Boat Registration in California 

You just became the captain of your new vessel and you’re ready to explore your state’s 840 miles of coastline. There is one prerequisite, however. The Golden State requires that you register your boat, as with a car, before cruising the waters of California. Yes, this means dealing with the bureaucracy. However, this guide to California boat registration takes the frustration and stress out of the process so you can hit the water faster.

Key takeaways

  • Every motorized vessel and any sail-powered vessel over 8 feet needs to be registered.
  • You do not need to register boats powered by oars or sailboats less than 8 feet in length
  • Registration fees are based on type of vessel, age of vessel, price of vessel, and your city/town.
  • New boat owners also need a California Certificate of Title
  • Boat registration renewal is due at the end of every odd-numbered year.

Do I need to register my boat in California?

Any boat with a motor counts as a motor vehicle and must therefore be registered with the California Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV). Sail-powered boats over eight feet long must also be registered. Any boats exclusively powered through the use of paddles or oars (e.g. canoes and rowboats) are exempt from registration. Sailboats shorter than eight feet and exclusively powered by wind are exempt as well. Also among the cleared are lifeboats, boats affixed to a track (think amusement parks), parasails and sailboards, as well as floating structures tethered to the land. 

Note. Commercial vessels weighing more than five tons and over 30 feet in length, must register with the U.S. Coast Guard versus the California DMV.

How does first-time boat registration work?

The first order of business is to fill out a BOAT 101, i.e. an Application for Vessel Certificate of Number, available from the DMV website. With this document, applicants must also submit a title certificate, from California or another jurisdiction of purchase, that provides proof of ownership. If the title certificate is lost or damaged, the boat owner can request a duplicate by filing an Application for Duplicate or Transfer Title. In some cases, a bill of sale is requested. 

You can register your boat at any DMV office or mail your registration form and proof of ownership documents to: 

Department of Motor Vehicles
PO Box 942860
Sacramento, CA 94269-0001


Do I also need a California Certificate of Title for my boat?

Anytime a vessel is bought or transferred to a new owner, a California Certificate of Title needs to be obtained by the new owner. If you are purchasing a brand new boat, the sales office you’re working with will help you claim a Certificate of Title. 

If you’re transferring ownership of a vessel, the California’s certificate of ownership needs to be signed by the seller and then the new owner must complete the transfer information on the back of the certificate. That is then submitted along with the registration fee. This process can now be done online

Finally, if the seller has misplaced or damaged their California Certificate of Title, both the owner and buyer can complete the Application for Duplicate or Transfer or Title. The buyer will then receive their own California Certificate of Title. Note: If you ever sell your boat, you must notify the DMV within 5 days of transfer by submitting this Transfer and Release Form.

How much does it cost to register a boat?

DMV registration fees are formulated based on several factors: type of vessel; age of vessel; purchase price; county of residence or business; gross vehicle weight; and any outstanding DMV fines or surcharges. A 21-foot speedboat, for example, may cost $30,000, weigh 3,000 pounds and the owner may be based in Burbank. Such a scenario may yield total fees between $3,100 and $3,200.

Here are links to the California DMV’s fee calculators:

New Vessel Purchased in California Fee Calculator

Used Vessel last registered inside California Fee Calculator

Used Vessel last registered outside California Fee Calculator


How do I display my boat registration?

Upon registration, a boat or maritime vessel is assigned a registration number that begins with the letters "CF." This number must be visibly placed on each side of the bow. The characters must be a minimum of three inches high and ordered from left to right. The letters should be of a shade that stands in stark relief against the color of the boat. In addition, spaces and hyphens should be sized proportionally to the letters and numbers.

Another proof of registration are the decal stickers the DMV sends you upon registering. These stickers are also affixed to both sides of the watercraft. They should appear at least three inches apart from the registration number. 

In this vein, owners are advised to keep any ornamentation or overhanging equipment from obstructing the view of both number and sticker. If a sticker is lost or removed, owners can send DMV an Application for Replacement Plates, Stickers and Documents.

Yet another important indicator is the Hull Identification Number (HIN), akin to a VIN number on a car. This is permanently affixed to the boat by the manufacturer (usually somewhere on the stern). For those who build their own vessels, the DMV must assign the HIN. While this number does not confirm registration, it is required in the registration application.

How do I renew my boat registration?

Fortunately, registration renewal is much less arduous. Registrations are due for renewal by the end of each year that ends with an odd number, e.g. 2021, 2023 etc. Re-registering is mandatory whether or not you have used the watercraft at all. DMV will notify the owners 60 days before December 31st that renewal is impending. In some instances, you can renew online at Otherwise, renewal is accomplished by telephone (800-777-0133) or in person at a local DMV office. Fees for renewing registration can also be calculated on the DMV website.


Do I have to register my boat trailer?

Although a trailer may be designed for a boat, it is, in fact, a separate and distinct vehicle. Accordingly, it will need a separate and distinct registration. Boat trailers are registered under the permanent trailer identification (PTI) program. To do this, owners must submit proof of title/ownership and a statement of facts form that attests to the physical dimensions of the trailer when it is unladen by boat or other cargo. A card is issued upon registration, which must be renewed every five years. A PTI sticker is issued if the registrant uses existing license plates for the trailer. Otherwise, a PTI license plate is required.

Where do I store my boat?

The question of what to do when the boat is ready to hit the water largely depends on the frequency of use, size of vessel and budgetary limitations. For those who plan on making maximum use of a boat, docking it in a marina makes more sense than keeping it in the driveway. How, though, does a new boater know which marina to select?

California has hundreds of marinas, north and south, and researching one after another is wearisome. Fortunately, Dockwa exists to match the right boat with the optimal marina. Featured in countless media stories, from the New York Times to Forbes to BoatingWorld, the Dockwa online platform gives the rundown on marina offerings and rules, as well as provides a portal to make reservations. Contact information, photos and reviews are included in each description. Visit the Dockwa links below to begin your journey to the sea.

View Southern California Marinas

View Northern California Marinas