BlogJuly 2021

A Guide to Boat Registration Numbers and Letters

A Guide to Boat Registration Numbers and Letters

By Ken Schultz

Jul 07, 2021

What to know about state boat registration numbers, where and how they must be placed, where to purchase adhesive numbers, and how to remove and apply them

Among the first things to do after purchasing a new or used boat is registering it in the state where you live and applying new boat registration numbers. The registration agency may be the Department of Motor Vehicles, a natural resources agency, or a boating commission. Check for state-specific requirements regarding what boats must be registered. Generally, any vessel powered by a motor (including electric motors) must be registered, although some states (such as Pennsylvania) may require an unpowered boat permit for using canoes, kayaks, sailboats, etc., at state-owned facilities (such as an access site).

Federally documented vessels are exempted from the state registration requirement. These are large vessels used on navigable waters, which are documented through the U. S. Coast Guard.

Unlike state registration, documented vessels may not display boat registration numbers, and documentation stays with the boat even when ownership transfers.

The vast majority of boats are registered with states, and since ownership changes often, here’s what you should know about boat registration numbers.

Display Requirements

  • Where to put numbers on a boat: Two sets of boat registration numbers are necessary, placed on the forward half of both sides of the vessel
  • Attachment is meant to be permanent (no removable boards)
  • Letters and numbers are placed so as to read from left to right, meaning that on the port (left) side, the first letter is placed forward, and on the starboard (right) side, the last letter is placed forward
  • Letters and numbers must be at least 3 inches tall
  • The color of the letters and numbers must contrast with the color of the hull for readability; black is most common but a block-out area may be necessary on dark or multi-color hulls for highlight purposes
  • Letters and numbers must be separated by the width of one letter or number

Boat Registration Stickers

Validation stickers, which show that state registration is valid until the expiration date on the sticker, are sent to boat owners when they get their first registration or renew an existing one. These make it easy for law enforcement officers to quickly see if a boat is validly registered.

Two such stickers are supplied, and these are generally placed within a few inches to the left of the first letter on either side of the boat. Instructions for where to put decals on a boat are provided with the stickers.

Applying and Removing

Sometimes boat registration numbers and decal stickers, which have an adhesive backing, are difficult to remove. If they won’t peel off easily, carefully use a razor blade to scrape them off, apply a solvent to remove any sticky residue, then let the area dry before applying new numbers or stickers.

To get a neat, even application use a level and blue painter’s tape to set a line along which you can apply the letters and numbers.

Where to Get Boat Registration Numbers and Letters

Marine supply stores, boat dealers, hardware stores, and big box stores are the most common places to purchase numbers and letters, and there are also online sources. Make sure they meet the 3-inch minimum.

While you’re doing this, make sure that you have a fishing license to complement your boat registration.

Ken Schultz
Ken Schultz
Ken Schultz was a longtime staff writer for Field & Stream magazine and is the former Fishing Editor of He’s written and photographed nineteen books on sportfishing topics, plus an annual fishing tips calendar, and his writing has appeared on various websites for more than two decades. His author website is