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20 September 2013

Registering Your Boat (Pt 3) - USA


The American Flag
The 50 stars represent each of the states and the 13 stripes
represent the original British colonies that declared independence

In preparation for buying our next boat in the States, I've been researching our boat registration options given we're dual citizens (Ireland and USA) and permanent residents of New Zealand. I've had a look at New Zealand and Ireland so far and now it is time to check out how it works in the States.

There seems to be a lot of information out there about boat registration in the States. However, it all seems to be rather confusing especially as it gets tied up with a whole host of other issues such as taxation, cruising permits, customs, residency, state registration etc. So to make it simple (at least for now), I'm just going to look at the process for documenting your boat nationally through the US Coast Guard. There will probably be another post(s) required to look at all those other issues which quite frankly are giving me a headache just now. Avoidance and denial are a sure fire way to cure a headache, so we'll pretend it is a straightforward process to register your boat in the States.

The first step is to go to the US Coast Guard website. Their URL ends in "mil" which of course means "military" and there is even a handy indicator on the home page telling you the current maritime security threat level. Today it is at Level 1 which means that "minimum appropriate security measures shall be maintained at all times." Until I looked up the definition of Level 1, I had assumed it wasn't good news as the number 1 usually is the highest you can go. Fortunately, they do things a bit topsy turvy and Level 1 is the lowest. Level 3 is the highest. Phew, we can rest easy - today is a Level 1 day. This all just goes to remind you that the US Coast Guard falls under the Department of Homeland Security. Kind of takes the pleasure out of pleasure vessel if you spend too much time thinking about it. So we won't. We'll just thank the men and women of the US Coast Guard for protecting our waters and move on to the bureaucratic process of registering your boat.

The process of nationally registering your boat is called "vessel documentation" and is actually one of the oldest functions of the government going back to the 11th Act of the First Congress. If I had paid more attention in American History class I might have known this already. Instead I read it on the website. It is possibly the most interesting thing on there.

The first step is to check whether of not we can register a boat we buy in the States with the US Coast Guard. The two requirements to document your vessel are that it is at least five net tons and that the owners are American citizens. Check and check. So far so good. You have to get your Certificate of Documentation endorsed for fishery, coastwise, registry or recreation. I assume they mean commercial fishery and I don't know what they mean by coastwise or registry, so we'll go with a recreational endorsement. Easy so far. You have to prove you own the boat, prove you are an American citizen and be eligible for the type of endorsement you want. All sounds straightforward.

The next step is to get a copy of Form CG-1258 which is three pages long and asks you for all sorts of information including your name, your US address, social security number (to prove you are a US citizen), your hailing port (which must be a US city), what type of boat it is and what kind of horsepower you have. There are a lot of other sections which don't apply to us which can be easily bypassed. US citizenship is mentioned a few more times in the application. They want to make really sure that you realize that you must be an American to fill out this form. And they also remind you that the penalties are severe if you lie to them about this. Unless our parents lied to us and forged our birth certificates, we're okay as I was born in Florida and Scott was born in North Dakota.

If you have more than one owner of the boat then you have to pick a "managing owner" as the US government only wants to deal with one person. I nominate me. I like to be in charge. Scott can attest to my bossy qualities. And of course, you also get to pick your boat name provided that it:


  • Is 33 characters or less
  • Doesn't sound or look like any word(s) used to solicit assistance at sea
  • Doesn't sound or look like any word(s) that are obscene, indecent, use profane language or are racial or ethnic epithets
While the form is not very aesthetically pleasing, it seems pretty straightforward for a boat that has been previously registered. You can even email it in along with your credit card details so that they can charge you US$84 to transfer the boat into your name. You have to renew your documentation annually but it doesn't look like they charge you to do so.

Once you get your official certificate of documentation and number you then have to put it in the interior of your boat hull preceded by "NO." in numbers at least three inches high. You also have to put the name and hailing port (city and state) on the exterior of your hull ensuring it is at least four inches high. I wonder if anyone ever comes out with a ruler to check your measurements?

So in comparison to registering your boat in New Zealand, documenting your boat in the States seems relatively similar from a bureaucracy point of view, but far cheaper. Of course, given tax issues, cruising permits, state registration, residency issues etc. it probably isn't as straightforward as all that so we'll have to have to do some more research before we make a final determination as to where it makes the most sense to register our boat.

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