While we were cruising the Western Caribbean, we discovered that small vessels returning to the US needed a customs sticker and number in order to facilitate clearing in. Supposedly if we had this special sticker, we could call in upon our return and not have to appear in person in Key West (where we were not planning to go). So we battled the government’s red tape, called the Decal and Transponder Online Procurement System – DTOPS for short – and finally figured out how to order our sticker, $27.50 annually, dutifully cleaned the window by the boarding gate and applied our sticker.
It’s not easy to order the sticker, the website is the most confusing mess I’ve experienced in a while. But rather than make it simple, the Customs & Border Patrol folks produced a very detailed DTOPS User Guide to walk you through almost anything … and if the user guide doesn’t explain it sufficiently, there’s a telephone number to call for help where you’ll actually get to talk to a human being! Download the DTOPS User Guide Here.
Sailing back from Isla Mujeres to Burnt Store Marina, Punta Gorda, FL, we were grateful that we didn’t have to stop in Key West and that we wouldn’t have to appear in person because of our DTOPS Transponder sticker. When we were at the dock, I called to report our arrival … and imagine my surprise to be told we had to appear at the Ft Myers (Southwest Florida International) airport in person. So we got a ride to the airport, knocked on the big heavy wooden door as instructed. It opened a crack and an official peered out. We explained what we needed and he handed us each a clipboard with some paperwork to fill out and explained that we needed something called a “Local Boater Option Card”. This Local Boater Option Card would allow us to call in when returning to the US and not have to appear in the future. In addition it was free and didn’t have to be renewed annually!
We filled out the paperwork and were each given a Local Boater Option Card with our name and LBO number. The back of the card contained telephone numbers for us to call when reporting our return.
Fast forward to our return from the Bahamas in May … I called as soon as we entered the Hawk Channel, but because we were sailing, I was instructed to call back when we were tied to a dock … or in our case, a mooring ball in Boot Key Harbor, Marathon.
The next morning I called back. A very courteous official took our information, including both of our LBO numbers and the DTOPS sticker number and welcomed us back to the USA. No trip to the airport, no other red tape.
The Local Boater Option Card system is relatively new and not available everywhere yet. According to the CPB website, the LBO program is available in Florida,Puerto Rico, US Virgin Islands and the US/Canada border. It will be expanded to future locations such as the West Coast, Oregon to California, East Coast, NYC to Georgia and the Gulf of Mexico, Alabama to Texas. To check to see the status of your area, go to this the “Small Vessel Reporting System” website here.
As I understand it from this website, “Small Vessel Reporting System” , to obtain a Local Boater Option Card, you must enroll online and self-schedule an appointment with a Customs and Border Protection, CBP, official at an authorized location of your choice.
As you probably know, customs and immigration is a constantly moving target, so if your experience is more recent than ours – May 2012 – or different, please leave a comment and let us know the update! THANKS! Jan