Boating has always drawn those with a spirit of adventure. The freedom to explore the ocean is often what calls new boaters to the sport, and the flexibility to cross borders and explore new nations with ease is another great benefit. Whether you are renting a boat in a foreign country that you have flown to, or you are embarking on the first leg of a round-the-world trip, there are some important things to remember to bring and do. Here is a basic guide to international boating and the requirements.

Paperwork to Bring on Boat Trips

There are a few pieces of paperwork you should carry with you in order to safely cross borders in your boat or deal with authorities while boating in international waters. Here are some things to consider taking, depending on your situation.

  • Passport: The same requirements are needed to pass from US to Canadian and/or Mexican waters as would be if you drove a car. Enhanced drivers licenses (special licenses which allow you to cross from the US into Mexico or Canada without a passport) are another possibility, but passports are needed for most travel. They are also handy documents to have if you are inspected by international coast guard institutions, and are more recognizable than local licenses. If you have children on board, it is not a bad idea to have both passports and copies of their birth certificates to be on the safe side. If you are about to embark on a several-month or year trip, check the expiration date of your passport before you go, and consider renewal if you are close. The last thing you want is for it to expire mid-journey.
  • Visa: Some nations require a visa to visit, particularly if you plan on staying a long time. Check with the US consulate’s website to see which nations require these documents under which circumstances, and the cost and requirements for gaining one.
  • Boat Registration, Insurance Paperwork, and/or Rental Agreement: Just like when you drive a car, the proper paperwork should always be up to date when you boat. Like passports, be sure that your boat registration is not set to expire if you are going on an extended journey, and that your insurance stays up to date. Have your rental paperwork with you at all times if you are renting or bareboat chartering a boat.
  • Travel Insurance: Even if you have great health insurance, it often does not extend past the border of the US. Travel insurance is a great way to be certain that you are covered for accidents while abroad. There are different levels of policies, but many are affordable and flexible to work with your plans.
  • Boaters Safety Cards: These cards are not required abroad, but they are required in a lot of US states now if you are piloting a vessel. If you must cross through states that require a certification, it is a good idea to have one with you at all times. To obtain a boaters safety card, you must take a course that covers the etiquette and rules of boating, including the correct side to pass, proper life-saving equipment for different class vessels and waters, VHF radio protocol, and decoding different lights and flags from other vessels. Even when you are in waters where they are not necessary, the information is helpful, and they can help lower your cost of insurance. If you are involved in a vessel collision, having this card and understanding the rules will help your case when it comes to filing insurance claims as well.
  • Proper Pet Documentation: Pets are allowed in some nations without the required quarantine stay, but a few things will be needed in order to make sure that your pet will not be impounded at customs. The first is a current list of vaccinations that is signed and certified by a state-recognized veterinarian. Certain vaccines must have been given with enough time to take effect, so check the latest information and be certain that your animals are up to date and past the vaccine’s incubation period before you go. The second piece of information you need is something called a pet passport, which is a form that your vet will fill out to verify that your animal is not an infectious danger to others, and that they are protected from becoming one. Look online at the forms required by the nation where you plan to travel, and also fill them out for your own country, so that you will not have to leave Fido behind when traveling home.
  • Backups: Though rare, boating accidents are always a possibility, and waterlogged paperwork is notoriously hard to read. Keep your paperwork in a tightly sealed, waterproof area that is easy to grab if you must evacuate. Keep a second copy of all necessary paperwork in your emergency evacuation bag (every boater on a long trip should have one), and a third copy with someone you trust on dry land, so that they can forward the information to the US consulate if you lose your paperwork while abroad. It can be tricky to get new information when overseas, but good planning will make things go much more smoothly.

Before Boating Overseas

When headed into new areas, it is a good idea to do some research before you go. Language, navigation, ports, and rules are good things to know in your new surroundings. Though you do not need to become an expert, there are a few things you should familiarize yourself with in each nation.

  • Rules: The boating rules are often based on etiquette, and are primarily universal. But once you go ashore, customs may be slightly different than those of your home nation, and learning and following them becomes a matter of respect. If you are sightseeing, check the dress codes for churches and temples, as many places request that you remove your shoes or keep your arms covered. Though this may not change how you boat, the reception you get when you head to shore will be much kinder if you are aware and respectful of traditions.  
  • Vaccines: Depending on where you are headed, it is a good idea to speak with a travel doctor before you leave. Go over your vaccination record and your itinerary with the doctor to ensure that you are protected from any pathogens that may be present in the countries you are visiting. Travel doctors will also have an idea of what other illnesses you may incur while abroad, like the famed Montezuma’s Revenge, and can create an emergency pack of medications to be taken if you become ill. If you are headed on an extended journey, it is always a good idea to take a series of first aid courses before you leave to be as prepared as possible for emergencies if they should arise.
  • Customs Offices: Unlike driving, boating across a border is much harder for a local coast guard to control. Because of this, you should plan your journey in a way that you are always announcing when you have arrived in a new country. As you plan your route, learn which ports have customs check points, and plan these areas into your stops. Most big cities have international ports, as well as major shipping locations. Speak with other boaters in bordering nations before you cross and see if they have ideas and hints as to the easiest place to check in/out.
  • Unexpected Hazards: With boating, there is always the risk of localized dangers in any new location. As you travel, speak with the local boating community about things to be aware of in a certain region. These things can range from annoying, like otters who board your boat and relieve themselves on your upholstery, to painful things like the microscopic jellyfish blooms off the coast of Cuba, to dangerous waters full of unmarked rocks or shipwrecks. Boaters are, as a community, generous with information and full of great stories. Take advantage of this when you can, and search online forums before you go to get a taste of what to watch for.
  • Overblown Dangers: Because the international boating community is a small subset of the world population, urban legends and fish tales can be mistaken as genuine dangers at times. Though we now realize that you will not fall off the side of the flat earth or be eaten by giant squid, be aware when the dangers you are warned of are more story than truth. The Bermuda Triangle is a lovely boating area when you are not sailing during hurricane season. Pirates exist, but only in a very limited number of areas of the world. Not every thunderstorm will become the Perfect Storm while you are at sea. When planning for danger, pay more attention to experienced boaters who have experience than to urban legend to avoid being frightened for no reason.

Entering a New Country on Your Boat

If you have done your homework, entering a new country should be rather easy. You will be aware of the entrance requirements of the particular nation, and have the necessary paperwork ready to show to customs officers. You will know the location of the customs office where you can check in, and have spoken with locals who have been there about any quirks or tips to ease your passage. The customs officers in most ports are helpful and easy to work with, and will appreciate your preparation. Some may even reward you by telling you about great places off the beaten path to visit while you are in their country.

It is important to remember to have your country of origin’s flag flying off the stern of the vessel (or the leech of the after-sail on a sailboat). It should remain on display from sunrise to sunset. The flag should be on a pole that can be angled out and to one side (usually starboard) to keep it free from engine exhaust. The smaller yacht ensign (a flag with a fouled anchor over a circle of thirteen stars), though acceptable in US waters, is not considered an appropriate replacement in international waters.

Boating is a wonderful way to experience the world. You have opportunities to see things off of the tourist trail, and you even have your own lodgings at night. Though it may be intimidating to many, it only takes some research to ensure that your trip is safe, legal, and covered for most unexpected emergencies. When planned well, an international excursion can be a rewarding, unforgettable journey.