US cruising license halts re-clearing, adds privilege

Oct 8, 2014 by Jake DesVergers

As regular readers of this column know, our organization, International Yacht Bureau (IYB), acts as an inspection agency on behalf of several flag administrations. We are a classification society, but focused solely on yachts.

This type of work certainly provides its fair share of questions and inquiries from yacht crew. These can range from broad policy issues affecting charter yachts, to the required frequency of emergency drills, the rules on sewage discharge, licensing of seafarers, or even what color the life buoys must be. We hit all ends of the question spectrum.

For some reason this fall, many yachts had their U.S. cruising licenses expire. The phones, texts, and e-mails were constant with questions. Several years ago, I addressed this topic in a column, but thought that it would be advantageous to review the topic again. I was surprised at how many experienced managers and captains were unfamiliar with the requirements.

For those working on U.S.-flagged yachts or unfamiliar with the term, basically, a U.S. Customs cruising license allows any documented vessel with a pleasure registry, as well as any undocumented U.S.-flagged pleasure vessel, to proceed from port to port in the United States without having to “re-clear” upon arrival at the next U.S. port.

To qualify for this privilege, the yacht shall be used exclusively for pleasure and shall not transport merchandise nor carry passengers for pay.

Furthermore, a cruising license may be issued to a yacht of a foreign country only if it has been made to appear to the satisfaction of the U.S. Secretary of the Treasury that U.S.-flagged yachts are allowed to arrive at and depart from ports in that foreign country. U.S.-flagged yachts must be able to cruise in the waters of such foreign ports without entering or clearing at the custom house thereof. This is commonly referred to as “reciprocity.”

What does all that mean in real actions? Essentially, if a foreign-flagged yacht wants to move about freely in U.S. ports and waters, the country where that yacht is registered must provide the same rights to U.S.-flagged yachts.

As listed in the US Code of Federal Regulations (CFR) Title 19, Part 4, Section 4.94, yachts registered with the following countries may obtain a cruising license:


















Marshall Islands


New Zealand


Saint Kitts and Nevis

Saint Vincent and the Grenadines




United Kingdom and the Dependencies (the Anguilla Islands; the Isle of Man; the British Virgin Islands; the Cayman Islands; and the Turks and Caicos Islands)

As one reviews the list, you will see the absence of some flags that are very popular for yacht registration (such as Antigua and Barbuda, Cook Islands, and Malta). You may even see a few surprises (Liberia?).

Without a cruising license, a foreign-flagged yacht is required to comply with the laws applicable to foreign vessels arriving at, departing from, and proceeding between ports of the United States. These are the same rules that apply to merchant ships. In short, those particular yachts may expect to see a customs officer before and after every movement. In some cases, it may also restrict the locations where the yacht may berth.

There are additional details on the validity of the cruising license, the requirements for renewal versus an initial license, length of time required between expiration of the old license and obtaining the new one, plus issues involving duties paid.

For example, when a cruising license expires, a new license will not be issued unless the following two conditions have been met:

1. at least 15 days have elapsed since the previous license either expired or was surrendered; and

2. the vessel arrives in the U.S. from a foreign port or place. Customs will want to see foreign clearance paperwork as evidence that you are arriving from a foreign location.

U.S. Customs strongly cautions vessel owners to plan carefully so that the mandatory 15-day period does not fall in the middle of a planned stay in U.S. waters. It may make sense to surrender the yacht’s cruising license to a Customs Officer when the yacht leaves U.S. waters and then obtain a new one when she re-enters the U.S. at a later date. Traveling outside of U.S. waters while the cruising license is still in effect does not fulfill the 15-day requirement.

Issues can become much more complicated when dealing with U.S.-owned, foreign-flagged, but customs duty-paid yachts. In these case, it is imperative that the proper legal counsel is retained in advance of any cruising.


Capt. Jake DesVergers is chief surveyor for International Yacht Bureau (IYB), an organization that provides flag-state inspection services to yachts on behalf of several administrations. A deck officer graduate of the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy at Kings Point, he previously sailed as master on merchant ships, acted as designated person for a shipping company, and served as regional manager for an international classification society. Contact him at +1 954-596-2728 or Comments on this column are welcome at


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