Entering and Leaving National Waters
The waters extending to 12 miles from a nation's coast are considered to be
national territorial waters and are subject to the state's sovereignty.
As a general rule, vessels are allowed innocent passage through it.
Entering of these territories with the plan to visit the country is regulated
by international agreements involving immigration, customs and
Although the international regulations on safety (SOLAS) are not affecting
pleasure yachting, national maritime regulations often require that yachts
sailing national waters must be equipped with sufficient safety equipment
according to the safety recommendations of the
Offshore Racing Council
the International Sailing
The following general rules are consistent with international clearance
regulations but additional national regulations may have to be respected
to avoid legal actions!
Authorities involved in the Clearing Formalities
The following authorities are involved in the clearing procedure:
Port authorities: At entering or leaving, the harbour master
or port captain is normally the first or last station to call. On entering,
the port captain will inspect the vessel and issues a temporary
boat visa to stay in the national waters for a limited period (3 or 6 months).
Customs: The next station is the customs office at the port
of entry. The customs will inspect the vessel to check for undeclared or illegal
goods it may be carrying. This includes firearms, animals and narcotics.
Immigration authorities: The immigration authorities will
check crew documents and passports. They may also issue tourist cards
or a transit visa on the passports if required.
Health authorities: In some countries the health authorities
may be involved in the clearing process to prevent that diseases will spread
unnoticed into the country.
Entering national territorial Waters
Yachts and vessels arriving from an overseas port and requesting entry to
national waters, must report, on arriving, to a "port of entry" and fly a
yellow "Q" flag from the port-side spreader.
This should be best done when entering the 12 mile limit.
In this way, one cannot be accused of trying to slip in unnoticed.
Some countries demand that entering vessels will contact the authorities
on VHF radio before entering national waters.
Detailed information on special national regulations of about 200 different
countries is available from
In addition to the yellow "Q" flag, also the courtesy flag should be flown at
entering a nation's territorial waters.
The courtesy flag is flown from the starboard spreader.
Today, it is accepted practice to fly both the courtesy flag and the
yellow "Q" flag from the starboard spreader, the courtesy flag in a
position above any other flag.
But the correct way would be to fly the "Q" flag on the port side of
the rigg and the courtesy flag from the starboard side.
The courtesy flag should be in a good state and of reasonable size as some
officials take offence at yachts that fly a torn or tiny flag.
In some dependencies or autonomous regions, such as the Canaries, Azores,
French Polynesia, or Corsica, it is appreciated if the regional flag is flown
together (but below) the national flag.
Yachts are normally not boarded on arrival by the maritime police (immigration)
and customs. In this case the captain will have to report to the respective offices
for proper clearance.
The order, in which the different authorities have to be visited
differs from country to country. Information on this may be obtained by calling
the port authorities on VHF radio at arrival.
After arriving in the national waters or at the port of entry,
the following general rules will have to be respected:
Call the port authorities by VHF radio and communicate the expected
time of arrival. The harbour master will allocate an adequate mooring place
for the yacht and will be able to inform you on the details of the clearing
All passengers and crew will remain on board of the yacht until
boarded by immigration and customs. In many countries, officials are very
unlikely to come to a small pleasure yacht, so the captain must report to their offices.
Only the captain may proceed ashore to the customs and immigration
offices. No other crew members are allowed ashore until the clearance procedure
has been fully completed.
Captains of vessels arriving after hours must make certain no crew
member is allowed ashore until the clearance procedure has been completed
at the first possible opportunity.
Captains of vessels wishing to cruise must check with the local port
authority for permission to do so.
Often a valid cruising permit ("permit of navigation") is required,
which entitles a vessel to cruise the national waters except for areas
which have been specifically prohibited to navigation (temporary or permanent).
When changing crew, some additional regulations may have to be considered.
Crew members leaving a vessel in national waters must usually
have a valid airline ticket to a country that will accept them without question.
If required, this ticket must be presented to the immigration officer on leaving
Captains wishing to exchange crew members must, in the presence of
an immigration officer, sign-off the crew members off one vessel and onto
another with both masters taking full responsibility. Failure to do so may
result in legal action.
In the case of crew members arriving by air and joining a vessel that
is leaving for a foreign destination, a signed copy of a letter from the
yacht's captain or local agent may be accepted as a valid return ticket.
This documentation must be presented in advance of - or at the time of - the
The visa on the passport of crew and passenger, obtained from the
immigration authorities is normally a simple transit visa. It entitles the
holder to visit all coastal and inland regions of the country on condition
that they spend nights on board the yacht. If a passenger or member of the
crew wishes to break his journey and pick up the vessel at some other port,
depart the country by some other means, or spend nights ashore, he or she
should notify the harbour master and obtain a regular passport visa for entering
and leaving the country.
Documents that may be required for the entering procedures:
valid passport and for some countries a valid visa,
a valid third-party liability insurance certificate may be required on board,
the captain may be demanded to show a certificate of competence,
the registration certificate of the ship,
Identification verifying that the vessel's owner is a legal resident of a foreign country,
when a VHF radio transmitter is installed at least one crew member holding a VHF radio license may be required
EPIRB registration certificate
a copy of the "International Regulation for the Prevention of Collisions at Sea" (COLREG) may be required on board
in some countries valid tide tables must be on board
Yachts cruising in trans-national waters should also pay attention to the following:
- firearms must be declared on arrival in the port of entry,
- never carry any drugs, stowaways or illegal goods on board
The penalty for disregarding of these rules is usually imprisonment.
Transit Log and Cruising Permit
A transit log is an official document, issued by the port authorities in some countries.
This document is used to record the movement of the vessel.
It has to be presented to the port authorities in each called port.
On leaving the national waters of the country, the transit log has to be given back
to the port authorities in the port of clearance.
In some countries a fee for the maintenance of lights, buoys and other maritime infrastructure is demanded.
As a receipt the captain will receive a cruising permit or permit of navigation,
which also may have to be presented at the port authorities while staying in the port's mooring area.
A crew list documents the identity (name, place of birth, passport number and place of issue, ...)
of each person on board of the ship.
Usually more copies of the crew list are needed for the entry procedure: first the harbour master or
port captain will certify all copies and keep one.
Then the port-authorities certified copies together with the passports and visa of the complete crew
will be delivered to the customs and immigration authorities.
They will also stamp the presented copies and keep one.
At least one certified copy of the crew list will have to be on board while cruising the national waters
of the country.
This copy will be needed for the clearance procedures before leaving.
No other persons than those mentioned on the crew list should be on board while cruising national waters.
Changes of crew must be reported to port authorities and certified on the crew list.
This PDF formatted crew list
can be used as official crew list
for private yachting.
Many countries however, have their own 'official' crew lists.
And since they are familiar with these lists, the clearing authorities will prefer these 'official' crew lists.
Anyways, the required information will be the same as on the above crew list, so a prepared crew list will
considerably simplify the completion of the 'official' crew lists.
Leaving national Water
The procedure for clearing-out and leaving the national waters of a country
is similar to the clearing-in formalities.
The captain of a vessel bound for a foreign destination will report at the
immigration, custom and port authorities:
Before leaving, show passports and crew list to customs, and get immigration
cards marked with exit stamp.
If applicable, return the transit log to the port
Vessels clearing out of national waters usually must
depart within 24 hours after completing clearance procedures.
If visa for the country of destination are required, they should be organized
from the corresponding embassy for the complete crew before leaving. Also
if animals or plants are on board, their bringing in into the country of
destination should be clarified in advance.
Special Regulated Waterways
In confined waterways not considered international waters, local authorities
may establish certain regulations for the safe passage of ships and operate
waterway systems consisting of locks, canals, channels and ports.
This occurs generally in busy or high developed waterways, which form the
major constrictions on international shipping routes.
The Panama Canal, St. Lawrence Seaway and the Suez Canal represent systems
of this type.
Nearly all ports and harbours have a body of regulations concerning the
operation of vessels within the port limits, particularly if locks and other
structures are part of the system. The regulations covering navigation through
these areas are typically part of a much larger body of regulations relating
to assessment and payment of tariffs and tolls, vessel condition and equipment,
personnel, communications equipment and many other factors.
Where the waterway separates two countries, a joint authority may be established
to administer the regulations, collect tolls and operate the system.
Copies of the regulations are usually required to be aboard each vessel
in transit. These regulations are normally available from the authority in
charge or an authorized agent. Summaries of the regulations are contained
in appropriate volumes of the "Sailing Directions (Enroute)".