The U.S. government has been registering boats since the earliest days of the nation through a process called vessel documentation, but it doesn't apply to every boat. If your boat isn't subject to federal registration, it may still need to be registered in your state.
The federal government requires registration of certain vessels with the Coast Guard to prove the boat's nationality. The system also facilitates trade between states and allows certain vehicles to enter restricted waters. Vessels of 5 net tons or more used for fishing or in coastal trade must register, unless they are exempt. Net tonnage refers to the volume of a boat, not its weight or cargo capacity. If your boat is more than 25 feet long, it is likely to measure at least 5 net tons.
To register, you have to prove that you own the boat, that you are a U.S. citizen, and that your boat qualifies for one of the relevant types of endorsement. These endorsements include: fishery, coastwise, registry (for foreign trade) or recreation.
Forms and Evidence
You can establish ownership with a Builder's Certification (Form CG-1261), naming you as the person for whom the vessel was built or to whom the vessel was first transferred. You can also use a copy of your state or foreign registration. Bills of sale proving your ownership also work.
Establish citizenship with form CG-1258. Individuals can establish citizenship, but so can owners that are corporations, partnerships, and other business entities – as long as they are registered in a state or the U.S. and certain executives and, in some cases, stockholders are U.S. citizens.
If you want an endorsement for fisheries or coastwise trade, you need "build evidence" that the boat was built in the U.S. Present an original Builder's Certification on form CG-1261. That form must be completed by the person or company who constructed the vessel.
Once registered, your vessel is called "documented." At this point, you must have the boat's name and port written in permanent fashion on the hull. There is no rule preventing two or more boats from having the same name. The official registration number must be permanently marked on the inside of the boat.
Questions and Answers
How do I change the boat's name?
Submit form CG-1258 along with the appropriate fees.
Where can I get forms?
Go to the Coast Guard vessel documentation
- Is my documented vessel free from state regulation?
Not necessarily. States can require you to register documented vessels.
Some, but not all, states require boat registration. Some only require undocumented vessels (those not subject to vessel documentation) to register. Others require both undocumented and documented vessels to register.
California, for example, requires DMV registration of all in-state motor-powered boats and sail-powered vessels over 8 feet long that are not documented by the U.S. Coast Guard. You have to register your boat before you use it on California waters.
The registration and title process is similar to that for cars. This is what you need:
- Application for Vessel Certificate of Number (BOAT 101).
- Proof of ownership documentation, like an out-of-state title in your name or endorsed for transfer to you, or a conditional sales contract or security interest showing your name as the purchaser.
Tennessee doesn't title boats, but it requires boat registration for boats used principally in the state. In Tennessee, you have to register all mechanically powered vessels and all sailboats, even if they are documented by the U.S. Coast Guard.
To register a boat in Tennessee, you have to complete an application form and show proof you paid the sales tax when you bought the boat. Exact documentation requirements vary from county to county in Tennessee, so you'll need to call the county clerk in your area to find out the details.