Foreign Check In: Documents Needed

Our first foreign check-in was Isla Mujeres MX.  It was a bit bizarre because the day we started, Mexican law didn’t require an agent, but by the next day, legally you couldn’t check in without an agent.  Since we were applying for an Importada (importation permit, required if you plan to leave your boat in Mexico or stay for any length of time – we were planning to fly back to the US for the Christmas holidays), it took longer than a single day and right in the middle of the process the rules changed.  It was hard enough to determine the rules once, let alone twice!  Luckily we had most of what was necessary!  Every country is different, and sometimes different port check-ins within countries require different documents.  Keep an open mind, remember you’re a guest in their country, you’re there at their invitation and act accordingly – do not be rude, act offended or be mean to officials no matter what they tell you.

In most countries, you’ll clear in with customs, immigration and perhaps some health officials.  In any case, you’ll likely need the following documents included in your Boat Documents File or Binder.

1.  Passports, the originals plus several copies of the face page.  Different countries want different numbers of copies.  Before we leave every year, I make maybe 10 color copies and 25 regular black & white copies.  Every country is different and sometimes each port check in is different with the requirements.  I try to err on the side of having too many than too few — sometimes it’s difficult to find a place that makes copies in paradise!  On the other hand, if you’re one of those cruisers that has a printer/scanner/copier aboard, you’re all set … as long as it works.  🙂

Paradise, Kuna Yala, Panama

Paradise, Kuna Yala, Panama

2.  USCG Boat Documentation Papers (or State Registration Papers).  Officialdom wants to see that you’re an “official” boat.  The best and easiest way to do this is to be a US Coast Guard documented vessel.  For more information on documentation, visit the USCG National Vessel Documentation Center – click here. If you’re unfamiliar with USCG Documentation, here’s an excerpt from the site:

“Vessel documentation is a national form of registration. It is one of the oldest functions of Government, dating back to the 11th Act of the First Congress. Documentation provides conclusive evidence of nationality for international purposes …..  Any documented vessel may be used for recreational purposes, regardless of its endorsement, but a vessel documented with a recreational endorsement only may not be used for any other purpose ….  basic requirements for documentation are to demonstrate ownership of the vessel, U.S. citizenship, and eligibility for the endorsement sought”

Documentation must be renewed annually.  When you check in, the officials will require a Documentation certificate with a current expiration date.  If your expiration date will expire while you’re out cruising, it’s best to renew ahead of time – there is no charge and you’ll extend the date to be outside the range of time you’re planning to be in that country.

We make at least 25 copies before leaving the US and keep them in our Boat Documents Binder in a plastic sleeve for Documentation – the original on top.  Often officials will want to SEE the original but they actually take copies for their paperwork.  Sometimes up to six copies at a time, so make plenty unless you have it scanned and can print out more enroute.

3.  Zarpe (clearance from previous port).  Since you’re “out cruising” you likely won’t have multiple copies of your zarpe, but we haven’t had much problem – mostly the officials just take the one you have & hand you a new cruising permit for their waters.  You’ll keep the cruising permit until you check out when the officials will ask you where you’re going and give you a new zarpe to check in to the new country.

4.  Crew Lists.  We keep these in English and Spanish.   Click here to download a PDF Sample Lista De Tripulantes. We print out 25 or so before leaving the US and keep them in our Clearance Papers Binder.

Port Captain's Office, Livingston, Guatemala ... the Entrance to the Rio Dulce

Port Captain's Office, Livingston, Guatemala ... the Entrance to the Rio Dulce

5.  Certificate of Insurance, copy policy benefits page.  We bring the original and a couple of copies just in case.  I cannot remember being asked for this other than at some marinas, not during checking in or checking out of a country.

6.  List of electronic and safety items on the boat.  We’ve rarely been asked to provide this list, but often officials will ask us for random information when filling out their forms – such as make/model and serial number of our outboard engine, dinghy, liferaft etc.   If you have an already prepared list, you’ll have the information at hand when it’s requested.  You don’t necessarily need to give them the list, but I always keep a couple of extra copies just in case.

7.  Ship radio license and any radio licenses you have individually – for example, I have a general amateur radio (ham) license.  We keep a couple copies of each although we’ve never been asked for them.

8.  We keep a list of all prescriptions drugs aboard – since we have an extensive medical kit – not because either of us were unhealthy, but as a preventative measure – we also have copies of the original paper prescriptions written by the doctor.  We’ve never been asked for it, but we understand there are countries where they will ask.

Corona Islands in Kuna Yala, Panama

Corona Islands in Kuna Yala, Panama

9. Power of Attorney – in the unlikely event that something should happen to one or the other of us while out cruising, we want to make sure the other person has the authority to handle anything that might be required.   So we have one from me to David and one from David to me aboard.

10.  In one place we were required to produce a “Certificate of Title” for the boat even though we had documentation papers.   I don’t remember why or what circumstances caused this, but luckily we have it in the Boat Documents Binder along with the Certificate of Title for the dinghy.

11.  Before returning to the U.S., we applied for and received our US Customs and Border Protection DTOPS Sticker which supposedly was going to allow us to clear back in with just a telephone call.  Ummm… not so much.  We still had to go to the airport when we arrived back in Ft Myers and clear with immigration.  But they had us fill out an immigration clearance Local Boaters Option Registration card and supposedly when we return from the Bahamas Spring 2012 (if we return), we’ll only have to call and between the DTOPS sticker and the Local Boater’s Option/US Customs and Border Protection card, we’ll clear in with a telephone call.  Who knows if it will work or if they’ll have yet another excuse to have us show up in person somewhere.  DTOPS is the Department of Homeland Securities “Decal and Transponder Online Procurement System, if you’re not familiar with it.  It’s $27.50 for the decal good for a year.  If you’re like me and cannot figure out how complicated this system is to get a simple decal, call their help telephone number 317-298-1245.  They were good about walking me through an online process that was definitely not intuitive!

Anyone else have other documents that commuter cruisers should carry in their Boat Documents Binder or File?  Please leave a comment and let us know your experiences!   THX!  Jan



  1. We are just starting out our cruising careers, in fact our boat was just launched after months of working on her! I just wanted to say thank you for all your helpful tips and especially your insights into what documents (and copies) to have on board! To think about it now and prepare instead of waiting until we are heading out is great!

    Thanks again!

    s/v Neto Nomad

    • Thanks Carolyn! I always like to hear that someone finds the information on Commuter Cruiser useful! 🙂 If there’s info that you’d like to see on the site that I haven’t addressed, please let me know! And where are you heading out to? Maybe we’ll cross paths “out there”! CHEERS! Jan

  2. Any South African cruisers out there who may be able to assist us with info and tips? We intend to sail from Cape Town to Caribbean and then possibly the mediterranean before heading to the Pacific.

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