Skip to main content

New passport requirement starts in June

Boaters wanting to travel from Canada, Mexico, Bermuda and the Caribbean will face tighter security

Border crossings by boat to visit our hemispheric neighbors won’t be as casual as they used to be as new regulations go into effect.

U.S. Customs and Border Protection officers will now be looking for a passport when you return from Canada, Mexico, Bermuda and the Caribbean.

U.S. citizens returning by boat from Canada, Mexico, Bermuda and the Caribbean will have to carry a passport or a new identifier — a passport card — to get back into the United States, starting June 1.

The new rules, part of the Department of Homeland Security’s efforts to tighten the borders, affect cruisers, charterers, day-trippers, racers, yachts rendezvousing in the islands — any U.S. boater “arriving in the United States from a foreign port or place to include any vessel which has visited a hovering vessel or received merchandise outside the territorial sea.”

“Most of us just go along our merry way and do what we’ve always done, and figure it’ll work out fine,” says Sheila McCurdy, of Middletown, R.I., vice commodore of Cruising Club of America, which hosts some big cross-border races and cruises.

CCA expects close to 200 sailboats in the 2010 Newport-to-Bermuda Race and three dozen or more for its fall 2009 Thousand Islands cruise on the St. Lawrence Seaway at the U.S.-Canada border. Changing re-entry requirements is a big headache for her and others who shepherd boaters through these transnational events.

The word needs to get out about the latest changes or a lot of boaters will be sweating it out at the border this summer, says McCurdy, because they only have a birth certificate and drivers license. Until now, that has sufficed as proof of identity and U.S. citizenship.

“We’ve been advertising this for over two years,” says Jose Castellano, chief public affairs officer for U.S. Customs and Border Protection in Miami, but that advertising has been mostly on its Web site and at its booth at boat shows.

Who checks in at the Customs booth or Web site before they go cruising, McCurdy wonders. Now, however, with homeland security a high priority and border regulations in flux, doing just that is a good idea.

Customs and Border Protection has phased in the new requirements over several years. U.S. travelers returning from Canada, Mexico, Bermuda and the Caribbean used to be able to make an oral declaration of their citizenship at the border with no documentation required, Castellano says. In January 2007, U.S. air travelers returning from those countries had to start carrying passports. On Jan. 31, 2008, those returning by land and sea had to start showing a driver’s license and birth certificate. Starting June 1, they will have to present a passport or passport card.

The wallet-sized passport card is a new wrinkle. Introduced last November, it is only valid at land border crossings and sea ports of entry. It’s not good for air travel, and it is only valid when visiting Canada, Mexico, Bermuda and the Caribbean. The card also is a little less expensive than a passport: $45 for an adult and $35 for a child under 16 versus $75 and $60 for a regular passport. If an applicant already has a regular passport, the fee for a card is $20 for an adult, $10 for a child.

Two CBP Marine unit Midnight Express boats patrol the waters off the Florida shore.

The card is high-tech. Swipe it, and it sends a signal by a unique radio frequency identification chip imbedded in the card. The signal calls up your photo and biographic information from the CBP database and displays that information on the immigration officer’s screen.

“The information we need to determine that you are who you say you are is on that screen,” Castellano says. He says CBP has done everything it can to assure that their database is secure from prying eyes or key strokes.

As a general rule, all boaters returning from abroad must report to CBP in person at a port of entry. But there are some exceptions. Participants in the Local Boater Option register their biographical data with CBP in a one-time, in-person interview that allows them to report in by phone. Outlying Reporting Stations, typically in marinas in remote areas along the Canadian border, permit boaters to report into CBP on an AutoDial telephone equipped with a video transceiver, monitor, facial camera and document camera.

Another avenue for expedited processing is the Great Lakes’ I-68 program that requires registration and allows local boaters to check in by phone when they return from Canada. Boaters permitted to report in remotely still must carry a passport or passport card. However, boaters who carry a Nexus card for very low-risk travelers between the United States and Canada don’t need a passport or passport card. They also can report in by phone.

It boils down to this, says Ted Woo, a CBP spokesman based in Boston. Depending on a boater’s status, customs will accept only these documents when a U.S. boater returns here from Canada: a U.S. passport, Nexus card, enhanced driver’s license, where available (it has the carrier’s identity, residence and citizenship on it and can be used in lieu of a passport for land and sea travel to Canada, Bermuda, Mexico and the Caribbean), an I-872 Indian card, military I.D., U.S. passport card or U.S. merchant mariner document.

The rules are complex, and they are a work in progress.

“Every year it changes,” says Carl Fisher, who has been running rendezvous to Green Turtle, Abacos, in the Bahamas for 20 years. Owner of Hontoon Marina in Deland, Fla., Fisher started out organizing Boston Whaler rendezvous. Now he does it for Edgewater. Last summer he led 37 boats across the Gulf Stream to Grand Bahama, then Green Turtle for a week of fishing, diving, beaching and exploring.

Fisher says he has required his boaters to carry passports for several years now because the Bahamas prefers it. He says the problem for him isn’t carrying passports, but checking his group in with CBP when they return from the Bahamas. Fisher gives CBP at the Port of Palm Beach a list of skippers, their boats and guests before they depart for the islands, and checks them in by telephone as a group when they return. Then they all — more than 100 — drive en masse 12 miles to the Palm Beach Airport to report in person.

“We’re trying to get our congresswoman to do something about this,” he says.

McCurdy says she, too, has found reporting to CBP a painful experience.

After the 2008 Newport-to-Bermuda race, she, her husband and their crew called CBP at 11 p.m. when their 38-foot sloop Selkie reached Connecticut waters. They were told to put in at a marina in Westport to wait for an agent to check them in. The agent

didn’t get there until 4 a.m., she says. Evidently the only agent on duty for Connecticut, he was working his way north up the shoreline from Stamford inspecting boats returning from the race at ports of entry.

“If people find it’s too much trouble to clear in and out of the U.S., they’re not going to go [on these races or cruises],” she says. “I don’t want to have to wait for five hours in a driving rainstorm at a fuel dock in Westport, Conn., because they have one [customs] guy covering the entire state,” she says.  

She says if they’re going to require all the skippers returning from an international race to report in person, they need more agents.

The new passport requirements affect U.S. boaters returning from Canada, Mexico, Bermuda, Anguilla, Antigua and Barbuda, Bahamas, British Virgin Islands, Cayman Islands, Dominica, Dominican Republic, Grenada, Jamaica, Monserrat, Netherlands Antilles, St. Kitts and Nevis, St. Lucia, St. Vincent and the Grenadines, and the Turks and Caicos.

Information is available at

This article originally appeared in the May 2009 issue.