Boat registration is required for all motorized vessels. It is a required part of boat ownership. In some states you may require the title as well. If you need to register your boat, it may not be as hard as you think. In fact, you can probably register your boat online. The process to sign up been made much easier recently. In part because of covid 19. But also because online boat registrations are just faster and easier. Many boat owners do this in a few minutes once per year to stay up to date.

Let’s take a look at the process to register your boat. Why you need to register your boat, what boat registration numbers mean, and why any of it matters.

How to Register Your Boat

Boat registration is a state matter. Each state may have different requirements and terms to register your boat. Check the links to find specific information for your state. A page may change from time to time, so keep that in mind.

Each link takes you to that state’s rules and regulations for boat registrations. In most cases, you will need the boat’s title. You may also need a bill of sale. There will also be a registration fee associated with getting your boat registered. These registration fees will vary from state to state. They can also vary depending on the size of your boat.

What is the Transaction Fee for Vessel Registration?

In general, fees for registering your boat are not very high. You can expect a payment between $10 and $30 in most states.

In many states, the DMV website or office will handle boat registration application. Make sure you look for any special considerations caused by covid 19. In some cases it has made online registration easier. However, it may have also made registration in local offices more difficult. You can usually pay the fee a variety of ways. Things like a credit card or money order are most common for payment.

Some states have the registration process go through Fish and Game. Some even use the Department of Natural Resources. The license will be valid regardless of which governing body issues it.

Remember, you can only register a boat in one state. You can still use your boat in other states, however.

Are Hull Identification Numbers the Same as Registration Numbers?

Part of registering your boat involves providing your boat’s HIN number. The HIN number stands for “hull identification number.” Like your car’s VIN number, a HIN number is a unique identifier for your boat. It will need to be on record when you apply to register your boat. If your boat was built before 1973 it will not have a HIN number.

Like a VIN, your hull ID can identify several important factors about your boat.

  • The first 3 digits are the manufacturer’s ID Code
  • This is followed by a serial number of 5 digits
  • The next 2 digits are the month and year of production
  • The final two digits are the model year

Your hull identification number should be on the upper right of your boat’s transom. It should be clearly displayed. You are not permitted to alter the 12-digit number in any way. Likewise, you cannot paint over, alter, or obscure numbers. Contact your state to see what you should do in the event that rust, age, or damage has made the number unreadable.

If you do not have a HIN number or yours is no longer visible you can still register. In many states a clear image of the boat will work. Check your state regulations to be sure. The information changes depending on your location.

The hull identification number and registration number are not the same thing. Some boaters mistakenly believe one is a stand in for the other, but this is not the case. As part of boat ownership you should have both numbers on hand in a secure place.

Why Do You Need to Register Your Boat?

If you think of boats like cars, boat registration makes sense. Your car needs a license plate and you need vehicle registration. A boat is just a motor vehicle on the water, it needs the same documentation.

What Kind of Boats Need to be Registered?

Always check your state’s regulations and requirements for applications. However, in most cases, any boat that is considered a motorized vessel will need to be registered. This includes gasoline and diesel engines, as well as electric. Personal watercraft are also under this umbrella.

You may need to register a sailboat in your state as well. Even if it does not use auxiliary power. If your sailboat is over a certain size, state regulations may require you to have it registered.

Most states do not require you to register your boat if it is a small, personal craft. That means vessels like kayaks or canoes.

If you have a large vessel, then this may have to be registered with the U.S. Coast Guard. If the boat weighs over 5 net tons and is owned by U.S. residents, then the Coast Guard will register it. This is for vessels that travel overseas. Most every day boaters do not need to worry about this level of documentation. Additionally, a boat will still need to be registered with the state.

If you have a large enough vessel remember that it will also be registered based on use. A commercial vessel can be used for recreational purposes like fishing. A recreational boat cannot be used for commercial purposes, however. That can lead to fines and penalties.

What Happens When You Register Your Boat?

Just like when you register your car, your boat will now be on record. You will receive a registration number as the boat owner. This registration number needs to be prominently displayed on the hull of your boat. Like a license plate on a car, the registration number is made of letters and numbers. It is your boat’s unique identifier.

You will also receive a certificate of registration. This will show the same number you need to display on the hull of the vessel. Make sure you keep the certificate in a secure place. It has to be on the boat anytime the boat is in operation. Just like if the police asked for your car’s registration you would have it on hand. If the U.S. Coast Guard asks to see the certificate of Registration, you need to produce it.

The Registration number for your boat will begin with letters. This is the two-letter abbreviation of your state name. The numbers need to be at least 3 inches in height. They must be displayed prominently on each side of the forward half of the bow. You will receive validation stickers. These need to be displayed alongside the number as well. Depending on the state, you may need validation stickers on both sides of the hull.

You will also need to register your boat trailer separate from your boat, so keep that in mind.

How to Display Your Boat Registration Number

The following guidelines will ensure your boat registration is displayed according to regulations. Boat operators need to be aware of the number and its condition before taking a vessel out on the water.

  • The number must read from left to right
  • Digits should be bold, block letters
  • The color should contrast with the hull of the boat to make them easy to read
  • Digits should be at least 3 inches in height
  • They must be above the waterline
  • No other number can be displayed on the forward half of the vessel
  • The letters need to be separated from the numbers by a space or hyphen
  • The validation decal has to be within six inches of the registration number.
  • Your validation stickers will have a time period of validation. It will be good for one year up to three years, depending on your state.
  • Numbers that meet the size requirements can be purchased at many stores. Hardware stores often carry suitable decals. The numbers can be painted onto the hull as well with a clear stencil.

What if I Have No Boat Title?

If you do not have a boat title, there are steps you can take. Titling your boat is not impossible by any means. However, you do need to have a title to register your boat in most cases. If you want to title your boat, you can check your state’s regulations on how to apply for one. Again, this will have a small fee and you will probably need your bill of sale or proof of ownership.

You can also transfer titles easily in most states. Transferring that title and in some cases the boat registration is often free. However, some states may also have a small charge for these services.

Things to Remember

Boat registration is a part of boat ownership. As the owner of a vessel you need to keep your boat registration up to date. Make sure your validation stickers are prominently displayed.