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How to Live Aboard a Sailboat, Clearing Customs

Having lived the cruising life aboard my small sailboat for several years, I now enjoy my life on land in Austin, TX.


Clearing Customs In Island Ports

Here are some more tips for those planning on living aboard a sailboat in the Caribbean and cruising in those waters.

This article has to do with clearing into customs and immigration when you sail into a new port. I was fortunate enough to spend several years living and cruising on my 32' Pearson Vanguard in the Caribbean and South and Central American Waters. In that time I had to go through this process in many different island countries, each with their own local twist on the process.

Every island country has its own set of unique rules and regulations and it may be hard to keep up with the changes that often happen from one week to the next in the islands, often without explanation. Some of these rules can seem like frustrating annoyances, especially considering you may have only sailed a couple of miles to get to the new nation or had done the same process a few days earlier. Nevertheless, the immigration or customs agent wearing the uniform holds the key to you coming into their country and you must try your best to comply with all of their requests.

As you arrive into new waters you should always fly the yellow "quarantine" flag indicating that you've not yet cleared customs. After clearing customs you must then fly the "courtesy flag" of that country. You may still fly the flag of your home country in its usual place. Courtesy flags are small flags that you fly at a certain position on your mast to indicate that you're a guest in that country. Always make sure you fly the courtesy flag right side up, as not to be an insult.

Before you sail to a new place, such as the Dominican Republic, make sure that you have your courtesy flags ready so you don't get fleeced by the customs agents who will often require you to purchase one.

In Samana, in the Dominican Republic we had to pay thirty US dollars for a very badly made Dominican courtesy flag in order to get our cruising permit. Otherwise we would not have been granted entry. The Dominican Republic is one of the few places in the Caribbean where you have to clear in and out of each port, instead of getting one permit for the entire country. I'm sure this also helps maximize revenue for local officials.

Guns And Other Weapons

We chose not to carry a gun onboard, although we knew other sailors who did. In some places, Jamaica for example, you can be sent to jail for years for even having in your possession a single round of ammunition, as has occurred to some American boaters in the past. There are plenty of ways to defend yourself, including spear guns and flare guns that are legal.

If you choose to carry a pistol or shotgun you must declare it in every new port of entry that you visit and in most cases surrender it to the local police, who keep it locked up until you leave. If you decide to try and hide it and it's found, you can be charged with smuggling guns and spend time in a not so nice island jail. It is just not worth it, in my opinion, to carry guns onboard.

However, carrying a few "bribes" can come in very handy. It may seem like you are giving in to a corrupt system if you give agents "gifts", but you will find that this is just how things are done in some places. After talking with some seasoned cruisers we decided to buy dozens of little bottles of Brugal rum in the Dominican Republic (for fifty cents each), to give as gifts to the customs agents that we encountered in the Windward and Leeward Islands, and on down past Venezuela to Panama.

Where some cruisers had been fleeced for up to a hundred dollars for some made-up infraction or "fee of the day", we had few problems, thanks partly to the gifts. We also bought some very nice looking brass pens at Costco back in the states. The pens only cost $2.00 but looked like they might be worth much more and we presented these as gifts to customs agents when checking in at every port.

Clearing out of customs is as important as clearing in, and the officers in the next port will be looking for your properly stamped clearance documents from your last port of call. Hang on to every scrap of paper that they give you, because you never know if someone else will ask for it.

Good Manners and A Positive Attitude Go A Long Way

The most important rules to remember, rules that some Americans seem to forget, is that you're there as a guest. It's not your country and the island customs agents want you to acknowledge that fact and give them respect.

Once you can learn to do this, your experience in clearing customs will be much easier. A little humility and respect go a long way in smoothing things over. Sometimes however, despite your very best intentions you'll find some customs and immigration agents can't be won over, as they enjoy their sadistic routine of making people squirm a bit before granting entry.

Once while I was in Prickly Bay Grenada I encountered a bit of this attitude. The person in his office before me, the wealthy owner of a 48' motor yacht, was treated very respectfully but the agent took one look at me and immediately disliked me because of my unkempt hair and surfer clothes and treated me very rudely.

Sometimes you just can't win in such a situation but arguing and escalating will only make things worse and your choice can be to sit and put up with it and play their game, or take the dinghy back to the boat, pull up anchor and sail away.

In that case I chose to put up with it and once I had cleared customs we ended up spending a very enjoyable week in Grenada. Before getting our final clearance documents I put on a shirt with a collar and combed my hair, and was treated much differently. I learned a lesson called "look like an adult, be treated like one".

Keep Your Documents Organized

One of the best ways that you as a liveaboard sailor can make clearing in and out of customs an easier experience is to keep all of your documents organized. A waterproof documents bag not only shows the customs officials that you're prepared, it keeps your documents safe as you travel to and from shore in your dinghy. Keep each person's passport and other documents in their own separate compartment, and keep you boat documents, including registration in another.

Also, if your boat is going to be inspected, make sure that you put away clutter and any items that may give a bad impression, or which can lead the officers to believe you have more money to spare than you do. Also, in some countries bringing in fruits and vegetables is prohibited, so if that's going to be the case for your next port, try and consume these things before you arrive.

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If you follow all of these steps, along with having a positive and friendly attitude, you should have few problems clearing into customs while cruising the Caribbean and beyond.


captainben on April 14, 2011:


I agree, Captain Tim! There's nothing worse than being caught unarmed in the face of a giant, belligerent mouse!

paradisehunter on January 01, 2011:

Very useful hub. Thanks for the information.

boatwallpapers on December 08, 2010:

living boat is great! always hope have a day with my friends

captiantim68 from Southeast Alaska on December 07, 2010:

Never occurred to me about the gun thing, coming from Alaska my boats are always armed you never know when you are going to see that next big buck or Mouse.

We will remember to leave the guns when we start our circumnavigation next year.

tpe on December 01, 2010:

Thanks for sharing your tips.

With my friends we plan to rent a boat in Dominican Republic for several months.

Peter-Jan Celis on November 20, 2010:

Thanks a lot for the tips on which bribes are best! :D

I hope to live aboard a Hanse 320/325 or similar soon with my online income so these hubs are very relevant and appreciated!

Could you maybe about how life on 32 feet is like? Did you experience the "2 foot disease" a lot of cruisers have? I've been looking at 34/35 foot sailboats too, they are a lot more boat sometimes... really wondering what your thoughts are.

learntosail on May 18, 2010:

Love the part about bribes! How true. Great tips.

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