Every engine-equipped boat operating in U.S. waters, as well as many other types of boats, must be registered with a state boating agency or with the federal government. An estimated 12 million boats are currently registered in the U.S.

Registration numbers consisting of a two-letter state code and a combination of letters and numbers are displayed on both sides of the bow. Registration is usually renewed every year or two.

Boat registration is similar to car registration. In most states, registration fees pay for the enforcement of navigation and pollution rules. Registration programs also aid in identifying lost or stolen boats. Fees collected usually fund state boating programs. Not all states require that boats be titled, so ownership can also be established through boat registration records.

Federal documentation is a national form of registration administered by the U.S. Coast Guard for boats over 5 net tons (usually about 27 ft.). Its chief benefit is that mortgages, bills of sale and liens can be registered at the federal level, making them easy to trace. Lenders favor this approach and may require it for larger boat loans. Only boats owned by U.S. citizens qualify for documentation.

For more information about documentation, contact the U.S. Coast Guard, 800-368-5647 or visit the National Vessel Documentation Center.