If a vessel has been USCG documented, it does not need to be registered with any state. Documentation is accepted by all states as evidence of ownership, which negates the need for registration. However, if there are changes in ownership or the vessel is used in interstate commerce, registration may still be necessary to comply with certain laws and regulations.
For USCG vessel documentation, verifying an applicant’s social security establishes citizenship. For documentation purposes, corporations, partnerships, and other entities capable of holding legal title may be deemed citizens in addition to individuals for the purposes of vessel documentation.
If the vessel is new and has never been documented, ownership may be established by submission of a Builder's Certification, naming the applicant for documentation as the person for whom the vessel was built or to whom the vessel was first transferred. Also acceptable are a transfer on a Manufacturer's Certificate of Origin, a copy of the State Registration or Title, or foreign registration showing that the applicant owns the vessel.
In the case of a previously owned vessel, the applicant must present bills of sale, or other evidence showing transfer of the vessel from the person who last documented, titled, or registered the vessel, or to whom the vessel was transferred on a Builder's Certification or Manufacturer's Certificate of Origin.
Vessels that do not operate on the navigable waters of the U.S. or in the fisheries in the EEZ, are exempt from the requirement to be documented. Also exempt are Coastwise qualified, non-self-propelled vessels used in coastwise trade within a harbor, on the rivers or lakes (except the Great Lakes) of the U.S. or the internal waters or canal of any state.
“Net tonnage” measures a vessel’s volume. It does not measure a vessel’s weight (which is often also expressed in tons).
If a vessel is 26 feet or longer, then it most likely measures five net tons or more.
According to the United States Coast Guard, “net tonnage is a volumetric measure of a vessel’s useful capacity.” Parts of the vessel that do not hold cargo (such as the crew’s spaces and the like) do not count as part of a vessel’s net tonnage.
Vessel documentation is required for any vessel that measures five net tons or more, is owned by an American citizen, and will be operated in certain trades, according to the Code of Federal Regulations.
A vessel must be documented if it will be used in fishing activities and/or coastwise trade on the navigable waters of the United States or the Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ). Dredges, towboats, and vessels that conduct salvaging activities that operate in those same waters also must be documented.
According to the Code of Federal Regulations, “any vessel of at least five net tons wholly owned by a citizen or citizens of the United States is eligible for documentation.” Vessels that are used for commercial purposes, foreign trade, and recreation are included.
Vessel documentation is a national form of registration. It is one of the oldest functions of Government, dating back to the 11th Act of the First Congress. Documentation provides conclusive evidence of nationality for international purposes, provides for unhindered commerce between the states, and admits vessels to certain restricted trades, such as coastwise trade and the fisheries. Since 1920, vessel financing has been enhanced through the availability of preferred mortgages on documented vessels.