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Registering Your Boat

State Registration

Just as for cars, all states require registration of powered boats, and many states also require registration of non-powered boats (check state requirements in Chapter 7). Penalties for failing to register a vessel may involve paying a fine of up to $1,000, as well as the possibility of serving jail time.

When you register your boat with the state where you'll primarily be using it, you will be assigned a registration number, which you will need to display on your boat. The registration number consists of both letters and numbers. Place your boat registration number on the bow, on both the port and starboard sides, so you can read the number from left to right. The letters and numbers must be at least 3 inches high and in a color that contrasts with the hull color so they can be easily read. Put spaces or hyphens between the number sections and letter sections.

When you register your boat, you might also be given a sticker indicating the year of registration. Follow the directions of your state for proper placement of this sticker.

Registration number using the required 3-inch-high block characters

Also, check your state regulations to find out which registration papers you must have with you on your boat.

You don't need to register your boat with every state in which you use your boat. Most states have laws that let you visit their waters without paying a new registration fee. However, if you spend a significant amount of time boating in another state, check with both your home state and your vacation state for specific laws.

Federal Documentation

If you own a large boat, 30 feet long or more, that measures at least 5 gross tons, you have the option of documenting your boat federally with the U.S. Coast Guard. The main purpose of federal documentation is to establish ownership for travel overseas. Your boat can be identified as either a state registered vessel or a federally documented vessel, but not both. If your boat becomes federally documented, the state registration numbers and letters must be removed. However, check your state regulations to see whether the state validation sticker should still be displayed on your boat.

If your boat is federally documented, you must identify the name of your boat and hailing port, including the city and state. This information must be permanently attached on some clearly visible exterior part of the hull, on the transom or either side. Use letters and numbers at least 4 inches high.

Federally documented boats are classified according to use. Although you can use a commercial boat for recreational purposes, you can't use a recreational boat for commercial purposes.

For more information on federal documentation, visit the U.S. Coast Guard Web site at or phone 1-800-799-8362.


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