Boat Registration in Tennessee

In a state like Tennessee, there’s no shortage of places to explore by boat. Not only does the Volunteer State have 12 great lakes, it also has some of the best boating rivers in the US, including the Cumberland, the Tennessee, and of course, the mighty Mississippi. 

But before you launch your new vessel and start exploring, it’s mandatory that you get it registered with the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency. If you don’t know how to do this, follow this guide. It helps boaters like you register their new watercraft without any hassle or stress.

Key takeaways:

  • Every motor- or sail-powered vessel needs to be registered in Tennessee
  • Boats exclusively propelled by paddles or oars do not need to be registered
  • Tennessee does not require you get a certificate of title for your boat

Do all boats need to be registered in Tennessee?

Every boat that is motorized or wind-powered must be registered with the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency (TWRA) through the local County Clerk office. Even if motor or wind isn’t the primary means of propulsion, boats that have masts or motors always meet this requirement.

However, there are some types of boats that don’t need to be registered. Boats exclusively propelled by paddles or oars, such as rowboats, kayaks, and canoes, are exempt from registration. Boats used exclusively on private property are also exempt.

Finally, Tennessee allows boats with valid registrations from other states to visit Tennessee waters without having to re-register. But, if Tennessee becomes the primary state the boat is operated in, you must then register it with TWRA.

How do I register my boat for the first time?

Before setting your vessel afloat, as the new owner, you must complete an Application for Boat Certificate of Number, available at the County Clerk office or from the boat dealer.

Along with this petition, you must include a comprehensive bill of sale that notates price, vessel description (year, make, model, HIN, etc), sale date, and contact information for both the buyer and seller. Also required is documentation that the state sales tax was paid in the transaction.

All these necessary documents should be submitted to the Clerk of the county where you live or where the boat is principally moored. Alternatively, registrants can upload the forms to a TWRA online portal or bring them to a regional TWRA office. 

We recommend submitting your application through the online portal because it will make the subsequent registration renewal process much easier.

(Tip: Those with a prior hunting or fishing license may have already created a TWRA online portal login.) 

Whatever your preference regarding the application, you can expect processing to be complete within two months of document receipt. The good news is that this won’t delay your boating timeline. At the time of application submission, you will receive a temporary 60-day registration that allows you to operate your boat while the application is pending.

Is proof of title necessary for registration?

Tennessee is one of the few states in the US that does not issue certificates of title. Instead, the complete Bill of Sale containing all of the components noted above is sufficient evidence of ownership. 

Tennessee vessels with United States Coast Guard certification may need to carry a legal document that proves certificate of title in order to maintain federal approval but the state does not call for it. In addition, watercraft registered in other states but operating in Tennessee waters should also carry their title certificates in case the vessels get mixed up in lawsuits or bankruptcies. 

The bottom line though is that titling is not a prerequisite to registration in Tennessee.

What type of fees should I expect?

Whenever you register a boat or renew a registration, you have to pay the subsequent fees. 

For boats up to 16 feet in length, registrations can be purchased for one year, two years, or three years. The fees are as follows:

  • One year = $15
  • Two years = $28
  • Three years = $41

For vessels above 16 feet in length, only annual registrations are available. The fees are as follows:

  • Vessels between 16ft and 26ft = $29
  • Vessels between 26ft and 40ft = $44
  • Vessels above 40ft = $59

The state attempts to keep fee increases in line with rises in the Consumer Price Index (CPI).

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

When you receive your certificate of registration in the mail, you will also be issued a unique registration number. You must affix this registration number on each side of the bow in three-inch plain block characters, appearing in order from left to right. The colors of the number should stand in relief against the hue of the boat itself. Letters should be separated from numbers, either by a hyphen or a discernible space. No other number is permitted on either side of the bow. 

Issued along with the registration number are expiration decals. These should be placed next to the number -- either to the left or the right -- on each side of the bow.

How do I renew my boat registration?

TWRA has an online portal to renew boat registrations for maximum convenience. 

Establishing a customer account requires your last name, date of birth and one form of identification — most often a driver's license or social security number. 

With this online service, you can pay the registration renewal fee with a credit or debit card. Within seven business days, the boat owner receives confirmation that the renewal is effective. 

If you prefer to renew the old school way, you can also complete a paper renewal application with your county clerk.

Do I have to register my boat trailer in Tennessee?

Actually, the Volunteer State does not mandate the registration and/or licensure of boat trailers. Yet the option is there and advised for those who plan to ever take their vessel out of state. 

Other states have strict requirements regarding the registration of boat trailers, making no allowance for out-of-state conveyances. Beyond that reality, titling and registering the trailer makes it much easier for law enforcement to trace in the event of theft. 

So, the final word on trailers is that registration is strongly advised but not commanded by state authority.

Do I need to complete a boater education course to operate my vessel?

Tennessee requires that any resident born in 1989 or later, who wishes to operate a boat in public waters, must undergo an at-home boating safety regulations course, followed by successful passage of the TWRA Boating Safety Exam. 

After passing the exam, the boater is issued the Boating Safety Education Certificate, akin to a driver's license. 

Obtaining this certificate is not required for purchasing or registering a boat. But, as most owners are also operators, most will eventually have to obtain this credential before legally operating their vessel. Still, the lack of it will neither stifle nor delay the registration process. 

Out-of-state vessel operators born in 1989 or later should also be aware that they too must obtain a boating education certificate if they plan to cruise in Tennessee waters. This boating education certificate you choose to obtain needs to be one approved by the National Association of State Boating Law Administrators.

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

Once you have your boat registration and education certificates, you’re ready to finally cast off from the river banks. There are hundreds of miles of Tennessee waterways for you to explore.

When you’re ready to come back ashore, be sure to tie up at one of these reputable Tennesee marinas. They have been visited and reviewed by boaters like you. Whether you’re looking to tie up for just one night or lease an entire season, these marinas have availability.