Ship registration

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Ship registration is the process by which a ship is documented and given the nationality of the country to which the ship has been documented. The nationality allows a ship to travel internationally as it is proof of ownership of the vessel.[1]

International law requires that every merchant ship be registered in a country, called its flag state.[2] Ship registration is similar to a person receiving a passport. A ship is bound to the law of its flag state.[1] It is usual to say that the ship sails under the flag of the country of registration.

A ship's flag state exercises regulatory control over the vessel and is required to inspect it regularly, certify the ship's equipment and crew, and issue safety and pollution prevention documents. The organization which actually registers the ship is known as its registry. Registries may be governmental or private agencies. In some cases, such as the United States' Alternative Compliance Program, the registry can assign a third party to administer inspections.[3]

A registry that is open only to ships of its own nation is known as a traditional or national registry. Registries that are open to foreign-owned ships are known as open registries, and some of these are classified as flags of convenience.


Ship registration has been done since business on the seas has been important. Originally meant to control ships carrying cargo in European seaborne countries,[1] it was used to make sure ships were being built in the local country, with crews predominantly of the local country.[4] Since then, ship registration has been used to document ships for ownership. Documentation provides definite evidence of nationality for international purposes and provides financing opportunities with the availability of preferred mortgages on documented vessels.[5]

Requirements for Registration[edit]

Vessel registration is required for all vessels traveling internationally and crossing international borders. Registration is not necessary for vessels that travel in local waters, however some registries provide nationality to such vessels as well. Registration provides the ability to determine which country's laws govern the operation of a ship and the behavior of the crew.[1]

What type of vessels can be registered at a registry is dependent on the registry. For example, the Liberian Registry registers seagoing vessels of more than 500 net tons that conduct foreign trade. Vessels over the age of 20 require a waiver as well as the vessel's Classification Society being willing to issue statutory certificates to the vessel. Vessels 15 year or older must have a Status Report of the vessel's Special Survey to be reviewed by Marine Safety.[6]

Maritime law[edit]

The principle that there be a "genuine link" between a ship's owners and its flag state dates back to 1958, when Article 5(1) of the Geneva Convention on the High Seas also required that "the state must effectively exercise its jurisdiction and control in administrative, technical and social matters over ships flying its flag."[7] The principle was repeated in Article 91 of the 1982 treaty called the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea and often referred to as UNCLOS.[2]

In 1986, the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development attempted to solidify the genuine link concept in the United Nations Convention for Registration of Ships.[8] The Convention for Registration of Ships would require that a flag state be linked to its ships either by having an economic stake in the ownership of its ships or by providing mariners to crew the ships.[8] To come into force, the 1986 treaty requires 40 signatories whose combined tonnage exceeds 25% of the world total.[8] To date, only 14 countries have signed the treaty.[8]

National or closed registries typically require that a ship be owned and constructed by national interests, and at least partially crewed by its citizens. Open registries do not have such requirements; some offer on-line registration, sometimes guaranteeing completion in less than a day.[9]

Unflagged vessels[edit]

Ships operated illegally, such as by pirates, or narco submarines, are not normally registered by the operators (although a registered ship may be captured or used covertly for illegal purposes).

See also[edit]

References and sources[edit]

  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 1.3 "A Guide to Ship Registration" (PDF). Maritime New Zealand. 2010-09-30. Retrieved 2012-12-12. 
  2. 2.0 2.1 ICFTU et al., 2002, p. 7.
  3. "U.S. Coast Guard Alternative Compliance Program". United States Coast Guard. Retrieved 2010-07-01. 
  4. "Registration of merchant ships". The National Archives. Retrieved 2012-12-12. 
  5. "USCG National Vessel Documentation Center, FAQ Page". Retrieved 2012-12-12. 
  6. "Question Listing for Vessel Registration". LISCR. Retrieved 2012-12-12. 
  7. D'Andrea 2006, p.2.
  8. 8.0 8.1 8.2 8.3 D'Andrea 2006, p.6.
  9. Neff, 2007.