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California Boating Requirements


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Jan 18, 2024 - The California boating requirements summary is designed to inform the boating public about title options, registration requirements, recording methods, record searches, tax rules, and operational guidelines for the State of California. The data is maintained as an open wiki forum where readers are encouraged to participate by sharing knowledge and experiences with this particular state. Simply click on the above "Wiki-Share" link to contribute further details or suggest a revision.

Registration - Titling

California issues both registrations and titles for all non-exempt boats operating within its jurisdiction. These are administered through the Department of Motor Vehicles. The home office in located in Sacramento and there are regional service centers located throughout most populated areas. Registration is required unless otherwise exempted, for every sail-powered vessel over 8' in length and every motor-driven vessel, regardless of length, which is used or on the waters of this state. Coast Guard documented vessels are exempt from registration requirements. A complete list of other exemptions can be found by visiting third boat registration website as shown in the above WikiTags.

Outboard boat motors are not registered or titled in California. Titling and registration is required for boat trailers.

California has provisions for dealing with boats which have been abandoned on private property. Bonded boat titling is available if sufficient proof of ownership cannot be provided.

There are approximately 645,951 boats registered in the State of California. This accounts for 5.5% of all nationwide registrations.

Numbering - Marking

Boat registration numbers issued by the State of California begin with a "CF" designation which is followed by four numbers and then two letters. These must be displayed on all registered boats along with sticker tabs.

Coast Guard documented vessels must display an owner designated vessel name, and a hailing port. An official documentation number must also be affixed to a visible interior location in the hull itself or an integral part of the hull.

All vessels manufactured after 1972 are required to have a 12 digit hull identification number affixed to the vessel by the manufacturer. State assigned hull numbers prefixed with the letters "CFZ" are available for home made boats and those without factory designations. California offers a special plaque identifying for vessels of historical interest constructed of wood prior to December 31, 1942. Boats must be inspected by a California law enforcement official if there is a discrepancy with the hull identification number.

Liens - Security Interests

Security interests in non-documented boats are recorded with the Department of Motor vehicles. These will be shown on both the registration certificate and title when applicable. All titles with active security interests are sent directly to the secured party.

Tax liens are sometimes flagged in the state's registration database or perhaps recorded as Uniform Commercial Code filings.

A UCC financing statement must be filed with the Secretary of State if the boat is neither titled or documented.

There are no provisions for recording mechanic's liens or other non-secured claims against registered boats which are not documented.

If the vessel is USCG documented, a lender's security interest may be perfected by filing a preferred vessel mortgage. These are recorded with the National Vessel Documentation Center with the earliest submissions taking priority. Other lien claims can be filed in the same manner although these function as notifications only. All such filings are indexed on the vessel's underlying abstract of title.

If ownership is transferred, notice must be provided to the DMV within 5 days.

Databases - Record Searches

Boat title and registration records in California are maintained by the Department of Motor Vehicles. Information on how to access its database for boat record searches can be found in WikiTags.

State and Federal tax liens on boats are not always recorded in a consistent manner and are therefore difficult to identify. They may show up as a red flag on state registration records, as UCC filings, in state revenue records, in a county clerks records, or on a vessel's abstract of title for documented boats. Given these disparities, it may be worth obtaining the services of a public record vendor that has access to a broad range of personal property lien recordings.

Information about business or legal entities that own boats registered, titled, or documented in California can be obtained by searching the Secretary of State business records online.

Ownership, mortgage, and lien search recordings for USCG documented vessels can be obtained by ordering an abstract of title and a copy of the certificate of documentation from the National Vessel Documentation Center. However, these are encoded and can be difficult to interpret, especially on older vessels with numerous recordings. It may be worthwhile to contact a professional vessel documentation company for assistance in this regard.

Taxes - Insurance

Sales and use tax are levied on first time boat registrations and boat transfers. Personal property tax is levied against boats on the county level. Visit the "Boat Tax Requirements" link in WikiTags for further information.

California does not require liability insurance for boats.

Operating - Safety

California's boating education law went into effect January 1, 2018 for all persons 20 years of age and younger. The law will be phased-in for all boaters over the next 8 years. If you operate a motorized vessel on California waterways you will be required to have a California Boater Card. The California Boater Card is good for life.

The Department of Motor vehicles must be notified within 15 days if the boat is destroyed, abandoned, or the owner's address has changed.

Boating fatalities, injuries or accidents occurring on California waters must be reported to the State Parks Division of Boating and Waterways (DBW) within a certain period of time. Further details about when, where and how to file an accident report can be found in WikiLinks.


The information contained herein is intended as an overview only and may be subject to change without notice. Be sure to check with the respective government agency before taking action on any such data.

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