You just bought a new boat, so the hard part is over - right?
Almost. One of the most important steps for new boat owners is learning how to display the boat registration number for your new vessel. While boat registration requirements vary depending on the boat’s size, type, and state, our no-fuss guide to boat registration numbers, boat decals, and boat letters will streamline the process. We dive into the nitty gritty so that you'll end up with more knowledge, expertise, and - most importantly - more time on the boat.
How to Register a Boat
The process begins at the Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) - as most good stories do. To get your boat registration numbers, first ensure that your boat is fully registered. Boat registration requirements and forms vary slightly by state, so boaters can look up or call their local DMV to clarify the specifics. Most states require that boat owners register their boat with either the DMV or the Department of Fish and Game, the Department of Licensing (DOL), or the Department of Natural Resources (DNR).
All motorized boats must be registered: this includes personal watercrafts and certain sailboats if they exceed the maximum length determined by the sailboat owner’s state. Most unpowered boats, such as kayaks, canoes, rowboats, and inflatables, do not need to be registered.
How to Apply for Boat Registration Numbers
Looking for your boat registration numbers? It’s time to do some spring cleaning and unearth the paperwork you received after you registered your boat. Your boat registration number contains a series of letters and numbers that distinguish your boat from others: essentially, it’s your boat license plate.
If there’s one thing you’ll learn as a new boat owner, it’s that you'll need the proper paperwork needed to legally enjoy your new vessel. If you purchased your boat from a boat dealership, it’s likely that the boat dealer discussed your boat registration number at some point during the transaction. This is a necessity for both parties: as a boat owner, you need to know your boat number so you can properly display it, and as a boat dealer, it’s crucial to sell boats with the proper documentation.
Where to Buy Boat Registration Numbers
Nowadays, most boat owners purchase boat decals that display their boat registration number, as opposed to an old-fashioned paint job. You can buy these decals at your local sign shop or from an online company - such as West Marine, Sign Specialist, or Alphabet Signs - that specializes in creating boat registration number sets. Typically, these are vinyl boat decals that are easily modified based on state requirements. That said, most states outline the following requirements for boat registration numbers:
- Boat registration numbers should be in block letters and at least three inches in height
- The color of the boat registration number script needs to contrast with the hull color
- To enhance readability, there should be spaces or hyphens between boat numbers and boat letters
When buying boat decals to display your registration number, double check that the seller can meet these and any other state-specific requirements. For instance, Florida boat registration numbers must be placed on each side of the forward half of the vessel, near the state registration sticker. For boaters of the Big Apple, note that New York boat registration numbers must also be placed by the registration stickers, which should be 18 inches from the bow on both starboard and port sides.
If you need to find the requirements for yourself or an out-of-state friend, consult this comprehensive list of boat registration numbers by state.
Where on the Boat are Registration Numbers Placed?
Once you’ve found and purchased your boat registration numbers, it’s time to display them on your boat. Boat numbers must be placed on both sides (starboard and port) of the forward half of the vessel. As mentioned, displaying your state registration sticker is also required in most U.S. waters. The boat sticker confirms that the vessel registration is current and is usually placed before or after the boat number on the port side, typically within 6 inches.
How to Apply Boat Registration Numbers
Applying boat registration numbers and boat decals is fairly simple. Make sure your boat’s surface is 100% clean and dry after a thorough wash with soapy water. Practice placing the boat decal first before peeling off the back and rubbing the decal firmly in place. If you encounter the dreaded air bubble, take a deep breath and watch this video, which quickly demonstrates how to apply boat decals and eliminate air bubbles.
How to Remove Boat Registration Numbers
Whether it’s a damaged boat decal or a move to a new state, most of us will find a reason to remove our boat registration numbers at some point. Thankfully, most boat decals are as easy to remove as they are to apply. If you’ve used a boat decal to display your numbers, most local sign shops and online boat decal retailers will advise one of 3 options for boat number removal:
To remove boat decals from aluminum boats, heat them up with a hair dryer before attempting to peel them off. Seasoned boaters know that if boat decals are sun damaged, they won’t peel off; if you’re facing this dilemma, use a buff to cut through the decals.
To remove boat letters, boat numbers, and any other decals from most other boats, you can also use an eraser wheel, which is designed for high-speed removal of vinyl and decals without damaging the finish of your boat.
If you’re looking for another removal option, we suggest one more sailor-approved strategy: pressure washing with hot water. A hot water pressure wash will soften and eventually remove the most stubborn boat sticker - and it’s a super satisfying process. This removal method also doubles as a deep cleaning for your boat.
If your boat registration numbers are painted directly on the hull, rest assured: there are plenty of videos and fishing forums that have successfully answered the age-old question of how to remove boat registration numbers, and specifically those that are painted on the hull. Most boaters advise a solvent that will remove the adhesive without damaging the boat’s finish: acetone and even oven cleaner can work wonders, depending on the model and age of your boat.
Boat numbers, boat letters, and the vast world of boat decals can seem complicated and overwhelming to a new boater, but they're mostly a matter of paperwork and state requirements. Follow local guidance for boat registration numbers and keep our guide in your back pocket as you navigate the waters of boat ownership. For any boater, the ultimate goal is to save time on the small stuff to create more time on the water.