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Caution when Entering the USA from Cuba - with Updates

By Sue Richards last modified May 22, 2012 08:28 PM

Published: 2012-05-22 20:28:33
Countries: Cuba , USA

Following the below report from Swiss cruisers Thomas and Regula on SY Balu, who experienced problems when arriving in Key West from Cuba, we have received a number of very useful reports from fellow cruisers on this matter (see bottom).

Posted 30 April, 2012

Maybe this issue is of importance to cruisers who wish to sail from Cuba to the USA, there might not be many, but as a matter of fact we know quite a few boats that plan to do so:

On April 17 we arrived at Key West, Florida, having sailed there directly from Marina Hemingway, Cuba. When we checked in with Customs and Immigration, they informed us that it was illegal to come in directly from Cuba and as a consequence they cancelled our cruising permit (that we had received in Puerto Rico during our stay there in January).

We were surprised to hear this; we of course had known about the embargo and we also expected the entrance procedure to be a bit more complicated or time-consuming, but we had no idea that we – non US-citizens, we are Swiss – generally were not allowed to come in straight from Cuba by boat.

We later found out (while checking in in Miami) that this matter was a “gray zone” as they called it. Obviously, about one month before our arrival in the US, customs here had given a cruising permit to two Norwegian vessels that had arrived directly from Cuba, which led to certain discussions and the officers then were informed that they were actually not allowed to do so.

We had been looking forward to cruising the intracoastal waterway, but as things are now we are not sure if we are going to do so, as (without cruising permit) we have to check in and out in every major port, which can mean an extra day for doing the formalities depending on how far off the port office is located from where the boat is anchored.

So we are considering sailing to the Bamahas instead. Had we known before that one is not allowed to sail from Cuba to the US, we surely would not have done so. But where to get the information? If it is really forbidden there must be an official statement somewhere available for cruisers…

Thomas & Regula
SY Balu

Editor's Note: Noonsite was aware that it can sometimes be a problem for US boats returning to the US from Cuba (see USA Clearance), however this is the first report we have received from a foreign boat experiencing problems. One solution might be to leave Cuba for another country such as the Bahamas and make one's entry into the United States from there.

Update from SY Balu, 3 May 2012

We have contacted the Swiss embassy about the matter and have received the below message. It seems that we were lucky, the American police could even have siezed our vessel on arriving from Cuba, even though we're Swiss...

On clearing out in Miami we met some more cruisers that had come in from Cuba and they were denied a cruising permit too and they also had not known about the problem, just like us.

RE: Law forbidding swiss sailing vessel to enter the USA straight from Cuba.
Dear Mr. Buechi and Mrs. Gurtner,
The e-mail you have sent to our Honorary Consulate in Miami has been forwarded to our representation, Florida being part of the jurisdiction of our Consulate General. The topic you are mentioning is complex indeed and only the competent U.S. authorities are in position to give reliable information about it. Therefore, I am unfortunately not in a position to give you accurate information regarding American immigration laws.

However, I made some searches on the internet and I found on the internet a document from the Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) called Cuba: what you need to know about U.S. sanctions against Cuba. At page 12 of the said document, it is mentioned that an authorization from OFAC is necessary to enter the U.S. for vessels carrying passengers to or from Cuba.

I also found an interesting article regarding the shipping law: Despite the fact that the article is specifically speaking about cruise ships, I believe that this is also applicable to yachts like yours. As you can see, it is mentioned that U.S. embargo prohibits ships that visit Cuba to enter the USA for six months afterwards.

In the article, there is an email and phone number of an attorney specified in maritime laws. I called her and explained your case. After my call, she sent me an email with a detailed explanation regarding the situation. According to her explanation, it seems that in fact you were lucky, as these laws essentially allow the U.S. government to seize a vessel, whether flagged in the USA or a foreign flagged vessel (in USA territorial waters) if the vessel goes to or comes from Cuba.

"Fighting" the authorities legally would be very time consuming and a reinstatement of your cruising permit is not guaranteed.

Roger Gross - Consul
Consulate General of Switzerland

Update from John Macrae, SY Amazing Grace, 12 May 2012

I read with interest the story of Cruising Permit denial. It is at odds with the answer I received when I enquired about this on our recent arrival in the USA from the Bahamas, since I had already heard of potential problems. I was informed by the officer at West Palm Beach that there was no problem for foreign vessels. It would seem that the experience of the Swiss vessel is typical of the other stories we hear about dealings with Key West regarding Cuba. The general recommendation is "avoid".

Regarding getting another permit, they may wish to try another immigration office. We met a boat that was denied a CP renewal as, although they had been out of the USA for over 6 months (not the 2 weeks required), they had not cancelled the permit before leaving and the 14 days after expiration had not lapsed. They were given the option of leaving the USA or getting "Permission to move" at each port ($36 per move). They chose the latter and when they went to another office to check in again and get a further permit, they were issued a cruising license.

It seems that although the rules are there, the application is haphazard. Indeed I know of several non-US vessels that have sailed from Cuba to the USA direct and have had no problems at all. This is consistent with US govt policy towards Cuba which seems to be easing.

I believe the letter from the Swiss Consul is in error. The Miami law site is not authoritative in these matters. Moreover and crucially, I am assuming the Swiss vessel was not a commercial vessel and was not carrying passengers. Its an important distinction - on leisure vessels we normally only have crew. US government documentation regarding travel to Cuba and sanctions does not describe the potential for arrest of leisure vessels as described by the lawyer.

Comment from Mike Yendell of SY Cooya - 17 May, 2012

To add to the comments, I can advise that, back in 2008, we had heard that the Key West and Miami authorities made it difficult (not impossible) for British yachts to enter if coming from Cuba.

In our case, therefore, we entered further North, at Port Canaveral. I radioed in to establish where to go to clear customs and went through all the boat and crew's passport details, US Visas etc with a very polite official. However, on my reply to "Last Port?", he said "Sir, at this time you are not allowed to enter the USA". So I told him that, whereas US yachts are not allowed to enter if coming from Cuba, this does not apply to foreigners, and asked him to check with his superior. Again, very politely, I was asked to hold my position and he duly came back in 30 minutes, "Sir, you are very welcome to enter Port Canaveral, I will send a coastguard vessel to escort you in to a berth to clear in".

This he did, and after searching our boat for stowaways, we were duly taken in by some very nice and very experienced young coastguards.

We then had our US visas checked (essential to have these!) and cruising permit issued, all very efficiently.

Facts on this Issue from Wally Moran - 22 May, 2012

I'm a contributing editor with SAIL Magazine, you may have read my articles on Cuba there. I also created the video Forbidding, Forbidden Cuba, at and lecture on cruising Cuba at the Annapolis Cruisers University and elsewhere.

Here are the facts on this issue. I am also Canadian, which in this instance, is relevant.

The situation in Key West on this issue is antagonistic at best. I made the choice of entering there on my second return from Cuba as I'd heard stories and wanted to confirm them. With me were two men from Britain on another boat. The officials gave us a "difficult" time, but not obnoxious, and when I noted that this office was reputed to be problematic, they indicated that other staff were far more unpleasant on this issue. It is possible that these officers, knowing I was media, soft pedaled our treatment.

All of us were informed that we were not supposed to come directly to the US from Cuba, but that is not correct, that is the interpretation of the KW office.

Non US vessels returning from Cuba can get a visa at the US Special Interests section in Cuba. Canadian vessels do not require a visa and may return directly to the US. Clearly, this means non US vessels are entitled to return from Cuba, no matter what some ill informed and biased official in Key West or Miami might say. I've returned via Miami as well (2009) and experienced no problems, just curiosity about Cuba from the people I dealt with. It was very pleasant.

As noted by another poster, non-commercial vessels are manned by crew, not passengers and thus, not liable to seizure. The letter from the Swiss Consul demonstrates the age old problem with getting legal advice from a non-lawyer - it's worth what they paid for it. While I'm sure the Consul thought he was helping, there are far too many rumours and untruths about travel to Cuba by both Americans and non-Americans. Sailing forums are rife with self appointed "experts", none of whom have ever been there.

Unfortunately, similar confusion exists amongst the officials who enforce these laws. The only solution is for politicians to resolve the problems between the two countries and issue clear directions to those dealing directly with travelers.

If anyone has questions on this issue or wishes advice on travel to Cuba, I may be reached at

Wally Moran.