WHEN you fly to another country, customs and immigration are fairly straightforward: get off the plane, stand in line, fill out a customs form and show them your passport. When you sail between countries, it’s an adventure every time to figure out what to do.
When you enter a new country under sail, you have to fly the yellow Q (quarantine) flag on your starboard flag halyard until you are officially cleared in. Then, you fly that country’s flag until you leave. Technically, you can’t visit land or other boats, but you have to do the former to check in (so you can do a quick stop at the supermarket even if you don’t succeed in clearing in), and the latter is absolutely ignored by cruising sailors. You then need to “clear in,” e.g., go through customs and immigration. When you clear in, some countries allow you to “clear out,” e.g., say when you are leaving and get a piece of paper that you present to the next country (if they bother to take it) to prove you’ve officially left the last country.
The French islands, which are part of France itself, are the easiest: the cruising guide tells you where to check in – often an internet cafe, marine store or port authority – and you simply fill out a form on the computer with your boat’s details and hand it to the cashier/port officer. The only place we’ve visited that actually read the form before signing it and handing it back to me, or looked at our passports and boat papers, was St. Barths. Everywhere else, I could have written whatever I wanted on the form and they would have just signed off. They don’t ask about alcohol, tobacco, animals or plants like elsewhere, and just don’t care: our friend Ed said that in Guadeloupe, he informed the clerk that he had a dog. She said, “That’s nice. So do I.” It’s strikingly lax, but kinda awesome. In Guadeloupe, we did have a couple of handsome young customs officials board our boat and check our papers, but that was all – Just a quick conversation while they checked the papers and our passports, no interest at all in anything else. No where else have we even seen customs officials on boats, much less been boarded or searched.
Other countries aren’t so easy, particularly the former British colonies. Procedures vary quite a bit from country to country. In Bermuda, you aren’t even allowed to drop an anchor before visiting the customs dock, where they are fast and efficient at clearing you in but confiscate your flare guns and machetes as weapons (they’re returned when you check out). The BVIs and Dominica required only a quick trip to one office that handled everything, asked few questions and only cost $10 and $3 respectively in clearance fees. Nevis, on the other hand, was a bit of an ordeal: we had to visit the customs office, the port office and the police station separately for customs, port fees and immigration, a process that took two hours because of the long waits and walks between offices. It wasn’t a huge pain or anything, just kind of strange compared to the ease of clearing in on other islands. However, it’s the only country other than the BVIs and the U.S. (Virgin Islands) that actually stamped our passports – totally worth the pain! Nevis also had quite a few environmental/clearance/port fees, so the week there cost $70, which at least included a week on the manadatory moorings. St. Barths on the other hand, charged $12 a day simply for the privilege of anchoring in the absolute worst anchorage we’ve encountered. While technically this granted you access to free showers, the dinghy dock and internet, the internet didn’t work and the showers were cold, so I was a bit miffed at the high cost when we got stuck there for an extra week.
In the BVIs, they didn’t even ask about alcohol, tobacco, animals or firearms. In Nevis, the customs official – who was very nice, mind you – very seriously asked about all of the above. Stragely, Dominica they only asked about weapons, but when I got the form back, it indicated that we had no tobacco and the maximum amount of alcohol permitted (2 litres liquor, 2 litres wine) aboard. I was kind of disappointed, as we had recently run out of liquor and I was looking forward to telling the truth for once!
When you clear in, you’re supposed to tell the customs officials when you are leaving, but some countries require you to clear out on the day you leave (necessitating another trip to the offices and sometimes a token exit fee, usually a couple of dollars at most so far). The French islands will let you clear in and out on the same form, and Dominica as well, though they limit your stay to two weeks without an extension.
All of this bureaucracy seemed like a massive pain in the butt and really confusing/scary before we started cruising, but it’s really not a big deal, at least here in the Caribbean where there are so many cruising yachts and countries compete to – essentially – get your business. I don’t imagine it will be this easy everywhere – I understand that countries like Mexico and Japan require you to clear in and out of each port, and detail where you’ll be an when (ugh; I can’t imagine predicting that on a sailboat…), and other countries require visits to doctors to present iimmunization records, etc, as part of clearance. We’re fortunate to have started our adventure in a region that mostly tries to keep the bureaucracy as simple as possible, at least on the sailing side of things!
Since a couple of our readers who are planning Caribbean voyages asked about how much the bureaucracy costs, here’s a breakdown:
Bermuda: $105 (includes per-person fee, and this was for 3 people)
U.S. Virgin Islands: FREE!
St. Barths: $150 (mostly the daily $12 port fee)
Nevis: $72 (about half was the mandatory mooring fee for a week)
Guadeloupe: $1.50 (small fee charged by internet cafe for processing, not official fee)
So, in six months of Caribbean cruising, we’ve spent $349.75 on bureaucracy, mostly in 3 countries. St. Vincent charges about $13 per person, and Grenada charges cruising fees depending on the size of the boat (under 40: $18.50) plus about $3 per person port fees, so the rest of this month shouldn’t hurt too much!