Crossing the border by sailboat

You have been asking us for ages to share with you how we move between countries, and what happens at border control. In this blog we expand on our video, “Crossing the border by sailboat – Sailing Q&A 36” (video linked below), and talk you through the process of clearing in and out. In a nutshell, for you it’s the same as arriving by air or road, but like everything to do with sailing, it takes a little longer and can be more complicated checking your boat in and out. 

First things first

Before we get into the nitty gritty, there are a couple of things to think about before you arrive at your new country:

  1. Remember that as soon as you hit territorial waters, ensure you hoist the courtesy flag for that country and your yellow quarantine flag underneath it . This is an international requirement for all vessels.
  2. You can only clear in and out of a country through an official Port of Entry
    – A lot of cruisers use which lists them by country. Other cruisers are also a good source of information (blogs, forums etc). BUT always double check with an embassy first for the most up to date information.
    – The location of ports of entry will impact your passage planning, so work out where you will make landfall and how long it will take to get to the port.
  3. TOP TIP: In our experience, most places will understand that it might take a few days for a sailboat to reach an official port, so as long as you stay on the boat at anchor and keep the quarantine flag flying when you arrive, you should be OK. This is the same once you have checked out, they will usually give you a few days grace to leave their waters.
  4. Some countries want advanced warning of your arrival. It’s not required where we are currently cruising, but Japan had very tight controls, so we will be required to inform them in advance of when and where we will arrive. This is known as an Advanced Notice of Arrival.

Clearance overview

You may see this referred to as CIQ (Customs, Immigration, Quarantine).

Usually you’ll be required to visit four offices. In some countries there may be more, sometimes fewer – the role of quarantine/customs/harbour master may vary from place to place.

  • Immigration
  • Customs
  • Quarantine
  • Harbour master/Port Control

Sometimes they are located close to each other, but other times you’ll have to hire transport to get you between the offices, which might be miles apart.

And they will want you to do all this in the right order. In our experience this varies from port to port, but when you check in quarantine is usually first, followed by immigration. The officers will tell you in which order to see each department.

Where going alongside is not viable, the clearance officers will come out to your boat. They usually have their own vessel, but sometimes you will have to pick them up in your dinghy. They may also want you to come to their land-based office afterwards. Customs and Quarantine may want to come out to inspect your boat after visiting their offices on shore, so be prepared.

If you think anyone might come aboard, have everything shipshape.

In Indonesia they will turn you away if men are not wearing long trousers, or are not respectfully dressed if you’re a woman (covered shoulders, trousers below the knee etc). It’s good practice to dress smartly for clearance in any country, to show respect.


To minimise delays, and smooth the process, have all the right paperwork ready to show to the relevant clearance officers.

Here is a checklist of what you should carry with you when clearing in (this is not exhaustive and may vary from country to country):

  • Passport with valid visa (when required)
  • Boat Registration certificate
  • Port Clearance certificate
  • Boat insurance policy – This is becoming a requirement around the world. They expect you to have third party liability, and increasingly personal liability.
  • “Free Pratique” – see below
  • Ship’s stamp (in some countries)
  • MMSI number, and proof you have AIS capability (in Phuket they looked at their desktop monitor to confirm that we had AIS and that it was switched on)
  • Passport sized photos of each person aboard
  • Photocopies of everything – otherwise you might end up running around town trying to find somewhere to get documents copied, printing services are seldom close by.
  • Photo of the boat (Indonesia)

A quick word on agents

We have used an agent in Penang to obtain a three month Thai visa on several occasions. This takes away the headache of queueing and expense of travelling back and forth to the embassy over 24 hours. Our agent doesn’t charge much and it means we can take the time being tourists on that beautiful island.

Shipping agents are notorious within the sailing community for charging large unnecessary fees to check you and your boat in, so most cruisers try to do it themselves. Occasionally you have no choice. In the Maldives, Langkawi and some ports in Indonesia they insist on an agent, which can cost hundreds of dollars. 

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Checking you and the crew in


  • Even with a passport you must be on your toes. Most countries require that your passport expiry date is no less than 6 months after date of entry.
  • And they usually expect you to have ‘sufficient’ blank pages for them to add their stamp.
  • In some countries they only way you can get a new passport is to fly back to your own country to obtain one. This happened to people we knew in Thailand who lost their passports overboard! In this situation it was doubly bad because they had no details of their passports – keep a copy of your passport (and visa) on whichever cloud server you use, so you can pull up the details and prove you are who you say you are and that you have a passport.


We’re talking about yer basic tourist visa here, but there are a whole raft of working, non-touristic, retirement, long-stay etc visas available. The rules vary depending on which national passport you hold. If you’re a UK passport holder your visa requirements might be very different to someone with, say, a Turkish passport. Most of the rules are similar for UK, US, Canada, Australia, EU and New Zealand – but it still pays to check first.

Obtaining a visa before you arrive in a new country is sometimes compulsory, but even if it isn’t, it can mean a longer stay. And it often eases the process at check-in. Thailand, for example, will issue a three month visa from their overseas embassies, but you only get 30 days there if you arrive without a visa (and that varies according to what passport you have).

When you are visiting a country that requires you to obtain a visa before arriving, you can usually do this at the embassy where you’re currently located. Beware India! They have been known to insist that you apply for a visa in the country where your passport was issued, requiring a potentially expensive trip home. BUT this changes all the time, so do your research!

And some countries with popular cruising grounds like Thailand, Malaysia and Turkey are beginning to restrict the number of times you may visit in any given year.

Some countries are happy to issue a visa on arrival. For UK passport holders visiting Malaysia, you are issued with a three month visa on arrival, no questions. It’s not always that easy.

Click here for the accompanying video to this blog post:

Checking your boat in


They are not usually interested in your boat, they just want to check your passport and visa.

It becomes trickier if you moor the boat then leave the country (maybe for a holiday or trip home). In some places it is a requirement for tourists to show an onward ticket when they return by air or road. Obviously, you can’t do this, so airport immigration may ask for some sort of proof that you are returning to your boat. We have used letters from a marina or boat yard to prove this, but a copy of the ship’s registration document and port of entry certificate should get you through without a problem.

In Thailand you are sometimes required to pay a refundable bond at immigration if you leave the country while your boat remains there.


Think of customs as the police.

  • They have the legal right to inspect every inch of your boat if they choose.
  • They’re looking for anything illegal being brought into their country, like narcotics, animals, plants, food etc. Remember to check beforehand for a list of banned items, as each country is different.
  • They’ll want to know if you have any weapons and ammo. In some cases they’ll hold these until you leave the country, or even confiscate them. So check before arriving.
  • Alcohol is another thing they’re always interested in. Some countries will seal your liquor locker for the duration of your stay. The main reason for this is so that you do not sell it to local inhabitants.
  • They’ll look at your medicine locker, and may want to see prescriptions for any regular medication you are taking.
  • Have all your documents to hand, they may want to look at everything!


  • The captain will be issued with a license commonly known as a “Free Pratique” to confirm that both crew and vessel are free from contagious disease. When you leave the country you must produce the certificate and receive a new one to take with you to your next destination.
  • Once again, have passport, crew lists and all other documents ready to hand.
  • In some instances the quarantine officers will want to inspect your boat.

Once they are happy, they will instruct you to remove the quarantine flag.

Harbour Master

This office goes by different names in different countries (Port Authority etc) and some of its responsibilities may be handled by Customs. This is not exhaustive, but have ready the following:

  • Boat’s registration document – every vessel is required by law to carry one of these. The information they contain may vary, but its main function is to prove in which country your vessel is registered.
  • Insurance certificate (third party + personal liability minimum)
  • Crew list
  • MMSI number and confirmation of AIS
  • Passport and visa
  • Copies of everything
  • Ship’s stamp

This is where you receive your Port Clearance – this is the certificate issued by all ports when you exit the country. It means your boat is stamped out of the country, and proves to the next place that your boat has left the previous country legally. You must hand it over when you arrive at the next port.

DO NOT LOSE this certificate between countries otherwise you could be refused entry. It has been known.


Think very carefully about having a pet on board, because travelling with one is a whole other ball game, and will influence your sailing plans. Even with a “Pet Passport” your beloved pet may be put in quarantine, or at worse, euthanased. And it is only recognised in limited countries.

Because of Millie we took the decision not to visit Australia or NZ (or even the UK) because of their stringent quarantine requirements. And recently, Australia has decided that if your pet has been to Indonesia it will not be allowed into Australia come what may.

Millie supervises proceedings

  • There is no denying that the whole process can be intimidating, but try to eliminate stress by ensuring you have all your documents to hand – and that includes copies of everything!
  • Choose one person to represent the vessel, because it can be confusing or irritating to the officer if you’re both giving answers at the same time.
  • Do your research before you get to the next country so you are familiar with its regulations
  • Dress smartly and behave courteously – a smile goes a long way
  • Don’t lose your cool, and try to be patient. As you saw from our experience in the video, it can often be a lot of fun!

We hope you found this useful. Remember, it’s based on our limited experience across 14 countries from Turkey to Indonesia. There are many countries we have not visited whose procedure will vary from ours.

If you have any further information, leave your advice and experiences in the comments below. And tell us what you think of this post.

Peace and fair winds!


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7 Comments on “Crossing the border by sailboat”

  1. Well done on a comprehensive and accurate check list. In terms of Indonesia there are a few traps that cruising folk might benefit from and are more focused on what not to do, rather than your video which is the correct way.

    Whether to use an agent or not. The right agent, such as the one you used is both great value and will guide you through the process. We have had cases of folk doing themselves with mixed results.

    This occurred in 2011 when a few sailors as part of a rally who refused to use an agent, saved a few dollars but us as the organisers found out later they had departed illegally. They weren’t concerned too much and simply brushed it off. We sorted out the issues with the government over several months including taking photos and having an Indonesian official from the consulate visit the yachts berthed in Australia. Equally some used an unauthorised agent who simply pocketed the fees and never submitted any paperwork.

    Our next rally in 2015, the government simply appointed an official agent that was mandatory and travelled the length and breadth of the country following yachts to ensure correct process was followed. All of this was in the days of the previous regime of requiring an Indonesian Cruising permit (CAIT) and Sponsor letters, with the latter being provided by the Minister who was personally responsible for any ‘lost yachts’.

    I would also comment on the detailed approach of the officials. I suspect given the cameras were rolling, everything was ‘perfect’. We have found this to be the case when we have organised official events. Equally when we have checked in and out of Indonesia solo, we never encountered such a degree of detail.

    A note on drugs. In Australia many ships drugs are restricted and fall into categories such as schedule 4 & 8 (morphine etc). The is a requirement for the ship to maintain a register of such drugs and note any usage. Again the officials were extremely detailed on this point. Illegal drugs are a strict NO NO and I continue to be amazed about those that argue the point about how this drug or that drug is legal in their home country and should be allowed in the host country. It is wise to carry doctors letters of authorisation for prescription drugs including personal meds for crew.

  2. Great List. As we do not believe in the hipe and political correctnes Bullshit with islamic countries, (we should put potato-sacks around my wife or a Head-Scarf, and all in the Name of Respect, while the Islam is terrorizing our Nations and the world as a whole, (so much for respect towards non-muslims) we made the decission NEVER to visit any islamic Nation. They are simply not trustworthy and you never know when the Sharia-Police tries to fuck you up. Because then, you are nothing else als a victim without any Human Rights. We will never bow to such Countries and rather visit Nations who act civilized and with Basic Human Rights. No matter if one arrives per Sailboat or not. They simply do not deserve us or our Money.

    1. Well, that’s a shame, and you’ve illustrated why we made this post and video (did you watch the video)? We have received nothing but a warm welcome, kindness and friendship in every country we have visited. And that includes many Muslim countries, even those with Sharia law. Try visiting the countries that displease you, you’d stop being so scared. Liz

  3. Hi Liz. Yes, of course I did see your Video. Otherwise I would not have commented. You see, I was in the Special Forces of 2 Nations. With 1 I served 10 years in Muslim Countries (Dschibuti, Algier and so on) and we where called upon to free Hijacked Folks. Those Folks where working as Priests, Nuns, First Aid Personel, Doctors, Teachers, or simply as Tourists. But it did not stop just by hijacking, there was torture, beheadings, cutting of fingers, arms and such and most of all, when we went to free them, some of my men where hurt and killed as well. That was in the 1980 and with this ‘Pro-Islamic-Hipe-Worldwide’ it went thrue the Roof with such ‘random’ incidents. They are today not ‘random’ no more and such things happen more then the media tells you. You see, just because no one want’s to see reality does not mean, that it is not Happening. I agree, that my experience is often not to fathom for others, but that is a westerners Problem, because we would never do such things, therefore we are unable to even realise, when we walk into dangers. I am for one, are very glad to not be blinded and disguised by Folks who won’t see the dangers. I do not want to put me as a sailor or my wife, put in These dangers no more. I saw enough for a livetime. By the way, piracy and taking europeans and americans and selling them as sclaves was throuhout the North-African Coast, with all those islamic Nations a very moneymaking Trade until just after the End of the 1880is. Those Nations had their CORSARS, with very fast Sailboats. Their End came, after the Americans have had been targeted and their Ships plundered and their Crew put in Chains and be sold as sclaves. Without the American new and first real Marine of 5 Ships, the World would still be hurt by those Corsairs and their islamic Nations. So much to History, not too far away. Between then and now, there has not been much of a Change. Whoever visits such Nations, cannot Count on me or my men no more, to free them when their taken. I don’t want to make decissions for others, I just say it as it was. So yes, our experience is much differend as yours. I truly wish you all the luck there is, because you may Need it.

  4. ” …piracy and taking europeans and americans and selling them as sclaves was throuhout the North-African Coast, with all those islamic Nations a very moneymaking Trade until just after the End of the 1880…”
    That’s awful. It’s not like Europeans or Americans ever took people and enslaved them, or sold them as slaves…right? smh….

  5. Thanks for the insight! as everywhere the controls are getting overboard more and more everywhere, don,t know why bcs 30 yrs ago we lived not worse than today and controlls were a mere walk to the harbour office🤷‍♀️but i cut down ky yacht anyway 2 yrs ago before finishing, it is all a cage seemingly!
    happy to see you manage all of that, but i wonder how all those controls make sense, with a boat or by flight or elsewhere🤷‍♀️as i meed medication and common personal goods to simply live, but every country cashes off import taxes and simply criminalizes everything that is a medication(not talking about narcotics) asking to get it at their places🤷‍♀️and so on…basically, the world has become less free over the last 20 yrs and it all has become nighmarishly expensive…thanks! another reason not to do it…
    border control/customs can basically do as they like and corruption and stupidity everywhere…why shoukd one pay hundreds of dollars for a stupid clearance? criminals don.t check in anyway🤷‍♀️

  6. or simply shit on all those stupid counties…it.s so difficult nowadays…simply stay away, the costs are more than a plane ticket! why all the political games anyway, even worse now under covid, that was all made to close borders…
    but thanks for the info, i cut down my yacht and give up…not worth it!
    take care! good article! all countries don,t get that we bring a lot of money to them for actually low service and nothing but trouble against us! I have enough!
    thanks, Selina

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