Crossing borders is an integral part of the bluewater cruising experience and yet customs and immigration formalities can strike dread into the heart of cruisers. Suzy Carmody reports
We asked sailors who have cruised in areas including the Caribbean, the Red Sea and Pacific Islands how the reality matched up with the official customs and immigration processes.
All said that preparation is the key to success – forewarned is forearmed. Noonsite is a great platform to start researching the next country you plan to visit; the procedures and requirements of customs, immigration and other authorities are clearly laid out, regularly updated and have useful links to official websites.
It is a good idea to start planning several months in advance as visas for some countries can take many weeks to obtain. When we left New Zealand in 2015 our plan was to spend six months in French Polynesia before crossing the equator to Hawaii.
After arriving in Tahiti we began investigating the immigration requirements for the USA and found out that we needed a B1/B2 visa to enter by private yacht. The process required a visit to a US embassy for an interview and to have fingerprints taken.
We were extremely frustrated when we found out that the nearest US embassy was in Auckland, New Zealand!
So it’s worth knowing that anyone entering the US by private yacht needs to obtain a visa in advance – sailors cannot enter the USA for the first time under the Visa Waiver Programme.
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Many countries require email pre-notification of at least 48 hours prior to arrival on their shores. Some – Australia and New Zealand among them – require twice that. However the process can usually be simply done online days or weeks ahead of the planned arrival date and they are flexible if the date changes.
A visit to the boat by customs, immigration and quarantine officers is still required on arrival, but the process is usually carried out fairly quickly and smoothly.
Many of the Pacific Island nations have adopted the same process to that of New Zealand and their customs and immigration departments use similar forms and rules.
Janneke Kuysters, who has extensively cruised the Pacific on their Bruce Roberts 44 Anne Caroline van Staeten Landt, reports: “In the Cook Islands and Samoa they require you to fill out a form, scan it and send it to an email address prior to arriving.
“The address almost always bounces and no replies are sent. Upon arrival the whole form has to be filled out again and the procedures are largely a matter of the mood of the person you have to deal with.”
Many of the most idyllic cruising destinations are archipelagos. In many cases such as Indonesia or French Polynesia, they are governed by a single nation so, once formalities have been carried out at the port of entry, no additional paperwork or reporting requirements are required.
The Caribbean is different in that the 7,000 islands are governed by 17 different countries.
Bob Hathaway, owner of Glossy Bay Marina in Canouan, in the Grenadines, and vice-president of the Caribbean Marine Association, says: “When the colonial powers (UK, France, Netherlands) gave the islands independence they also passed on their own weighty bureaucratic systems.
“The monster which is customs and immigration in the Caribbean has become a legacy of this colonial heritage.”
Smuggling of drugs and other contraband is a big problem for the islands of the Caribbean. “Private yachts play a major role in drug trafficking and are one of the most common carriers of drugs from South America to Europe and the USA,” reports Hathaway.
To help combat the problem, the Caribbean Customs and Law Enforcement Council (CCLEC) has developed the Regional Clearance System (RCS), a web-based system that captures clearance information and allows CCLEC to track small craft travelling through the region.
Previously customs staff entered the data manually from the hand-written clearance documents, but in 2012 CCLEC launched an online pre-arrival notification system. SailClear is designed to improve the clearance procedures for pleasure craft and to facilitate the transfer of customs information to the RCS.
Suzanne Chappelle, organizer of the Salty Dawg Rally, has cruised the Caribbean since 2009 in her yacht Suzie Too and has visited all the Caribbean countries.
She reports: “I used SailClear to clear into Bermuda and the system worked well. I also used eSeaClear, the forerunner to SailClear, to check into Antigua and the process was better than on previous visits.” However, Chapelle points out that not all boats have internet or printing/scanning facilities on board.
“While some of the larger islands, such as Antigua, have computers in their offices for completing the online process, many of the smaller islands cannot afford the hardware and software to run the SailClear system.”
Many Caribbean islands therefore still use the old hand-written paper-based system and Chapelle explains how the old system works on the ground. “Locating the customs and immigration offices is often the biggest part of the problem.
“In Bonaire they are both in one building but in Curaçao the offices are in two separate places. It’s a long walk between them and you usually end up getting lost,” she says.
“In Aruba customs and immigration officers visit your boat at the cruise ship dock – which is not set up for yachts – and the big rubber tyres leave a black ‘Aruba kiss’ on your hull.”
The customs and immigration system in Dominica is known for its informality. Pippa Turton, owner of Miramar Sailing School in Antigua, recalls: “On slow days and Sundays the customs and immigration officers are accommodated in an apartment block about 100m from the offices.
“Out of uniform and surrounded by piles of folders and family members, they receive skippers and process documents with paper and carbon copies.”
Turton also notes: “The authorities in Antigua do not like bending the rules. For example, a couple of years ago a local man was returning in a motorboat late at night with his pregnant wife on board.
“His wife needed to go home but the customs office was closed. The next day he was fined US$5,000 because his wife had left the boat before clearing in with the authorities. They are very strict about not leaving the boat.”
Arriving with a rally
Joining a rally is often seen as a convenient solution to avoid the hassles and frustrations of customs and immigration procedures. Lodewick ‘Lo’ Brust was behind the Vasco da Gama Rally, an annual rally that ran between Turkey and India from 2006 until it was suspended in 2013 due to the security problems in the region.
Lo sailed the route 14 times on his 44-footer Mistral and has gained a wealth of experience of the bureaucratic formalities along the way.
He recalls: “Egypt was very corrupt and you needed an agent to deal with the customs and immigration formalities. In Yemen and Sudan it was also necessary to use an agent who checks your documents and issues you with a travel permit.
“This allows you to go ashore within the harbour area but if you want to travel further in the country a visa is required.”
By contrast Oman was straightforward and friendly in welcoming the rally’s visiting sailors. He recalls: “India was also corrupt, the customs and immigration paperwork was plentiful, complicated and mostly pointless. In Mumbai I used a sponsor to take care of it all.”
Souvenirs and gifts
Surprisingly few cruisers reported being requested for bribes. Suzanne Chappelle reports that friends sailing in Cuba had officers ask for gifts or money. “In the Dominican Republic I was asked for ‘extra money’ but did not give any and the process was not noticeably slower than normal,” she adds.
Janneke Kuysters reports: “In the Pacific, health inspections are taken very seriously. The inspector makes sure that he is alone with you on the boat because they ask for ‘souvenirs’ or ‘gifts’.
“Most of the time they want beer, Coca Cola, coffee or other things. Hats, cartons of milk, and crackers are also popular. When he is satisfied, he ‘fumigates’ the boat.”
She experienced a bizarre incident in Samoa when one customs official came on board with her colleague. “Once inside the boat, the official demanded that breakfast is cooked for her: eggs and bacon.
“Wietze (my husband) remarks that we don’t have any because it isn’t allowed to bring those things into the country. But we have muesli and milk, so we can serve that. I make one bowl for her.
“Apparently her colleague wanted one too, so she starts helping herself from our cupboards and fridge. We were stunned. While I was filling out the forms as fast as I could, Wietze tried to limit the selection of ‘souvenirs’ that they were just taking from around the boat.”
Bob Hathaway, vice president of the Caribbean Marine Association, worked with CCLEC to develop SailClear, an online service that enables skippers to submit their customs declarations prior to arrival.
Hathaway says that Caribbean customs and immigration formalities have moved on a long way since he arrived in the region in 2001. “The system is now much more sophisticated; moving away from form filling and bureaucracy and becoming more focussed on data collection and intelligence.”
The SailClear system is being implemented in phases throughout the Caribbean. It is currently utilised by authorities in nine countries, including most OECS (Organisation of Eastern Caribbean States) countries, the Cayman Islands, Turks and Caicos Islands and Bermuda, with varying levels of adoption and efficiency.
A separate service, eSeaClear, currently operates in Antigua, and was being introduced into Barbuda.
Unfortunately the digital systems have met resistance by some customs and immigration departments. John Duffy, president of the CMA since 2011, says: “To be honest, not a lot has changed despite the introduction of electronic systems. The real problem is one of employment.
“Around 50 per cent of all employed persons in Antigua are employed by the government. Making large numbers of people unemployed is not going to get you re-elected, hence the big, inefficient bureaucracies.”
Rules of engagement
Cruisers’ tips on the best way to handle customs and immigration officialdom:
- Find out what the rules are and don’t try to bend them
- Expect some variability in interpretation of the rules by individual officers on the ground
- Always be polite and friendly
- If expecting officials aboard, a bowl of chocolates on the table can help smooth things along.
About the author
Suzy and Neil Carmody live on board Distant Drummer, a Liberty 458 cutter rigged sloop, which they bought in Thailand in 2006.