Demystifying international clearance for cruisers

I have a new appreciation for how easily most international travelers are able to pass the gauntlets to enter a foreign country. A little form on the plane, a stamp in your passport, and you’re off to your hotel. Sometimes we are lucky to have a very simple clearance (record: 13 minutes, Cook Islands)… and sometimes, we’re not (record: 3 days, Indonesia).

This is the next installment as I tick (slowly, yes) through questions that came in response to my query post, What do you want to know about? from a few weeks ago. Cidnie asked first, but it turns out that the details of clearing into countries was one of the most common questions. How does it work? What do you have to do? When do you need an agent? Here’s a peek at how it works from our experience- which is FAR from exhaustive, people, this is not intended to be gospel. But Totem has been in and out of a dozen countries from the Americas, to the Pacific Islands, Australia, and SE Asia and while each one is a little different, they are all just variations on the same basics.

It’s always kind of a thrill to swap the last courtesy flag out for the ‘Q’ flag. I don’t look happy because it was a bad &*%#^$ knot.

1. Advance research

With a good margin of time before you depart, check the regulations of countries you plan to visit. Before our Pacific crossing, I made a spreadsheet that outlined details by country:

  • ports of entry and any clearance process details
  • visa requirements and stay limits
  • cruising permits, if any
  • customs regulations (allowances for alcohol and other items which may incur duty)
  • quarantine regulations (any controlled items we could not bring: Australia and NZ have long lists)
  • any other regulations, such as bond or advance arrival notification requirements

In many places you can simply show up, but in others the regulations are very specific and missing one can result in severe fines. A boat arriving around the same time as we did in Coffs Harbor, Australia, was fined thousands of dollars for failing to provide sufficient notice of their arrival- a 96 hour minimum was the regulation. In Australia, we realized that our visas would be right on the edge of PNG’s requirement for six month validity upon entry, so we road tripped to the consulate in Sydney and had new passports issued before we left.

How do you find out what these are? I usually check a combination of sources. Most countries have clearly presented information available in English (lucky us, the global language) on the internet. Noonsite often has helpful corroboration of those details, and any nuances specific to cruisers (for example, if a tourist/passenger would typically need a visa, but it can be provided on the spot to officers and crew). It’s nice to know what other cruisers experience, and a warning on the ‘coconut telegraph’ helped us avoid missteps in at least one port. Cruising guides are an afterthought, honestly, since they are often out of date.

2. Upon arrival

The first thing we do is hoist the yellow “Q” flag when we enter new territorial waters. I don’t think I’ll ever get tired of putting it up- it’s like it holds the promise of new adventures! This is only replaced by a courtesy flag after clearance is complete- or after pratique is granted, if you want to sound all boaty about it.

The mechanics of the arrival process vary. Some countries have very specific requirements: anchor in a certain spot, contact a certain authority on the VHF, only the captain can go ashore and only after a certain interval if officials have not come to the boat. Others just want you to come ashore and start through the process. Some introduce new bureaucracies, like the intelligence police in who required a travel permit for our travels through the provinces of Papua and West Papua. Our longest clearing-in was in Jayapura, Indonesia, and took three days to complete, visiting offices all over town; the shortest, in the Cooks, took about 13 minutes in Totem’s cockpit.

The standard order for clearance:

  1. Harbormaster/Port Captain, via VHF upon approach
  2. Immigration
  3. Customs
  4. Quarantine

Practically speaking, it’s almost never exactly like that, but it’s usually not hard to work out the right procedure. If the process isn’t clear, we just start as far up the chain as possible, and ask them what to do or where to go next. Officials always seem to be helpful in this regard; they want you to get it right, too.

Often, all of these authorities will be in one place (hello, convenience!). When we arrived in Coffs Harbor, because it is a relatively small port, a single customs official helped us with all services. Officer Mortimer was thorough, friendly, and even a little entertaining- as he changed official “hats”, he’d flip one of the various badges he wore on lanyards over his shoulder, to reflect the office he would then represent. The kids loved it (and the coloring books he gave them!), and he gave us a lovely introduction to Australia.

My favorite experience clearing into a country was in the Cook Islands, where the two park rangers – James and Apii – who were assigned to live in the Suwarrow atoll during the “high season” came out in a small boat with their Official Vests on. They had us fill in a couple of pieces of paper, collected a small entry fee, then just sat in the cockpit and shoot the breeze with us over a cool drink.

3. When to consider an agent

It’s our preference to do paperwork ourselves, but sometimes it’s easier to hire an agent… and occasionally, there’s really no way around it. We’ve only worked with an agent in two countries to date: French Polynesia, and Indonesia. With a little research, you’ll quickly work out which countries on your itinerary will be best handled with the help of an agent and what you can do on your own.

In French Polynesia, working with an agent helped us address an inconvenient bond requirement. We could have done it ourselves, but it would have a hassle, and the cost of hiring the agent was close to a wash with the cost of doing it ourselves. It was a no brainer to just pay the agent’s fee (I think it was around $200 in 2010), and it made our clearance process much smoother. That’s always nice after a 19 day, 3,000 mile passage!


Having an agent made clearing into the Marquesas a snap; Totem and friends in Atuona

Indonesia was by far the most bureaucratic country we visited. One of their requirements is the CAIT, a permit that provides permission to have your vessel in the country for a specified period of time. There is no practical way to acquire this without hiring an agent, or joining a rally and having them organize it for you. We weren’t joining the rally, but it was extremely simple to work with an agent. We also needed to get visas for Indonesia, because our intention for a 6-month stay meant we needed a different type of visa than the simple one issued at arrival in certain ports , to one that required local sponsorship. Again, enter the agent. The bureaucracy in Indonesia, it was by far the most expensive country for us to travel through: permits, visas, visa extensions, and the odd port fee put us over $1,200 in paperwork costs for six months.

4. Keep your paperwork organized

I keep a folder handy in the nav station that contains all our current paperwork: any documentation and receipts for the country we are currently cleared into, and for the most recent country (or three) we have cleared out from. Throw in the passports, and it’s my instant carry case for going ashore when we arrive in a new country. It’s worth saving these, too- sometimes they will be requested in a new port. The documentation I keep handy for our crew includes:

  • A bunch of copies of our crew list (ours is made up with our boat stamp, and a picture of the boat and our family- the photos have been a winning way to start conversations with officials)
  • Photocopies of passport photo/signature page
  • Totem’s USCG vessel documentation (and many copies)
  • Passport photos. Lots of passport photos.

I keep these available, although they are rarely needed:

  • A copy of our boat insurance (clearance officials don’t care, but you be required to land for entry at a marina which does care)
  • Vaccination records (so far, only Indonesia requested these, so we cobbled something together on the computer and made our own with a nice official looking boat stamp)
  • Radio licenses (I think we only needed this once)

Some countries expect you to have a boat stamp. Think of this as the signature of your boat: stamping it on a document makes it “official.” Indonesia is the first country where it has actually been mandatory in a couple of situations. They are cheaply made up; do one at a print shop before you leave, or get one later. Our friends had one made up for a couple of dollars at the port of entry in Indonesia. Boat name and a couple of identifying pieces of information (documentation number, hailing port, etc.) make it complete.

Country documentation likely to be found inside include the forms specific to our last ports of call, from customs declarations, to quarantine clearance approval, to port captain clearance, and the receipts associated with any fees. The harbormaster from a new port may wish to keep copies from your old port. Our printer/scanner has been invaluable to make copies or prints of official documents.


5. The unspoken rule

This covers the nuts and bolts, but probably the most important part of clearance isn’t what you read about regulation details. Being respectful, open minded, friendly and patient are essential. I always remind myself that I am a guest in this country and the onus is on me to be respectful and mindful of any cultural differences. Show up dressed for a casual office, not a beach bar. If the national language is not your own, learn how to say at least “hello” and “thank you.” It goes a long way.

It really is not rocket science to follow these simple steps to be respectful of officials, but it’s unfortunate how many people seem to think it does not apply to them. I’ve seen slobs come into a Port Captain’s office in Mexico in shorts, sandals, and no shirt- but with plenty of attitude. It should go without saying that this did not help his case. If you are disrespectful to officials, why should they be respectful to you?


6. Bribes or “Gifts”

Officialdom is overwhelmingly honest, but there is still petty corruption in the world, particularly in some countries. Remember when it feels like an easy way out of a situation that paying a bribe may solve your problem for the near term, but perpetuates an unfortunate situation for everyone who follows you- and just don’t do it! Persistence in requesting an official (stamped / signed) receipt usually solves the problem.

Indonesia was a problem. I try very hard never to pay a bribe, but found myself sucked into inadvertently paying for extra forms which were “required” (they weren’t) at one of the immigration offices, and about half of the Port Captains we visited requested “fees” which probably didn’t exist. We were warned by cruisers ahead of us of the officials in Vava’u, Tonga, who like to use the boat inspection as an opportunity to request gifts for items they see and like- especially booze. We decided to kill them with kindness, and arrived at the clearance dock in the morning with a pot of coffee and a big tray of cinnamon rolls, hot from the oven. Besides setting up a very friendly clearance in the cockpit as they munched and drank, having our cockpit table up made it impossible for the large men to go below… so they didn’t, and we managed to gracefully duck their request to give them a book we had out.

I remember when clearing in and out of countries felt like one of those mysterious aspects of the cruising life. The reality, after the first couple, is that they are pretty mundane and just need a little bit of homework. Hopefully this covers the basics that readers were curious about- if I’ve missed something you wanted to know, just let me know in the comments, our Facebook page or via email.

8 Responses

  1. Thanks for the information! One thing I would still like to know is where do you get your Courtesy Flags? Did you buy them before you left home? Can you get them from the country you’re leaving for the country you’re going to next? If so, what do they usually cost? Do you make them yourself? (some seem to be a bit complicated)

    I can’t seem to find good information on this. The ones I’ve found online are cheaply made and don’t look like they would stand up to much wind for very long. Is this the norm?

    1. Almost all of our courtesy flags are those cheap “stick flag” providers- is one, there are a bunch of them out there. We usually paid only a couple of dollars per flag. Of course, these are not intended for long use in the harsh sun- they are supposed to be pretty little desk flags! They simply last long enough- about 3 months, which is usually all we need. If we are staying longer, the national flag in question is usually available at a reasonable price in-country. The stick flags need just a little bit of hand sewing with a bit of tape to strengthen the hoist and make a loop at each end to tie your lines into. We have made a number of flags ourselves, as fun or homeschool projects, but generally have a full set of whatever we think we’ll need stashed in a locker somewhere.

  2. Great post.
    My experiences of clearing in and out is more on the Caribbean side, but it seems it is all of the same all over, or might I say all of the same and yet different. Like in Jamaica, they come to your boat, one department after the other but it is free, In Mexico it can be very simple if you hire an agent, or very complicated if you don’t, it is up to you. Belize fast and easy but full of fees, Grand Cayman fast courteous and the fees are very descent. Guatemala fast and easy, they come to your boat all at once ( hope you have a big cockpit 🙂 ) and the fees are average for short term, and very affordable if you want to stay long term, but get an agent Raoul in Livingston is the guy to call, then it is a breeze. In Honduras (Utila) fast, simple, extremely friendly and cheap.
    But like Behan said, a smile, a coke and a snack goes a long way. Give them attitude and the nightmare begins.
    J-M Fortin
    S/V Ete Infini

  3. I just read through this post in preparation for a 12-18 month sail to include Nova Scotia, US east coast Bermuda, Bahamas, and all through the Caribbean. (I hope this will be my first long sailing voyage!) Your information is very helpful in preparing me for the various check ins and I have started my own spreadsheet :-). Thank you!
    s/v Argon

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