Cruising to Canada, Mexico, Cuba, or the Bahamas can be an exhilarating adventure away from home waters. Here's some background to help you begin your planning.
Even in our post-9/11 security-driven world, crossing the U.S. border by water to neighboring countries is becoming less formidable thanks to electronic communication coupled with strict regulatory changes. This story, written in December 2016, is a primer for preparing for such a trip.
"One of the biggest considerations for international cruising is getting all your papers in order well before you leave home port," says David Kennedy, our BoatUS Government Affairs manager. "U.S. Customs and Border Patrol [CBP] regulates all foreign-flagged or U.S. cross-border vessel movement, including private recreational vessels." CBP requires certain "paperwork" — whether printed or electronic — and that includes documents for your vessel, your passengers or crew, and you as the master. It's imperative for skippers to check for themselves the requirements for reaching their chosen destinations and returning. That includes knowing the latest rules and regulations. They can change with little notice, and the ultimate authority on this is the appropriate governmental entity. Be sure to allow enough time in planning for any potential backlog in documentation processing.
Cruising To Canada
Our neighbor to the north sees plenty of U.S.-flagged boats, and it has its own rules that visiting American boaters must follow.
Once you enter Canadian waters, there's an obligation to report, according to the Canadian Border Services Agency (CBSA). That means going to one of the agency's 439 designated Marine Reporting sites, many located at yacht clubs and marinas. (For a list of locations, search cbsa-asfc.gc.ca for "telephone reporting sites.") A special telephone connects you to an agent. If you aren't landing but simply cruising through Canadian waters, you can make the call by cellphone (assuming you have coverage) to the same telephone reporting centers.
Either way, once you arrive, check in with CBSA promptly. Don't assume Americans get any special favors. A NEXUS card and/or an I-68 permit can simplify the border-crossing process in both directions. (See "Navigating The Border" sidebar) Visit cbsa-asfc.gc.ca and do your due diligence with phone calls and emails to make sure you have all the paperwork and identification required.
Motoring To Mexico
The Mexican government has attempted to make entering Mexico by pleasure boat less complicated, but there's still a checklist of documentation required. Getting that paperwork in order months ahead is necessary. Start with a valid passport, required for each crewmember.
Most critical for any skipper to enter Mexico on your own boat is having original vessel documentation for proof of ownership, obtaining a temporary import permit (TIP) and displaying the decal, as well having your boat's hull identification number (HIN) where inspectors can see it. This is especially important if you plan to leave your boat in Mexico while returning stateside. In 2013, Mexican authorities seized dozens of U.S.-flagged boats that didn't have the permit decal and/or the HIN visible.
Apply for a TIP at one of 10 Mexican consulate offices in the U.S. You can also apply and pay for the TIP online through its Banjercito website. The site is in Spanish, but you can switch to English by clicking the option in the upper right corner. The cost is around US$51 plus tax.
Everyone on board will also need an FMM visitor card (formerly called a tourist visa).
Vessels also must complete an International Clear-In Document on arrival. A fee of about US$15 is required for each person aboard and must be paid by credit card. The fee can be prepaid online through the Mexican government's Banjercito website.
Casual anglers should know that if there's fishing gear on board, every person on board must obtain a Mexican fishing license, whether or not they're fishing. Go to sportfishinginmexico.com to find out more and apply for a license. Prices vary.
In addition to proper documentation, boating in Mexico requires three types of insurance: hull coverage, liability coverage, and automobile liability coverage, if you're trailering your boat on land. The wrinkle is that a Mexican insurance provider — outside of your normal insurance policy — must issue liability coverage for boat and trailer. BoatUS Marine Insurance works with partners through Mexpro. Restrictions may apply for storm seasons, destination, and length of stay.
CBP reminds Americans that it's illegal to carry firearms or ammunition into Mexico. For comprehensive information on border-crossing document requirements, visit CBP's "Get You Home" page on its website. Another good source is the California sailing magazine Latitude 38's "First Timer's Guide to Mexico 2016", compiled by sailors who frequently sail south of the border. Remember: Regulations and procedures are subject to change.
Beelining For The Bahamas
To enter the Bahamas, private vessels need a Bahamas customs clearance form, one Bahamas immigration card per person aboard, and proof of citizenship (a U.S. passport).
According to the Bahamian government website, visiting boaters must clear Bahamas Customs & Immigration at the nearest designated port of entry; fly the yellow quarantine flag and notify customs of your arrival. Only the captain is permitted to leave the boat until your vessel has been cleared, at which time customs will send officers to your vessel to check in the crew. All boaters entering the Bahamas are required to pay an entry fee of $150 for boats up to 35 feet; it's $300 for larger boats. Fees are subject to change.
Go to the entry requirements page at bahamas.com for info, including contacts and downloadable clearance form.
Voyaging To Puerto Rico And The U.S. Virgin Islands
As U.S. territories, clearance procedures here are regulated by CBP, and reporting requirements are basically the same as stateside. The Local Boater Option as well as the Small Vessel Reporting System are accepted alternatives to face-to-face inspection (see "Navigating The Border" sidebar), and the customs user-fee decal for boats over 30 feet is also required.
To report your arrival, seven days a week, call (877) 529-6840 or (787) 729-6840. Customs is staffed from 8 a.m. through midnight. Visit the CBP page for Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands for more information.
Crossing To Cuba
The politics of visiting Cuba, by boat or by plane, are in flux. As of publication, you must have a license from the Office of Foreign Assets Control to travel to Cuba. The licensing division can be reached at (202) 622-2500.
You can find the most recent amendments to the Cuban Assets Control Regulations at the U.S. Department of the Treasury's Federal Register website. Also check the U.S. Customs and Border Protection website and the Department of Treasury for more information.
Fishing Trips & Cruises To Nowhere
CBP reminds boaters that "any vessel that leaves from a United States port and returns without calling at a foreign port or place has not departed the United States." Therefore, "any small pleasure vessel leaving a United States port into international or foreign waters, without a call at a foreign port, does not satisfy the foreign-departure requirement. Therefore, certain fishing vessels, cruises to nowhere, or any vessel that leaves from a U.S. port and returns without calling at a foreign port or place has not departed the United States."
Web-based "paperwork" systems being phased in by CBP can make the bureaucratic process for getting back into the U.S. easier. (See "Navigating The Border" below) Go to cbp.gov/travel to start planning your international cruise by addressing the legal, regulatory, and administrative requirements of coming home again; the site offers a wealth of information, including printable and online forms and how-to videos.
Older boaters will likely recall the Consolidated Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act of 1985 (COBRA) that authorized federal "user fees" — the most onerous applied to recreational boats already registered, and duly paid up, under state law. BoatUS fought what boaters saw as nothing more than a "boating tax" and eventually won its repeal.
The current law authorizes CBP to collect fees, including a clearance fee for private recreational-vessel reentry to the United States. For today's cross-border boater with a vessel 30 feet and longer, that means paying an annual fee of $27.50, which CBP acknowledges with an official decal, to be affixed to your hull, as well as a registration number. Go to dtops.cbp.dhs.gov and click "private vessel" to apply and pay for the decal.
Have A Great Trip!
Our goal with this article is to alert you to issues that may arise as you prepare for your great adventure. Legal advice or interpretations of laws or regulations can only come from a qualified attorney or directly from the appropriate government agency. Requirements change and evolve, so be sure to allow plenty of time to do the paperwork for each country, and always double-check a country's websites and with its authorities before embarking on your journey
Navigating The Border
Federal law requires "operators of small pleasure vessels arriving in the United States from a foreign port" to notify U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) immediately, by VHF or cellphone. CBP then directs the skipper where to tie up for a "face-to-face" inspection of boat and crew. In popular American boating areas during the season, the agency staffs reporting stations specifically for pleasure boats and has several advance-registration programs that qualify as alternatives to the face-to-face requirement:
This joint U.S.-Canadian registration program clears "low-risk" recreational boaters entering either country by boat. According to the CBP website at press time, registration for each crewmember ($50 for those 18 or older) is good for five years and "satisfies the boat operator's legal requirement to report to a port of entry for face-to-face inspection." Both countries still require phone-in on arrival, but with NEXUS, you can place the call up to four hours in advance, even before leaving a Canadian port. Visit the Canada Border Services Agency website for more information.
Formally known as the Canadian Border Boat Landing Permit, I-68 allows entry from Canada by boat by simply reporting to CBP by phone. The three-page form includes a photo and fingerprints. A form is required for each individual age 14 and older. It requires inspection plus interviews with each applicant at a CBP office along the U.S.-Canadian border, from Portland, Maine, to Seattle, Washington. The fee is $16 for individuals (there's a $32 family cap), and it is good for the entire boating season. The I-68 form is only available at the issuing port of entry or other specified location where the inspection is conducted.
Outlying Area Reporting System:
OARS is typically used in remote locations along the Canadian border. As of December, there were 12 locations stretching from Erie, Pennsylvania, to Bass Island, Ohio. All passengers and crew report to CBP via videophones often located at public marinas. Keep identification and citizenship documents, such as I-68 forms or NEXUS cards, available; you could be asked to show them. CBP then issues an 18-digit inspection receipt number that you must provide to any border-patrol agent or law-enforcement officer on demand.
Local Boater Option:
LBO is a simple, no-cost CBP reporting system for Florida, Puerto Rico, and the U.S. Virgin Islands. The LBO is for boaters, not boats. Enrollment is voluntary and only needs to be done once. A returning skipper and crew (14 years and older) can use it to clear customs with a phone call, as long as all are enrolled. After an initial face-to-face interview and document review, CBP issues a boater registration number (BR#) to each person in the crew. The master provides additional info about the vessel: name, length, state registration, and federal documentation numbers. Reentry to the U.S. is then, ideally at least, as simple as a phone call to CBP.
Small Vessel Reporting System:
SVRS is a web-based tool specifically for recreational boaters who, when registered, can meet the physical inspection and face-to-face re-entry requirements online. SVRS allows boaters to register at the CBP website and use their BR# if they have one (or request a number if they don't) to establish their own SVRS registration, similar to any online account with a password. At press time, boaters enrolled in the I-68 or NEXUS programs as well as in the LBO are qualified to participate in SVRS without a face-to-face interview — unless requested by CBP, which always reserves that option no matter the reporting system.
Without any prior registration, you can begin the application process online, too, but you must schedule an in-person interview with a CBP officer at the nearest customs office. The agency issues your BR# via email, then you resume the registration process online. For boaters returning to the U.S. after a foreign voyage who have internet access, the float-plan feature is the beauty of the system, allowing you to log your return on the dtops.cbp.dhs.gov website up to 48 hours in advance, then clear customs with a phone call on arrival.
The U.S. Department of State encourages all Americans traveling abroad to register in its Smart Traveler Enrollment Program (STEP), a free service to allow U.S. citizens and nationals traveling abroad to enroll their trip with the nearest U.S. Embassy or Consulate. Those enrolled receive information from the embassy about safety conditions in your destination country; enrollment helps the U.S. Embassy contact you and your family in an emergency, whether it's a natural disaster, civil unrest, or family emergency. Beyond your legal documents, consult with your health-insurance company beforehand to make sure you're covered outside the country.