The fact that we are leaving the U.S. for adventures abroad is getting more real all the time.
If you’ve ever traveled out of country, then you know the drill – get off the plane or cruise ship, stand in line at immigration, show your passport then pick up luggage and head to customs.
As with everything boating, when you enter a new country on your own vessel it’s the same….only different. Because now it’s not just yourself and a suitcase or two, but you just arrived with a big floating tub full of things that customs might be interested in.
Here is how the process will go, according to our charter experience and reading material:
After floating into a new country, the first order of business is to safely park the boat. Then, you raise the yellow Quarantine flag.
That indicates that you have not yet checked into the country, and allegedly the only place you can go to after leaving the boat is immigration and customs. In some countries the captain checks all the crew members in; in others the whole crew has to show up in person. But the general rule is no shopping, ATM, laundry, bar-hopping – not even leaving the boat for a swim – until after check-in.
Check-in can be pretty expensive. There may be a cruising fee to and (according to what we’ve read) immigration fees including undocumented ‘overtime’ or ‘travel’ costs. I read one account where the multiple officials required to complete the process showed up in separate cabs, and the cruisers had to pay each taxi fare. In these stories, Sundays are notorious for incurring overtime charges. No checks or credit cards, so cash – in small notes because they don’t have a lot of change – needs to be planned in advance.
After dealing with the people part (immigration) then it’s off to customs. In many places these are separate buildings. So the good captain has to find his or her way thru the new city to a sometimes hidden customs office. The paperwork and payment process gets repeated for the boat.
Sometimes – depending on the country’s requirements, the mood of the official(s) and you own demeanor – the process may be quick and painless, or it can be long and trying. The British Virgin Islands are accustomed to cruisers since boat charters are a large part of the economy. When we checked in from U.S. Virgin Islands it took less than an hour; I expect that will be the quickest and most painless experience we will experience. On second thought, we had to pay over $300 cash for our cruising fees, so it wasn’t completely painless.
So now a couple to several hours have passed, you have sat in front of officials with your umpteen copies of completed forms, passports, boat registration, insurance papers, and whatever else they require, you have forked over what feels like a hefty part of your retirement savings for various and sundry published and unpublished entry fees, and finally you have the right stamps and signatures.
You are now welcome in their country and able to freely spend money on goods and services!
No doubt the Captain’s first purchase is a cold beer to douse the pain of this process.
By the way, in most countries you also have to check out. Depending on the length of stay, you may be able to check out at the same time that you check in, and (of course) pay the exit fees at the same time. Given the number of variables in the check-in and check-out processes, I expect that every country will provide a unique experience.
After check-in is complete, it’s (finally) time to lower the “Q” flag and announce your arrival with a courtesy flag.
This is a small (12” x 18”) flag of the country you are currently visiting. Boating courtesy says to fly it for the time you are there. Courtesy also says we should fly a larger U.S. ensign flag off the stern to declare our home country.
We don’t really have a plan, but we have an idea. And our idea is to cruise around Mexico for a year or two, then head south along the Central America Coast, cut through the Panama Canal and island-hop in the Caribbean. Eventually end up in Florida and maybe do the Gulf Coast over to Texas.
Nakamal came with a Mexican courtesy flag already (she’s been there at least once that we can confirm, in 2006 when she was called Charm). A couple weeks ago, we found a flag shop in San Diego and stocked up on courtesy flags for the first leg of the cruising adventure.
In our stash are Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua, Costa Rica and Panama. We aren’t sure we will stop in all these countries, but we might.
Trinidad/Tobago was in the sale bin for half price, so we got one of those too.
If there had been more half-price flags for countries in the Caribbean, we would have added them to the pile. Because when you’re still dreaming, what better way to plan a cruising itinerary than based on the random availability of flags in a sale bin?