Why are the States Abbreviated like that?

By Jared Reed – Saratoga Lake Steward


Living in the Northeast, it’s common to encounter boaters from neighboring states. It’s only a few hours drive to Saratoga Lake from New Jersey or New Hampshire, and a little more than an hour from parts of Massachusetts and Vermont. I didn’t think much about inter-state boat traffic, until a couple boats from Massachusetts caught me off guard.

I noticed that the boat registration started with the letters “MS” and immediately thought that the boat was registered in Mississippi, even though the car and trailer both had Massachusetts plates. After completing my inspection, I asked the boater if the boat was registered in Massachusetts, and if so why the abbreviation was “MS”, which is normally reserved for Mississippi. He double checked his paperwork and confirmed that it was in fact registered in Massachusetts… but he, nor any of the other Bay State boaters I saw that day knew why the registrations were different.

After some research I discovered that Massachusetts, is one of 11 states where the abbreviations on watercraft registrations differ than ones traditionally used. This discretion actually results from a discrepancy between the United States Coast Guard and the United States Postal Service. The USCG abbreviations predate those used by USPS, but in 1969 the USPS created their own 2 letter abbreviation system, intending to help process mail with easier character recognition. They also changed some state abbreviations to avoid conflict with Canadian provinces, such as using NE for Nebraska, instead of NB, which is used to identify the Canadian Province of New Brunswick.  Other abbreviations were altered from the USCG list of unknown reasons.

Here are the eleven states whose USCG and USPS abbreviations are different:

  California  Colorado  Delaware  Hawaii  Kansas  Massachusetts  Mississippi  Michigan  Nebraska  Washington  Wisconsin
USCG       CF    CL    DL    HA    KA       MS    MI    MC    NB    WN WS
USPS       CA    CO    DE    HI    KS       MA    MS    MI    NE    WA WI


Research yielded minimal factual reasoning as to why there are so many differences (excluding the Nebraska/New Brunswick differentiation), but several anecdotal explanations were found in chat rooms and on discussion boards, voicing that the two federal agencies did not communicate well with each other.

Whatever the actual reasoning may be, it is useful to know that watercraft registrations do not use the same abbreviations as terrestrial motor vehicles.


For More Information, check out these sources:


Boater’s Pocket Reference: Your Comprehensive Resource for Boats and Boating by Thomas McEwen



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