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Chapter 3 - The Boat
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Boat Registration and Numbering

All motorized boats must be registered and, depending upon State requirements, titled when operating on state waters. If a watercraft does not have a motor it may still have to be registered depending on the State. Each state or territory's registration and titling requirements may differ. Penalties for failing to register a watercraft may involve paying a fine of up to $1000 as well as the possibility of serving jail time. You should consult the State in which you are registering your boat for specific information.

Registering your boat means applying for and getting a Registration Certificate and the number itself. The registration number is actually a combination of letters and numbers normally beginning with the abbreviation of the State in which the boat is registered. The Registration Certificate is small and must be on the boat whenever it is being used. A validation decal is required to be placed along side the numbers on the port side of the watercraft. Some states require decals on both port and starboard side. This decal is usually renewed annually. Check your State specific regulations.

All states have a temporary reciprocity allowing you to use your boat on the waters of another state for a limited time period. Check the regulations for the State in which you will be boating if it is not the State where your boat is registered.

Proper display of boat numbers

Your state regulations determine where to place the decals and numbers on your boat.

Registration and numbering violations are one of the top reasons for citations or arrests.

Some boats that are at least five net tons in size and owned by an American citizen can be registered with the U. S. Coast Guard. These boats are "documented." Documented boats still must be registered with the state. Check your State specific information for additional requirements.

Wisconsin Registration

No person may operate, and no owner may give permission for the operation of any boat unless the boat is covered by a valid certificate of number issued by the Wisconsin DNR unless that boat falls under one of the exemptions listed.

Federally documented boats must be registered in the State of Wisconsin unless they are exempted by law. They shall also display the registration year decal but shall not display a Wisconsin registration number unless the decal is not displayed by the documented name. Then the number and decal shall be displayed as shown below.

Exemptions From Registration

1. Sailboats 12 feet and under without a motor.

2. Manually propelled boats not equipped with a motor or sail.

3. Any boat covered by a valid certificate from another state or federal government and has been within this state not more than 60 consecutive days unless this state is the state of principal use.

4. Licensed documented fishing vessels.

5. Sailboards.

A boat present in this state is exempt from registration for a period of 10 days for the express purpose of competing in a race sanctioned by a governmental subdivision.


How to Apply: Requests for boat registration and/or titling are to be submitted on DNR forms available at, DNR Service Centers and many dealerships.

Expiration: Certificates of numbers or decals are issued for a three-year period commencing April 1 and expiring on March 31.

Change of Address: In order to receive renewal notices, a boat owner who changes residence shall within 15 days notify the DNR of both the old and new address.

Renewals: Registration renewals can be submitted on the application form or online at This online service is a quick and convenient way to renew registration with a credit card; there is an additional $1.00 fee. Carry a copy of the application or a printed confirmation from the online service to operate immediately.

Transfers: Transfer of the ownership of a boat terminates the certificate of number and title. Upon receipt of the required fee and application, the Department will issue a new certificate of number and/or title for the boat. The number and title will remain with the boat unless expired. The purchaser of a boat shall within 10 days and prior to operation make application on forms furnished by the DNR. The previous owner’s certificate and title shall accompany the application. A fee shall be paid for the issuance of a certificate of number and/or title by the new owner upon the transfer of ownership of a boat numbered in this state. The certificate shall then be effective for the remainder of the numbering period for which the previous certificate was issued. After application a person may operate a boat when a copy of the application is carried onboard.

It is unlawful to transfer the number designated by the DNR from one boat to another.

Duplicates: Duplicate certificates, titles, and decals will be issued for a fee upon the receipt of a proper application stating that the original certificates, titles or decals have been lost or destroyed.

Display of Identification Number and Decals:

Upon being issued a certificate of number and decal, the owner of a boat shall display the issued numbers on each side of the forward half of the boat. Once the certificate of number is received, the owner of the boat must purchase adhesive numbers and letters or paint the numbers and letters on the boat using block letters not less than 3” high and in a contrasting color to the surface on which they are applied. Display the registration number with at least a 2” space or hyphen between the letters and center 4 numbers.

It is the responsibility of the owner to be sure that the registration number is clearly visible and maintained in legible condition at all times.

Place the registration decal (indicates the date through which the registration is valid) in line with and 3” from the registration number, toward the stern.

In Wisconsin, registration expires on March 31 of the year shown on the decal.

  • Federally documented boats shall display the decals on each side of the name on the transom.
  • It is unlawful for any other numbers or decals to be painted, attached or otherwise displayed on either side of the forward half of any registered boat.
  • It is unlawful to operate or use any registered boat without having the certificate of number available for inspection at all times on such boat.

Commercial Dealer Numbers: A manufacturer or dealer in boats may, at the manufacturer or dealer option, pay a fee of $75 for the issuance or renewal of a certificate of number. This registration number can be used for testing, demonstrating, rental and private use. The number can only be displayed on one boat at any given time. Registration numbers are assigned by DNR and must be displayed on two removable signs attached to the boat while being operated. (Refer to the display specifications above for size and format information.)

Abandonment: The owner of a numbered boat shall notify the DNR within 15 days after a boat has been destroyed or abandoned and shall return the registration certificate to the Department at:

DNR-Boat Registration, Box 7921, Madison, WI 53707.

Wisconsin Age Restrictions

● No person under the age of 10 years may operate a motorboat.

● No person under 12 may operate a personal watercraft (PWC).

● Persons 10 years but less than 12 years of age may operate a motorboat (except PWC) if accompanied by a parent or guardian or a person at least 18 years of age designated by the parent or guardian.

● Persons at least 12 but less than 16 years of age may operate a motorboat (except PWC) only if they are accompanied by a parent or guardian or by a person 18 years or older designated by the parent or guardian or if they have successfully completed a Department of Natural Resources prescribed Boating Safety Course and possess a safety certificate issued by the Department or another state.

● No person under the age of 16 may rent a personal watercraft.

● Persons at least 12 but less than 16 years of age may operate a personal watercraft if they have successfully completed a DNR prescribed Boating Safety Course and possess a safety certificate issued by the Department or another state. Parental accompaniment may not be substituted for possession of a valid DNR safety certificate.

● Parents or guardians are punishable by law for knowingly allowing unauthorized persons to operate a motorboat.

Note: “Accompanied,” for the purposes of these regulations, means “aboard the same boat.”

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