What to Know When Entering a New Country on a Boat
October 5th, 2023 by team
by B.J. Porter (Contributing Editor)
True confession – I always enjoyed clearing into countries. Not necessarily the bureaucratic parts, paperwork is paperwork. But I enjoyed pulling in somewhere new, getting a welcome to a new country, and making sure we were all legal and clear to visit where we wanted it. It’s that last step of accomplishment that cements in that “holy cow, we actually sailed somewhere else” moment.
Not that every clearing was fun. Some were a hassle and took time. But with some preparation and a little homework, you could streamline the process. And a prepared captain almost always got a nice greeting and a warm welcome, because you made their jobs easier.
Clearing in is required in every single country. You can get into serious trouble visiting a country without proper clearances.
Parts of a Clearance
Most countries have two or three agencies you deal with when you arrive. Some combine functions with one officer, but every government will perform the same basic checks when you clear in. In some places, you deal with three sets of officials from three separate agencies.
Many Caribbean countries use the SailClear system for pre-arrival clearance, so use it if you’re going there. But SailClear is a pre-arrival notification system, not a clearance system. So you still have to clear in when you arrive.
The customs service is concerned with things coming into the country. They check that items which aren’t allowed aren’t brought in. They also check that allowed items don’t exceed allotted amounts.
This includes your boat, the gear and equipment on it, and your stores and supplies. Your gear, clothing, and equipment fall under “personal items” and aren’t subject to duty.
Your boat isn’t usually a big deal and not subject to duty. When arriving in many countries, you can get a “Temporary Importation” document for your vessel. This allows you to stay for a period without paying import duties. This is usually 12-24 months, and few cruisers stay long enough to worry about it unless they’re selling their boats.
Of more interest to customs agents are consumable luxury items, like alcohol and cigarettes. For alcohol and cigarettes, there is usually a duty-free allotment you can bring in for personal consumption, but if you bring in more than that, you will be charged. The amount varies by country, as does the seriousness of enforcement.
Customs asks about any weapons and medications on board, as there are often restrictions on what may be brought in or possessed while in the country.
The immigration service wants to know about the people coming in. They will want to see everyone’s passports, and they will issue any stamps or visas needed to stay in the country. If you require visas before arrival, they will check that all the papers are in order.
Some countries have agreements that let citizens visit without a visa for a short time. But for longer stays, you’ll need a special visa.
Biosecurity and Health
Most countries have restrictions about what food, plants, seeds, and other consumables you can bring in. They also watch out for ship-borne marine pests on the boat bottom, in wood on board, and any other biohazard threat, from insects to contagious illness.
It doesn’t pay to sneak things by biosecurity. The countries with the most strictures are also the ones which send biosecurity officers to your boat to collect proscribed items. You won’t get penalized for honest mistakes, but they can fine people who try to hide goods.
Step One: Do your homework
Every country in the world publishes its rules and requirements somewhere on the internet. And there a few solid resources that collate this information for cruisers in one place.
The first resource cruisers look to is Noonsite.com, an excellent resource for well-organized information. We saved clearance information there before we left, so we could refer to it offshore.
You’re looking for several critical pieces of information, including:
- Ports of Entry – You can’t just drop anchor anywhere in a country and clear in, you usually have to go where customs and immigration have offices. So they limit clearing in to a few specific arrival ports.
- Office locations – Do officials come to your boat, or do you have to go ashore to find the immigration, customs, and biosecurity officials yourself?
- Clearance procedures – what does a country require a captain and crew to do? Most require the captain (and only the captain) to come in to the offices, others want everyone to come in. Officials may come to your boat or you may need to go to a designated dock depending on the country.
- Pre-arrival requirements – what forms and notifications for vessels must be submitted before arrival, to what agencies, and how far in advance.
- Biosecurity rules – Most countries provide lists if what you can and can not bring in.
- Immigration/Visa Rules – what visas may be required before arrival, or which can you apply for after arrival?
- Fees and charges – What are the costs for clearing in? There may be a charge to clear the boat, for each person, and so on. What are requirements for payment types? Will they take credit cards or foreign currency, or will you need local currency to pay for them? Many agencies take local credit cards, but most do not take foreign currency.
- Office hours and availability – some places charge overtime for clearing in the middle of the night, or are closed on weekends.
- Forms and paperwork – are there any forms or paperwork you can download and fill out in advance? While agencies may have blank forms for you, many expect you to arrive with completed paperwork, and it’s a big time saver.
- Additional permits – Is there anything else you are required to have beyond customs, immigration, and biosecurity clearances? For example, Fiji requires a Cruising Permit from the iTaukei Affairs Board, besides the regular clearance steps.
It’s always a good idea to check the actual websites of the countries you’re headed to, to make sure you have the latest, up-to-date information. Some marinas in the ports of entry also have excellent information.
Step Two: Plan your clearance
Once you know all of that you need, plan out how you’re going to arrive and clear.
- Pick a port of entry.
- If you need local currency, how will you get it?
- Who will handle the paperwork and clearance?
- Will you be asking for any special visas, clearances, or extra time?
- Fill out as much paperwork as you can.
Step Three: Clear in
The basic steps to clear in are mostly the same, but the specifics will vary a bit from country to country.
1) Fly your “Q” flag (Quarantine) when you enter the host country waters; on sailboats this is from the starboard spreader, power yachts may use a flag mast or antenna. This shows officials you have not yet cleared in and are requesting Pratique, or license and permission to visit the country.
2) Proceed to the required anchorage, mooring, quarantine dock, or other location required for clearance.
3) Collect all the passports for everyone on board, and get all your filled forms together.
4) Follow the country’s instructions for meeting customs and immigration officials..
5) Meet with officials and receive clearances and paperwork.
6) When you return to the boat, lower the Q flag, and replace it with the courtesy flag for the country you’ve just cleared in to.
That’s pretty much all there is to it!
Some clearances are very simple. In Guadeloupe, we cleared ourselves in on a computer in the back of a gift shop and gave the clerk the five Euro fee. Other countries…are not so easy.
A few countries require or strongly recommend the use of an agent. Transiting the Panama Canal is a good place to use an agent, especially if you’re heading from the Caribbean side to the Pacific and you don’t speak Spanish. Your agent there not only arranges the Canal transit, but handles your clearance paperwork for you.
The Galapagos is another place an agent helps. There are many ways to mess up the paperwork and an agent will streamline it. And when you’re there, your agent can help you arrange fuel and other services.
If you join a cruising rally, you may have access to easier clearing. Depending on the rally, you may get an affordable agent to clear you in, or the rally organizers may do all the paperwork for you.
A few things to remember when you clear in to keep the process easy, pleasant, and smooth.
- Don’t get off the boat to see and do things before you’ve cleared in. It can complicate things.
- Always be polite. You are a guest visiting their country, seeking permission to visit. So you are asking, not demanding.
- Keep your forms neat and organized, in a folder.
- Bring your own pens.
- Dress nicely and be respectful.
- Don’t let the bureaucracy aggravate you. And if it does, don’t complain. Their country, their rules…even if they make no sense to us, they made them for their reasons.
- Have fun. You’re meeting new people and seeing a new country. And you sailed there on your own!