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Dealing With Immigration and Customs Around the World

Aug 1, 2008
We sailed around the world in our Mason 53 Dolphin Spirit for six and a half years, visiting 56 countries, so developed a good knowledge of the requirements of checking into and out of countries, and a simple rule for dealing with officialdom:

"You are in their country; the rules are their rules; so smile, do what you are told without complaint, or leave."

Checking in and out of a country when you arrive in your own boat involves various combinations of Health, Immigration, Customs, Customs Police, Agriculture, Port Captain, Port Police and Beach Police. In some countries, e.g. Sri Lanka, add the Navy. Plane and cruise-liner arrivals have things much easier, dealing only with Immigration and Customs and occasionally Health.

If you carry any sort of firearm or ammunition you must declare it at your first port of entry, and most countries will then require that these items be removed from the boat, or sealed in a locker, for the duration of the stay in the country. Any nondeclared material found on board by a subsequent search will generally result in jail time and probable confiscation of the boat. It is highly unlikely that you will find another Customs officer like the one in the Cook Islands who told me, after he couldn't find a seal for the locker containing our shotgun, "Promise me you won't shoot anyone, and we will forget about it."

Fiji was the top of the paperwork tree. For us, with three people on board, checking-in required 22 forms and took approximately four hours to get through, excluding the trips to the downtown health Office and Government Department. All offices provided carbon paper.

At the other end, the tiny Customs office in Aden, Yemen, seemed to be run by the person with a souvenir stand just outside the office door. He gave us clearance in return for $US2 each for the lady who brought in the tea. When we cleared out, the stand was manned by the tea lady, who took a second $US2, signed forms we hadn't completed, and told us to fill them in after we left. They were both more interested in selling daggers and shawls. It was really very informal, and we still are not sure whether it was a real office, with real officials, but no one seemed too concerned.

One of our more enjoyable check-ins occurred in Tonga. We pulled up to the Customs wharf and were boarded by Immigration, Customs, Health, and Agriculture. These four very large gentlemen (a Tongan weighing less than 200 pounds goes on a crash eating course) crowded around our salon table to do the paperwork. We were prepared, with pots of tea and a five-pound box of biscuits, so everyone was happy and the papers got filled out, one set at a time.

After having to check in and out of every country, it was very strange to get to the Mediterranean where the practice seemed to vary. We certainly had to check in and out of Malta, Israel, Cyprus and Turkey. Checking into Greece was required, but checking out was needed only if you were going to Turkey. We then sailed and land traveled to Italy, Spain, Portugal, France, Germany, Austria, Switzerland, and Luxemburg without showing a passport, in fact without even slowing down as we crossed the borders.

Singapore Immigration and Customs treat yachts as if they were freighters or super-tankers. All crew members are therefore required to be covered by a bond. The officials realize the silliness of this, and were amused when I said that, if all it cost me was $S3,000 to leave my wife and son there, they could have them. Amusement didn't stop them from stamping the bond details into my passport and collecting the money.
About the Author
Lawrence Pane circumnavigated with his wife and young son, and his expertise in the areas of sailing, cruising and travel, expressed through two books, numerous magazine articles and very popular seminars, has informed, assisted and entertained a wide audience of sailors and non-sailors. Visit Chasing Sunsets to enjoy the photos, buy the books, and check up on coming seminars.
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