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The Merchant Shipping Act 1995 specifies which boats are British and therefore entitled to fly the British flag. Unregistered small ships (of less than 24 metres length) are entitled to fly the British flag if they are owned by qualifying owners (i.e. individuals or companies that would be entitled to register a British boat).

However, once a British boat leaves UK territorial waters and wishes to exercise the freedom of the high seas, it might be called upon by the warships of any nation to demonstrate its right to fly the British flag and, for all practical purposes, this means that the boat needs to be registered and to carry on board the appropriate certificate.

A boat’s registration normally comes from either the nationality of the owner, or the country of residency of the owner and once a boat is registered she becomes a floating part of her flag state, and therefore she has to comply with the national requirements regarding training, safety equipment etc. In the UK we do not have compulsory training or minimum safety requirements on private pleasure boats. However, if an unregistered boat goes abroad, and local Customs realise that the boat is not registered then the owner may be fined, or it may be inferred, if he has been in the country long enough, that the boat comes under the jurisdiction of that country and the owner should therefore sit all the relevant training exams, in the local language, and fit the boat out according to the local safety standard.


The register of British Shipping is divided into four parts.

  • Part I is the traditional Register of British Ships, which originated in the sixteenth century. By the end of the nineteenth century each of the 110 significant ports in the UK had its own register. By 1986 the administration of the register was drawn into 17 regional centres and by 1994 the entire operation was centralised at the office of the Registrar General of Shipping in Cardiff.
  • Part II is the Register of Fishing Vessels
  • Part III is the Small Ships Register (SSR) which was originally set up under the 1983 Merchant Shipping Act in response to the demand for a cheap and simple means of registering a boat to sail abroad. From 1983 to 1991 the SSR was managed by the RYA, from 1991 to 1996 by the DVLA at Swansea and since 1996 by the Registrar General at Cardiff.
  • Part IV was created by the 1993 Merchant Shipping Act to enable foreign owned ships used as bare-boat charters by British companies to be British registered and fly the British flag for the duration of the charter.

British pleasure boats are eligible to register on either Part I or on Part III (SSR). A boat may only be on one Register at a time, regardless of whether it is on the British Register or under foreign registration.

WHAT IS THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN THE PART I AND THE PART III (SSR): The main differences between the two registers are the eligibility requirements and the proof needed to register. Part I of the Register is more of a title register and proof of ownership, which can also record details of any mortgages on the boat, whereas the SSR is more of a passport for your boat to enable you to go overseas.

Entitlement to Part I registration is limited to ships owned by one of the following:

  • (a) British citizens or persons who are nationals of an EU state who are *established in the UK. (*established - it is not sufficient to live or even be an employee in the UK to be established in accordance with Article 52 of the EEC Treaty. To be established a person must make an economic contribution to the UK e.g. by having a business, including being self-employed.
  • (b) Bodies corporate incorporated in any EU state.
  • (c) Bodies corporate incorporated in any relevant British possession and having their principal place of business in the UK or in any such possessions.
  • (d) Citizens of British Dependent Territories, British Overseas Citizens and British Nationals (Overseas).

In addition, an unqualified person may be one of the owners of a registered ship if a majority interest in the ship is owned by qualified persons. Where the owner or owners are not resident in the UK, the boat may only be registered if a representative person, or company resident or incorporated in the UK is appointed.

The main advantage that a person has if their boat is on the Part I Register, is that it makes it easier to sell the boat. The two main concerns of any buyer are “does the seller own the boat?” and “is the boat subject to a marine mortgage?” These two crucial points are fairly easy to check if a boat is on the Part I Register - you simply send a cheque for the appropriate fee off to the Registry and ask for a transcript of the boat. If a boat is of a significant value then it is worth considering registering on the Part I; it is asking a huge leap of faith on behalf of any buyer to part with a significant amount of money with no proof of title or mortgages!

Source Royal Yachting Association 2016