Buying a second hand yacht in the USA to export

Published 13 years ago, updated 4 years ago

30 April 2008

Buying a second-hand yacht in the USA to export

Hi, can you tell me what the USA customs requirements are for buying and exporting a second-hand yacht from California to Australia?

After purchase, we understand that we have 3 months to carry out repairs/upgrades, then the yacht must leave the US. To re-enter we must go to a foreign country, ie. Mexico then returns to the US (CA). At this point, we are entitled to a 3-month visa and we can then apply for a 12-month cruising visa.

Is this correct, as we have had conflicting and confusing advice? Hopefully, someone out there can help.

Roger Ramsay


July 2008

Update from Roger:

We received no advice from anywhere, so had to trial and error the US system. No one from the US agencies could direct us to a “specific” site – it is a joke, nothing in writing to guide us on the intricacies of what we were trying to achieve. In the end, one location of the USCG and CBP verbally said that our prior experience (1 week before we were refused a cruising license) was BS and they issued us with a license there and the – first time I had smiled in 3 weeks!

The following advice sums up everything you need to do and should help you through the mire:-

The process is reasonably straight-forward, but never take the word of a bureaucrat unless you have it in writing. We have been caught out big time by assuming what we were told was gospel.

The process is as follows:-

  • Find a yacht you like and engage a surveyor (get a few quotes and be wary of older surveyors as they do not do an in-depth survey – our experience).
  • Fly over and spend “at least” a week doing your own assessment. Check everything, every tap, switch, toilet, batteries etc.
  • Make an offer on the boat (10% deposit before the broker will submit your offer – refundable if your offer is not accepted).
  • Check the broker is bonafide, some states have a register, with other states it can be “buyer beware”.
  • Set up a bank account after establishing a mail forwarding service. Use this address as your US address to establish the bank account (Bank of America set ours up in 10 minutes). Transfer working funds into this and use cheques or debit card.
  • You have 90 days to leave the States or will be subject to a 5% state tax.
  • To obtain a 12 month Cruising Licence for the States, you need to enter a foreign port, obtain the entry and departure clearance papers (note: it used to be “foreign waters” but people abused this so now paperwork is required – late 07 changes) return to the US (no time frame) and apply to the Customs Border Protection in your area for the license. After 12 months you need to leave the US for 15 days before you can apply for another.
  • One additional requirement is a “DECAL TRANSPONDER” which you purchase online through the Customs Border Protection website: The Decal Transponder is a barcode sticker with all the yacht’s information embedded. The CBP/USCG will swipe the decal with a wand and all particulars will appear on their palmtop pc. This is for port clearance formalities and it is a requirement to have one.

Footnote from Roger:– We did a return trip to Mexico to satisfy the CA taxes issue, this was after 2.5 months (3 months max. then pay the 5% state tax). On return, we were then a visiting yacht as we changed the yacht registration from the USCG to AMSA in Australia. We were also personally granted a 5-year visa for our passports, which gives us unlimited visits to the US, including by pleasure boat (however our yacht can only stay for 12 months as per the Cruising License).

In Australia, if you sail back here, you will be up for GST on the total cost of purchase and transit costs, import duty if the yacht was not built in the US.

Regards, Roger.

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  1. July 2, 2019 at 8:07 AM
    michael says:

    Thank you for this very useful info, Mike