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U.S. Coast Guard Vessel Documentation FAQs

Wondering how to renew or document a vessel with the U.S. Coast Guard? BoatUS answers your most common questions on vessel documentation.

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What is USCG vessel documentation?

Vessel documentation is the process of registering a boat with the U.S. Coast Guard National Vessel Documentation Center. Unlike state titling, USCG vessel documentation occurs at the federal level.

What is a USCG Certificate of Documentation?

A USCG Certificate of Documentation establishes the ownership and nationality of a vessel. Recreational vessels over five net tons have the option to document their vessel with the U.S. Coast Guard and obtain a Certificate of Documentation.

What are the benefits of Coast Guard 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 Certificate of Documentation 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 will frequently require eligible vessels to have documentation because documented vessels qualify for preferred mortgages, and 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 their 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 U.S. Coast Guard vessel documentation, recreational vessels must be wholly owned by a U.S. citizen and measure a minimum of five net tons. Vessels greater than 27 feet are likely to meet the five net ton minimum requirement.

What does it cost?

As of January 2021, an initial Certificate of Documentation cost $133. A full schedule of fees and services is listed on the Coast Guard website.

Are vessel documentation services legitimate?

Be on the lookout for third-party companies selling vessel documentation and renewal services. While legitimate and legal, these companies are not endorsed by the Coast Guard. They also typically charge three times more than the Coast Guard National Vessel Documentation Center.

How do I document a vessel with the USCG?

Boat owners can document their vessel or renew their Certificate of Documentation directly through the Coast Guard's National Vessel Documentation Center. Owners will generally need to submit:

  • Proof of ownership (e.g., state title, state registration, form CG-1340 Bill of Sale, form CG-1261 Builders Certificate)
  • An application for simplified measurement (form CG-5397), if the vessel has not been previously documented

See the Coast Guard National Vessel Documentation Center website for complete instructions, forms, pricing, FAQs and contact information.

How do I renew my USCG vessel documentation?

A renewal application can be made on the National Vessel Documentation Center's website. Expect to receive a notice of renewal from the Coast Guard, 45 days before expiration. 

The Coast Guard is currently transitioning from single-year renewal to five-year renewal.

From January 1, 2019 to December 31, 2021 renewal costs $26 a year and recreational boaters can select a validity period, from one to five years.

Beginning January 1, 2022 recreational Certificates of Documentation will only be issued for a validity period of five years. The new five-year documentation is the only renewal option available and is fixed at $130.

How do you transfer ownership of a documented vessel?

Once you’ve sold a documented vessel, there are a few important after-the-sale details to be aware of. For example, you must submit a U.S. Coast Guard Bill of Sale (CG-1340) or fill out the Sale of Transfer of Vessel section on the back side of the Certificate of Documentation.

Source: NVDC FAQ page

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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.