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Boat Documentation Double Take

Check your vessel documentation renewal notice. It may be from a Coast Guard look-alike.

Certificate of Documentation

Renewing a recreational boat's documentation with the U.S. Coast Guard is a simple but noble administrative task. Every year (and soon to be every five years), we fill out the form, feel a flush of patriotism, and then don't give it another thought until the next renewal notice lands in our mailbox. But this year, you may notice something amiss. The renewal notice doesn't look quite right. You could swear it didn't cost this much last year. What gives?

BoatUS has investigated a series of complaints about third-party companies offering documentation renewal services. BoatUS Members have been receiving letters with names or return addresses similar to that of the U.S. Coast Guard National Vessel Documentation Center (NVDC), located in Falling Waters, West Virginia. The letters direct boat owners to websites that may be mistaken for the official Coast Guard NVDC website.

These online businesses, while legitimate and legal, are not endorsed by the Coast Guard. In fact, in 2017 the Coast Guard issued a bulletin that says in part: "NVDC is aware that there are commercial entities that offer to manage the certification/renewal process on behalf of vessel owners for a fee. The Coast Guard does not endorse any of these companies, and the companies do not operate on behalf of the Coast Guard in any way. Any fees charged or agreements offered by such companies are in no way associated with the NVDC certification process. In addition, these companies are ot authorized to issue any form of documentation, including travel letters and/or permits that authorize operation of ANY vessel. Customer complaints can be made through the Federal Trade Commission's (FTC) website."

These third-party service providers are frequently charging three times what it actually costs to renew directly through NVDC. To compound the issue, these companies may encourage you to prepay for multiple years, potentially costing hundreds of dollars more than if you'd submitted a renewal application yourself. Offers of premium "expedited" services are equally moot. The Coast Guard does not give priority to applications submitted through third-party businesses.

While the Coast Guard can't prevent third-parties from "assisting" boaters with renewals, it's simple and inexpensive to renew your vessel documentation online yourself, directly through the NVDC website and click on "Instructions and Forms," then "Certificate of Documentation Application for Renewal."

U.S. Coast Guard Vessel Documentation FAQs

What is vessel documentation?
It is the process of registering a boat with the U.S. Coast Guard National Vessel Documentation Center (NVDC). Unlike state titling, vessel documentation occurs at the federal level.

What is a Coast Guard Certificate of Documentation?
A COD establishes the ownership and nationality of a vessel. Recreational vessels over 5 net tons can be documented with the Coast Guard and obtain a COD.

USCG documentation

What are the benefits of vessel documentation?
There are three scenarios where you might want to document your recreational boat:

1. You plan to use your boat in international waters. A COD is internationally recognized and makes it much easier for an American vessel to enter and leave foreign ports.

2. You don't want to display state registration numbers for aesthetic reasons. A documented vessel does not display state registration numbers. Instead, they visibly display their name, hailing port, and are subject to Coast Guard lettering requirements.

3. You opted to finance your boat, and the bank requires vessel documentation. Lenders frequently require eligible vessels to have documentation because documented vessels qualify for preferred mortgages. The Coast Guard cannot make changes in documentation (e.g., change of vessel ownership) without consent from the lender.

Can a boat be both titled and documented?
No. A documented vessel may not be titled by a state. However, some states may require documented vessels to maintain state-level registration. Regardless of registration status, all vessel owners must comply with state laws and pay applicable state taxes.

Is my boat eligible?
To be eligible for Coast Guard vessel documentation, recreational vessels must be wholly owned by a U.S. citizen and measure a minimum of 5 net tons. Vessels greater than 25 feet are likely to meet the 5-net-ton minimum requirement.

What does it cost?
As of January 1, 2021, an initial COD cost $130. A full schedule of fees and services is listed on the NVDC website and click "Fee Schedule".

How do I document a vessel with the Coast Guard?
Document or renew your COD directly through the Coast Guard NVDC. Owners generally need to submit an application for documentation (form CG-1258), proof of ownership (e.g., state title, state registration, form CG-1340 Bill of Sale, form CG-1261 Builders Certificate), and an application for simplified measurement (form CG-5397) if the vessel has not been previously documented. See the Coast Guard NVDC website for complete instructions, forms, pricing, and contact info.

How do I renew my vessel documentation?
In 2021, a COD is valid for one to five years. Beginning in January 2022, you'll only renew every five years. (See "Upcoming changes" at below.) A renewal application can be made on the NVDC website. Expect to receive a notice of renewal from the Coast Guard 45 days before expiration.

Click here for more common vessel documentation questions and answers.

Upcoming Changes

Beginning January 1, 2022, recreational vessel documentation will be valid for five years. One-year renewals will no longer be available. The move is the result of U.S. Coast Guard cost-saving efforts and requirements set forth in the Frank LoBiondo Coast Guard Authorization Act of 2018. As of press time, the new five-year documentation cost is fixed at $130. (One-year renewal fees are currently $26.) Additional fees apply for initial documentation as well as exchanges. The Coast Guard will not issue refunds if an owner cancels documentation before the five-year expiration or if a vessel is sold during the renewal period.

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Fiona McGlynn

Contributing Editor, BoatUS Magazine

BoatUS Magazine contributing editor Fiona McGlynn and her husband sailed their 35-footer trans-Pacific for two years. Now living north of 59, she’s part of their local search and rescue team and edits, a millennial boating website.