Non-American crewmembers arriving in the United States are regularly—and properly—instructed by crew agencies, yacht managers, and more that they need a B1/B2 visa. Despite them having the proper documents, Duncan Bray, crew services manager for Northrop & Johnson, has become aware of a number of crewmembers being denied entry, via the Bahamas, Canada, and Costa Rica. He tells us, “There are less issues in Canada and Costa Rica, but I know crew who had the necessary paperwork in those locations and were refused entry. Nassau is a different story; the number of crew having issues there indicates there has been a change in politics at some point, as a huge percentage of yacht crew used to come through there with no problems.” Bray met with Customs and Border Protection officials to discuss the situation. He adds,“Front-line immigration agents are frequently incorrectly telling crew they need the wrong visa (such as C1/D) and telling Canadians they need a B1/B2, which they don’t! They have also begun to question the boat’s cruising permit and time spent in USA waters, which is of course something that is not in a crewmember’s control (besides maybe the captain). Bottom line is, they are cracking down and making it more difficult for foreign crew to come in on foreign-flagged yachts. The result: Boats will be forced to employ only American crew (not likely to happen), or they will not come to the USA (more likely).”
Because of the continued visa problems, Bray wrote an article for Northrop & Johnson’s Embark newsletter. We have reprinted it with permission in an abridged form below. You can read the original article on Northrop & Johnson’s website.
Generally, foreign crewmembers who follow the rules and have all the necessary paperwork shouldn’t have any issues obtaining visas and being admitted into the U.S., but unfortunately this is not the case. And this plight isn’t only affecting yacht crew. Owners, too, are feeling the effects. There are long-term negative consequences to U.S. customs and immigration denying foreign crewmembers. Yards, marinas, and companies that provide crew services all will feel the effects, and potentially owners and captains may choose to stop bringing yachts to the U.S.
The main conspirator in this situation seems to be Nassau, although foreign crew also report issues in other locations, including Canada and Costa Rica. Avoid clearing into the U.S. through Nassau at all costs.
To help alleviate some of the issues, I’ve created a list of Dos and Don’ts for foreign captains and crewmembers. Note that all the immigration officers commented on how a B1 visa is extremely broad, and with the growth of the yachting industry over the last decade, a “yachting” visa would be beneficial to all parties.
• Try to fly into Fort Lauderdale or Miami. Immigration officials in these locations have a better understanding of the yachting industry and visas than officials elsewhere in the U.S.
• Have all of the relevant paperwork if coming in on a B1 (vessel registration, letter, etc.).
• Show intent on returning to your home country. Ideally something along the lines of a mortgage or property, related contract, bills, car ownership, etc.
• Immediately request to speak with a supervisor if you face any issue.
• Have evidence of your employing company, and, if possible, where you are paid from, unless it is a U.S. source. Officials want to see foreign entity to your home account.
• Study visa rules and regulations so you know where you stand; see the Visitor Visa page on the U.S. Department of State website, and the visa requirements page of the Customs & Border Protection website.
• If you’re arriving for an extensive yard period, it also helps to have a letter from the yard indicating the length of time and work to be carried out.
• Come in on a B2 and look for work or get hired. If you do find a job, you must leave and return on a relevant B1 visa.
• Receive pay directly from an American owner or bank account.
• Open an American bank account.
• Make a habit of staying six months and leaving only for only two or three days to The Bahamas or Caribbean.
• Have evidence of looking for work when you enter the country (online or in person).
• Come in on the visa waiver program and look for work.
• Looking for work on foreign-flag yachts is not technically illegal while in the U.S., but immigration officials say that they would not encourage it.
• The length of stay on B1/B2 will depend on evidence, your letter, yacht itinerary, and the officer’s discretion,
• Getting stamped back in after a recent previous period in the U.S. is tricky.
• The length of time allowed in the U.S. generally is acknowledged to be six months for every 12-month period, but this also is subject to discretion.
Some yacht management and accounting companies are now withholding taxes from foreign crew during their time in American waters by way of tax ID numbers. The officers were not aware of this and commented on how this could pose problems down the road, as it indicates intent and ties to the U.S. This also may be problematic for the owning company or owner.
The officials stated that they do not make a habit of searching out yacht crew who are not abiding by the rules, but, if they come across crewmembers breaking the law, they must act. They also mention that dockwalking and events often are when they find crewmembers not abiding by the rules, but they do not go knocking on crew house doors. However, I have heard of immigration officials logging on to Facebook and searching out profiles or checking dayworking websites. Google your name along with “yacht” to check the results.
Since I met with officials, I became aware of another crewmember working on a yacht in the U.S. who was deported while doing a visa run. I can only assume from the recent increase in cases that immigration has decided to begin enforcing rules that they seemingly had previously overlooked, including the amount of time spent in the U.S. and visa type and status.