More information about US registrations

We asked W. Vann Burgess, manager of the US Coast Guard a few questions about the laws and regulations of registrations by the United States. He tells us that it is common for vessels registered in the US to only sail in foreign waters. This is illegal but very common. Hence, they see this as a very big problem.

The problem

There have been many instances where these ships created safety and security issues for US-flagged ships in both our recreational and commercial fleets abroad. You should understand that a vessel registered/numbered by a United States state, such as Delaware, is considered a vessel flying the US flag. Said W. Vann Burgess, Boating Safety Division U.S. Coast Guard.

Question and answer

1.       If a boat owner is for example from Italy and the boat will never enter Delaware / US waters, is it illegal in such case to sail with a Delaware registration in for example European waters?

Answer:  Yes.  A vessel can only be registered/numbered in the state of principle operation.  A state is a defined as a State of the United States and its Territories.  The State of Principle Operation means the state in whose waters a boat/vessel is or will be operated most during the calendar year (Title 33 Code of Federal Regulations § 173.3).  If the vessel is not to be operated in the issuing state within the calendar year, then that vessel cannot be registered/numbered by that state.  If a vessel makes application for a state registration/number knowing it will not be operated within the waters of the state, then that application is fraudulent.

2.       Is it legal to use / own a Delaware registration is in such case?

Answer:  No.  Such registration is fraudulent by its nature, and when discovered, will be withdrawn by the State of Delaware leaving the vessel stateless and subject to the actions of any foreign government.

3.       What are the US rules about such?

Answer:  The primary rule is quite simple.  The federal statute states under Title 46 United States Code §12301. “Numbering vessels (a) An undocumented vessel equipped with propulsion machinery of any kind shall have a number issued by the proper issuing authority in the State in which the vessel principally is operated.”  If a vessel is not to be principally operated in the waters of a State of the United States, it cannot be registered/numbered in the U.S.

In short

It has never been legal for any vessel to be registered/numbered by any State of the United States if the vessel does not principally operate in the waters of that state.  Unfortunately, there are unscrupulous agents misrepresenting the facts to foreign citizens and filing fraudulent documents to turn a profit.  This illegal practice has led to a misunderstanding in the European Community, as well as with yacht brokers within the U.S., that this fraudulent activity is legal.  This fraudulent activity has created concerns for U.S. interests abroad as discussed above.  As a result, the states and the U.S. Coast Guard have undertaken an enforcement effort to curtail these illegal activities.

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14 July 2021