Clearing in, clearing out

Coping with the officialdom of different countries is all part of cruising, writes Jennifer Eurell, who has some useful tips for making the process as simple and stress-free as possible.

If you sail from Australia’s shores, there is one thing that can’t be avoided –clearing out of the country you are leaving, and clearing into the next one.

First things first, however. Before departing ensure that the boat is registered and all crew have a valid passport, requisite visas and vaccinations.

Will I need a visa?

Fortunately, when you sail into a country visas are usually issued on arrival. Different rules may apply if you are arriving by yacht rather than flying into a country. I didn’t need a visa when I arrived in the Cape Verde islands, but would have if I’d flown in. The reverse was true of the US. In many countries the crew of a yacht is issued with a shore or tourist pass in lieu of a visa on arrival.

Visa requirements and cost will depend on your nationality – not the nationality of your boat. I was issued with a one-week visa when I arrived in Tunisia. My husband, John, got three months on a UK passport; Germans and Americans were granted four months.

With a marina contract in hand I was eligible for a three-month visa, renewable for another three months. I lodged my passport with Immigration for an extension, so my heart skipped a beat when I was stopped at a road block with no passport, and only a note in Arabic to attest to my legality.

It is also likely that the length of time you can stay may not be the same as the vessel. Generally, it is assumed the visa will be issued in your own country, but for cruising yachtsmen this is not usually possible. John and I got visas for Egypt when in Yemen (it was cheaper than on arrival in Egypt), we obtained US visas in Trinidad (it was necessary) and sailed 100 miles in the Cape Verdes to get a Brazilian visa from the Brazilian Consulate in Praiia (otherwise we would have been fined heavily on arrival in Brazil).

If you keep all your paperwork in one folder, anything that is asked for will be on hand.

Clearing-in procedures

In some countries it is essential to stay on board until officials visit the boat, but in others it is expected that you will go ashore and find them.

Fly a “Q” flag from the portside spreader and a courtesy flag on the starboard side whether you need to or not. If the authorities can’t be contacted by VHF, it is best to remain on board for a couple of hours– generally if officials intend to board they will do so promptly. If nothing happens, row over to another cruiser and ask what the procedure is. Marina staff can be helpful.

Regulations and conventions vary as to where you enter a country. In many countries a blind eye is turned to boats that anchor prior to a port of entry. Australia, Fiji and New Caledonia are particularly stringent with this rule and yachts must proceed to a port of entry.

Scarborough Marina (Brisbane’s port of entry) is the only entry port we have been in where a fenced-off area is set aside for clearing-in purposes.

In some countries hiring an agent is necessary to cope with the intricacies of local clerical systems.

In others, people will tell you that you need an agent even if you don’t.

Keep all your paperwork in one folder and if you have a ship’s stamp, take that along as well. Your paperwork, i.e. crew lists, equipment lists, etc will look more impressive if printed on the yacht’s letterhead.

Clearing-out procedures

Clearing out is easier and not always required unless you need a clearance paper for your next port of call – and usually you do. Check about it on arrival, but always take any paperwork that was issued on arrival as well as ship’s papers and passports when clearing out.

Dealing with authorities

Dress neatly – you can’t go wrong if men wear long trousers and a shirt with collar and women cover shoulders and thighs (and all the bits in between) and avoid tight-fitting clothes. Wear clean, comfortable shoes – you can expect to do a lot of walking.

We have been greeted by guns only once. To enter Israel we checked in via VHF when 25 miles out of Tel Aviv. A gunboat arrived and a machine gun was trained on John in the cockpit while I supplied details over the radio. Despite this hair-raising encounter at sea, clearing into Tel Aviv was easy. We were asked whether we had any bombs and a stamp was issued on a separate piece of paper to eliminate potential complications in other countries.

Will your boat be searched?

Occasionally one hears horror stories of boats being searched with contents being thrown out of lockers and parts of the boat being pulled apart. Even more frightening are searches at sea. Most searches are of a benign kind, so keep your cool because the officials are just doing their job.

We arrived in Bali the same time as the Europa Rally, so all officials were present at one long table at the yacht club, making clearing in easier than the usual ramble around different offices. It became complicated though when they realised that Burramys had already been to Timor so required a “rat certificate”. Two young uniformed men with frangipanis behind their ears were sent out to inspect our vessel.

“If there were any rats on this boat I wouldn’t be here,” I declared.

I was stating the obvious, so they laid their torches on the saloon table, waived the search and had a cup of tea while they cheerfully issued our certificate.

Our next search was in Oman and all would have been fine if I hadn’t declared the three cartons of wine under the V-berth. As a white-gowned man inspected a box the bottom dropped out and the wine bladder exploded at his feet. The only saving grace was that is was five litres of white wine – not red!

Our most thorough search was on our return to Australia, where AQIS went through the lockers looking for various goods considered dangerous to Australia’s produce. This is understandable, but charging more than $100 for the privilege is not.

Food can also be seized in New Caledonia; however, the customs officer did patiently wait while I peeled onions and garlic, cut the roots off the shallots and squeezed any oranges or lemons. She did take our unpopped popcorn and honey.

Are there charges associated with formalities?

Charges vary widely from country to country, and may differ within a country depending on the nationality or tonnage of the yacht. Over the years we have paid for immigration fees, port charges, health fees, quarantine fees, cruising permits, light fees, national park fees and a multitude of other taxes.

Western Samoa cleverly overcomes the quarantine problem at Apia by insisting that all yacht garbage be left with Customs for less than $1 a bag.

Agents’ fees also add to costs, but over the past 20 years we have paid for agents only in Indonesia, Sri Lanka and Egypt.

One completes more formalities per mile in the Caribbean than anywhere else, but it is easy. In Antigua and the Bahamas it is also expensive.

At Luperon, in the Dominican Republic, John picked up three officials in our two-metre-plus aluminium dinghy – they all spoke Spanish, which he didn’t, but after a lot of wriggling and giggling he roared “sit still!” before they were all in the water. But here small charges added up. We paid $20 for visas, then $20 for agriculture, plus another $10 for the boat, not to mention a $10 charge for the port, and charges have risen since then.

“We are a poor country,” the immigration officer said as she issued a receipt. At least the charges weren’t going into her pocket – but there were other times when we had wondered where our money was going. In third world countries you will often be hassled for presents and you know where they are going.

It is often difficult to get correct information before you arrive in a port. Rumour implied if we got a free cruising permit for Puerto Rico from St Thomas in the US Virgin Islands we would not have to pay for one in Puerto Rico. But plans occasionally backfire because there was no cruising permit in Puerto Rico. However, we were charged $70 for a “manifest” only because we’d sailed from the “freeport” of St Thomas. Can’t win them all!

Several countries (including Australia) charge for out-of-hours arrivals. Fortunately, this charge can usually be avoided.

Over our last year of cruising we paid more than $800 in fees between the US and Australia, plus another $924 for our transit through the Panama Canal.

Just part of it

Coping with formalities is just another aspect of cruising. It can appear a formidable task at times, but generally it just involves time, filling in forms, plenty of walking and varying amounts of money and a lot of patience.


Contacts has information on clearance procedures and visa requirements.

* Yachts heading overseas must be registered through the Australian Shipping Registration Office. You can find out more about this by visiting

M.O.S.S Australia
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Selden Asymetric Rib Technology
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