Boat Registration vs Documentation

Proof of documentation must be kept onboard. I’ve found the best way to do this is to laminate the document and mount it to an interior bulkhead such as over the chart table.

Recreational boat owners in the U.S. are required to register their vessels with their respective state governments. I won’t get into each state’s myriad requirements for registration, since some have two year registration, some three, and they all have different agencies responsible for management. Here’s a link to your particular state’s rules for boat registration. That saves me enough space to outline some of the basics of federal documentation.

Any vessel of five net tons or more, and that is wholly owned by a U.S. citizen, can be documented. Net tonnage is a measure of a vessel’s cargo carrying volume. It should not be confused with the vessel’s weight, which may also be expressed in tons. Most vessels more than 25 feet in length will have a cargo volume of five net tons or more.

Documenting vessels started as a way for the federal government to manage commercial shipping and its resultant taxes on merchant cargoes. Today the U.S. Coast Guard is in charge of documentation, and there are multiple types of vessels that can be documented, including recreational vessels. Any documented vessel may be used for recreational purposes, regardless of its endorsement, but a vessel documented with a recreational endorsement only may not be used for any other purpose. If you want to run a commercial fishing charter business on your boat, you will have to document your vessel with a fishing designation even if you use it at other times for pleasure.

Documented vessels are given unique official numbers similar to state registration numbers. However, documented vessels do not display their official numbers on the outside of the hull; they are identified by the name and hailing port. The official number is placed inside. The application for documentation must include a name for the vessel, which may not exceed 33 characters. The name may not be identical, actually or phonetically, to any word or words used to solicit assistance at sea; may not contain or be phonetically identical to obscene, indecent, or profane language, or to racial or ethnic epithets. Once established, a vessel’s name may not be changed without application, fees, and the consent of the Director, National Vessel Documentation Center. There is no rule against duplication of names for documented vessels, so hailing ports are helpful in identifying vessels.

So why would you want to document your boat?

  • If you travel to foreign waters, the Certificate of Documentation facilitates clearance with foreign governments and provides certain protection by the U.S. flag.
  • It may be easier to get a bank loan to finance your vessel if it is documented. The bank is interested in recording a “First Preferred Ships Mortgage” to perfect their lien. This document is enforceable throughout the U.S., its territories, and some foreign countries.
  • There may be some tax savings. Check with your state concerning preferred tax status for documented vessels.
  • It is much easier to track stolen vessels across state lines with the federally documented “chain of ownership.”
  • Most states allow boats registered in other states to “visit” their waters for a period of up to 60 days without obtaining registration in the visited state, but after that you’ll have to apply to the state you’re visiting.
  • BoatUS and other agencies can help with documentation. Your broker may also help facilitate documentation or the transfer of documentation to the new owner. However, doing this by yourself is no more difficult than state registration.
  • Once documented, it stays documented for the life of the vessel. This means that if you sell the vessel the new owner simply needs to update the documentation information (along with a fee). The vessel’s documentation ID number, which needs to be affixed to the interior, stays the same. There is an annual documentation update form required by the Coast Guard, but this is automatically sent out to you 45 days in advance of annual expiration, and there are no further fees involved.

Federal documentation adds those advantages, but doesn’t mean exemption from state registration and taxation. 

For more information on documenting your boat contact the National Vessel Documentation Center.




  1. Capt John says:

    Just got my renewal form from the Coast Guard.

    The Obama administration now requires a $26.00 fee to renew.

    The feds should bring in some pretty good coin with this move.

    Here in Alaska boat registration costs $24.00 for three years.

    Don’t need a calculator to figure out my next move!

  2. Wilf Mentink says:

    Can you link me to the law of the US regarding flag state “documentation”, mortgages and so on?

    In Australia: Shipping Registration Act

  3. Boat Trader says:

    Hi Wilf —

    The FAQ file at the USCG National Vessel Documentation Center should help. Information on mortgages shows up in the middle of the list:

    • Fabiola Mahoney says:

      i have an old certificate of doc, number 1106239
      Offshore s, what advantage is for me to renew the current registration is for Florida
      Do I need both?

  4. Gary Oesterle says:

    This is the first I have heard that an owner of a documented vessel should NOT give the new owner the certificate of documentation (COD). I find it odd that you say this because on the U.S. coast Guard web site it says that transfer of ownership may be transacted buy filling in the back of the COD appropriately and having it notorized. This is what the owner of my newly purchased boat did and I have received a temporary COD so I assume The transaction was valid.

    I will say that the USCG instructions to execute a transfer of COD are terribly confusing, and the fee structure is even harder to decipher, therefor I sent in the maximum payment I thought possible to hopefully eliminate the possibility of rejection or delay. Who writes these instructions anyway?


    • Boat Trader says:

      Hi Gary –

      Thanks for the heads-up! The Coast Guard is trying to reduce paperwork, establish e-billing, and provide PDF and email access to a lot of the functions at the National Vessel Documentation Center — and you’re right, some of the instructions there now are confusing or contradictory. Much of this has been put in place since the article above was written a few years ago, so we’re removing the outdated material. Thanks again.

  5. Robyn Collins says:

    How do I register a boat so I don’t have to put numbers on the outside of my boat?
    Someone said I could register with the federal government and then be able to put the boat #s in the hull
    We are registered in MD and this boat is purely for recreational use
    it is a 25 ‘ Chris Craft
    Thanks Robyn Collins

  6. Chris says:

    Thanks for the article. The boat I’m buying is Coast Guard documented. If I keep it Coast Guard documented I still have to register it in the state where I live? How do I cancel the documentation and just register with my state?

  7. Jason Lavin says:

    Can you tell me the pros and cons of Documenting a vessel vs. registering it ? I live in New York and the boat will be used for work doing docks and break walls.

  8. Hayden says:

    If getting my boat documented in my name can I use the documentation to get it state registered in michigan . The 14ft boat with outboard is pieced together and has no registration information.