Follow these steps to ensure that your boat is properly and lawfully registered.

California may be best known for the 1,000 miles of Pacific Ocean shoreline, but did you know there are over 3,000 lakes and 3 major rivers that run through the state? The glittering water of California makes it the perfect place to own and operate a boat. Much like registering your car, you will also have to go through the process of legally registering your boat in California. Here’s your guide to getting through the boat registration process legally and quickly:

How do I know if my boat needs to be registered?

If you own and operate a boat in the state of California, it likely needs to be registered with the Department of Motor Vehicles. The rule is that any sail-powered vessel over 8 feet in length and every motorized vessel on the water needs to be registered with the DMV, unless it’s already documented by the U.S. Coast Guard.

The way the Coast Guard sees it, your vessel is considered either ‘documented’ or ‘undocumented’ on the water. Most likely, yours will be considered undocumented. An undocumented vessel does not have a marine certificate issued by the Coast Guard, while a documented vessel does not require that same DMV registration since it’s already been issued a marine certificate from the Coast Guard. Any undocumented vessel must be registered with the Department of Motor Vehicles, whether operated on a private lake or on public waters.

What boats are exempt from boat registration in California?

If your vessel fits one of these categories, it does not need to be registered with the California DMV:

  • Your boat is only powered by oars or paddles
  • Your boat is a sailboat under 8 feet in length
  • You have a non-motorized surfboard propelled by a sail and mast that must be held upright
  • Your boat is a lifeboat (not a dinghy)
  • Your boat is primarily used outside of California and is registered in the state where it is primarily used
  • Your vessel is brought into California purely for racing purposes

How do I register my boat in the state of California?

To register your boat in California, you’ll need:

You can present your boat registration documents at your local Department of Motor Vehicles office. You can also mail in your application to:

Department of Motor Vehicles
P.O. Box 942869
Sacramento, CA 

How much does boat registration cost in the state of California?

To register your boat in California, you’ll pay an initial fee to register and title a brand new vessel, or a separate fee to register a vessel previously registered in another state or country.

Registration Fees
Original registration/renewal*Includes the Alternative Fuel/Technology Fee ($3)$62*
SE Plate Fees
Substitute plate or ID card$22
Transfer*Includes the Alternative Fuel/Technology SE ($5)$27*
Truck tractor cotton module mover Original ($110 total):
Annual renewal (due in years SE renewal is not due- $86 total):
SE renewal (due in 2015, 2020, etc.- $110 total):
SE*Includes Alternative Fuel/Technology Registration Fee ($3)$24
Vessel Fees
 Vessel/Quagga Quagga Exempt 
Original (except nonresident)*  
—Sold in even year$37$29
—Sold in odd year$65$49
—Sold in even year$10$10
—Sold in odd year$25$25
—Sold or due in even year$65$57
—Sold or due in odd year$93$77
—Sold or due in even year$24$24
—Sold or due in odd year$39$39
Biennial renewal (due in odd years)$36$20
Transfer (except between dealers)$15$15
Duplicate (title or registration)$15$15
*Includes fees for original or nonresident vessel, renewal, alternative fuel/technology, and Quagga Mssel, if due.

Source: State of California, Department of Motor Vehicles

How do I transfer boat ownership to my new boat?

If you just bought a boat that was previously registered in California, all you need to do is obtain the title from your seller, print your name and address on the back and send in the title with a title transfer fee and any applicable tax.

What else do I need to know about boat registration in California?

  • You must always display your hull identification number (HIN) on your boat
  • Renew your boat registration by December 31 at the end of every odd-numbered year online, by phone 1-800-777-0133 or by mail
  • If you sell your boat, you must notify the DMV within 5 days by submitting a Notice of Transfer and Release of Liability
  • Your boat needs to be registered before it hits any water in the state of California to avoid penalties

In California, every boat operator needs a valid California Boater Card. Be sure that you’re properly educated and certified by taking a BOATsmart! course.