Boat Registration in Michigan

With four Great Lakes touching its borders and over 11,000 inland lakes and 120 rivers, Michigan is one of the most boat-friendly states in the entire country. If you’ve finally gone and gotten yourself a boat to sail around the mitten, it’s time to get it registered.

Registering a boat takes time, but the process isn’t overly complicated. This Michigan boat registration guide will tell you everything you need to know about registering a boat in the Great Lakes State. If you follow these tips, you’ll be on the water in no time.

Key takeaways:

  • Any motor- or sail-powered boat needs to be registered
  • Vessels 22 feet or more in length need to be titled
  • All boat registrations expire on September 30th three years after they are issued

Do all boats need to be registered in Michigan?

The Michigan Department of State requires all watercraft, except for certain nonmotorized vessels, to be registered. 

Registration exemptions are granted for oar- or paddle-powered boats measuring less than 16 feet, as well as nonmotorized canoes and kayaks regardless of length. However, if these types of vessels are used for rental or commercial use, they need to be registered. 

Boats operated in Michigan temporarily (60 days or less) but properly registered in other states do not require Michigan registration either.

How do I register my boat for the first time?

To register your boat in Michigan for the first time, you’re going to want to gather all the documentation you have on the boat. Then, you will need to visit a Secretary of State branch to fill out an application for registration.

At the Secretary of State branch, you will be required to present a Bill of Sale as proof of purchase. Then, you will need to transfer the boat’s title over to you if you haven’t done that already.

  • If the boat is titled to the seller, you will present this title in order to transfer ownership from the seller to yourself. 
  • If the seller has misplaced the title, they can order a duplicate title online through ExpressSOS or in-person at a Secretary of State branch and then give it to you.
  • If you cannot provide the title, you will need a court order or surety bond. 
  • If the boat never had a title to begin with, the transfer of sale can be initiated by filling out the back of the watercraft registration provided to you by the seller. You can alternatively provide the bill of sale with the registration number and hull identification number. 

Once ownership has been successfully transferred to you and you have claimed your title, you can finish registering. You will be assigned a unique registration number for your boat, consisting of the letters “MC” as well as two numbers followed by four letters. You will also receive a validation decal, which you will attach to your boat’s exterior. 

Upon completing the application, you must also pay a registration fee. You can see what fees will apply to your boat two sections down.

If you make any mistakes on your application, you must visit the Secretary of State to update your registration. You should also update your address if you move. This can be done online, at an SOS office, or over the phone. 

Note: You have 15 days to let the Secretary of State know if you have changed your address, transferred ownership of your boat, or if your watercraft has been lost or stolen.

When I register my boat, do I also need to apply for a certificate of title?

In the state of Michigan, boats with permanently attached engines and boats measuring at least 20 feet in length must have certificates of title. Applying for a title goes hand-in-hand with applying for registration. 

To apply for a title, you need to complete an application and pay a one-time fee of $5. This application asks for your personal information, address, and information about the type of boat you are titling. You will also need to fill out tax exemption and tax return information.

You can download the Michigan Watercraft Title Application here. If you require a duplicate title, they are available through ExpressSOS.

Note that you do not need to pay use tax when transferring a boat title to a relative including a spouse, parent, child, etc.

What type of fees should I expect?

Michigan boat registration fees are determined by the length of your water vessel unless you have a nonmotorized watercraft, pontoon boat, or commercial fishing vessel.

The fee for registering nonmotorized sailboats is $9. Nonmotorized canoes and kayaks for commercial use cost $5 to register. Pontoon boats cost $23 to register regardless of their length. Commercial fishing vessels with Michigan licenses, not including Sport Trollers, can be registered for $15.

All other fees are as follows:

  • Motorboats less than 12 feet and motorized canoes (all sizes): $14
  • Motorboats 12 feet or more but less than 16 feet: $17
  • Motorboats 16 feet or more but less than 21 feet: $42
  • Motorboats 21 feet or more but less than 28 feet: $115
  • Motorboats 28 feet or more but less than 35 feet: $168
  • Motorboats 35 feet or more but less than 42 feet: $244
  • Motorboats 42 feet or more but less than 50 feet: $280
  • Motorboats 50 feet or more: $448

These fees are for origination and 3-year renewal. You will need to pay fees in full at the Secretary of State when applying for registration.

What do I do with the registration certificate, number, decal?

Your boat must clearly display its registration decal and number at all times. 

Michigan has specific requirements about how you should display your decal and registration number on your boat. Follow these guidelines carefully:

  • Numbers should be affixed to both sides of your boat’s bow high enough up that they will be out of the water (painted and sticker decals are both acceptable)
  • Numbers should be affixed in block letters measuring at least three inches tall with clear spaces between numbers and letters
  • Numbers should be affixed from left to right
  • Numbers should be clearly visible; choose a color that stands out against the color of your boat

In addition, attach your registration decals, given to you by the Secretary of State when you register your boat, three inches away from the end of each number. You may not write any other numbers on your boat.

Finally, always keep your registration certificate on you when operating your boat. If you are found operating your watercraft without your registration by a member of law enforcement, you may receive a fine.

How do I renew my boat registration?

All boat registrations automatically expire on March 31st of the third year. You will receive a renewal notice in the mail when it is time for you to renew your boat’s registration. Note the expiration date provided to avoid paying a late fee.

You can renew any time between March 1st and August 31st over the phone, at an SOS office, or online

Do I have to register my boat trailer in Michigan?

If your boat trailer is ever going to be used on the road (and it likely will be), it needs to be registered too. Transferring an existing title into your name and titling new trailers can be done at the Secretary of State. You may need to pay 6% use tax.

In addition, all trailers must have regulation lights. Trailers and boats weighing more than 3,000 pounds together should have working brakes as well.

What do I do once my boat is ready for open waters?

Now that your boat is registered, you can start enjoying life as a boat owner! The next step is to take it out, and that means getting to know the docks in your area. You can find open docks and marinas—and even discounted dockage—all around the state of Michigan with Dockwa. The largest freshwater coastline in the country is calling.

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