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Complete Guide to USCG Documentation Standards and Requirements for Boats

Last Updated: November 19, 2019

Vessel documentation has a long history in the United States with some of the first requirements being outlined by the 11th Act of the First Congress in 1790. This type of regulation serves as the known standard to prove nationality for international purposes, regulate trade among coastal territories and fishing grounds, and clarify ownership of vessels in the U.S. The United States Coast Guard (USCG) manages the federal documentation of vessels through the National Vessel Documentation Center (NVDC).

Today there are approximately 225,000 USCG documented vessels that are current and valid. The requirements for federal documentation of vessels are outlined in the Code of Federal Regulations (CFR) in section 46 CFR 67. There is also a complementary section (33 CFR 173) that specifies the requirements for state registration of vessels. Vessel owners seeking documentation at the federal level must submit an application to the NVDC, and there are a number of considerations to keep in mind and ensure your boat is fully compliant at both the state and federal levels. This guide will help to clarify the specific requirements for individual vessels including differences in size, intended use, and location.

In today’s guide we’ll discuss:

The Basics of USCG Documentation Standards

The Basics of USCG Documentation Standards

Documentation with the USCG serves the purpose of proving U.S. citizenship, eligibility for endorsements, and ownership of the vessel. The endorsements, granted by the USCG as part of a Certificate of Documentation, are most commonly listed as fishery, coastwise, registry, and recreation. A vessel that is endorsed for recreation may only be used for that purpose, while all other endorsements may also be used for recreation in addition to their other intended use. A registry endorsement is typically used for international trade purposes.

USCG documentation is required for all vessels that measure at least 5 net tons, are owned entirely by a U.S. citizen, and are used in coastwise trade or fishing activities on the navigable waters of the U.S or in the Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) which is the area of ocean surrounding the coast up to approximately 200 miles offshore. Towboats and dredges operating in these areas must also be documented. Exemptions include vessels that are not operated on the navigable waters or EEZ fisheries, including certain non-self-propelled vessels used in coastwise trade within a harbor, on rivers or lakes (except the Great Lakes), or in internal waters or canals of any state.

The 5 net tons size requirement is a measure of the vessel capacity, not its weight, which can sometimes be confusing. A general rule of thumb for recreational vehicles is that a monohull vessel that measures 26 feet in length or longer will almost certainly have a net tonnage of 5 or greater. Specific calculations can be found with the vessel manufacturer’s documentation or by consulting with an expert. Manufacturers or salespeople are certain to know this number and usually serve as valuable resources for those first-timers venturing into documentation.

Documentation in the case of recreational vessels is optional, and owners can choose to receive the federal USCG documentation and/or complete their vessel registration with state authorities. Some states honor federal documentation without requiring state registration while others require it regardless. You should check your local regulations in detail. The following section will provide some points on the benefits of federal documentation. The one-time fee for documentation can range from $50 to $200 depending on the endorsements required and are valid for one year after which they can be renewed.

After documentation and/or registration are completed, proper placards must be added to the vessel to act as primary identifiers. The vessel must meet all other USCG safety requirements prior to traversing the water. These regulations and the overall plan of management will be covered in the following sections.

Benefits of Following USCG Documentation Standards

Benefits of Following USCG Documentation Standards

There are a couple of potential financial benefits to federally documenting your boat, the first being tax savings. Some states designate a preferred tax status for documented vessels; check with your local regulations to see if your state allows this. Another important consideration involves bank loans. If you will be financing a documented vessel, it will allow the bank to record a “First Preferred Ships Mortgage” and they will supply the National Vessel Documentation Center with proof showing a Satisfaction of Mortgage. This may make it easier to secure the loan and provide important documentation on the matter.

One other practical benefit of USCG documentation is the facilitation of ocean travel to foreign territories. If you plan to visit other locations outside the U.S. states and territories with your vessel, having the federal documentation can assist your clearance with foreign governments. Having federal paperwork with you can go a long way in proving the status of your boat and compliance with U.S. regulations. In many cases, individual states allow boats from other states to “visit” their waters for a certain period (in some cases 60 days) without any additional registration. It is important to consult the local regulations for any planned location of travel to ensure that you are in compliance, both international and domestic.

Overview of All USCG Documentation Standards and Requirements for Boats

Overview of All USCG Documentation Standards and Requirements for Boats

The requirements for USCG documentation (46 CFR 67) clearly outline what is necessary to keep a vessel current and in compliance. The National Vessel Documentation Center (NVDC) coordinates these applications and activities. These are the major requirements with respect to the vessel and owner:

  • Size: At least 5 tons in volume (as discussed above).
  • Build: Recreational vehicles have no restrictions on the place of construction. Coastwise or fishery endorsements require proof of construction in the U.S.
  • Ownership: All owners must be a U.S. citizen (native-born, naturalized, or derivative). This includes citizens of U.S. territories. In cases where a corporation, partnership, or entity owns the vessel for documentation purposes there are unique citizenship requirements that should be consulted in detail.
  • Mortgage: There are requirements for documentation of a preferred vessel mortgage (as discussed above).
  • Residency: Documentation can be acquired by U.S. citizens abroad as long as other requirements are met in full. The vessel can also be located offshore.
  • Operational Endorsements: These endorsements describe the types of activities the vessel is permitted to undertake and are typically assigned as: recreation, coastwise, fishery, and registry (as discussed above).

These are the important requirements with respect to the documentation itself. It is the responsibility of the vessel owner to ensure that the proper paperwork is kept up to date and maintained on the boat at all times.

  • A certificate of documentation will be issued by the Coast Guard to the registered owner upon successful processing of an application. It is valid for one year and must be renewed, although there are multi-year renewals available for recreational-only vessels. Documentation must be carried on the vessel at all times.
  • Any transactions pertaining to the vessel must be maintained on the abstract of the title and for the lifetime of the vessel. These include transfers of interest, preferred vessel mortgages, claims of lien, and bills of sale.
  • Any documentation submitted to the Coast Guard requiring notarization must be notarized by a U.S. Notary or by a U.S Consulate. If notarized in a foreign country, documentation must contain an apostille by a member country of the Hague Convention.

In addition to the documentation requirements, the USCG also maintains specific requirements for safety and for labeling and placard placement on vessels, among others. The safety and labeling requirements are important necessities to having a boat that is ready to enter the water. These requirements are covered in the following sections.

USCG-Required Safety Equipment for Boats

USCG-Required Safety Equipment for Boats

The requirements for safety equipment vary depending on the overall size of the boat, and the specific regulations should be consulted to ensure compliance with the relevant and most up-to-date list. The following are some of the basic USCG safety requirements that are generally applicable for all recreational vessels.

  • Personal Flotation Devices (PDF): Personal flotation devices onboard the vessel must be CG approved and easily accessible. The quantity and type required vary by vessel size, and in some cases, must match or exceed the number of people on a vessel at the time.
  • Fire Extinguishers: Fire extinguishers are required on vessels with enclosed engines, enclosed living spaces, or permanent fuel tanks. The type and quantity of fire extinguishers required varies by vessel size.
  • Visual Distress Signals: Visual distress signal devices must be manufactured within the last 42 months. The type (pyrotechnic and/or non-pyrotechnic) of visual distress signals and the quantity required onboard a vessel depends on the size of the vessel.
  • Sound Producing Devices: Sound producing devices are recommended for smaller vessels and required for larger boats. The specific type and quantity of sound producing devices required varies by vessel size.
  • Marine Sanitation Devices (MSD): Vessels with installed toilets must have a CG certified MSD. Local laws vary and should be consulted to ensure compliance.
  • Backfire Flame Arrestor: A backfire flame arrestor is required on each carburetor for enclosed gas-powered engines (non-outboard) built after August 1980.
  • Ventilation: Proper ventilation is required for enclosed gas-powered engines built after August 1980.

Registration and Placard Requirements from the USCG

Registration and Placard Requirements from the USCG

There are unique requirements for placard placement for state registration and federal documentation that must be kept in mind. Boats that are registered in their state must have the state-issued Certificate of Number painted or permanently attached, in plain vertical block letters, to each side of the forward half of the vessel. The numbers must be at least 3 inches in height, readable from left to right, and in a color that contrasts with the underlying background. Spaces or hyphens in between letters must be of equal width to a letter except for the letter “I” or the number “1”.

Documented recreational vessels must have a clearly readable display with the vessel name and hailing port in one location on the hull (typically this is the stern). Letters must not be less than four inches in height. An additional requirement for commercial vessels is to also include the vessel name on both sides of the bow. Recreational vessels may also do this, but it is not required. One final requirement for documented vessels (both recreational and commercial) is to affix the official vessel number in block-type Arabic numerals of at least 3 inches in height to some interior integral structure. The number must have the designation “NO.” before the number and be permanently affixed, meaning that removal would be obvious.

Boats manufactured after 1972 will also have a Hull Identification Number, which is a unique 12 digit alpha-numeric serial number for the vessel. It must not be tampered with or altered in any way. For vessels larger than 26 feet in length, there is also a requirement to place pollution regulation placards for oil discharge and waste discharge within the vessel. The NVDC can be consulted for more details on all of these requirements.

Using Durable Metalphoto® for Placards Using Durable Metalphoto® for Placards

Boats are exposed to a number of harsh conditions on the water and this is especially true in marine environments. Ensuring that your labels and placards are durable is essential. Many boat owners and manufacturers today are taking advantage of Metalphoto® to add corrosion-resistant and compliant placards to their vessels. The labels can be fully customized and are an extremely durable solution that is well suited to marine applications. In fact, this material is designed to withstand a host of unwelcoming environments, including extreme heat and sun exposure, icy conditions, and even environments where chemical exposure is abundant. Take a look at our full line of marine-suitable durable nameplates and and data plates.

Further Reading on USCG Documentation Standards and Requirements for Boats

For more information on USCG documentation standards and requirements, visit the following resources:

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