What Makes a Vessel Documented? Differences Between Documented and Undocumented

There are countless vessels embarking on journeys in the world’s oceans and waterways. You can find colossal cargo ships that transport goods across continents. Or you can find sailboats that navigate the serene bays. But what sets these vessels apart from one another? The answer lies in a simple yet intricate concept of vessel documentation. What makes a vessel documented, though? Let’s explore the answers here. 

What Makes a Vessel Documented

A documented vessel is also known as a USCG-documented vessel. It underwent formal registration with the United States Coast Guard (USCG). This process results in the issuance of a Certificate of Documentation. It is similar to a title for a land-based vehicle. Documented vessels are subject to specific requirements. They also come with a set of advantages and responsibilities. 

Formal Registration 

The vessel’s owner or operator submits a comprehensive application to the USCG. The application involves detailed information about the vessel, its ownership, and its intended use. When approved, you will receive a Certificate of Documentation. It is also often referred to as Coast Guard Documentation. 

Legal Status

Documented vessels have a unique legal standing. They are considered vessels of the US. They also enjoy certain privileges and protections, including the ability to engage in foreign trade. 

Name and Hailing Port 

Documented vessels are required to have a documented name and a designated hailing port. These details must be displayed on the vessel’s exterior, typically on its stern. 


Documented vessels are recognized as American vessels and can fly the US flag, symbolizing their status. 

Adherence to Regulations

Documented vessels must comply with specific regulations and obligations. These would include maintaining up-to-date documentation, submitting annual documentation renewal fees, and following certain safety and security measures. 

Undocumented Vessels 

They have not undergone the formal registration process with the USCG. These vessels may be state-registered, unregistered, or operating under a state-issued certificate of number. Undocumented vessels differ from documented vessels in various ways: 

Lack of National Status 

Undocumented vessels do not enjoy the same national status as documented vessels. They do not have the privileges and protections associated with documented vessels, particularly in international waters. 

Minimal Federal Regulation 

While documented vessels must adhere to federal regulations and documentation requirements, undocumented vessels are subject to less federal oversight and may primarily follow state-specific regulations. 

Why Does Vessel Documentation Matter? 

The choice between documented and undocumented status for a vessel can significantly impact its use, legal standing, and capabilities. Here are some reasons why vessel documentation matters:

International Operations

Documented vessels are often required or preferred for international maritime operations, making them a better choice for vessels engaged in foreign trade or travel.

Title and Ownership

A Certificate of Documentation serves as a clear title of ownership for the vessel. It makes it easier to transfer ownership and secure financing. 

Access to Certain Trades

Documented vessels have access to specific trades and activities that may be restricted for undocumented vessels. 

What Makes a Vessel Documented

The Distinction 

What makes a vessel documented or undocumented? The distinction between the two is a fundamental aspect of the maritime world. But how you choose depends on your intended use, legal obligations, and the advantages it provides. If you need help with your documentation, make sure to give us a call or use our forms on the left side of this page.