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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


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.