Taking Your Yacht Abroad For The First Time

By: Cruising Tips, Destinations, Inside Sailing, Partners, Sailing Tips

If only sailing to a foreign country was as easy as taking a flight. Forms to fill in on the aircraft, passport control and customs all in the airport on arrival and nothing to pay. Unfortunately, the process for foreign recreational craft and their crew arriving in a foreign port is way more complex, so understandably, the thought of casting off the dock lines and venturing abroad can feel a little daunting. Not only does it mean you have to check out of your own country and familiarise yourself with the various processes involved, but you also need to fully understand what the authorities in the country you plan to sail to will expect (likely quite different to that of your home country).


Every Country Is Different

The USA has an efficient clearance system for recreational craft that in most cases is straightforward, can be done electronically and doesn’t require any “leg-work”. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for the majority of other countries.

While the authorities that deal with yacht clearance are pretty standard, no two countries have the same exit and entry procedures. Even in the Caribbean, where a number of the island nations use the same advance online clearance system (SailClear.com), some countries are resistant to going digital and prefer to stick to the old school of form-filling.

There are countries that operate small craft clearance strictly by the book and want yachts to clear in as soon as they arrive and follow the rules or face severe fines (Australia for example). Other places are happy for yachts to wait until the next working day to clear in (or if arriving on a Saturday – wait until the Monday).

While it’s true there are still some countries that permit yachts to turn up from abroad unannounced (the Dominican Republic and the Azores for example), more and more countries are introducing advance registration systems with some form of pre-arrival notification. For example, Bermuda now has a pre-arrival questionnaire which needs to be completed online and mainland Ecuador requires a sailing permit (Autografo) to be applied for 30 days in advance of arrival.

Getting Organised

There are many things you can do in advance to prepare yourself for cruising abroad. Getting all your paperwork in order (for both the boat and the crew) is a good start. Make hard copies of your precious documents (like boat registration and insurance), even though they may be digital, so officials have something to see. Have extra copies for them to handle and keep if necessary. Organise everything in a suitable wallet or document holder that can cope with being dragged ashore in the dinghy countless times.

Research what other documents you might need for your boat, plus those you need for your crew from passports and visas to vaccinations, health insurance and licenses. Your countries’ foreign office will have useful Immigration information for the country you want to sail to, but it’s important to bear in mind that these rules often differ for crew on visiting yachts, as do rules for crew arriving by plane and departing by yacht (or vice versa).

Find out what the authorities want you to do in advance (if anything) and what procedures they will follow on arrival. Some countries want visiting yachts to obtain a cruising permit, and many require these to be applied for and obtained in advance. This can take time, so start researching early just to be on the safe side. Other countries (like some of the Caribbean islands as previously mentioned) have online forms that you can complete prior to arrival to speed up the clearance process once you get there. A few countries want pre-application before they will grant you permission to enter, which can also be denied, so be meticulous and find out and record everything that’s required.

Know what is expected of you on arrival. Is there a port control you need to contact? Do you need a marina reservation? Is there a quarantine area for arriving yachts?

Where To Go For Research

Noonsite.com is the only place on the web dedicated to cruising sailors who are planning a foreign voyage and need to find out what formalities to expect in the various countries en-route. Noonsite has been supporting cruising sailors around the world for over 20 years and it is the best place to start researching the next country you plan to visit. Simply select the country you wish to research and icons guide you to the procedures and requirements of customs, immigration and other authorities – clearly laid out and regularly updated with useful links to official websites. Using Noonsite saves you hours of trawling the web looking for information (much of which is not readily published online by the country authorities).

Other sources for finding out the latest information are cruiser Facebook pages and simply talking to cruisers in your departure port who may well have visited your intended destination and can give hard-earned advice.

Cruising guides are very useful for getting a quick overview of a place and detailed pilotage, however the entry procedures quickly date. Always check Noonsite for the latest details and ask their editorial team if you want confirmation.

Over the next few months, as the experts for country formalities worldwide, Noonsite will be bringing you a detailed step-by-step guide to venturing abroad in your boat and how best to deal with foreign formalities. All the points in this introductory article will be covered in detail plus additional topics such as planning and paperwork, boat equipment, the mechanics of the arrival and departure process, cruising to the EU, top 5 destinations from the US and how to research country information on Noonsite.

How to research country information on Noonsite will be covered in detail in a later article.

Clearance Summary Checklist

Here is a quick summary of how to prepare for and carry out foreign clearance (all of which will be discussed in depth in subsequent articles):

Make sure your boat registration is up to date and will be in date for the duration of your time abroad. If you need to renew it, be sure to do this early so there is no lapse in coverage. Boat registration renewal can mostly be done online. If you boat registration has expired you will be denied entry into a foreign country and risk legal consequences. See further information on the US Vessel Registrar website.

Plan ahead well in advance, particularly for visas and/or cruising permits if needed, some can take many weeks to obtain.

Always make sure you get an exit zarpe showing the date and port of departure when you clear out of your home country and any subsequent countries. The authorities in the next country you visit will want to see this.

Do careful research to make sure there aren’t any pre-arrival notifications or paperwork you need to complete prior to arrival.

Does the country you want to visit demand you use an agent? If not, do you feel you need one? This will have to be arranged in advance.

Know the ports of entry in the country you want to visit and determine the best one for you.

Have some foreign currency for paying for clearance – there may not be banks near the port of entry or arrival officials may not permit you to visit an ATM to get money.

Fly the Q flag when entering the territorial waters of the foreign country and don’t take this down until you have completed Customs clearance.

Fly the Q flag when entering the territorial waters of the foreign country and don’t take this down until you have completed Customs clearance. It should then be replaced with the country courtesy flag. (Purchase Courtesy Flags Here).

Prepare to visit Customs, Immigration, Port Authority and in some ports Quarantine/Biosecurity. You may be lucky and all the authorities will be housed in one building, or you may have to travel all over town by foot or taxi to visit all the offices.

Enquire about fees and what you are expected to pay on arrival, and any on departure, and be sure to get a receipt. You may find you can clear in and out at the same time, depending on how long you intend to stay.

Dress smartly for clearance and be courteous and patient. Clearance can take anything from half an hour to all day or even several days – depending on the country.

Get a boat stamp – with your boat name/logo and your registration number/homeport etc. This can speed up signing documents and officials love a boat stamp.

Keep all the clearance paperwork and receipts carefully filed away, you may be stopped by the local Coast Guard or marine police once cruising in foreign waters who will want to inspect your entry clearance and boat documents.

Remember all foreign countries have a time limit as to how long you can stay – both for your crew and your boat. Know how long you and your boat have and plan your cruising accordingly. Research the options to extend your stay prior to arrival.

Do your homework and give yourself plenty of time to get organised.

About The Author: Noonsite provides a wealth of knowledge and information for cruisers sailing beyond the horizon. For over 20 years Noonsite has been the trusted source for country entry and exit formalities and ports of entry for private yachts cruising the globe. Led by their experienced editorial team, their worldwide network of cruising experts and marine authorities verify all essential information. As well as formalities, Noonsite has information on all major sea ports for cruising boats worldwide and their marine facilities, plus cruising reports and news.

Noonsite’s cruising resources section has articles and links on a wide range of cruising-related topics, from cruising with kids, to insurance, to piracy and security. The feature sections include “cruising off the beaten path”, “cruising insights” and “portraits of a cruiser”, to name a few.

Noonsite is a free resource, however there are various ways to get more out of the site. Free registered members can post comments and feedback on the website and receive notifications of new features, plus see the latest information as and when it’s published. Non-paying members are, however, limited to viewing just 3 country formalities a month. If you are planning a long-distance cruise and want to have unlimited access to all country formalities then taking Noonsite’s Basic Membership option at just $2.99 a month will enable unlimited viewing of the site, plus access to the Noonsite map, which is a great tool for viewing ports of entry, marinas, boatyards and anchorages posted by our users. Noonsite also has a Premium membership option which gives members the ability to download Noonsite information for use offline.

Noonsite’s monthly newsletter is packed full of cruising news and reports from around the world and registration is free.