Richard Payne, Halcyon Yachts Operations Manager, stands with his B1B2 visa in his hand.
  • 10th November 2023
  • Blog
  • by Pete Green
  • 8

Yacht Delivery Visa for the United States

Visa or ESTA?

Halcyon Yachts manage many yacht deliveries every year to and from the United States. Crew often ask if a visa is required as you can normally enter the US with an ESTA.  The simple answer is yes, you will need a B1B2 visa or could face a fine or worse. In this article, I will explain why a visa is needed and how to go about getting one.

What is an ESTA?

An ESTA is an authorisation to travel under an international visa waiver programme. The “Electronic System for Travel Authorization” can be issued to citizens of countries within the Visa Waiver Programme (VWP) and is valid for 2 years.  It covers business or pleasure travel and is mandatory for all foreign visitors traveling to the United States without visas.

The US Embassy in the United Kingdom states “If you are entering the U.S. on a private yacht, you will require a visa”.  The ESTA is not a visa it is an electronic authorisation for travel issued under the visa waiver programme.

What is a B1B2 Visa?

There are two main categories of US visas, immigrant visas to live permanently in the US and non-immigrant visas for temporary travel. The latter includes a whole alphabet of visa types for everything from being an exchange visitor, journalist, or athlete to victims of crime or trafficking.

A specific Crewmember (D) visa is available if working on board commercial sea vessels or airlines, along with a transit (C-1) visa to join a vessel. This C-1/D combination can only be used if you are employed on the vessel, and it excludes private yachts.  Generally, delivery skippers are self-employed, and crew are volunteers, so this option does not apply. 

The website states if working on a private yacht sailing out of a foreign port and cruising in US waters for more than 29 days will need a B-1 visa. Generally, B-1 is for business, B-2 for tourism or B1/B2 for a combination of both and this is the one to get for yacht crew, even if just delivering a boat before flying home.

The website has a specific page “Do I need an ESTA if sailing on a private yacht?”, the answer being if you are arriving by car, train, cruise ship, or private yacht you will have to apply for a B1/B2 visa.  Whilst many cruise lines have found ways around this, private yachts have not.

The B1B2 visa is valid for 10 years and permits staying in the United States for up to 6 months, as granted by US Customs and Border Protection upon arrival.

What happens if I risk it?

This was a question asked of sailors in a popular social media group who have some first-hand experience.

Francisco arrived in the Bahamas in 2015 with an ESTA and was fined $590 by officials for trying to enter the country illegally.  Even today Francisco says he must go through a secondary interview entering the US legally and is told it will be years before that episode is deleted.

Tom arrived in South Carolina on a yacht delivery from France with just an ESTA. After 2 hours of negotiations with armed border force guards, the crew all paid a $600 fine each and agreed to fly out in the next couple of days. They were perhaps lucky not to have to sail the boat back.

Mark also entered the US by sailboat on an ESTA and got charged €580 for a temporary visa and was given just enough time to have the boat hauled before flying out.

Tristan stopped in Puerto Rico for emergency yacht repairs where some crew only had C-1/D visas, they were instructed to stay in the harbour within sight of the boat at all times.

A article reported multiple USVI customs staff saying if initial entry is by commercial carrier (ferry or aeroplane) then an ESTA can be used for re-entry by private yacht. However, leaving the US by private boat would not generate an official valid exit record which could then make you an ‘overstayer’ affecting your ability to return to the US.

The simple answer is to get a B1B2 visa.  In June 2023, the application fee was £142.40 plus £21 for a premium passport return service.  The visa lasts 10 years whereas an ESTA should cost $21 applying direct and lasts 2 years.

How to Apply

To apply, the first step is to complete a DS-160 form online for a non-immigrant visa.  It can take 90 minutes to complete and requires a photo, passport details, education and work history, details of previous US visits and visits to all other countries in the last 5 years. You will also need a travel itinerary of a planned visit which can be estimated.

The form might look onerous, but you answer as best you can and you don’t need to employ an agent you can do this yourself. Once started, you can save progress and log back in with an ID number to complete it. After submitting the DS-160 you then contact a US embassy or consulate and schedule an interview. 

If based in the UK, your options are London or Belfast.  I chose London and the earliest dates available were in November, some 5 months away!  The lead time may be different now and will certainly be different in other countries but bear this delay in mind when planning.

US Embassy in London

My train to London Victoria was 40 mins late and after a 30 min brisk walk via Vauxhall bridge I was late for the allotted time but that didn’t seem to matter.

You can see the US Embassy building from Vauxhall bridge, a panoramic view that takes in Battersea Power Station, MI6 (Secret Intelligence Service Building) and the London Eye.

The current embassy building opened in 2017 and is an impressive Borg-like crystalline cube surreptitiously surrounded by green spaces and a circular pond.  Whether by design or for its claimed rainwater sustainability it did feel like a modern castle surrounded by a defensive moat.

The entrance for visa applications is well signed and I saw more security staff than visitors, possibly due to my late arrival.

The first interaction is via a window to the right of the entrance doors where your passport and DS-160 confirmation page form are checked and stickered.  You are then directed to enter the outer lobby and proceed through airport-style baggage checks, again with passport and DS-160 verified. It is worth noting that laptops are not allowed through this security, but tablets and mobile phones are.

Visa Application Interview

Once through the outer security lobby area, you proceed through the open green space towards the main building.  The reception hall is vast leading to a corporate headquarters-style reception desk where once again passport and DS-160 are checked and stickered with a queue number.

You take the lift to the first floor and enter a large hall where you are directed to a waiting area with a monitor displaying queue numbers. There was no queue and within a few minutes I was called to stand in a booth in front of a security window.

I handed over my passport and DS-160 for the fourth time that morning and answered a few basic questions.  I gave a passport photo (which should be within the last 6 months), was scanned and returned, and fingerprints were taken from both hands.  All very quick and easy so far. You could easily assume that was it, but the interview is yet to come.

Next was to join a queue at the other end of the hall.  The punishment for my being late was to be at the end of this 2-hour line!  There is Wi-Fi and seats available but don’t get too comfortable as you change seats continuously as the queue progresses.

It was a little unnerving seeing the length of interview time for those at the front of the queue however my interview was over in under 5 minutes.  I was asked a few questions such as am I a captain, how long have I been in the industry and am I being paid. I had a letter from Halcyon Yachts at the ready confirming my status (we can help you with this if crewing for us), however in my case this wasn’t looked at. My passport, DS-160 and fingerprints were checked for the last time, then I was efficiently informed “Your visa is approved”. I left the way I came in, and having already paid the £21 premium return service, my passport was couriered with visa included within a few working days.

If you are building your sailing CV with mileage and certifications, why not also apply for a B1B2 visa.  It lasts a decade, so when the opportunity arises to crew or skipper for Halcyon Yachts on a trans-Atlantic, you’ll be ready and in prime position to get offered a place.

Author: Richard Payne, Sales and Operations Manager – Halcyon Yachts. 

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  1. 10th November 2023 at 1:00 pm
    Bobby Drummond

    Since 2020, sailors arriving in Newport, Rhode Island without the correct visa have been getting fined around $3500 and given a short visa.

  2. 10th November 2023 at 1:38 pm
    Martin Burgess

    I am an Australian travelling on a UK passport. I sailed from Dominican Republic to Florida on a private yacht with only an ESTA. I was fined, had a record made in my passport and strongly advised to not make the same mistake again. Yes you need a visa!

  3. 10th November 2023 at 2:19 pm
    Sandy Garrity

    Thanks that is really useful. Now off to ponder getting a B1B2.


  4. 10th November 2023 at 9:55 pm
    Ron Noordhoek

    Thank you Richard!

  5. 11th November 2023 at 9:33 am
    Fac Van Haaster

    I applied for a B1/B2 visa at the consulate in Amsterdam, the whole process took more than a year. Long waiting times to get the necessary interview are common in Europe. So plan your trip to the US long beforehand!

  6. 12th November 2023 at 7:59 am

    Many Thanks Mr. Pete Green for this helpful post

  7. 6th January 2024 at 8:10 pm
    Mark askew

    I’m awaiting interview for my second b1/2 visa on 26th February 2024 , a letter from the company offering employment would no doubt help

  8. 26th January 2024 at 10:36 am
    mike pope


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