Understanding Boat Title, Registration and Documentation

There’s an old saying that there are only two things guaranteed in life: death and taxes. Perhaps they should add “paperwork” to that list, because it seems that whatever you do, there’s bound to be paperwork involved.

Boat title registration documentation explained

Buying a boat is no exception. Whether you’re buying a new boat from the dealership or getting a good deal on a used boat in a private transaction, there’s paperwork involved. You have to register the boat, probably have to get a title for it, and maybe even document it. Here’s some useful information on what the title, registration and documentation are, why they’re important and how to get them. 

What is a Boat Title?

A title is a legal document that proves ownership of a particular asset. You have a title for your house, car or truck, so why not your boat? 

Boat title explained

The laws regarding boat titles vary by state. Some states require boats over a certain size to be titled. Others require boats powered by a motor to be titled, and some even require all boats to be titled.

Check with your state’s boating department for the requirements, but know that virtually all recreational boats must have a title. In the unlikely event you don’t need a title for your boat, you should have one anyway, because it proves you’re the legal owner and prevents someone else from claiming it as their own.

Boat title dealership

If you bought your boat new, the dealer will issue you a title. When you buy a secondhand boat, make sure the previous owner signs the title over to you. Either way, keep your boat’s title in a safe place once you have it.

What is Boat Registration?

The registration of a boat is the documenting of the vessel with the state it’s primarily used in. It establishes a link to the owner, although it doesn’t prove outright ownership like the title does.

Boat registration explained

Registration is used to identify the boat, which helps insure it and assists the police in recovering it if it’s stolen. Most states require a boat to be titled before issuing a registration.

The laws regarding boat registration also vary by state, but without exception all boats powered by a motor must be registered. However, what constitutes a motor varies between states. For example, in some states the motor must be 5HP or higher for the boat to need registration, while in others any size motor requires the boat to be registered. Trolling motors are exempt in some states.

Boat registration motor type

In most states, boats are registered with the Department of Motor Vehicles, but in others the registration is done through the Department of Fish and Wildlife or a similar licensing department. Most states require a boat to be registered to the new owner within 30 day of the purchase, and you must carry the registration certificate on your boat so it can be inspected by any enforcement officer.

What is Boat Documentation?

A documented boat is one that’s been registered with the US Coast Guard. It has a detailed history, including when it was built, the list of previous owners, and a record of any liens on the vessel.

Boat documentation explained

Documenting a boat with the USCG isn’t always mandatory. For example, if financing is used to buy the boat, the bank may require USCG documentation for it to approve the loan, because it provides the bank a lien at a federal level. 

Boat documenting also aids clearance into foreign waters. And because it gives a clear picture of the boat’s ownership history, documentation is appealing to prospective buyers. Another appealing benefit of USCG documentation is that the boat doesn’t have to display its registration number along its sides. Instead, all it’s required to show is the vessel’s name.

Boat documentation USCG waters

Boats must be at least 5 net tons to require documentation. A net ton is the measurement of the vessel’s volume, not its weight. Most boats over 25 feet are over 5 net tons. You must be a US citizen to document a boat, and submit the appropriate forms to the USCG National Vessel Documentation Center. Finally, you should carry the USCG documentation certificate on your boat at all times so it can be inspected by an enforcement officer.


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