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Accurate Information for Yachtsmen Entering the USA

By Val Ellis last modified May 16, 2017 10:39 PM
This system of entry to the US and obtaining a Cruising Permit was confirmed by a cruiser in March 2014.

Published: 2014-03-09 00:00:00
Countries: Puerto Rico , US Virgin Islands , USA , British Virgin Islands

Our thanks to Suzie and Robin Roots for getting this accurate information for Noonsite readers.

Please read the footnote regarding the correction to the term E-Visa used in this report.

Accurate Information for Yachtsmen Entering the USA

Entering USA waters (including the Spanish Virgins and Puerto Rico) using the Visa Waiver scheme.

To add to the information pool about entering the USA on private yacht, we met recently with Customs and Immigration staff in both the USA Virgin Islands (St Thomas) and the Spanish Virgin Islands (Culebra). Since all the personnel we spoke to fundamentally gave us the same advice, I have recorded it below.

Firstly, as long as a person's FIRST entry into either the USA or USA protectorates (i.e. the Spanish Virgin islands of Culebra, Vieques and Puerto Rico) is by commercial carrier (i.e. a ferry or plane), then the 90 day visa obtained on arrival grants legitimate entry to subsequent re-entry on a private yacht.

It was stressed that this is not a loophole but a perfectly legitimate use of the current legislation.

The only thing which is essential is that you must be in possession of a Visa Waiver form when you board the ferry or plane to the USA or its protectorates; it is highly unlikely, though, that you will allowed to board a ferry without providing evidence of your visa waiver when you purchase your ticket.

Cruisers wanting at a later date to extend their 90 day visa should note that normally an extension will NOT be granted unless the applicant leaves the country and applies for a full visa via a USA consulate in the usual way. So anyone wishing to take a longer cruise to the USA inter-coastal waterways etc should obtain a full visa prior to setting off (consulates in the UK and Barbados are commonly used by cruising folk arriving from the Atlantic).

This is how the process works as of March 2012:

(1) Obtain an E Visa (see note below) by applying on-line well in advance of travel.
(2) Take a ferry or plane return trip to a convenient USA destination (it is easy to go to the USVIs from the BVIs).
(3) Expect for each person to be finger-printed and photographed at the USA Immigration desk on arrival. Then you will have a date-stamped visa entered into your passport. This is multiple entry within the 90 day period.
(4) Return to your yacht and re-enter USA waters when desired, phoning in advance to notify your arrival (use either the Toll Free Number 1-877-529-6940 or (for Puerto Rico) (787) 729 6840.
(5) Expect that you will be told to remain on board until you are advised it is OK to land. (We received a return phone call 30 mins after our phone notification of arrival, and were then told we could go to Customs at the airport in Culebra).
(6) Obtain your yacht's cruising licence from Customs; this will be valid for 1 year.
(7) Expect to pay arrival costs which vary according to LOA; expect to pay between $20-40. No charge in St Thomas as it is a free port.
(7) Phone on arrival at subsequent changes of area; i.e. you should notify Vieques if you are going there after Culebra, then Ponce etc. Customs will provide the correct phone numbers to use (or use the national toll free number above). Note you do NOT have to make a personal visit to Customs or Immigration as you cruise until such time as you are leaving USA waters. The phone notification is sufficient unless advised otherwise.
(8) Obtain clearance in the usual way before departing USA waters; note that many countries (including Panama) are now very fussy about a boat having proper clearance papers.
(9) Note that your passport will not be stamped again, regardless of how many times you enter or re-enter USA territory within the 90 visa period.
(10) The De-Cal program is not applicable to private, non -USA registered boats, although we inadvertently bought one on-line!
(11) We were asked by the very helpful officials in St Thomas to refer Noonsite readers to the publication 'Carrier Information Guide, US Documentary Requirements for travel). It does not have more than the bare bones of the acceptable process though.

Suzie and Robin Roots
True Blue 1

Correction

Our thanks to Rudy Werenfels for clarifying this detail.

Within the Visa Waiver Program there is no such thing as an "E-Visa". The application mentioned in that article is to obtain an "ESTA" (Electronic system for travel authorization).

The word "Visa" in this context is misleading, since you will not get a "Visa" stamped or glued in your passport. It is just an advance info to and approval by US immigration to travel using the Visa Waiver. Once the ESTA application is done (online) and approved, (which normally happens right away) the ESTA is valid for 2 years from the date of application. It's best to print this confirmation and take it along whenever you enter the US, just in case the officer doesn't have it. However your details provided in the ESTA application and the approval are normally stored in the US immigration system and available to any US Customs and Immigration officer when you enter.

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TwoDrifters
TwoDrifters says:
May 16, 2017 07:26 PM

B2 Visa Application In Nassau, Bahamas.
Well yesterday we (wife and I) went for our Visa Interview in Nassau. Despite all the horror stories we found online about Nassau not being boat friendly I am happy to say that this was NOT our experience.

We filled in the forms online D160, gathered as much paperwork as we could to support our request and went along to the Embassy 30 minutes before our 8am slot. The whole process took 3 hours, but that was partly our fault as we printed our own passport photos on photo paper on the boat, so had to get some proper ones done. (There is a photo lab just opposite the Straw Market nr the Embassy.

Once inside with the right photos we joined a queue and had our paper work checked, then joined another queue and had our finger prints taken, then joined the interview queue. We were apprehensive as the interviewers were giving all applicants in front of us a very polite but tough grilling. But when it came to us he asked the obvious questions about why we wanted to go to the US, when we explained we lived on a boat and wanted to go North for the hurricane season he said no problem, asked what we did for a living and if we planned to charter in US waters (which we do not). They did not want to see any bank statements or proof of earnings, it was a simple process and the Visas were approved and ready for collection in 48 hrs.

We only applied for B2, I believe that B1 and B1/B2 take 3 to 5 working days.

Collection is in person at the Embassy, or they can courier them to Nassau DHL or a couple of the Family Islands.

Argo
Argo says:
Feb 23, 2017 06:33 PM

We can also confirm that as of february 2017 we were able to cruise in the USVI and Puerto Rico without having a proper Visa. we got a ESTA "visa" via the web, took a ferry from Tortola to St Thomas, got our stamps in the passports and were able to bring our own boat in the next day to St John without any problems. Also no problems for us then to get a cruising permit in Puerto Rico for US waters (for us being from Sweden). Cheers, Stefan

Val Ellis
Val Ellis says:
Jan 18, 2016 10:36 AM

It is Important to note, an ESTA is authorisation to travel and is valid for 2 years. It is NOT a visa.

Entry under the Visa Waiver Programme permits a visit of up to 90 days which will allow time to get to Nassau via USVI and PR.
Other cruisers have successfully used the ferry route BVI to USVI to obtain entry under the VWP and then to return to US territory with their own boat.

The Noonsite report at http://www.noonsite.com/Countries/USA/Members/sue/R2008-06-19-3 gives a good explanation of how this works.

Also note, that anyone wishing to enter US territory under the VWP must, from April 2016, have a passport with a biometric chip, not just a machine readable one.

Other than Nassau, Bahamas or Bridgetown, Barbados, the only other US embassies are in Hamilton, Bermuda or Havana, Cuba. We have had not reports of other cruisers experiences of how easy or otherwise obtaining a B2 visa is. I suspect that if all your paperwork is in order and you have both a current ESTA (although this is not a requirement) as well as a biometric passport, it would make things easier.

Jono63812
Jono63812 says:
Jan 15, 2016 05:24 PM

Hi,

Any help would be appreciated. We are confused and stuck.

We are currently in the Caribbean and wish to cruise around the Great Loop in america for a year, this will require a B2 visa. The only place we could get this is in Nassau in the Bahamas (Cant get to Barbados...Is there any other embassies, or are these the only 2?)

To get to Nassau we would need to go through USVI and Puerto Rico, are we able to use the Visa Waiver Programme (ESTA) idea between the Virgin islands, Ferry to USVI- Check in- Return by Ferry to BVI - Bring boat etc, and then make our way to Bahamas and apply for a B2 visa whilst still within the 90 days of our ESTA? Or would our 90 days ESTA need to have expired before applying for a B2 visa?

People have mentioned that the Bahamas US Embassy is not boat friendly? Some say it is? Any recent updates on anyone attempting to get a visa with the purpose of sailing?

Thanks everyone.

denis987
denis987 says:
Feb 25, 2015 12:25 AM

We can confirm that entry via a ferry 1st works. We took a ferry from Tortola to USVI, had our passports stamped, checked with immigration that we could bring a private boat in and then did so the next time day. We had no problems and they confirmed we had carried out their procedures correctly.

Val Ellis
Val Ellis says:
Jan 19, 2015 03:09 PM

Yes, as long as you get your ESTA approval first, this is still a permissible way the get your visa waiver for the US and then re-enter US territory in your own yacht. Remember, the 90 day period starts from your first entry into the USVI.

wapiti
wapiti says:
Jan 17, 2015 11:25 AM

We are British citizens intending in March 2014 to sail to BVI, get a visa waiver, take a ferry from BVI to USVI, return by ferry then sail to USVI. Can you confirm that this is still an acceptable way to enter US territory for a period of up to 90 days?

Val Ellis
Val Ellis says:
Sep 23, 2014 03:13 PM

Your ESTA is valid for 2 years so that is not a problem. However, you cannot enter Puerto Rico direct from the Dominican Republic unless you are in possession of a US visa. The Visa Waiver scheme does not apply if your first arrival on US territory is by private yacht. You can use the VW scheme if you go to BVI first, take a commercial ferry to USVIs and then back to BVI. You can then sail your boat to the USVIs and/or Puerto Rico. This is perfectly legal. But do remember that your VW is only valid for 90 days from your very first entry into US territory.
Val(The Noonsite Team)

chloec
chloec says:
Sep 12, 2014 02:38 PM

I am a British Citizen. I went to the US last year by COMMERCIAL JET and used my ESTA for just under 90 days. I am a bit concerned about whether or not they will let me enter with the same ESTA on PRIVATE SAILING VESSEL...Can anybody enlighten me please? We are in the Dominican Republic and want to go to British Virgin Islands via Puerto Rico. The government helpdesk advised me the ESTA would be fine and is valid (as long as the official okays it) but I don't want to take any chances so if anyone has any experience on this I would appreciate your comments. Thanks!

balestear
balestear says:
May 04, 2014 12:33 PM

We obtained our US B1/B2 visas in Nassau. The process is straight forward and needs to be followed to the letter. We took copies of financial assets which were returned to us with the visas. The interview in total took only 2-3 minutes with the main question being why we applied there rather than our home country. The total visit took 2.5 hours. We returned the next day and waited about 1 hour to retrieve passports with visas. Could not have been easier. Date of visit April 2014. Have read blogs of many others cruisers who have had similar experience.

Sue Richards
Sue Richards says:
Apr 14, 2014 01:38 PM

Posted on behalf of Roger Jones of SY Reboot
I would like to add (from bitter and expensive experience) that getting a true visa to enter the United States is not necessarily easy. A couple of notes:

1. The actual determination to grant a visa is made by a single individual. There is no appeal from that decision. The only option is to reapply, pay all the fees again, and hope for a better outcome.

2. If you apply for a visa and are turned down the likelyhood is that your ESTA request will be turned down on the grounds that your visa request was turned down. So make sure you get your ESTA first.

3. Certain embassies have a reputation for turning down visas for boaters. The US Embassy in the Bahamas (according to apocryphal information) has a reputation for a 100% turn down rate. Check the commercial crew web sites for the most "boater friendly" embassy locations before you apply.

4. Certain groups and individuals can almost guarantee they will have trouble. Attractive women from Central and Eastern Europe are frequently turned down. The implication is that they intend to engage in prostitution. This is true even if they have been on the boat for months or years.

5. Many embassy personnel can't conceive of the idea of live aboard cruising. Their mindset is you come to the United States and then return home. The idea that you cruise the US and then move on to other countries is beyond their comprehension. So they ask for property, family, assets (bank accounts) in your home country to prove you intend to return. When told you don't intend to return but to move on to other countries they scratch their heads.

Fair winds and following seas.