Ship Registration Law


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Ship registration is the process of documenting a ship's given nationality. The nationality of a ship allows it to travel internationally wherever citizens of that nation are authorized to travel. The registration is almost like the passport for the ship, itself. Per international agreements, every merchant ship must be registered to a particular country. The country to which a ship is registered is called its “flag state.” A ship is bound by the laws of its flag state, and one commonly says a ship sails “under the flag” of its country of registration.

Flag State Regulatory Control

A ship's flag state exercises regulatory control over the vessel and is required by international agreements to inspect the vessel regularly, certify the ship's equipment and crew, and issue safety and environmental protection documents. The organization that actually registers the ship and certifies it for compliance is known as the “registry.” Registries may be either governmental or private agencies or, as is the case in the United States, a hybrid of the two. In the United States, pursuant to the Alternative Compliance Program, the government-run registry can assign a private industry third party to administer inspections.

Traditional Versus Open Registries

Some nations only allow vessels that are owned by companies or persons that are residents of that country. These registries are known as “traditional” or “national” registries. Other nations, on the other hand, allow companies and persons from many other countries to register their vessels under that nation's flag. These are known as “open” registries. Ships registered under open registries are sometimes said to fly under “flags of convenience.”

Reason for Registration

Ship registration has been in practice since the beginning of business conducted over the seas. It was originally used to control ships ferrying cargo among European countries and to ensure that ships were built locally and using local crews. Today it is used to document ships for ownership in order to provide definitive evidence of nationality for international treaty purposes. For example, ships flying under certain flags may be allowed into the territorial waters of a nation while other nations' ships would not be. Also, financing entities may be willing or able to provide funding opportunities to ships flying under certain flags and not others due to laws allowing or prohibiting financial transactions with certain nations.

Registration Requirements

Every vessel that wants to travel internationally and cross international borders must be registered. Registration is not generally required for vessels that only travel locally, but some nations provide registration for these vessels, as well. Every nation's registration requirements varies. For example, most countries will have different requirements for vehicles of different sizes, uses, and passenger or cargo occupancy.

Countries that have national, or “closed,” registries typically require that a ship must be owned and constructed by national interests, and at least partially crewed by citizens of that nation. Open registries do not have such requirements. Indeed, some nations with open registries even offer online registration. Illegally operated vessels (e.g., pirate ships, drug smuggling vessels, etc.) are usually not registered. Because they lack a flag, many nations' naval forces are authorized to fire on these vessels, board them, and seize their cargo without provocation.

For more information about ship registration, please refer to the resources below. You can also find an attorney who will provide assistance in registering your vessel under the “Law Firms” tab on the menu bar, above.

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Articles on Hg.org Related to Ship Registration Law

  • What is a Flag of Convenience?
    When registering a vessel for international travel, one must choose a nation under the flag of which that vessel will sail. The term “flag of convenience” refers to registering a ship in a sovereign state different from that of the ship's owners.
  • Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Report Reveals Health Problems Aboard Cruise Ship.
    Recently, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (“CDC”) released additional inspection reports for its Vessel Sanitation Program (“VSP”), which is designed to assist the cruise ship industry in preventing and controlling introduction, transmission, and spread of gastrointestinal illnesses, i.e. food poisoning, on cruise ships.
  • All Admiralty and Maritime Law Articles

    Articles written by attorneys and experts worldwide discussing legal aspects related to Admiralty and Maritime including: boating, cruise and commercial ship accidents, Jones Act and ship registration.

Ship Registration Law - US

  • Flag of Convenience - Wikipedia

    The term flag of convenience describes the business practice of registering a merchant ship in a sovereign state different from that of the ship's owners, and flying that state's civil ensign on the ship. Ships are registered under flags of convenience to reduce operating costs or avoid the regulations of the owner's country. The closely-related term open registry is used to describe an organization that will register ships owned by foreign entities.

  • IMB Piracy Reporting Centre

    The International Maritime Bureau aware of the escalating level of piracy, wanted to provide a free service to the seafarer and established the 24 hour IMB Piracy Reporting Centre (PRC) in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. The main objective of the PRC is to be the first point of contact for the shipmaster to report an actual or attempted attack or even suspicious movements thus initiating the process of response.

  • Merchant Marine Act

    he Merchant Marine Act of 1936 is a United States federal law. Its purpose is "to further the development and maintenance of an adequate and well-balanced American merchant marine, to promote the commerce of the United States, to aid in the national defense, to repeal certain former legislation, and for other purposes."

  • National Vessel Documentation Center

    The National Vessel Documentation Center facilitates maritime commerce and the availability of financing while protecting economic privileges of United States citizens through the enforcement of regulations, and provides a register of vessels available in time of war or emergency to defend and protect the United States of America.

  • Ocean Shipping Reform Act of 1998

    To amend the Shipping Act of 1984 to encourage competition in international shipping and growth of United States exports, and for other purposes.

  • Ship Registration - Wikipedia

    Ship registration is the process by which a ship is documented and authorized by some country; it is usual to say that the ship sails under the flag of the country of registration (the registration, not the actual cloth flag, is the essential issue). International law requires that every merchant ship be registered in a country, called its flag state.

  • United States Coast Guard

    For over two centuries the U.S. Coast Guard has safeguarded our Nation’s maritime interests in the heartland, in the ports, at sea, and around the globe. We protect the maritime economy and the environment, we defend our maritime borders, and we save those in peril. This history has forged our character and purpose as America’s Maritime Guardian — Always Ready for all hazards and all threats.

  • United States Shipping Act of 1984

    The passage of the Shipping Act of 1984 brought about a major deregulatory change in the regulatory regime facing shipping companies operating in the U.S. foreign commerce. The subsequent passage of the Ocean Shipping Reform Act of 1998, with its further deregulatory amendments and modifications to the Shipping Act of 1984, represented another pro-market shift in shipping regulation. The principle statutes or statutory provisions administered by the Commission are: the Shipping Act of 1984, the Foreign Shipping Practices Act of 1988, section 19 of the Merchant Marine Act, 1920, and Public Law 89-777.

Ship Registration Law - International

  • International Seabed Authority

    The International Seabed Authority is an autonomous international organization established under the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea and the 1994 Agreement relating to the Implementation of Part XI of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea. The Authority is the organization through which States Parties to the Convention shall, in accordance with the regime for the seabed and ocean floor and subsoil thereof beyond the limits of national jurisdiction (the Area) established in Part XI and the Agreement, organize and control activities in the Area, particularly with a view to administering the resources of the Area.

  • International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea

    The International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea is an independent judicial body established by the Convention to adjudicate disputes arising out of the interpretation and application of the Convention. The Tribunal is composed of 21 independent members, elected from among persons enjoying the highest reputation for fairness and integrity and of recognized competence in the field of the law of the sea.

  • Oceans and Law of the Seas - United Nations

    The Division for Ocean Affairs and the Law of the Sea of the Office of Legal Affairs has consistently been recognized for its role in contributing to the wider acceptance and rational and consistent application of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea. Its mandate, as spelled out by the General Assembly of the United Nations and in the Secretary-General's Bulletin, is to carry out the responsibilities entrusted to the Secretary-General upon the adoption of the Convention and fulfil the functions associated with its entry into force. More specifically, the Division monitors developments in all relevant areas in order to report annually to the General Assembly on matters relating to the law of the sea and ocean affairs. Further, it formulates recommendations to the Assembly and other intergovernmental forums aimed at promoting a better understanding of the Convention, and ensures that the Organization has the capacity to respond to requests for advice and assistance from States in the implementation of the Convention.

Organizations Related to Ship Registration Law

  • DOT - Maritime Administration

    The Maritime Administration is the agency within the U.S. Department of Transportation dealing with waterborne transportation. Its programs promote the use of waterborne transportation and its seamless integration with other segments of the transportation system, and the viability of the U.S. merchant marine. The Maritime Administration works in many areas involving ships and shipping, shipbuilding, port operations, vessel operations, national security, environment, and safety.

  • Federal Maritime Commission (FMC)

    The Federal Maritime Commission (FMC) is an independent regulatory agency responsible for the regulation of oceanborne transportation in the foreign commerce of the U.S. The principal statutes or statutory provisions administered by the Commission are: the Shipping Act of 1984, the Foreign Shipping Practices Act of 1988, section 19 of the Merchant Marine Act, 1920, and Public Law 89-777.

  • International Maritime Bureau

    The ICC International Maritime Bureau (IMB) is a specialized division of the International Chamber Of Commerce (ICC). The IMB is a non-profit making organization, established in 1981 to act as a focal point in the fight against all types of maritime crime and malpractice For over 25 years, the IMB has used industry knowledge, experience and access to a large number of well-placed contacts around the world to protect the integrity of international trade by seeking out fraud and malpractice.

  • International Maritime Organization (IMO)

    Shipping is perhaps the most international of the world's industries, serving more than 90 per cent of global trade by carrying huge quantities of cargo cost effectively, cleanly and safely. The ownership and management chain surrounding any ship can embrace many countries and ships spend their economic life moving between different jurisdictions, often far from the country of registry.

  • Liberian Registry

    The Liberian Registry – the second largest in the world – includes well over 3100 ships of more than 96 million gross tons, which represents 10 percent of the world’s ocean going fleet. As the world’s premier open ship registry, the Liberian Maritime Program is renowned for quality, efficiency, safety and service. Likewise, the Liberian Registry is recognized at the top of every industry “white-list” including the International Maritime Organization and the major Port State Control authorities such as the US Coast Guard as well as the Paris and Tokyo MOU regimes. Furthermore, according to the U.S. Maritime Administration, Liberian flagged vessels carry more than one-third of the oil imported into the United States.

  • Maritime Law Association of the United States (MLA)

    The Maritime Law Association of the United States (MLA) was founded in 1899. Its formation was prompted by the organization, some three years earlier, of the International Maritime Committee, better known by its name in French, Comité Maritime International (CMI).

  • OCRA Marine Services

    OCRA Marine Services is a global provider of bespoke superyacht and ship registration services. Based in the Isle of Man, with offices in other key yacht registration locations like Mauritius, the Seychelles, Madeira and Luxembourg, we enjoy a close working relationship with the Isle of Man Ship Registry and are one of a small number of companies approved as a Representative Person. Our aim is to remove the administrative burden from yacht owners to enable them to enjoy their yachts. Our professional services extend from yacht registration to providing a complete yacht management service through a dedicated point of contact.


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