Becoming Accustomed to US Customs - SailNet Community
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Becoming Accustomed to US Customs

If you've done your homework first, checking into the US Customs is a relaxed and friendly affair.
Knowing the procedures for clearing in and out of the US can often prevent difficulties with US Customs, saving you time and energy in the long run. American sailors sometimes find leaving the US for other countries is easier than getting back in. Foreign sailors coming into the US from overseas are often better versed in the requirements than we natives are. It is odd, but true, that many sailors research the requirements for clearing into and out of foreign ports, neglecting their own country’s requirements for reentry.

When we left for the Caribbean, we simply left. Coming back to the US, we called US Customs, told them who we were, where we were, answered a few questions, and we were cleared in, all by phone—a totally painless process. But we’ve talked with other cruisers who felt they had been hassled by their own country upon leaving and entering. One of our American readers recently wrote us, clearly distressed about a recent run-in with US Customs after trying to leave the US for Canada by boat. As a result, he and his family left the US "…without the blessings of our bureaucrats in the Customs agency." One thing we found consistently in our travels, including US territories such as Puerto Rico and the US Virgin Islands, was that each Customs officer "interprets" the rules somewhat differently.

The law reads that American-flagged pleasure vessels leaving the US for a foreign port "must obtain clearance from US Customs before leaving a port or place in the US and proceeding to a foreign port or place if the vessel is engaged in trade, has visited a hovering vessel, or is not in compliance with US laws." Customs regulations do not clearly define "not in compliance with US laws," which is probably a loophole for anything imaginable. When going through clearance requirements, however, the only item found that could pertain to this loophole is the registration of the vessel. American vessels not documented by the US Coast Guard must be in compliance "with federal laws relating to identification numbers issued by a state, Puerto Rico, the US Virgin Islands, Guam, American Samoa, or the District of Columbia." As it turns out, our reader who was asked to fill out forms before he departed for Canada violated no laws by leaving without applying for a permit and paying a processing fee as was requested by the Customs official. He was not engaged in trade, had visited no "hovering vessel," and was in compliance with US laws regarding the registration of his vessel. In other words, US pleasure boats do not need permission to leave the US.

For the sailor leaving the US and traveling to a foreign port, however, a $25 yearly User Fee Decal will be required for reentry into the US. This decal can be renewed for the same vessel, but if the owner sells his boat and purchases a new one, a new decal must be purchased for the new vessel, although it’s not clear what the $25 annual decal fee buys.

"One thing we found consistently in our travels was that each Customs officer "interprets" the rules somewhat differently."

This User Fee Decal is an issue frequently misunderstood by sailors, and even US Customs agents sometimes misinterpret these requirements. According to customs regulations, the User Fee Decal is required if "…you operate a private vessel that is greater than 30 feet in length that enters the United States." Several statements made to us by US Customs agents in years past implied that the User Fee Decal must be purchased before departure, but this is only a matter of convenience—the decal is only used for entry into the US. This is an important distinction as the User Fee Decal is only good for one calendar year beginning on January 1. If your planned voyage to the Bahamas starts in October of one year and ends in June of the next year, you’d spend $50 on decals if you bought one for the year of departure. If arrival and departure are to fall in the same calendar year, it actually might be more convenient to buy the decal before leaving. When we cleared back into the US after an absence that spanned three calendar years, the customs agent took down our mailing address, telling us that we’d be billed for the User Fee Decal—but we never were.

The second part of the misinformation given to our Canadian-bound reader regarded his reentry in the US. He was told to remain aboard his vessel until being met by a Customs official, which could take up to 48 hours. The actual rule reads, "If your boat has anchored or tied up, you are considered to have entered the United States. No one shall board or leave the boat without first completing customs processing, unless permission to do so is granted by the Customs officer in charge. The only exception to this requirement is to report arrival." So, once again, it seems that the Customs official was in error by asking our reader to remain aboard his boat. By law he was required, as the master, to go ashore "…to report to Customs immediately after arriving into the United States."

These guys have a big job to do with hundreds of rules and regulations, and it's always best to work with, not against, them.
The master of a US-flagged pleasure boat entering the US after having been in a foreign port, "must report to Customs immediately after arriving into the United States…and must also report any foreign merchandise on his boat that is subject to duty. The report may be made by any means of communication and should include the name of the boat, its nationality, name of the master, place of docking and arrival time. If an inspection is required, the Customs officer will direct the vessel to an inspection area." Formal entry is waived if the... "vessel is not engaged in trade, the vessel has not visited any hovering vessel, the master reports arrival as required by law and is in compliance with US customs and navigation laws, and any article on board required by law to be entered or declared is reported to Customs immediately upon arrival."

In fact, US Customs maintains many local offices in major port cities, each has a published telephone number for reporting your arrival. Some busy areas such as South Florida even provide dedicated telephones at popular marinas and 800 numbers so that any landing area can be used for clearing into the US.

Non-US Vessels    Customs clearance for foreign-flagged pleasure vessels requires the master to report the vessel's arrival "to US Customs immediately and must make formal entry…within 48 hours." The vessels of 23 countries, including Canada, Bermuda, the Bahamas, most UK countries of the Caribbean but not Mexico, can obtain a US cruising license allowing sailors from those countries to be exempted from formal entry and clearance procedures and from paying the $25 User Fee Decal. These countries have reciprocal agreements that allow US mariners the same courtesy in their nations. It certainly behooves the master of a foreign-flagged pleasure vessel qualifying for the license to acquire this one-year permit. Without this license, the master "…must obtain a permit before proceeding to each subsequent US port."

Vessels from nations not eligible to purchase the cruising license have a great deal more difficulty moving around inside the US. First, a formal entry and clearance will be required, which includes a complete manifest, payment of a tonnage tax, and entry and clearance fees... "at all but the first port of entry."

"It is important that you understand both your rights and responsibilities to avoid becoming the victim of misinformation."

For most sailors, clearing into the US is an easy and simple procedure, and most US Customs agents are courteous and well-trained. These agents must work everyday with visitors and returning citizens who are trying to avoid paying duty by sneaking goods across the border, or bringing in agricultural or animal products that are illegal to import into the US. Such sailors make the process more difficult for the Customs officers and all future sailors. Still, it is important that you understand both your rights and responsibilities to avoid becoming the victim of misinformation.

To obtain the full text of US Customs law you can purchase a copy of the Code of Federal Regulation (CFR) or obtain specific regulations at your local US Customs office. The bulk of the text, a list of ports of entry with their telephone numbers, the list of countries eligible for a US cruising license, and numerous other pieces of information are available at the US Customs website at I recommend that you print these requirements for clearing in and out of the US, review them before departure and reentry, and carry them along in case there’s any confusion. If you feel the requirements stated by a Customs official are not in line with what’s on your printout, you’ll at least have some ammunition to clarify your rights. But as these regulations are subject to periodic change, check the site occasionally.

Suggested reading:

  1. Local Fishing Laws by Sue & Larry
  2. Strange Contraptions in Foreign Countries by Gary Kirkpatrick
Kathy Barron is offline  
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