Boat Registration and Documentation

All motorized boats are required to be registered. Some states also require registration for non-motorized boats. These requirements will vary depending on the state in which you’re boating.

Requirements for Registration Documentation and the External Display of Numbers

When you register your boat with your state, you will receive a Registration Certificate (wallet-sized card) and the registration number that must be displayed on the outside of your boat.

What is the Registration Number?

The registration number is a mix of letters and numbers that begins with the abbreviation of the state where your boat is registered. For example, if you registered your boat in Florida, your registration number would begin with: ‘FL’.

Boat Registration

Where to Display Your Boat’s Registration Number:

The registration number must be permanently attached to each side of the forward half of the boat. You must be able to read the numbers from left to right. The numbers must also be in a color the contrasts with the color of your boat.

Remember that requirements for the external display of numbers may vary from state to state. Be sure to check your state laws.

What is a Registration Certificate?

Your boat’s Registration Certificate is a document that proves that your boat is registered. The certificate must be renewed every year and must be kept on the boat during operation.

As the boat owner, you are responsible for keeping the documentation up-to-date. You can expect a reminder in the mail before the expiration date arrives.

Don’t forget about boat registration—you may receive a penalty or fine if you fail to meet the boat registration requirements for the state in which you are boating!

Note: Be aware that many states also require your boat to have a validation sticker or decal. This decal must be placed within 6 inches of your boat’s registration number, either before or after the number, according to your state’s requirements. Like the registration certificate, this decal is usually renewed annually.

Hull Identification Number (HIN)

All watercraft made in the U.S. after 1972 (with or without a motor), must have a Hull Identification Number (HIN).

The Hull Identification Number is 12 digits long and must be permanently marked on the starboard (or right) corner of the stern. Like the license plate on your car or truck, your boat’s Hull Identification Number differentiates your boat from other boats, helps police to find lost or stolen boats and also helps manufacturers locate your boat during a product recall. Remember, it’s illegal to deface, alter or remove the HIN.

Hull Identification Number on a boat

The Hull Identification Number identifies:

  • The model of your boat.
  • The serial number of your boat.
  • The month and year the boat was made.
  • The name of the boat manufacturer.

Reciprocity Regulations

The Reciprocity Regulations allow you to boat on the waterways of different states, even if your boat isn’t registered in that state. However, there’s a catch—the amount of time that you’re allowed to operate your boat outside of your state of registration is limited and depends on the specific regulations of each state.

If the primary state in which you operate your boat changes permanently, you must transfer the boat’s registration to the new state where your boat is being used.

Federal Documentation

Federal documentation is optional for boat owners and is accepted globally as a certificate of boat ownership and nationality. Basically, if your boat is federally documented, it’s protected as an official ‘Vessel of The United States’ and if it’s ever stolen, the crime will be placed under federal jurisdiction.

To federally document your boat, you must be a U.S. citizen and your boat must weigh at least 5 net tons or be at least 25 feet in length.

Federal Documentation for Boats

To be valid, a Certificate of Documentation must be:

  • The original documentation (photocopies of the original will not be accepted).
  • On your boat at all times.
  • Up-to-date (not expired).
  • Signed by the Director of the National Vessel Documentation Center.