A motor vehicle is technically anything that can convey people or cargo, is motor-driven, and does not run on rails.
Traditionally, this definition applied to things like cars, trucks, SUVs, and motorcycles. However, most states require boats to be considered as motor vehicles and registered as such.
Are boats considered motor vehicles?
According to state law, boats can be considered motor vehicles. In most cases, the defining feature is whether or not they have a motor on them. Every state is different, and there are some usual exceptions, so be sure to check your local laws before operating a boat on public waterways.
Let’s dig into the details!
Even a sailboat will usually be considered to be a motor vehicle if it has an auxiliary motor. Because of this, the boat will need to be registered with the state. Most states, however, exempt lifeboats, documented vessels, and boats registered in other states(usually for only 30-90 days).
Invasive species are a real problem in the U.S. For this reason, many states require some sort of invasive species permit or decal for all boats, whether you are a resident or non-resident.
If you plan to operate your boat in another state, make sure you check ahead of time to see if you need an Aquatic Invasive Species stamp or something similar.
In this post, we’ll run through all 50 states so you can determine whether or not your state considers your boat a motor vehicle.
If it does, you’ll most likely need to get it registered.
Which Boats Are Considered Motor Vehicles by State Law
|Alabama||You must register sailboats, boats for hire, and any mechanically propelled vessel.|
|Alaska||All boats must be registered in Alaska. However, the fee for non-powered boats is $14.00 less than the fee for powered boats.|
|Arizona||Any motor-powered craft must be registered regardless of size, construction, or type and size of the motor.|
|Arkansas||Boats with motors or sails must be registered before being used on public waters.|
|California||Any boat with a motor or any boat over 8 feet in length with a sail must be registered.|
|Colorado||Any boat with a motor or sail operating on public waters must be registered. Both residents and non-residents will also need an Aquatic Nuisance Species(ANS) stamp for any vessel launched in Colorado.|
|Connecticut||All boats with motors and sailboats less than 19.5 feet must be registered.|
|Delaware||All motorboats must be registered.|
|Florida||Boats without motors that are less than 16 feet do not have to be registered.|
|Georgia||All mechanically powered boats, as well as sailboats over 12 feet, must be registered.|
|Hawaii||Manually propelled boats, as well as sailboats under 8 feet, do not have to be registered.|
|Idaho||All motorized boats must be registered and titled. Sailboats without motors are exempt. An invasive species sticker is required for any boat launched in Idaho, resident or non-resident.|
|Illinois||All powered watercraft, machinery or sail, must be registered.|
|Indiana||Non-powered watercraft do not need to be registered. However, non-motorized sailboats do need valid watercraft decals. Lifeboats are exempt.|
|Iowa||Inflatable boats under 7 feet without motors/sails and canoes and kayaks under 13 feet without motors/sails are exempt from registration.|
|Kansas||All boats with motors or sails must be registered.|
|Kentucky||Mechanically powered vessels must be registered with the state.|
|Louisiana||All boats with motors and sailboats over 12 feet must be registered.|
|Maine||All motorboats other than a ship’s lifeboat must be registered.|
|Maryland||Any boat with a mechanical propulsion system must be registered with the state.|
|Massachusetts||Any boat with a motor must be registered with the state.|
|Michigan||All sailboats and motorboats must be registered. Hand powered boats over 16 feet in length must be registered as well.|
|Minnesota||Non-motorized boats under 10 feet in length and duck boats during duck season, and rice boats during harvest season do not need to be registered.|
|Mississippi||All sailboats and vessels equipped with machine power must be registered.|
|Missouri||All boats with motors and any sailboats over 12 feet long need to be registered.|
|Montana||Sailboats over 12 feet long and all motorboats need to be registered.|
|Nebraska||All motorboats must be registered with the state. All residents and non-residents are required to have an Aquatic Invasive Species stamp.|
|Nevada||Lifeboats and non-motorized boats do not need to be registered with the state. Residents and non-residents need an Aquatic Invasive Species decal, including most paddle craft.|
|New Hampshire||Boats with motors and sailboats that are 12 feet long or longer need to be registered.|
|New Jersey||All boats over 12 feet long must be registered. The only exemptions are lifeboats, canoes, kayaks, dinghies, and inflatable boats.|
|New Mexico||All motorboats and sailboats must be registered.|
|New York||Boats without a motor do not need to be registered. Lifeboats with or without a motor do not need to be registered.|
|North Carolina||All motorized boats used on public waters must be registered. Sailboats of 14 feet at the load waterline must be registered.|
|North Dakota||Any motor-driven craft must be registered. All residents and non-residents must have an Aquatic Nuisance Species sticker.|
|Ohio||All boats must be registered in Ohio.|
|Oklahoma||Canoes and paddleboats do not need to be registered. Paddleboats must be less than 8 feet in length.|
|Oregon||All motorized boats have to be registered. All boats(resident and non-resident) over 10 feet must have a Waterway Access Permit(aka Aquatic Invasive Species permit).|
|Pennsylvania||Boats without motors do not need to be registered. However, if you use them at state parks, they will need to be registered.|
|Rhode Island||All motorized vessels and any boat over 12 feet must be registered.|
|South Carolina||All motorized boats and all sailboats need to be registered. This rule excludes human-powered vessels.|
|South Dakota||All motorboats and any boat over 12 feet in length must register their boat with the state. This does not include canoes, kayaks, and inflatable boats.|
|Tennessee||All mechanically powered boats and all sailboats must be registered with the state.|
|Texas||Sailboats over 14 feet in length, as well as all motorboats, must be registered in Texas.|
|Utah||All sailboats and motorboats must be registered.|
|Vermont||Human propelled boats, as well as sailboats without motors, do not need to be registered.|
|Virginia||Boats used on private waters, human-powered boats, and sailboats do not need to be registered.|
|Washington||Boats under 16 feet long with motors with less than 10hp do not need to be registered. Human-powered boats do not need to be titled. Out-of-State boats need an Aquatic Invasive Species permit.|
|West Virginia||All boats with any motor must be registered. Registration fees vary depending on the length of your boat.|
|Wisconsin||All motorized boats and sailboats longer than 12 feet in length must be registered.|
|Wyoming||Any motorized watercraft must be registered. Residents and non-residents must have an Aquatic Invasive Species decal.|
Other Things to Keep in Mind
Just because your state does not require registration for your particular boat, it doesn’t mean that your boat trailer does not. In some states, you will need some registration for your trailer. You’ll also need to get a set of plates for the trailer as well.
Additionally, some states do not require you to register all boats, but their state parks do. For example, in my home state of Pennsylvania, I do not have to register my kayak.
However, I do have to register it if I want to take it into Pennsylvania state parks.
Another thought to keep in mind is that not all states will require you to register your boat, but they may require you to have a title. This can sometimes be a good thing because you’ll be able to use your title as proof of ownership.
You may need this one day if your boat is stolen or destroyed.
For more information, check out our article on boat titles here: Does My Boat Need A Title? 15 Boats Explained (Titling Rules)
Rules and Regulations
It should also be noted that just because your boat does not technically qualify as a motor vehicle, it doesn’t mean that boating rules do not apply to you.
If it is illegal to drink alcohol while driving a motorboat, it is probably illegal for you to drink alcohol while using your human-powered boat or sailboat.
Out of State Boating
Most states will give you a particular amount of time in their state before you have to register your boat, generally 30-90 days. However, this may only apply if your state has its own registration system for your particular boat.
For example, if your kayak must be registered in one state, another state that requires registration may accept your home state’s registration.
On the other hand, if your state does not require registration and the state you’re planning to boat in does require it, you may have to get it registered.
Also, some states may not accept your old state’s registration at all, so you may not be able to use your boat in other states without first getting it registered in that state.
In addition to federal laws, every state, county, township, and even body of water may have different rules and regulations regarding whether or not your boat is considered a motorboat.
Make sure you keep informed, and if you’re not sure, it never hurts to ask.
Morten is the founder of GoDownsize. He has filmed and interviewed people living in tiny houses and RVs since 2011. He grew up on the coast where his dad took him boating from a young age. He has completely rebuilt two RVs in which he travels with his family for months at the time. Read more about Morten here.