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How Do Yachts Clear Customs?

Published by Tamar Hela.

What's in this article?
  1. US Customs Procedures
  2. Arrival and Reporting
  3. Documentation and Fees
  4. Cruising License
  5. Departure Procedures
  6. Common Documents Required
  7. Commercial Invoice
  8. Bill of Lading
  9. Export Compliance Documents
  10. CBP Form 1300
  11. Online Systems and Tools
  12. CBP ROAM App
  13. Vessel Entrance and Clearance System (VECS)
  14. Tips for Smooth Clearance
  15. Preparation and Advance Planning
  16. Secure Packaging
  17. Research Port and Country Laws
  18. Organize Paperwork and Records
  19. Promptly Respond to CBP Inquiries
  20. Consider Customs Brokers
  21. Final Thoughts
How Do Yachts Clear Customs?

Clearing customs and immigration is an essential part of the process for any yacht entering the United States. Whether arriving from an international destination or another domestic port, boat owners must complete the required clearance procedures to comply with US laws and avoid potential penalties.

This blog post will provide an overview of the key steps and considerations for clearing US customs on a yacht.

US Customs Procedures

Here are some key aspects of the US customs procedures that you should be aware of before getting started.

Arrival and Reporting

All yachts entering US waters, regardless of flag state, must complete customs and immigration clearance procedures within 24 hours of arrival. For US-flagged vessels over 30 feet in length, owners are required to obtain a Decal Number from US Customs and Border Protection (CBP) through their Domestic Trade Online Pricing System (DTOPS) in advance of travel.

Upon arrival at a US port, the yacht's arrival must be reported to CBP by completing a CBP Form 1300, also called the Vessel Entrance or Clearance Statement. This form can be submitted electronically or in person within 48 hours for foreign-flagged vessels. There is typically a nominal reporting fee of a few dollars associated with filing this form.


Documentation and Fees

In addition to filing the CBP Form 1300, all watercraft entering the US must declare any commercially acquired items obtained abroad that are subject to customs duties. Failure to declare dutiable items can result in civil penalties. Owners must also be prepared to pay any applicable import duties on items purchased outside of the US. It's important to have accurate receipts and commercial invoices readily available should CBP need to assess duties owed.

Cruising License

Many countries participate in a reciprocal cruising license program that allows pleasure vessels to avoid formal entry each time they visit participating nations during a given cruising season. To obtain a US cruising license, foreign boat owners must submit certain documents to CBP such as proof of financial solvency and vessel registration before departing for the US.

This cruising license exempts the pleasure craft from being subject to the usual CBP formal entry procedures each time the vessel enters US waters during the license period, usually 12 months. It streamlines the process for recreational boaters who plan to cruise between specified countries within a one-year timeframe.

Departure Procedures

Obtaining exit clearance from CBP is necessary before departing the US on a yacht headed to a foreign country. For vessels with a valid cruising license, this process typically involves only checking out at the nearest CBP office. Boat owners without a cruising license must endure the full entry process one final time when departing the US, including submitting CBP Form 1300.

It's important to be aware of and plan accordingly based on a vessel's documentation status for both arriving in and departing from US ports.

Common Documents Required

Commercial Invoice

An invoice listing all commercial goods purchased abroad is important for determining any applicable customs duties owed upon entry into the US. Commercial invoices should contain detailed information about items including quantities, costs, places of origin, and descriptions. This allows CBP officers to accurately assess duties, taxes, and fees at the port of entry.

Bill of Lading

This important shipping document serves as a contract between the carrier and shipper. There are two main types - a straight bill of lading declares a specific receiver, while a negotiable bill of lading can be transferred between multiple parties until the goods are received. Bills of lading are used to prove ownership and insure goods during transit. Originals may be requested by CBP upon vessel arrival.

Export Compliance Documents

Certain items may require export licenses or supporting documentation before leaving the US. For commercial exports valued over $2500, an Electronic Export Information filing (EEI) must be accurately submitted no later than before departure. Knowing prohibited items and necessary documentation is crucial to avoid penalties or delays in clearing customs departing the US.

CBP Form 1300

As previously mentioned, this standard vessel entrance or clearance statement details a vessel's arrival, owner information, crew/passenger manifest, last foreign port of call, and any goods purchased abroad subject to duties. It is a key form required by CBP upon both entry to and exit from the US.

Online Systems and Tools


The CBP ROAM (Reporting Ocean Arrivals and Manifests) mobile app streamlines the arrival clearance process for both US and foreign-flagged vessels. US owners can now obtain Decal Numbers via the app, while foreign boaters can use it to digitally apply for cruising licenses from CBP instead of completing paper documentation. ROAM integration with CBP ONE is planned to further modernize reporting capabilities.


Vessel Entrance and Clearance System (VECS)

This new digital system currently in development aims to fully automate vessel entrance, reporting, and customs clearance online. By digitizing the CBP Form 1300 and other processes, VECS promises to alleviate paperwork and simplify compliance for recreational boaters. Its rollout is anticipated to replace the current patchwork of systems over the next few years.

Tips for Smooth Clearance

Pay attention to the following tips to ease the hassles and prevent mistakes when clearing your boat through customs:

Preparation and Advance Planning

Owners should ensure documentation is up to date and organized well before arriving to expedite the CBP reporting process upon clearing customs. Having all required data readily accessible helps avoid lengthy delays.

Secure Packaging

Any merchandise or goods acquired from foreign destinations should be securely sealed in their original packaging to avoid questions from CBP officers assessing duties owed. CBP may need to open shipments so proper sealing avoids unnecessary delays.

Research Port and Country Laws

Thoroughly researching custom laws and regulations at the destination port and country prevents surprises over prohibited items or import/export compliance issues. Being aware ahead of time eliminates scrambling at the last minute to comply.

Organize Paperwork and Records

Maintain meticulously organized copies of all shipping documents, including invoices, receipts, bills of lading, entry/exit records, and more. CBP does randomly select vessels for documentation audits even years after initial clearance. Legible records facilitate smooth audits.


Promptly Respond to CBP Inquiries

If CBP officers need additional information after initial clearance, owners should be ready to respond quickly either by phone, email, or in person at the port to avoid delays. Slow response times often hold up vessels.

Consider Customs Brokers

Working with a professional customs broker experienced in maritime trade may prove worthwhile, especially for vessels making multiple entries per year. Brokers understand import regulations in-depth and can often obtain faster clearances through experience and existing CBP relationships.

Final Thoughts

Clearing customs is an inevitable aspect of cruising between ports and nations. By thoroughly preparing documentation in advance, accounting for all goods acquired abroad, maintaining organizational practices, and keeping informed of the latest requirements, yacht owners can ensure a routine and simplified customs clearance process each time they sail.

Following the guidance in this post helps recreational boaters sidestep issues to avoid delays and potential penalties due to noncompliance.

If you're planning an international yacht trip, let A1 Auto Transport handle your shipping needs. Our experienced brokers know the ins and outs of clearing customs and can ease the process.

Contact us today for a free quote.

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Tamar Hela is one of our featured writers at A-1 Auto Transport, researching everything from AI auto shipments out of China to what paperwork is required to move long distance. We can safely say she's become well versed in all things shipping and logistics while making the information easy to digest and understandable. 

Tamar has been a copywriter for over 16 years and was trained in the 7-Figure Copywriting Accelerator course through American Writers & Artists, Inc. (AWAI). She's also an incredibly seasoned copyeditor, having previously been the Chief Editor and Publishing Director for Cosby Media Productions, based in Atlanta, Georgia. 

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