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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 port authorities.

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 or the International Sailing Federation.

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 procedure.
  • 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 the vessel.
  • 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 airport arrival.
  • 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.

Crew list

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 crew list sample (or a similar template) can normally be used as official crew list for private yachting.

Many countries however, have their specific 'official' crew lists. And since the clearing authorities are familiar with these lists, they will prefer these 'official' lists. Anyways, the required information will be more or less the same as available in the above template, and a prepared private crew list will considerably simplify the completion of the 'official' documents.

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 authorities.
  • 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)".

Cover << Sail Away << . last updated: 21-Dec-2006