Clearance formalities vary greatly from country to country, being extremely simple in some and ridiculously complicated in others. The complexity of formalities is often a reflection of the nature of the regime in power and it can be safely assumed that the less liberal a country the more complicated its entry formalities.
Regardless of the country visited, or the kind of government in power there, formalities should always be taken seriously and even what look like illogical restrictions should always be complied with. Moreover, however lax or strict a country may be known to be, entry formalities must be completed as soon as possible, and the intention to do so must be indicated as soon as one enters that country’s territorial waters by flying the Q flag and contacting the relevant authorities by radio.
In the current security climate, it is now not unusual to have to advise the customs or coastguard authority of your ETA two or more days in advance.
See the individual Noonsite formalities pages for each country for full details (for example: http://www.noonsite.com/Countries/Fiji?rc=Formalities). Each port of entry also has localised clearance information (for example: http://www.noonsite.com/Countries/Fiji/Suva?rc=PortProfile#PortClearance). Be sure to research the options for clearance ports in advance so you can select the most suitable one for clearing into and out of the country.
It pays to carry all original boat documents.
Although some forms will have to be filled in on the spot (or for many countries now online in advance), considerable time can be saved by having some papers prepared beforehand (for example photocopies of the ship’s papers as well as plenty of crew lists).
Many cruisers now have a small printer/scanner on board to save time and effort finding a copy shop ashore. Place the documents in a solid folder with waterproof pockets or similar, to cope with countless trips ashore and thumbing.
It is an international requirement that all vessels (including trailed sail boats) outside their home waters are properly registered. Many countries have a simpler (and cheaper) option to register a boat other than the more involved commercial register.
In the United States yachts can either be registered with the state where the owner lives, or if ownership can be traced to the original owner, the vessel can be documented with the Coast Guard. The latter is generally preferable if possible when cruising abroad.
Many countries and some marinas insist on a minimum level of third party insurance (be sure to carry the original document). Also there may be an additional requirement such as a translation or a reciprocal arrangement with a local insurance company. See individual country pages for any special requirements e.g. Italy, Greece.
A radio operator’s licence, whether for VHF, HF or amateur radio, is required in most countries, although this is rarely checked. Some cruising yachts carry an amateur radio, most of their operators being properly licensed to operate a maritime mobile station. However, in some countries such stations can only be used legally if the operator is in possession of a reciprocal licence issued by the country concerned. In most places this is a simple formality and costs a small fee. In a few countries there are strict restrictions on the use of any radio equipment while in port, while in others, such as Thailand and New Zealand, the use of portable marine VHF radios on land is forbidden.
VAT Paid Certificate
If cruising in Europe with an EU registered boat, then a certificate showing that VAT has been paid will be expected. In the case of an older boat, then endeavour to obtain a Customs declaration that 'VAT is deemed to have been paid', before leaving your home. Without it, a Customs official can insist that VAT is paid on the current value of the boat at the rate applicable in the country being visited.
Clearance or Exit Document
This is the document which is (or should be) issued to show that a boat has left a previously visited country legally. It is often called a 'zarpe'. It will be expected at your next port of call. Note that some countries do not issue exit zarpes as a matter of routine (e.g. USA) so some planning will be required if your destination country will not permit entry without one.
As well as the above, some countries may also want to see the ship's logbook (this can be used as a legal document) and a list of electronic or other valuable items on board.
A ship’s stamp is greatly appreciated in many countries where, for some strange reason, a rubber stamp has a certain authority. The stamp should show the name of the boat, registration number and your flag state.
A valid passport is required for each crew member. It is a usual requirement that it is valid for at least six months.
Ensure that every crew member who requires one, either has a visa in advance of arrival or ensure that a 'visa on arrival' will be issued. Visiting cruisers are often subject to different rules to those applied to visitors arriving by air or cruise liner. Be sure to check the current requirements well in advance of arrival. Some countries may have a convenient embassy in a neighbouring state where a visa may be obtained. Do your research in advance.
For further information see Visa section below.
Several copies of the complete crew list are likely to be requested when clearing in to a new country. This list should include for each crew member, including the Skipper:-
- Full name
- Date and place of birth
- Passport number
- Date of expiry of the passport
Vaccination certificates if required.
Medicines: A prescription or a letter from a doctor specifying the medicine, and why it is taken, should accompany any medicines containing powerful narcotics or habit-forming drugs, especially those used by a member of the crew on a regular basis, such as heart and blood pressure medication, diuretics, tranquillisers, anti-depressants, stimulants or sleeping tablets. Also take note if there is any particular restriction as some 'over-the-counter' medications can be restricted in some countries.
Additional Skipper's Documents
A certificate of competence, or some document showing the competence of the person in charge of the boat, is now required by officials in many countries. Whilst your home country may not require such a certificate, it is worth getting something before you start cruising to avoid any nasty surprises (see this Croatia report by American cruisers who had to pay to get a Croatia Boater's License in lieu of an ICC certificate).
If travelling on the inland waterways of Europe, then proof of having passed the CEVNI exams is required. This is a theory test to ensure you understand the inland waterway rules and signage and can be done online.
Any animals on board must have international health certificates and their anti-rabies and other vaccinations should be kept up to date. All Noonsite Formalities sections have a pets section (for example http://www.noonsite.com/Countries/Brazil?rc=Formalities#Pets).
If you carry scuba diving equipment on board, you may be asked to show diving qualification certificates before getting your tanks filled.
While in some countries visa requirements are fairly clear, in others the situation concerning yachts is confusing. Foreign nationals arriving on a yacht can be treated basically in three different ways by the immigration authorities.
There are several suggestions concerning passports and visas which should be followed to avoid some of the problems that are known to have occurred in the past. Passports should have a validity well in excess of the intended period of travel. Many countries now insist that passports are valid for at least six months beyond the intended stay in their country.
For countries where a visa is required, this should be obtained well in advance, although one should make sure that the visa will still be valid when one arrives in the respective country as some countries stipulate that the entry must take place within three months of the visa being issued.
It is also a good idea to obtain visas for difficult countries, even if it is known that visas can be issued on arrival. A visa issued by their diplomatic mission abroad sometimes works wonders with local immigration officers. Wherever possible one should try to obtain a multiple entry visa, particularly for countries with overseas territories or dependencies, such as France (Martinique, Guadeloupe, French Polynesia, New Caledonia, Réunion, St Pierre and Miquelon), Australia (Norfolk Island, Christmas Island and Cocos Keeling) or the USA (Virgin Islands, Puerto Rico, Hawaii and Guam).
Something that must be noted when cruising, is that visa regulations do change and often without warning. Always try to find out the latest situation before sailing to a certain country.
As most countries maintain diplomatic missions in neighbouring countries, these are the best places to ask about changes and to apply for any necessary visas. Occasionally regulations change so quickly that even the diplomatic missions do not know about it.
Visa requirements, and the political climate generally, can often change quickly due to the improvement or deterioration of relations between countries.
In some countries, cruising boats are subjected to special regulations or restrictions concerning their movement.
In most places if a cruising permit or transit log is required, it is issued at the first port of entry, so it is not necessary to make any preparations in advance. Any restrictions on the freedom of movement of yachts which do not require a cruising permit to be obtained in advance are discussed on that country's Noonsite page.
It is most important to know the particular requirements of those permits which must be applied for before arrival, so as to make the correct preparations.
The regulations pertaining to at least three such countries, Indonesia, Palau and the Galapagos Islands, have been causing great confusion among cruising sailors for years and their Noonsite pages are regularly updated. The USA also has some onerous restrictions for foreign yachts.
There are various reasons why restrictions on cruising boats are imposed, the main reasons being the protection of remote communities from intrusion, the preservation of natural parks and reserves, or the wish of authorities to keep foreign sailors away from sensitive military areas.
Restrictions are also increasingly imposed on genuine cruising boats because of illegal chartering.
It is becoming more common for countries to expect a boat to have its AIS receiver switched on, if the boat carries one. In a few places (e.g. Singapore & Thailand) AIS is mandatory, and would have to be hired if not already fitted.
As a minimum, a boat should be equipped with any safety and emergency equipment as required by their flag state for offshore cruising. In some countries it is illegal to carry out of date flares (e.g. France).
Any spares (even standard engine and refrigeration spares) may not be easily available in other countries or may be available at greatly inflated prices. Stock up before departure and remember to ask joining crew members to bring out spares in their luggage.
If firearms are carried, these should be licensed in the country of origin, as this licence will be requested in many places.
Any firearms, ammunition, flare guns, spear guns or similar weapons on board must always be declared to Customs on arrival. They will often be removed and held in safekeeping until departure or, at a minimum, must be in a secure, sealed locker.
Make sure you have a wide range of power and water adaptors available, plus adaptors for re-filling your gas bottle.
Investigate the advantages of a WiFi booster for accessing the internet at anchor and in marinas.
Identify how you are going to secure your valuable deck items such as dinghy, outboard etc. and purchase suitable cables, locks and chains to prevent theft.
The Noonsite Cruising Information page, in particular the first section - Planning & Preparation - has many useful links to help you cover every eventuality.
It is very useful to have ready made up, a card containing all the information about the boat, including Boat Name, Owners Name, Flag state, LOA, Width, Registration number, Tonnage & Contact Details.
Bio-security considerations will sometime severely restrict which food stuff is permitted to remain on the boat on arrival. Be sure to check each country's restrictions.
Be aware of the customs for new countries you are cruising to, so you arrive and behave in harbour in the correct manner. Across the world without exception, all Authorities look favourably on a skipper dressed in shorts and a shirt with shoes.