Boat Licences & Registrations

Requirements for a Pleasure Craft Licence (PCL) are listed in the Small Vessel Regulations of the Canada Shipping Act and summarized in Transport Canada's Office of Boating Safety website. Transport Canada is also responsible for the Small Vessel Registry system. This summary is provided only for convenience and may be out of date. Get current information directly from Government departments (Government directory).

About 2.2 million pleasure boats were licensed in Canada in 2006, with an average of 105,000 new and transferred licences granted annually.

Boat Licences

What is a boat licence used for?

Licence information is entered into a computer-based system which will be available to government agencies and police to identify a boat in an emergency, assist in search and rescue efforts and enforce pleasure craft regulations. Licensing is free, and legally very different from registration, which was designed for ships.

Who needs it?

All pleasure craft powered by an engine 10 horsepower (7.5 kW) or more must be licensed unless the boat has a vessel registration. A licence is no longer required for canoes and kayaks used in “guided excursions.” (2011/March Details from Transport Canada.) A licence is sometimes required by foreign countries (i.e. towed dinghies in U.S. locks).

What choices do I have if my boat is already licensed?

  1. Keep your old number
  2. Request a new one to get into the new government license database
  3. Enter old license number into the new system

Where do I get a licence?

Service Canada, on behalf of Transport Canada, issues vessel licences at 320 locations across the country, where you may license new vessels or transfer licensed vessel ownerships at no charge. It should take about 10 minutes to process an application and issue a licence. You have 90 days to transfer the licence of a used boat.

License applications are available online using the Pleasure Craft Electronic Licensing System (PCELS) from (Transport Canada). This is much faster than mailing in application forms and copies of ownership and personal ID. Here's what you can do online:

Explaining boat numbers

New boat licence numbers begin with provincial digraphs (MB, ON, NB) followed by digits. Licences no longer indicates a 'port' location. If a boat has a number-letter combination on the boat's bow such as 32E9876 (E is Ontario, 32 is Ottawa), it was licensed before 2007. If the boat has a provincial digraph followed by digits (BC12345 is British Columbia), the licence was issued by Service Canada on behalf of Transport Canada. A license number that begins with "C" (e.g., C00000BC) is a Small Commercial Vessel licensed prior to 2007 - these are now registered in the Small Vessel Registry of Transport Canada. It is highly recommended that pre-2007 licence owners apply for a new number at no charge, which will be entered into the new licence data system.

Mark Boat Numbers correctly

A licensed boat must be marked on both sides of the bow with contrasting "licence numbers" in block characters at least 7.5 cm (3") high. You may use adhesive decals or paint. There are no regulations about the stern, but it's normal to paint a boat name and city. (Marking registered vessels is strictly regulated.)

What is the difference between Canadian & U.S. Terminology

Many people confuse Canadian with American terms: our Canadian licensing is similar to the U.S. boat registration. Canadian registration is similar to U.S. documentation, and usually reserved for commercial vessels and ships.

Canadian spelling is different.

Canadian spelling changes depending on the usage of the word: the noun "a boat licence" is spelled with a "c". When used as a verb or adjective it is spelled with an "s": "to license a boat", "licensing a boat", or a "licensed boat".

Canadian boat licences use postal abbreviations - U.S. boat licenses are sometimes different

Buying a Used Boat:

When you buy a used boat with a "licence", you must transfer the licence within 90 days. Take a "bill of sale" signed by the previous owner and the completed transfer form (reverse side of Pleasure Craft Licence form) to Service Canada. If a used boat has no vessel licence or registration papers, contact Transport Canada "Marine Safety" for information. Buyer beware!

Buying or importing a U.S. boat:

Canadian residents who licence or register a boat in another country, can only bring it into Canada for a limited time before they must pay duty and tax on the boat (GST & PST). The Free Trade Agreement provides for low duty to import a domestically manufactured boat and none for some types of marine safety equipment. [More about buying a U.S. boat.]

Boat operation:

Canadian regulations require a PCOC (or proof of competency) to operate a boat.

Commercial Licences:

Small Commercial Vessel Licence application forms are available from any Ship Registration office (Transport Canada). Toll-free hotline: 1-877-242-8770

Marine radios:

VHF radio licences are sometimes not required based on new regulations. To operate and transmit messages on a VHF radio, you must have a Restricted Radiotelephone Operator's Certificate proving your proficiency.

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When you buy a new boat, a boat broker can usually arrange for a licence and payment of sales tax. When you buy a used boat, you transfer the licence by taking it with a "bill of sale" signed by the previous owner to the provincial government office and paying the sales tax. Transferring a trailer license can be done at any provincial vehicle licence office.

When you sell a boat, follow the instructions on the transfer form on the reverse side of your Pleasure Craft Licence and give it to the new owner. The new owner should contact the government to complete the transfer. Search the blue pages in your telephone directory or our government index.

When you get a licence for a boat, be sure to check its serial numbers and ensure they match the plate on the vessel, on the bill of sale, and all government paperwork.

Section 11 of the Small Vessel Regulations states "The number allotted to a vessel when it is first licensed shall be the permanent licence number of that vessel and shall be retained for the vessel throughout any subsequent transfer of ownership."

You must license your dinghy if you plan to travel on any canals or travel outside Canada. You must put the licence numbers on the dinghy in the proper place and size.

Trailer licences

Buy or transfer a trailer license at the provincial Driver & Vehicle Licence Office where you intend to drive it. Locate these offices in the phone book Blue Pages. You must have the ownership and a bill of sale from the person or company you bought it from. In some provinces you also pay PST; in others it's HST (GST & PST) at about 15%. Buying a boat and trailer in the USA offers the research and experiences of other boaters.

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This information may become outdated at any time. Get current information from government departments.

Transport Canada is responsible for the Canadian Register of Vessels, which is a title system for the ownership of boats. Until a registration process is completed for a new boat, you may apply for a Provisional Certificate of Registry to protect the boat's ownership during the registration process.

  1. It is no longer mandatory for pleasure craft over 15 gross tonnage (or 12 metres long if it has not been measured for tonnage) to be registered, however pleasure craft may be voluntarily registered.
  2. You must register your pleasure craft if you require a marine mortgage on the vessel.
  3. Contact the Department of Transport Canada Office of Ship Registration to get a tonnage survey.
  4. Markings must be block characters in contrasting colour 10.3 cm (4") high in the correct locations.
  5. A valid Certificate of Registry must be kept on board the vessel at all times.
  6. Anyone operating a vessel with an invalid document is in contravention of the Canada Shipping Act and liable to prosecution.
  7. Any change(s) to the information shown on the certificate must be reported in writing to the Registrar at your Port of Registry within 30 days of the change. Failure to report may result in suspension or cancellation.
  8. Pleasure craft manufactured after 1978 must bear a decal indicating it meets or exceeds minimum standards. [Some confusion here: Decal requirements for measurement appear to ignore registered boats which have already been professionally measured by a marine surveyor.]

Since Registration was really designed for commercial vessels, your country can take control of your registered boat in times of crisis (war). For that reason, you will legally own only 2/3 of a registered boat; one third is owned by the crown.

Before Transport Canada changed the registration system, registering required a survey by a licensed surveyor. Currently, some boats don't require a survey, but the registration fee is higher, and regular renewal is required.

The Canada Shipping Act, 2001 contains changes with new vessel categories and new fees for registration and transfers. Registration fees are higher and there is a fee to change ownership, ship name, or to de-register altogether. Contact any Ship Registration office. [Government Index: Transport Canada]

A Certificate of Registry is currently valid for 3 years. Renewal is free. A renewal letter is sent to you 30 days before expiration. If you do not receive it at least 2 weeks before expiry, contact the Registrar at your Port of Registry. If you do not receive it, and do not contact them, they de-register your boat. It's up to the owner to make sure the boat stays registered. [But it could be useful if you WANT to be de-registered - without having to pay the de-registration fee! -Pat]

Some registration fees in 2007:

When we got our own boat registered, we used to joke about how much coal we could carry -- this survey measurement of cargo capacity is designed for large ships! "Register tonnage" is a measurement of volume for carrying cargo. It's easy to understand why many boat buyers want to establish legal ownership of a valuable asset, but a boat licence doesn't yet accomplish this (in 2005). In the 1970s, a friend almost lost ownership of his brand new "registered" boat when the dealer went bankrupt before delivery.
    -- Pat

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Licence v.s. Registration

Information may become outdated. Get current information from government departments.

Licensing is an identification system for boats. A boat licence does not provide clear title or ownership of a boat. If was pointed out to me by Patick Julien (below) that if a licensed boat is stolen, it is difficult to trace it or to prove ownership. It was hoped the new federal licensing system could be used to prove ownership but it is administered by each province and territory and is designed more for and collecting sales tax and search & rescue operations.

Registration is a procedure for documentation of ownership or title in Canada with a "name" and "port of registration". Licensing is a procedure which identifies a vessel with a letter-number combination after having paid sales tax in a province or territory, and does not necessarily imply ownership or title. There's no easy way to check the ownership trail, liens on the boat, or if it's stolen.

If you plan to cruise to other countries, or just want to secure your ownership, registration may be a good option. Of course, it costs more as it involves legal procedures and measurements from Transport Canada.

Registration is supposed to provide title, but problems can happen - I heard from a boater who had a legal battle getting ownership on a newly built boat when the builder went bankrupt before he had taken possession of it, even though it was already "registered".

Patrick Julien (from Caelis International, one of Canada's major Coast Guard and Transport Canada approved marine documentation consultancies), sent me some interesting comments about licences and registration. Here is what he said:

Licensing is not really the norm for expensive vessels, as owners usually wish to obtain clear title and proof of ownership that comes with registration. A licence is simply a piece of paper which allows you to go on the water; it has absolutely nothing to do with proof of ownership. We recently dealt with the transfer of property of a vessel which had four current and potentially valid licences issued on it. You do not need to prove you own the boat to get a licence -- and boat thefts are rumoured to be in the area of 15% of inventory in Canada. And what of banks and finance companies chasing their security.

A standard 36 foot and up cruiser with good interior living accomodations normally meets this minimum measure. Many people think of this measurement as weight, which is practically impossible for pleasure boats. Very few of us have boats in this weight range (well, perhaps Bill Teron...).

There are some advantages to actually registering a boat, not the least of which are clear title, and sequence of title, and option to borrow against the value of the boat as security (marine mortgage). Most foreign ports will insist on vessel registration to ensure confirmation of ownership and nationality of captain and vessel.

Patrick Julien (, Caelis International
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Just to confuse you, Canadians normally "license" a pleasure boat and "register" a ship, while in the U.S. you "register" a pleasure boat and "document" a ship.   To confuse things further, in Canada, it's spelled licence with a "C" when used as a noun, such as a "boat licence", but when used as a verb, license is spelled with an "S", such as "to license a boat" or "licensing a boat".

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