How To Know If My Boat Is Registered (Explained)

If you own a car, you already know that it must be registered – including a license plate and validation sticker – to operate it legally.

Well, a boat is really no different: it usually needs to be properly registered with your state to operate on public waters legally.

Whether you’re buying a new boat or aren’t too familiar with the one you own, it is essential to make sure that the vessel is registered and updated.

So, how do you know if your boat is registered and what steps should be taken next?

Luckily, we’ve found those answers for you:

Where Do I Check my Vessel Registration?

Checking on your vessel registration is fairly simple. First, locate the registration numbers (if any) on your vessel.

These are usually found along either side and towards the front of the boat.

Next, locate the validation sticker and make sure the registration has not expired. You are required to have both the validation sticker and the registration number on your vessel at all times.

Need to apply for a new registration number or check on your current one? No problem.

You can usually do this through your state’s local DMV office, just as you would with a car.

It’s an easy process… so don’t skip it!

How Do you Transfer a Boat Title?

Any time a boat is bought or sold, the title must be transferred to the new owner.

Remember, a registration shows that the vessel is registered to be operated on public waterways.

A title, however, proves that you are the legal owner of that boat.

The process of transferring a title is fairly easy.

For a full explanation, check out How To Get & Transfer Boat Titles.

What Do the Registration Numbers Mean?

So your boat now has its new registration number and sticker, but what do these numbers (and letters) mean?

It’s important to note that sometimes you’ll see two different sets of numbers on a boat: the hull identification number (HIN) and the registration number. It’s important not to get these confused.

The HIN is the same as a car or truck’s VIN and acts as a form of identification by the manufacturer. This will not have the validation sticker next to it.

The number that has a sticker next to it is the registration number, which is more important.

The registration number usually begins with your state’s abbreviation and is followed by a random set of numbers and letters.

For example, if you live in Florida, the registration number might look something like this:

  • FL 1234 YZ

Again, this serves as a license plate for the boat and shows that you have registered the vessel for use on approved waterways.

How Do you Prove Ownership of a Boat?

When the manufacturer sells a new boat to a purchaser, usually a dealership, they give the purchaser a Manufacturer’s Statement of Origin or MSO.

The MSO is similar to a Title in that it proves ownership of the boat.

Now, when you purchase the boat from that dealer, they will sign over the MSO to you, and you will be the official owner of the vessel. You can now present the MSO to your local DMV to prove that you’re the owner of the boat, and they will issue you a new registration number.

When purchasing a used boat, however, you’ll need to make sure the previous owner is, in fact, the real owner by verifying the boat registration and the Title.

Remember, the Title serves the same purpose as an MSO: it shows proof of ownership (If your state doesn’t require a boat Title, the registration should be enough).

The process would be the same if you were to sell the vessel as well.

As long as you have the registration and Title to the vessel in your possession, that’s all you need to prove you’re the real owner.

How Long Does it Take to Get a Boat Registered?

The process can be pretty quick as long as you have all the documents requested by the DMV.

How long you wait at the DMV is another story, though… and that’s not really up to you.

But, once you do submit everything to the DMV, they will process the information, and you should receive your registration numbers and validation sticker generally within a couple of weeks.

In other words, it’s a fairly simple process and shouldn’t take much time at all.

How Do You Make Sure a Boat is not Stolen?

It’s hard to believe, but stolen boats are pretty common.

According to a National Insurance Crime Bureau report, there were 4,240 stolen vessels reported to the FBI in 2019.

Though unlikely, it is possible that you come across a stolen boat and never know it.

So how can you make sure a boat isn’t stolen before purchasing it?

Here are some signs to look out for:

1. Expired registration

Though not always a problem, an expired registration is definitely a red flag.

Take a look at the registration, Title, and other documents and verify the numbers with the local DMV or authorities to know if that vessel was reported stolen.

2. Unreadable or damaged HIN

The Hull Identification Number is generated by the manufacturer and is a requirement for every boat.

If this number is faded, scratched out, or shows other signs of obvious tampering, that could be a sign the vessel was stolen.

If the HIN is easily readable, it is still good to check the HIN on registration or Title to make sure the numbers match up with the boat.

3. No records

If the boat is older and has obvious signs of wear, there’s a good chance some maintenance has been done before.

If the seller has no maintenance records and questions any concerns you have, they probably don’t know much about the boat (because it was stolen).

Most real owners would have this information.

Some other obvious signs that may point to a stolen boat are unrealistic selling prices, cleanliness, an undersized or oversized trailer, and a mismatched or missing motor.

What Can Happen if the Boat is not Registered?

In most cases, an unregistered boat cannot be legally operated in public waters. Period.

A boat without a registration number is like a car without a license plate: without one, local authorities have no way to know if the operator owns the vessel.

For all they know, the boat was stolen by the operator.

If the owner is caught navigating waters without a boat registration, there’s no doubt that the local authorities will take strict action.

How Quickly Should a Boat Get Registered When Changing Owners?

Although it varies by state, the owner is typically required to register a motorized vessel within about 30 days of purchase.

It is important to make this deadline to avoid any late fees or attention from local officials.

You wouldn’t want to be driving your car around with no license plate for too long after purchasing it, would you?

Even though you may have a grace period, go ahead and register the vessel as soon as possible to avoid any issues.


NICB: 2019 Watercraft Theft Report

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