Virginia Boating Safety Requirements

Personal Flotation Devices (PFDs aka Life Jackets)

In addition to the requirement for a wearable PFD for each person on board a vessel, the state of Virginia requires at least one U.S. Coast Guard approved Type IV throwable PFD (ring buoy OR seat cushion) on all vessels 16 feet or greater in length, except for:

  • personal watercraft (PWC)
  • non-motorized canoes and kayaks 16 feet or greater in length
  • racing shells, rowing sculls, racing canoes and racing kayaks
  • sail boards
  • vessels of the United States used by foreign competitors while practicing for or racing in competitions


Anyone on board a PWC is required to wear a U.S. Coast Guard approved Type I, II, III, or V PFD.

Inflatable PFDs are not approved for high impact water sports such as water skiing or riding on a PWC.

Child PFD Regulations

According to Federal Law, all boaters or passengers under the age of 13 must be wearing their PFD while the vessel is underway unless they are below deck or in an enclosed cabin. In Virginia, this rule is enforced by the U.S. Coast Guard and applies on waters over which they have enforcement jurisdiction.

Alcohol & Boating Under the Influence (BUI)

A boater with a blood alcohol content of .08% or more shall be presumed to be under the influence of alcohol. The penalties include the following:

  • Fines up to $2,500, and/or,
  • Imprisonment of up to twelve months, and/or,
  • Revocation of the privilege to operate a vessel on state waters for up to a three year period, and/or,
  • Mandatory enrollment in The Virginia Alcohol Safety Program.

By operating on Virginia waterways, an operator is deemed to have given consent to a breath and/or blood test to determine the amount of alcohol and/or drugs in their blood.

Refusal to submit to a test may constitute grounds for the revocation of the operator's boating privileges.

"Zero Tolerance" prohibits persons younger than 21 from consuming alcohol and operating a vessel with any measurable alcohol level.

Virginia Boat Registration

The Virginia Department of Wildlife Resources (DWR) is responsible for regulating the state boating laws in Virginia.

All boats propelled by machinery, including gasoline, diesel and electric motors regardless of whether or not the machinery is the principal source of propulsion, and principally operated on Virginia waters must be registered and issued a Virginia Certificate of Number (Registration) by the DGIF.

Exemptions for boat registration include:

  • Vessels used only on private waters
  • Canoes and other manually or sail powered vessels(excludes sail powered vessels less than 18 feet in length even without propulsion)
  • Vessels currently registered in another state and not kept in Virginia for more than 90 consecutive days

In addition, all motorized vessels requiring registration must be issued a Certificate of Title before they can legally be operated on Virginia's waterways. This also applies to any sail-powered vessel in excess of 18 feet in length even if they do not have a motor.

Watercraft documented by the United States Coast Guard cannot be titled, however the owner of a documented watercraft may apply to DGIF for a state registration decal.

If a boat has been previously registered in Virginia, the new owner may operate the vessel for thirty days from the date of purchase with a dated bill of sale and the valid Certificate of Number of the former owner.

Title, registration, and license plates for your watercraft trailer are purchased through the Virginia Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV).

Certificate of Number

Once in receipt of the application and required fees, the DGIF will issue a title, which is proof of ownership, and a Virginia Certificate of Number. This pocket-sized Certificate of Number is your registration card. Upon receipt of the Certificate of Number please note the following:

  • It is valid for three years and must be renewed at the end of the third year.
  • It must be signed and carried on board when operating the vessel.

The number issued to a boat appears on the certificate and is to be displayed on each side of the forward half of the vessel.

Decals are furnished with each Certificate of Number and indicate the month and year of expiration and the registration number assigned to your vessel.

The decal must be displayed within 6 inches of the registration number on the boat for which they were issued. Only the current decal may be visible.

Cost to Register a Boat in Virginia

Successful registration results in a certificate of number, physical boat numbers and a decal. Your registration MUST be kept on board the vessel at all times. (It is advisable to keep the registration in a dry-bag on board.) Boat numbers must:

  • Be affixed on both sides of the bow (forward half of the vessel above the waterline);
  • Be block letters, three inches high and contrasting with your boat color;
  • Letters must be separated from the numbers by a space or a hyphen (the separation must be greater than the width of the letter I or the number 1). For example: VA 1234 BX or VA-1234-BX.

This is a federal and state requirement.

Lack of the correct documentation can result in delays and fines.

Make sure all boats are properly marked and documented.

It is important to keep your papers with the boat – be particularly aware when transferring ownership of your vessel.

See the following chart for a list of registration fees.


Registration of watercraft less than 16 feet length


Registration of watercraft 16 to less than 20 feet length


Registration of watercraft 20 to less than 40 feet length


Registration of watercraft 40 feet length and longer


Livery of up to 10 watercraft


Livery of more than 10 watercraft


Aquatic Nuisance Species

Non-native aquatic species, plants, fish and animals are invading Virginia's waters. These pests can increase dramatically under the right conditions, displacing native species, clogging waterways, and impacting navigation and recreation.

Once introduced, they are nearly impossible to eliminate. Hydrilla, Egeria Densa, water hyacinth and zebra mussels are nuisance species that can be accidentally transported by recreational boaters when caught in propellers, intakes or attached to hulls.

To help prevent the introduction and spread of non-native species from
one body of water to another, you should:

  • Inspect your boat and remove aquatic plants or animals before you leave any body of water.
  • Flush raw-water cooling systems and clean sea strainers before moving your boat from one body of water to another.
  • Empty bait buckets and remove any plant fragments from bait wells, fishing gear, trailers, dive gear or props.
  • Dispose of the plant fragments on land, in a garbage receptacle.
  • Drain water from your motor, live wells and bilge.
  • Wash your boat before putting it into a new body of water.
  • Report any new infestation of non-native aquatic species to the U.S. Fish Wildlife Service.

To stop the spread of aquatic species, it is best to clean your boat before you leave the body of water.

Personal Watercraft Laws & Regulations

Do not underestimate PWCs – they are very powerful for their small size and demand the same respect as any boat. In fact, PWC operation must adhere to the same rules and regulations as any other powerboat – including registration with the state and a B-1 class fire extinguisher aboard.

PWCs have some additional requirements:

  • Every person on board and anyone being towed behind a personal watercraft (PWC) must wear a Coast Guard approved Type I, II, III or V personal flotation device (PFD).
  • Inflatable PFDs are not intended for use while participating in tow sports or other high impact sports, and do not meet the wear requirements for PWC operation.
  • PWCs must come to "no wake" speed when within 50 feet or less of docks, piers, boathouses, boat ramps, or people in the water and vessels other than personal watercraft. This does not prohibit the pulling of a skier with a rope less than 50 feet.

Hours of Operation

Personal watercraft may only be operated during daylight hours (sunrise to sunset).

Note: No person 13 years of age or younger may operate a PWC. PWC operators who are 14 and 15 years old must have proof of successful completion of a NASBLA-approved Boating Safety Course.

The Boater Education Card must be carried on board at all times while operating.