Image of Boat Titles and Validation Sticker

If you are like most boat buyers, you will be anxious to start using your new vessel right away.  But before you drop your boat in for a fun day on the water, you will want to make sure it is properly titled and registered to ensure that you are in compliance with state regulations.

In this chapter, I will describe how to go about titling and registering your new vessel.  Though the specific process varies somewhat by location, this will provide you with a general overview of the steps involved to help you navigate the process for your home state.

Understanding Registration and Titling

Titling

As with automobiles, a title serves as legal proof of ownership.  The size or types of boats that require a title differ by state.   In some cases, it is all motorized vessels.  In other cases, it applies to boats of a certain length.  Also, a separate title is often issued for the trailer and perhaps even the outboard motor (if applicable).  Sterndrive and inboard engines are typically included in the boat title (i.e., they are not titled separately).

Registration

Whereas a boat title designates legal ownership, the registration dictates whether the vessel can be legally docked, stored, moored and/or operated on public waters within that state. Think of it as a license plate for your boat.  As with your vehicle, when you register your boat you will be assigned a unique letter and number combination to identify your vessel with the state.  There is also a separate “validation decal” to denote the years in which the registration is valid (similar to the month and year sticker for your vehicle).  This is something that you will need to renew every two years or so.  Nearly all motorized boats and even some non-motorized vessels are required to be registered.

Titling Process

If you purchased your boat from a private party, the seller should have signed the title over to you at time of purchase (if a title is required in your state).  You then need to apply for a new title with your appropriate state agency.  If you bought your boat from a dealer or broker, they will typically handle or help with the necessary paperwork to get the title(s) in your name.

Assuming you will need to apply for a new title, the following are details on where and how to do it.

Where to Apply

The state agency responsible for issuing titles varies by state.  And the agency that issues the title for your boat and motor may differ from that for your trailer.  For example, in my home state of Texas, boats and outboard motors are titled by the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department.  Trailers, on the other hand, are handled by the Texas Department of Transportation (since they govern activity on roads and highways).  To find the appropriate agency for boat and motor titling in your state, check out this handy interactive map:  https://www.dmv.org/boat-registration.php For boat trailer titling, do an online search using keywords such as: boat trailer title.

Required Documentation

To apply for a boat title, you will likely need the following:

  • Proof of Ownership. This is either the Manufacturer Statement of Origin (new boats) or the title signed over to you by the previous owner (used boats)
  • Bill of Sale. This should specify the details of the sale including the names, addresses and signatures of the buyer and seller, the date of sale, the purchase price (listed separately for the boat and trailer – if applicable) and a description of the boat (make, model year and hull identification number).  You can find an example Bill of Sale template on my website here: https://boaterinput.com/boat-bill-of-sale/
  • Completed Application Form. Each state has its own application form that you should be able to download online or fill out at the agency that handles titling for boats and/or trailers in your area.  The dmv.org website referenced earlier might provide a link to the appropriate form for your state.
  • Proof of Sales Tax Payment. Many states require a sales tax payment – even on used boats purchased from a private party.  If you already paid a sales tax (e.g., if purchased from a dealer), you will need to provide proof of payment.  Otherwise, you will be required to pay the sales tax when applying for your title.
  • Personal identification such as a driver’s license or state-issued ID.

You are required to title your boat within a set number of days after purchase (often 30 days), otherwise additional fees might apply.

Fees

When you apply for a title, you will need to pay a nominal application fee (currently $27 in Texas) plus any unpaid sales tax (currently 6.25% of the boat purchase price less the value of your trade-in, if applicable, in Texas).  Be sure to check with your state agency to determine their accepted methods of payment.  Most will take personal checks but not credit cards.

Updates

Once you receive your title, you will not need to update or renew it unless there is a change of ownership or you have paid off the loan and wish to get a “clean” title (i.e., without a lienholder listed).   In either case, you can apply for a replacement title with your state agency for an additional administrative fee.

Registration Process

In order to legally operate a motorboat on public waterways within your state, it needs to be registered.  In most cases, you apply for your initial boat registration at the same time and at the same agency in which you apply for a title.  This is best done in person to avoid any unexpected questions or issues that might delay the process.  However, once your boat is registered, you should be able to renew it online or by mail about every 2 to 3 years – depending on your state.

Not all boats need to be registered (though nearly all motorized boats do).  Some smaller (non-motorized) vessels and sailboats are exempt.  To find out the registration requirements for your state, see the interactive map at https://www.dmv.org/boat-registration.php.

How to Register

As mentioned above, you register your boat at the same place and at the same time you apply for a title – and both are often handled within the same state agency form.  Visit the dmv.org site to find the agency responsible within your state.  You will not need any additional documentation but there will be some added fees.

Fees

The fees to title your boat are a one-time expense to cover the administrative cost for processing and to collect sales taxes.  Registration fees, on the other hand, are required every 2-3 years and are used to cover a variety of things such as administrative expenses, safety and enforcement (e.g., water patrol), resource conservation, infrastructure maintenance (e.g., ramps, docks, restrooms, etc.) and other boater amenities.

The cost to register a boat varies by state and by boat size.  For example, here in Texas, the current cost is $53 for a 16’-26’ motorized boat (and is valid for two years).  Do an online search of “registration fees <state>” (without the quotes or brackets) to find the applicable fees for your area.  You might also find a summary of fee here: https://www.dmv.org/boat-registration.php.

Boat Registration NumberDisplaying Your Registration Information

Unlike when you title and register a vehicle, you are not given a “license plate” for your boat.  Instead, you are assigned a registration number (eight-character combination of letters and numbers) that uniquely identifies your vessel and you are responsible for getting the decals to display this information on your boat (along with the “validation decal” provided by your state agency).  Most states require that you use “block” letters that are at least 3” tall for your registration number decal.

You have several options to get your registration number decal.  For basic decals, you can visit a hardware store or Walmart-com which often carries vinyl decals for boaters.  However, I think a better option is to order your decals online which will give you more color and design options.  Another advantage is that many of these custom decal providers will give you the full decal on one strip which makes it much easier to apply rather than trying to line up each individual letter or number.  There are many places to order these online (and if you bought from a dealer, they will likely have a suggestion).  A couple places to check out are BoatDecals.biz and SignSpecialist.com.  You can even order them on Amazon.com but with less customization options.

When you receive the square “validation decal” from your state, it will have instructions for how it is to be displayed on your boat (along with the registration number decal that you acquired).  You will need to affix your registration number along with the validation decal on both the port and starboard size of your hull near the front of your boat.  In Texas, the validation decal is to be in line with and 3” inches behind (towards the stern) your registration letters/numbers.

Renewals

Once you register your boat for the first time, most states will allow you to renew it online for your convenience.  You need to renew your registration about every 2-3 years, depending on your state.  You will likely receive a courtesy reminder in the mail before your registration expires but it is still your responsibility to renew your registration on time even if you don’t receive a reminder.

Now that you have titled and registered your boat, you are officially ready to enjoy your boat on waterways within your home state.  And, if you are thinking of boating in a different state, that should not be a problem either.  States generally allow you a set number of days to operate a boat in another state provided that it is registered elsewhere.  For example, in Texas, visitors are permitted to operate their boat on Texas waterways for up to 90 consecutive days with their out-of-state registration.  This should provide ample time for those who want to “migrate” here for the winter season.

Jerry Mona - BoaterInput

About the author

Jerry Mona is an avid boater and angler and long-time boating industry insider. With over three decades of experience, he is often considered to be the leading research expert with boaters and has helped numerous manufacturers and trade associations to understand the needs, wants, attitudes and behaviors of boaters. He now shares many of his insights about boats and boaters for free on his BoaterInput.com website.

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