What's Your Custom With Customs

Much has been written over the years about cruisers’ unnerving and anxiety-inducing encounters with customs officials when entering and departing foreign waters. We have listened empathically to numerous such stories and then later retreated to the privacy of our boat where we wondered aloud why some of these experiences contrasted so sharply with those of our own.

To be sure luck plays a role to some extent between our generally positive experiences and the negative experiences reported by many others. Having witnessed first hand however, how some cruisers have presented themselves to customs officials in various ports between the British Virgin Islands and the US mainland, and more recently in the Med, we’ve concluded that luck plays but a very small role. Every country differs in their rules, laws, and even the very manner in which one goes about clearing in and out. And, as any cruiser knows who’s cleared in and out of countries like the Dominican Republic, Cuba, Italy or France on more than a few occasions, the rules and practices that were applied as little as a few months prior won’t necessary be identical the next time around – despite no formal changes in laws or government.

The following list of Do’s and Don’ts’ won’t necessarily guarantee a hassle-free experience with every customs and immigration official you meet however they’ll certainly increase your odds of clearing in and out more smoothly and with less anxiety. Perhaps more importantly, you’re remember the countries your visit with fonder memories and recall your experiences with various cultures with more affection.

  1. Affix to your vessel the courtesy flag of the country you are about to enter before you lay anchor and go ashore. Some cruisers make their own flags; others stock up before they leave the mainland either through purchase or trade. Still others disregard this basic international requirement citing among many reasons their inability to find the appropriate flag. To these cruisers we say ‘don’t be afraid to support the local economy’. If one of the earliest questions you ask is ‘where can we buy one of your flags?’, you’ll engender a warmer welcome.

  2. Be sure to fly the flag of the country in which your vessel is registered at all times lest you raise suspicions about where you are from. Customs officials become suspicious about nameless, flagless vessels and will use this as a excuse to board your vessel and conduct a thorough search.

  3. Fly your yellow flag until you clear customs. This indicates that you are ‘in quarantine’ or awaiting clearance to enter. Many cruisers no longer perform this ritual for fear it will bring them unwanted attention. In reality, when a foreign vessel enters a harbor, particularly in smaller, more remote towns, officials and non-officials alike take notice. You are in affect their entertainment! Moreover, your yellow flag conveys the message that you know the rules and are not adverse to following them – something for which you’ll be well respected.

  4. Do ask other cruisers who have frequented your planned destinations about any peculiarities that you should anticipate. For example, in many countries you are expected to present yourself at the closest customs office upon arrival. In some countries, the Dominican Republic being one, you are expected to remain on your vessel until boarded by customs and/or navy officials and cleared to go shore to the customs office. In some foreign ports, only the Captain of the vessel is allowed to go ashore to clear in his or her vessel and crew. In still other ports, and particularly if you arrive after hours or on a public holiday when the customs offices are closed, officials are not adverse to your going ashore to explore as long as you make for customs as soon as it re-opens.

  5. In preparation for officials who may want to board your vessel before you go ashore, have visible and ready for presentation the clearance papers from your previous port, vessel registration, passports for all crew, and any other pertinent documents. The last thing you want to be doing when officials are on board is sending one or more crew below deck to search for documents. This type of activity often arouses suspicion and you may very well find the official entourage below deck helping you ‘look’ in the most unlikely places despite your assurances that the documents are not there.

  6. Ensure that all relevant documentation is assembled in one place and easily assessable at all times. We store our papers in a zip lock bag that we toss into a dry bag to take ashore. When underway, the dry bag is stored in our abandon-ship bag in the event we ever have to disembark at sea. When customs officials are expected to board we have the zip lock visible on the chart table for presentation. At all other times, the zip lock is well hidden but easy to retrieve in the boat.

  7. Have multiple copies of all documentation compiled and easily available in the event your are asked to leave your originals with customs (these will be returned to you when you are cleared for departure). We have managed to avoid leaving our original documents by having a duplicate package ready to present and leave when this has been requested.

    Some countries, Cuba for example, will want a detailed description of your vessel including its make, year, weight, beam, length overall, and so forth. Nigel Calder, in his book, Cruising Cuba, provides a comprehensive description of the detail and type of documentation you will need to present when entering Cuba. Have multiple copies of the necessary documents on hand and available to leave with authorities otherwise you will spend many hours waiting for officials to copy and re-copy by hand each page of the required documentation (photo copying machines do not exist in most customs offices in most developing countries.

  8. In preparation for presenting yourself and your crew at the customs office, do dress for the occasion in a modest manner. Bare chests and bare feet are frowned upon on shore despite how casual a particular island is reported to be; keep midriff and thigh exposure to a minimum, and leave any flashy jewelry (large flashy watches included) on board. In general, people who own boats are perceived as well off by those who are land bound. Inadvertently reinforcing this perception may make you a later target for those who are less fortunate.

  9. When presenting yourself to customs officials don’t be afraid to smile, and do state how happy and excited you are to be in their country (not necessarily all in the same breath!). If you look apprehensive, solemn or fearful your hosts will wonder what’s troubling you and take their time processing your clearance.

  10. Keep in mind that your efforts at humanizing the customs experience will often be rewarded with less militancy and an abundance of sincere good wishes that you enjoy your time in your new found port. Don’t be afraid to ask questions that convey your genuine interest in the country in which you have arrived.

  11. Do ask customs officials for directions, information and clarity about anything that you are not certain about. There are times when asking about something even if you already know can provide an opportunity for officials to demonstrate their knowledge and skill in a way that makes them feel more useful.

  12. When doing a little research ahead of time about the countries you expect to visit, make a point of learning at least a few basic words and phrases in the mother tongue of your intended destinations. ‘Hello’, ‘please’ and ‘thank you’ in the language of every country you plan to visit will open more doors than the presumption that everyone speaks and understands English.

  13. Finally, remember at all times that you are a guest in your host country; it is your privilege to be there, not your right. If you behave in an arrogant and domineering manner you will be perceived as threatening and demeaning. Many customs officials do not care that you have stood in the sun for an hour waiting for their office to re-open or, that you’re exhausted after several days in lumpy seas, or, that current procedures are, in your experience, drastically different from your experience a few years ago. They have a job to do and are often expected to perform their duties with minimal training, little knowledge, and few supplies, in an environment lacking any real infrastructure, and for which they receive very little pay. Your patience and empathy will be rewarded much more promptly than if you whine, complain and carry on like you know more than the customs officials – even when this may very well be the case.

Our experiences with customs and immigration have generally been quite positive and in many instances fruitful as well. For example, on one of our several trips to the Spanish Virgins, officials asked if we had need for Internet access. When we replied in the affirmative they directed us to the public library in Culebra where they told us we’d find free and unlimited Internet access owing to a newly installed satellite system. Several weeks later when clearing out of Boqueron on the west coast of Puerto Rico, the customs agent insisted on giving us clearance papers even though we insisted that the Dominican Republic, our intended destination, reportedly no longer required these. The agent in turn said, “we don’t want you to have any difficulty…though the laws have changed in the DR, not every port has been advised accordingly…”. Indeed, these very documents were the first ones requested by officials upon boarding our vessel in the DR.

Several days later when we made landfall late in the day at Grand Turk Island, the sole official about to close shop for the day offered to meet our crew of four at a pier and transported us to and from his office in his pickup truck. He believed we’d be more comfortable anchoring further north and across from the main town site than off the pier near his office and wanted to save us the trouble of having to backtrack the following morning.

Customs officials in the Bahamas were not at all interested in inspecting the permit for our dog or seeing her papers despite having seen her ashore several times daily in the tiny village where we were weathered in for several days and where the customs and immigration offices were closed; they were more interested in whether or not we had ‘varmints or vermins’ on board. Later, they explained that we could clear out via telephone when we were about to depart for the United States and urged us to take our time cruising through their beautiful islands. And, not once during our multiple trips in and out of the British Virgin Islands over an eight year period did officials ask to see the pre-arranged permit we carefully obtained prior to every departure to facilitate our dog’s visit in these islands.

We are currently based in the south of France where our entry was uneventful and where the customs officials visiting our dock once or twice weekly merely smile, wave and greet us with ‘Bonjour’ and ‘Ca va?’. For a number of reason(s), most of which remain unknown to us, a few others on our dock have not been as fortunate; they truly dread seeing uniforms on the dock and hide below deck. As if by intuition, officials know who’s on board and who’s not and the former are more often than not shamed from below with incessant rapping. This, of course, proves irritating for the officials who then proceed to make their presence and authority known in ways that are doubly humiliating for those who tried to hide. One of my maxims in life is that you get what you give and vice versa. It’s worth keeping this in mind the next time you’re about to greet customs and immigration officials. We most certainly do and it has rarely failed us.