Ship Registration Law

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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