry fees, and so on.  You, as the owner are still liable for these, but the vessel itself can be held for them. Documentation is also proof of ownership. When the vessel is new it is easy to establish the chain of ownership because you are the first owner.  But on an older vessel you may have to show the chain of ownership back to when the vessel was built. Sometimes this can be difficult to do especially on an older boat that has never been documented. 

However, if you are planning on cruising and visiting other countries most countries accept documentation as proof of ownership. Only a few countries such as Mexico and Canada and the Bahamas accept state registrations as proof of ownership.

To document a vessel it must first meet the 5 net ton requirement. This is not the weight or displacement of the vessel.  It is a measure of the internal volume of the vessel. Basically, it was originally a measurement of the vessels cargo capacity. The boat will have to be admeasured. Admeasurement is a process where the vessel is measured and the dimensions are entered in a formula that then calculates the tonnage.  For recreational boats there is a simplified process for this that involves filling out a form  If it is 5 or more you are eligible for documentation. Most vessels over 30 feet will meet this. A few under 30 will meet it.

The owner of the vessel must be a US citizen. There are a few (very few) exceptions. The vessel does not have to be US built to be documented for recreational use.  There are some exceptions to this as well. 

Documented vessels must have the vessels name and homeport, both city and state,  clearly displayed on the exterior of a vessel. State names may be abbreviated.

It must be no less than 4 inches high and legible.

The official number must be permanently affixed on a main beam or other permanent structure on the interior of the vessel. it can be carved burned, welded, or embedded into fiberglass, but must be at least three inches high and clearly visible.

References:  National Vessel Documentation Center




Copyright 2019  All Rights Reserved. 04/23/2019

American Boat And Yacht Council  Wooden Boat Foundation Boat Design Net 
This Web site may contain copyrighted material the use of which has not always been specifically authorized by the copyright owner. I am making such material available in my efforts to advance understanding of educational, economic, and scientific issues, etc. I believe this constitutes a "fair use" of any such copyrighted material as provided for in section 107 of the US Copyright Law. In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, the material on this Web site is distributed without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for nonprofit educational purposes. For more information see: If you wish to use copyrighted material from this Web site for purposes of your own that go beyond "fair use", you must obtain permission from the copyright owner.