What is the difference between documented and undocumented vessels?

Differences Between USCG Documented and Undocumented Vessels

The world of maritime activities can be complex and governed by various regulations. When it comes to owning and operating vessels, one key aspect is whether a vessel is documented or undocumented.

In the United States, the United States Coast Guard (USCG) plays a significant role in the regulation and documentation of vessels. Understanding the difference between documented and undocumented vessels is crucial for vessel owners, operators, and anyone involved in maritime activities.

This article aims to shed light on the distinctions between these two categories, with a specific focus on USCG-documented vessels.

Documented Vessels

A documented vessel is one that has been ‘registered’ with the USCG through the National Vessel Documentation Center (NVDC). This registration process establishes the vessel’s nationality and provides proof of ownership and title. The primary purpose of vessel documentation is to provide a secure system for vessel ownership, allowing for clear legal recognition and protection under U.S. law.

This is the opposite of State Titled Boats.

Key Characteristics of Documented Vessels:

  1. Size Limitation: Generally, documented vessels must be at least five net tons in size. This net tonnage is a measure of a vessel’s volume and is calculated using specific formulas outlined by the USCG.
  2. Exclusive Use in US Waters: Documented vessels must be used exclusively in U.S. waters, unless special permission is granted for international voyages.
  3. US Ownership Requirement: To be documented, a vessel must be owned by a U.S. citizen or a U.S. corporation eligible to own a documented vessel. Non-U.S. citizens may be eligible for documentation under certain circumstances.
  4. Preferred Ship’s Mortgage: Documented vessels are eligible for a Preferred Ship’s Mortgage, which provides lenders with a higher level of security and priority in case of financial defaults or legal issues.
  5. Visible Documentation Number: Documented vessels display a unique official number assigned by the USCG on their hull, usually located on the interior of the hull or a visible exterior location.

Undocumented Vessels

Undocumented vessels, as the name suggests, lack registration with the USCG through the NVDC. Instead, these vessels are subject to state registration requirements, which may vary depending on the state in which the vessel is primarily used.

Key Characteristics of Undocumented Vessels:

  1. Size and Usage: Unlike documented vessels, there are no specific size requirements for owning an undocumented vessel. These vessels are often used for recreational purposes, fishing, or short-distance coastal activities.
  2. State Registration: Instead of federal documentation, these vessels are typically registered at the state level, which involves providing essential ownership and contact information to the state’s relevant authorities.
  3. No Preferred Ship’s Mortgage: Undocumented vessels are not eligible for a Preferred Ship’s Mortgage, which means lenders may have less security when issuing loans against these vessels.
  4. No Official Number: Since they lack federal documentation, there is no requirement to display a USCG-issued official number on the hull of an undocumented vessel.

Which Option is Right for You?

Choosing between a documented and undocumented vessel depends on several factors, including the vessel’s size, intended use, ownership, financing needs, and navigation plans. If you are considering vessel ownership, consult with maritime legal experts or the USCG to determine the most suitable option for your specific circumstances.

Documentation and Reports for Vessels: Boat-Abstract.com and Boat-Alert.com

When it comes to obtaining reports for vessels, the distinction between documented and state-registered boats comes into play. For documented vessels, owners can obtain a comprehensive report through Boat-Abstract.com. This report provides detailed information about the vessel’s ownership history, liens, mortgages, and other critical data. Boat-Abstract.com is the go-to platform for those seeking comprehensive insights into the documentation status and history of documented vessels.

On the other hand, for state-registered boats, owners can access essential reports through Boat-Alert.com. This platform offers reports specifically tailored to state-registered vessels, providing information on state-level registrations, title issues, and theft reports. Boat-Alert.com is the ideal resource for owners of state-registered boats to ensure compliance with state regulations and verify the authenticity of ownership documents.

Understanding the difference between these two report providers is essential for vessel owners, as it enables them to access the most relevant and accurate information about their boats based on their documentation status. Whether you own a documented vessel or a state-registered boat, utilizing the appropriate report service ensures a thorough understanding of your vessel’s history and legal standing.

How to Tell If Your Boat Is Documented or Not

Determining whether your boat is documented or not is a straightforward process. Here are the steps you can follow to find out the registration status of your vessel:

  1. Check for a Documentation Number: Documented vessels are assigned a unique official number by the USCG, which is used for identification and documentation purposes. The documentation number is usually displayed on the interior of the vessel’s hull or a visible exterior location. Look for this number, which typically consists of letters “NO” followed by digits, to see if your boat is documented.
  2. Contact the National Vessel Documentation Center (NVDC): If you cannot find the documentation number or are unsure about the vessel’s status, you can reach out to the NVDC directly for verification. The NVDC maintains records of all documented vessels in the United States and can assist you in confirming your vessel’s documentation status. You can contact the NVDC through their official website or by phone.
  3. Check State Registration: If your vessel does not have a documentation number, it may be an undocumented vessel. The State number would be on the Bow. In this case, it’s essential to check whether your boat is registered with the state authorities. Each state has its own registration process for vessels, and you can verify your boat’s registration status by contacting the relevant state agency responsible for maritime affairs.
  4. Review Ownership Documents: If you purchased the boat from a previous owner, review any ownership documents provided to you during the transaction. Documented vessels typically come with a Certificate of Documentation, which serves as proof of ownership. If you have this certificate, your boat is likely documented.
  5. Consult with a Maritime Attorney: If you are still unsure about your boat’s documentation status, or if you encounter any complexities in the process, consider consulting with a maritime attorney. These legal professionals have expertise in vessel documentation and can assist you in navigating the registration and verification procedures.

It’s essential to ensure that your vessel’s documentation status is accurate and up-to-date to comply with the relevant regulations and enjoy the benefits associated with either documented or undocumented vessels. Whether you’re considering buying a new boat or maintaining an existing one, understanding its documentation status will help you make informed decisions and enjoy a smooth sailing experience.


In summary, the distinction between documented and undocumented vessels in the United States is primarily based on the vessel’s registration status with the USCG.

Documented vessels undergo a formal federal registration process, offering certain benefits such as legal recognition, secure ownership, and eligibility for a Preferred Ship’s Mortgage. On the other hand, undocumented vessels are registered at the state level and do not enjoy the same level of protection and advantages as documented vessels.

Understanding these differences is vital for vessel owners and operators to comply with regulations and make informed decisions regarding their maritime endeavors.