Navigating U.S. arrival and departure requirements for pleasure boats can be confusing. Both U.S. Customs and Immigration laws are involved. U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) and the U.S. Coast Guard (USCG) may need to be contacted. Some steps need to be taken before arriving in the U.S., others after. Some rules apply to the vessel, others to the individuals aboard. Failing to follow these regulations can result in steep fines, vessel forfeiture, and even criminal penalties.

U.S. and foreign-flagged yachts generally go through the same entry procedures when arriving in the United States. Both are required to report their arrival with CBP, and all persons aboard—U.S. and foreign—must clear Immigration. In addition, foreign-flagged yachts may need to contact the USCG and go through formal entry and clearance with CBP at each port of entry.

I. Entry Requirements for U.S. and Foreign Yachts

Step 1Call CBP at Time of Arrival Immediately upon arrival in the U.S. from a foreign port, the captain of a U.S. or foreign yacht needs to call CBP to declare the vessel’s arrival and any goods acquired abroad. The captain must provide CBP with the passport information of all aboard, the name and registration number of the vessel, a CBP user fee decal number if the boat is 30 feet or longer, the boat’s homeport and current location, and a contact number. No one may leave or board the boat until customs processing is complete, except to report arrival.

In Florida, call the Florida Small Vessel Call Center (SVCC) at 1-800-432-1216. The telephone numbers for reporting locations outside of Florida can be found on the CBP website at www.cbp.gov by typing “pleasure boat locations” in the search box. Arrivals can be reported to SVCC 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.

Step 2—Clear Immigration

CBP Officers determine the admissibility of everyone—U.S. or foreign citizen—seeking to enter the U.S. Within 24 hours of arrival, everyone on board must report in person at the nearest port of entry to be inspected by an immigration officer. U.S.citizens should present their passport; permanent residents their foreign passport and green card, and foreign nationals their passport with valid U.S. visa. The Miami port is open for inspections from 6 a.m. to 10 p.m., seven days a week.

Exception to In-Person Immigration Inspection for U.S. and

Canadian Citizens or Residents

Certain boaters can skip the face-to-face immigration inspection by participating in an Alternative Inspection System (AIS). This does not exempt travelers from reporting the vessel’s arrival or clearing immigration (Steps 1 and 2). But it does expedite their entry into the U.S. Four AIS programs exist: The Small Vessel Reporting System (SVRS), NEXUS, the Canadian Border Boat Landing Permit (I-68), and the Outlying Area Reporting System (OARS).

U.S. citizens, lawful permanent residents (green card holders), Canadian citizens, and Canadian permanent residents who are nationals of visa waiver countries (citizens of which are allowed to enter the U.S. without a visa) are eligible to participate in Small Vessel Reporting System.

Enrollment in SVRS is free and can be done online at https://svrs.cbp.dhs.gov. After submitting an application, the boater schedules a face-to-face interview with a CBP Officer who reviews the applicant’s documents. After enrolling in SVRS, boaters do not have to go through subsequent in-person immigration inspections. Instead they merely call in their arrival to CBP.

The Local Boater Option (LBO) is a predecessor to SVRS. The LBO is available in Florida, Puerto Rico, and the U.S. Virgin Islands, whereas SVRS is available throughout the United States. Existing LBO participants do not need to re-apply through the SVRS but can merely request SVRS access through the SVRS website using their LBO number. Travelers enrolled in one of CBP’s Trusted Traveler programs (such as NEXUS) must complete the SVRS application but do not need to go through another in-person interview.

II. Additional Entry and Exit Requirements for Foreign Yachts

In addition, foreign-flagged boats may need to contact the USCG and, unless they have a cruising license, go through formal entry and clearance procedures with CBP at each port of entry.

Step 3—Contact the USCG Before Arrival

Foreign-flagged yachts over 300 gross tons and all commercial vessels have to notify the USCG of their arrival to the United States. Foreign-flagged yachts 300 gross tons or less and U.S.- flagged yachts, regardless of their gross tonnage, are exempt from this reporting requirement if they do not carry dangerous cargo.

Arrivals can be reported through the National Vessel Movement Center’s (NVMC) electronic Notice of Arrival/Departure (eNOAD) website at https://enoad.nvmc.uscg.gov. Information about the boat and its owners, crew members, passengers, and details of the voyage need to be provided.

The voyage time from the foreign port to U.S. waters dictates when a Notice of Arrival needs to be filed. If it is 96 hours or greater, it needs to be filed at least 96 hours before arriving at a U.S. port. If it is less than 96 hours, it needs to be filed before departing the foreign port and at least 24 hours in advance of arriving in the United States.

If you have questions about completing a Notice of Arrival, you can contact the NVMC at 1-800-708-9823.

Step 4—Formal Entry of Foreign Yachts

Within 48 hours of arrival at the first port of entry, foreign boats without cruising licenses need to go through formal entry procedures with the Marine Section of CBP. The Miami office is open Mondays through Fridays between 7 a.m. and 3 p.m. It is important to arrive during office hours to avoid missing the 48-hour formal entry window. If you have questions about formal entry, you can reach the CBP Miami Marine Section at 305-536-4758.

Step 5—Formal Clearance of Foreign Yachts

The CBP Marine Section that processed the formal entry must also clear the boat before it may leave its jurisdiction. The captain has to contact CBP 48 hours before departure to complete clearance documents and must pay a small fee. Unless the yacht has a cruising license, it has to go through formal entry and exit procedures whenever it departs the U.S. or travels coastwise.

Exception to Formal Entry and Clearance—Cruising License

A cruising license exempts foreign-flagged yachts from certain countries from formal entry and clearance procedures. Yachts registered in the British Virgin Islands, Cayman Islands, Bahamas, Jamaica, and Marshall Islands qualify. For a complete list of covered countries, Google “19 CFR § 4.94.”

The cruising license may be obtained at the first port of entry to the U.S. from the CBP Marine Section. The permit is issued for up to one year but expires upon selling the boat. Cruising licenses are non-transferable between owners, and a new owner must return the old permit and obtain a new one from CBP. A customs broker can help you obtain a cruising license.

This permit exempts the vessel from formal entry and clearance procedures (Steps 4 and 5), not from CBP or USCG reporting and immigration requirements (Steps 1, 2, and 3). The captain also still must report coastwise movement to CBP,but not departures from the United States. If cruising to a port within Florida, call the CBP’s Small Vessel Call Center at 1-800- 432-1216. Contact numbers for other reporting locations are on the CBP website.

In conclusion, captains of U.S. and foreign-flagged yachts need to be well informed about U.S. entry and exit requirements. Although CBP,Immigration, and USCG regulations are many, captains, crew members, and passengers can take advantage of certain programs that streamline arrival and departure from the U.S. to ensure smooth sailing.


* Special thanks to Trey Reeder for his valuable input. This information is provided for informational purposes only and does not constitute legal advice. Please contact your attorney regarding your specific legal concerns.

Article Author: CHRIS ANDERSON & DOMINIQUE PANDO BUCCI, Maritime Law Robert Allen Law