Entering the U.S.A. by Boat

This is a summary about U.S. border rules provided only as a convenience. For current regulations, please check Government Directory - U.S. Customs & Border Protection (CPB).

CBP requirements to enter or return to the U.S.A. are quite different from entering Canada. You must report to CBP before you anchor or tie up in the U.S. The master of a vessel must report arrival to CBP if the boat has touched land in Canada, had contact with any hovering vessel, or anchored their vessel in Canadian waters. You do not need to report to CBP (or Canada's CBSA) if you are fishing or cruising along the border between Canada and the U.S.A. Note that U.S. law enforcement agents are allowed to search any vessel for any reason near the border.

Identification:
All people on board (American or Canadian) must have a valid Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative (WHTI) travel document, such as a passport or NEXUS card, to enter the U.S.A. Boaters should always record details of every transaction with CBP in your boat's log book. The boat must be made available for inspection and boarding by CBP officers if instructed to do so.

Have these ready for Reporting:

Reporting Programs:
Boaters may use the NEXUS and I-68, phoning 1-800-505-8381 or using OARS (Outlying Area Reporting Stations), all part of the Small Vessel Reporting System (SVRS). SVRS hotline: 1-800-432-1216 24 hours a day, every day.

In addition to SVRS programs, in 2018 boaters can use the CBP ROAM app (Apple/Google) to report entry to the U.S.A. Once fully implemented, ROAM reporting will replace existing SVRS programs.

Failure to Report:
Failure to report can result in penalties starting at $5,000 with the boat subject to seizure and forfeiture.

Cruising in the U.S. for Many Months:
Canadian boats cruising in the U.S. for up to a year can get a Cruising Licence, which exempts formal entry and clearance procedures, but you must obtain clearance before departing for another port or country. Canadian boaters can get a Cruising Permit and a Decal and pay a fee when entering the U.S.A. In addition, there are restrictions about the length of time Canadians and Canadian boats may stay in the country. (Cruising South in the USA and ICW)

From boater Bob Story (2018):
I've just returned from sailing from Kingston ON to the Bahamas and back. I thought you'd like my findings on having a Cruising Licence in the US. One still needs a decal with a Cruising Permit. The captain has to check in when moving the boat although the frequency depends on the state. The best I could figure was that in NY, NJ, VA and NC it is by sector. You need to ask the officer where the next sector is. In SC, GA and FL the captain has to check in each and every time the boat is moved. If you don't know the local sector telephone number call 1-800-973-2867, name your location and they will forward your call. In all of FL call 1-800-451-0393. Unfortunately, not every officer knew where the next sector was! If in doubt check in anyway, because to get it wrong could cost you USD $5,000. Our Cruising Permit was still good when returning to the U.S. from the Bahamas. (We were able to clear customs via phone using a NEXUS card.) I have heard that some officers write up a new one anyway, In Oswego I asked if I had to check out of the U.S. and I was told no. Oswego, and I'm sure other spots, have as of this year an ipad on a stand where one checks in instead of a video phone. You can get the app used for your phone or pad and check in that way. If you have a NEXUS card and a BR# you can still check in via your cellphone. If you need a Cruising Permit you still need to physically see a CBP officer. In Oswego there is usually one there. The cruising permit gets faxed to you by CBP to the marina.

Here are phone numbers for checking in:
201-443-0500 NY / NJ
410-962-2666 MA
252-726-5845 NC
843-552-2696 North Myrtle Beach SC
843-296-6891 Georgetown / Charleston SC
843-296-8475 Edisto Beach SC
843-579-6513 Beaufort SC
912-262-6692 Crescent River GA
912-721-4840 Buckhead Creek GA
1-800-451-0393 Florida
1-800-973-2867 All other locations

General Regulations

Border Video Terminals:
Many Customs ports are a day's sail apart, so the U.S. began installing two-way video telephone terminals as an alternative to entering at a Customs port. To use the terminal, open the door and lift the handset to talk to an I.N.S. officer - have your boat and passenger information. There is a camera You may show documents to the camera (licence or registration papers, passports or photo ID). The Customs officer who will give you a clearance number which you should record in your ship's log. Further information from the INS (Immigration and Naturalization Service) or by calling a local port-of-entry. [Some U.S. Great Lakes Video Terminals]

Dinghy licences:
Dinghies must be properly licenced to travel in canals or other countries. Boats must be properly equipped and marked (registration or licence numbers). Although not mandatory, it's wise to fly the flag (country flag of licence or registration) from the stern. Carry current vaccination certificates for pets. Everyone on board have the documents required to cross both borders. You can never predict where "weather" may force you ashore! (Entering Canada by Boat)

Off in the boat I go,
To lose my mind
And find my soul.

Security Perimeter around Naval Ships:
The Coast Guard has established temporary regulations for safety and security of U.S. naval vessels in U.S. waters. Boats within 500 yards of a U.S. naval vessel must operate at minimum speed to maintain a safe course and proceed as directed by the official patrol. You are not allowed within 100 yards of a U.S. naval vessel. Contact official patrol on VHF-FM channel 16 for any requests. Boaters near a major harbour should contact the local marine safety office for updates on local restirctions. The USCG site has a listing of all marine safety offices (MSO).

Propane Tank regulations:
Tanks for marine use need to have an overfill prvention device (OPD). Old tanks can be retrofittted with the OPD Type 1 valve. Pre-1998 horizontal tanks are exempted.

Inspections:
All persons coming into the U.S., including its shoreline water, are subject to Immigration and Customs inspection. This can be done at an official Customs port location, usually located in the same place as the I.N.S. (Immigration and Naturalization Service). Telephone inspections allowed by Customs Service Regulations are not authorized by I.N.S. regulations, so boaters must also have a face-to-face meeting with a U.S. Customs inspector. Be sure to read our checklist for U.S. Boaters visiting Canada.

State Regulations:
Check state regulations with respect to waste treatment, required equipment, etc. Life jackets must be worn by children under a certain age: 12 years in New York and Vermont, 13 Pennsylvania, 11 Maine, etc. There are no regulations in Washington, Wisconsin, Idaho, Minnesota and others, but federal rules for children under age 13 is expected to cover them by the end of 2002. If you comply with Canadian waste requirements, get a Coast Guard inspection and sticker for your boat - you must disable and seal all fittings for overboard discharge. A working holding tank should comply with most state regulations.

For current regulations, please check Government Directory: U.S.A. Customs and Border Protection (CBP)

I-68 Form for Short Visits to the U.S.

The Small Vessel Reporting System (SVRS) program is offered to Canadians by U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP). SVRS is an online and phone reporting system or boaters to report their intended arrivals to the U.S. CBP may clear your entry immediately or require a personal inspection. SVRS hotline: 800-432-1216. The NEXUS program is expected to replace the I-68 program for expedited entry into the U.S.

A Form I-68, after an initial inspection, cruising licences a Canadian or American boater to report their arrival into the United States by telephone (or cell phone) instead of appearing at a port-of-entry for inspection. You must apply in person, supply 3 passport photos, have your name checked, and be fingerprinted.

Each person on board your boat, including children, must be registered and possess an I-68 form. If you have extra passengers, you must land at an official entry port, videophone or radiophone for inspection. You may only use this form to visit the designated border area for up to 72 hours.

For I-68 reporting, call 1-800-827-2851 in the St. Lawrence River and Eastern Lake Ontario or 1-800-927-5015 in the Buffalo and Western Lake Ontario area. Canadian boaters visiting the Thousand Islands to anchor or moor, must report to U.S. Customs first, unless they have an I-68 form and report their arrival by phone.

See the Government directory: Canada/USA Bi-national for U.S. Nexus information.

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NEXUS Border Program

For current regulations, please check Government Directory: Canada/USA Bi-national

NEXUS (card) is a joint program between the Canada Border Services Agency and U.S Customs and Border Protection, which allows frequent travellers between Canada and the U.S. the opportunity to clear the border faster. A NEXUS card will gradually replace the other programs for entry into Canada. You should be aware that front-line officers have the discretion to grant and revoke memberships (e.g. immigration or visa violations).

Everyone in the boat must be a NEXUS member to use this expedited entry - clear customs and immigration of either Canada or the U.S.A. by contacting the Telephone Reporting Centre (TRC) within 30 minutes and up to 4 hours prior to arrival. In Canada, call 1-888-226-7277 with information for everyone on board and follow their instructions.

See the Government directory: Canada/USA Bi-national for more NEXUS information.

CPB ROAM APP

The official ROAM (Reporting Offsite Arrival - Mobile) App (formerly OARS) from U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP), allows boaters that are not enrolled in the I-68 or Nexus Programs, to present themselves for face-to-face inspection with a CBP Officer using Video Chat, for entry into the U.S.A. U.S. Many American resorts and businesses will have a "ROAM iPad" for guests to report their arrival.

You report upon arrival, unlike other programs. Once the trip is submitted, you are prompted to wait for a CBP officer to initiate video conference (by push notification). The boat master will answer questions and present each person with their passport. Clearance confirmation is by email.

See the Government directory: Canada/USA Bi-national for more information.

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CANPASS Private Boats Permit

CANPASS Private Boats programs have been discontinued. Current members will be able to maintain privileges until their membership expires. It is replaced by the NEXUS program. For current regulations, please check our Government Directory. Top of Page

Cruising Licence

For current regulations, please check Government Directory: United States Customs and Border Protection (CBP)

In 2016, U.S. Homeland Security announced new entry requirements - Canadian boaters woud be required to obtain a Cruising Licence - even if they have Nexus, BR number, customs decal (sticker), or I-68 form - to cruise down through the U.S. (** Three Ontario boaters have reported to us that border agents in the Great Lakes weren't requiring a cruising licence.)

Canadian boats cruising in the U.S. for up to a year can acquire a Cruising Licence, which exempts formal entry and clearance procedures. Canadian boats without a Cruising Licence, which are 30+ feet, must buy a User Fee Decal. [U.S. CBP: Cruising Licence]

On other trips to the U.S. during the year, boat masters will just need to show or report the existing cruising licence along with crew documents by calling 1-800-562-5943. Canadian boat captains must also obtain clearance before leaving a U.S. location to go to another U.S. location or return to Canada.

A boater who often visits the U.S. side of the St. Lawrence River says:
"Thanks for your reply, Pat, and for your extremely helpful “Boating in Canada” website. I often refer to your pages for information. That’s one reason I was surprised by the US Customs {experience} to my expectations. Travelling to the US by boat can be frustrating because the process seems to be different each time, depending on who answers the phone. I have received everything from “Welcome to the United States” to “What’s the matter with you – the last time I talked to you [yes, I got the same guy] I told you to register with the SVRS!”

The answer, it would appear, is to be ready for anything. Checking into the US by videophone, have all passengers on hand at the phone and have a pleasure craft sticker if your boat is over 30 feet. You may not need all that, but you just might.

The return to Canada, I must admit, is just as unpredictable. Call from a designated site on the phone provided. Have the passports of all passengers, but not the passengers (they cannot come ashore until 'cleared'). And make sure you.. write down the numbers the customs official gives you!" (Aug/2016)

U.S. Border News Archive

2018: The CANPASS Private Boats and CANPASS Air programs have been discontinued. Current members can use privileges until their membership expires. Join NEXUS for similar benefits crossing the Canada-U.S. border. (Canadian Border Services - Canpass)

2017: U.S. Border agents cannot force U.S. citizens to unlock phones. But they might detain you or seize your device if you refuse. And if you're Canadian, U.S. agents have the authority to refuse you entry. (When entering Canada, CBSA officers can request phone passwords, but cannot access information stored "remotely or online". Refusal means the device could be "detained for forensic examination".) Video: phones at the border

2017: New regulations and requirements for private boaters and changes occurring this year, were outlined by U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) representatives. Border crossing by boat getting harder (Mar/2017 Point Roberts, WA)

Spring 2016: U.S. Homeland Security will require Canadian boaters to obtain a cruising licence the first time they enter U.S. waters in any calendar year, even if they have a Nexus, BR number, customs decal or I-68. Boats over 30 ft. no longer require a customs decal.

[Late 2016, three boaters informed me that U.S. border agents weren't yet requiring a cruising licence.]

March 2012: Canadian boaters are again being told by U.S. Customs and Border Protection to call in if they plan to cross the border into American waters.

May 2010: U.S. Customs and Border Protection today announced the Small Vessel Reporting System. Canadian and American boaters will preregister online to obtain expedited clearance upon arrival in the U.S. by calling the closest port of entry with the float plan identification number.

June 2009: U.S. Dept. of Homeland Security will require anyone entering the U.S.A. by land or sea, including American citizens, to carry one of these identification documents: Passport, NEXUS card, FAST card (Free and Secure Trade), EDL card (enhanced drivers licence) or EIC card (enhanced identification card), or a Secure Certificate of Indian Status (U.S. approved).

January 2008: U.S. and Canadian citizens, including children, entering the U.S.A. by boat, ferry, train, or bus, must have either a passport or proof of citizenship (birth certificate, naturalization certificate). Travelers 19 and older must also show government-issued photo ID (drivers licence). Children 18 and younger can travel by land and sea with just a birth certificate for now. (Passports are already required for air travel into the U.S.)

June 2007: Canadians and Americans entering the United States by car or boat won’t need a passport until 2008 or later, U.S. security officials said. With both countries struggling with passport applications, driver’s licences and birth certificates will be accepted at the U.S. border. Rules for entering Canada remain the same. [Canadian Boating News]

January 2007: Acceptable alternative documents to a passport for Canadian air travel will be the NEXUS card. The NEXUS Air card will only be accepted at certain airports. [Canadian Boating News]

2006: Boaters, family members and all guests entering the United States must report for inspection. Inspection may be obtained in one of three methods:
(1) I-68 form or NEXUS card
(2) Physically report to the nearest port-of-entry (POE)
(3) Utilize an Outlying Area Reporting Station (OARS) videophone station.
Canadian Border Services Agency reinstated the CANPASS system, a telephone reporting system for recreational boaters travelling to Canada from the U.S. The Canada/U.S.A. NEXUS pilot project held in the St. Clair/Lake Erie area is expected to replace the I-68.