The B1/B2 visa remains the best option for non-U.S. crew wishing to enter American waters on a superyacht. The rules and regulations surrounding the visa can seem complex, but here we take you through the basics of the B1/B2 visa, how to apply, and how the COVID-19 pandemic has affected processing times.
What is a B1/B2 visa?
The B1/B2 visa is the primary visa that all non-U.S. yacht crew will need when they’re traveling to the U.S. Specifically, it’s a non-immigrant visa that allows the holder to temporarily enter the U.S. either for business (B1) or tourism (B2). Yacht crew generally will receive a combination B1/B2 visa that allows you to do both and the visa could be valid for a period of five to 10 years.
While there have been attempts over the years to create a special “Superyacht Crew” visa, the U.S. State Department has expressed the opinion that the B1/B2 is currently the best option for yacht crew. The superyacht industry is considered a private industry unlike its commercial cousins, cruise ships. The C-1/D visa is also technically a visa for commercial crewmembers, but it’s targeted for airline personnel or cruise ship staff to enter the U.S. temporarily while working, and it only allows those personnel to remain up to 29 days in the country. It is not the best visa for yacht crew.
The B1/B2 visa will allow non-U.S. crew to work on board vessels in U.S. waters. But if you get a job on a boat and you’ve been stamped in on the B2 portion of your visa, you would need to leave the country and come back in on the B1 portion. While non-U.S. crew did not use to be able to work aboard U.S.-flagged vessels, there have been some updates to the B1/B2 policies.
As Scott Hershenson, Senior Attorney at Polatsek, Counsellors-at-Law in Fort Lauderdale, says, one of those tweaks occurred almost when COVID began. “It used to be that B1 private crew could not work on a U.S.-flagged vessel; it had to be a foreign-flagged vessel. But that has changed in the Foreign Affairs Manual,” he says.
Crew have to understand, too, that even if you do everything right, you may still be denied a visa.
The Foreign Affairs Manual reads: “Yacht crew who will provides services on board a recreational vessel who are able to establish that they have a residence abroad which they do not intend to abandon, regardless of the nationality of the yacht are classifiable B-1.”
Hershenson stresses that foreign crew still cannot be paid by a U.S. entity and cannot be on a U.S. payroll, but they now can work aboard a U.S.-flagged yacht. This is still pretty new, he says, and he advises foreign crew to ask about this process during the interview process to make sure they would be in compliance on a U.S. vessel. “I usually advise to work it out with yacht management,” Hershenson says. “Most of them have a yacht management company located outside the U.S. or [they have] an affiliate. Or the owner of the vessel has a foreign company. They usually figure it out one of those two ways.”
How do you apply for the B1/B2?
Yacht crew can apply for a visa through their own embassy or consulate. Key to note when you’re applying for the B1/B2 visa is to emphasize your ties to your home country by highlighting your foreign residence, bank accounts, and connections to your home country.
To apply for the visa, you will need to:
1. Complete the online visa application: Form DS-160. Complete the online form and print the application to bring to your interview.
2. Schedule an interview at the embassy or consulate in the country you live.
3. Pay the visa fee.
4. Collect all relevant documents:
- A passport that must be valid for at least six months beyond your stay in the U.S.
- Printed visa application form
- Application fee receipt
- Photo (this will be uploaded during your application, but bring one along to your interview in case)
If more documentation is required — and that’s a possibility as yacht crew — the U.S. State Department recommends you have all documentation proving the purpose of your trip, your intentions of departing the U.S., plus proof that you can afford to cover all your expenses for the duration of your stay.
Crew have to understand, too, that even if you do everything right, you may still be denied a visa. If that happens, it can be tricky to re-apply and too many denials doesn’t look good on your record. Unfortunately, there may not be anything you can do if a denial happens, but it might be best to consult a U.S. immigration lawyer for help in that case.
It’s also important to understand that receiving a visa does not automatically guarantee you entry into the U.S. — immigration officials at ports of entry have the authority to deny entry to anyone, the State Department says.
Got your visa? Now what?
Once you have your B1/B2 visa in hand, you should be able to enter the U.S. to join your boat on the B1 portion of your visa. It’s commonly understood in the industry that entering the U.S. through Miami and Fort Lauderdale is likely your best option as immigration officers in those areas are more familiar with the yachting industry and yacht crew.
Make sure you have all relevant paperwork when you come in — boat papers, letter of employment, yacht itinerary, etc. Again, it’s on you to prove your intentions are not to remain in the United States. You can demonstrate your close ties to your home country by showing proof of your bank accounts, car papers, utility bills, mortgages, etc. It’s also essential to prove that your pay does not originate from a U.S. entity. The bottom line is you need to prove you do not intend to remain in the U.S. beyond the expiration date of your intended visit.
Generally, you should not be entering the U.S. to look for work, even on foreign-flagged vessels. If you do find a job, you would need to come into the U.S. on the B1 visa — if you’re already in the U.S. on your B2 visa, you will have to depart the country and re-enter under the B1.
The COVID-19 Effect
The COVID-19 pandemic has slowed global visa processing due to U.S. embassy closures, and delays are still projected so it might be challenging to get your visa processed quickly. Most U.S. crew agencies have noted that these difficulties have led to an increase in demand for U.S. crewmembers who are obviously able to travel in and out of the U.S. without issue.
Hershenson hoped that the November 4, 2021, easing of travel restrictions in the U.S. may have helped with the processing backlog, but he advises checking with your nearest embassy and allowing for extra processing time. Hershenson noted that visa renewals can generally be applied for within six months of the visa’s expiration, but application times can vary based on your nationality and your consulate.
Even a year later, backlogs vary around the world. “They range from some consulates that are two days and then you see some that are 900 days or 700 days,” Hershenson says. “It’s crazy that it used to be, across the board, 10 days to a month.”
Hershenson stresses that foreign crew still cannot be paid by a U.S. entity and cannot be on a U.S. payroll, but they now can work aboard a U.S.-flagged yacht.
You can try to expedite your appointment, Hershenson says, although it’s not necessarily guaranteed to work. He advises that you go ahead and book and pay for an appointment, regardless of the stated timeframe. After your appointment is scheduled, the consulate has the discretion to expedite it upon request. “In my experience, 8 out of 10 times, expedite appointments have been granted,” Hershenshon says.
If the expedited appointment is refused, you could try to make an appointment at other consulates and “hope that that other consulate is friendly and willing to help.”
“Every consulate normally has the discretion to assist a third country national, someone who is not a citizen or resident of that country, but it’s all up to the consulate’s discretion,” Hershenson says. “But some consulates are really concerned and really hesitant to assist the B1 or B2 application, because B1 crew, for example, have to show to the consulate to their satisfaction that the crewmember is going to actually leave the U.S. when their vessel is departing.”
“[Approval] certainly does happen, but it’s not as common as we would like it to be,” Hershenson says. You can check on consulate wait times here.
Also to note, as of May 12, 2023, non-citizen, non-immigrant visitors to the U.S. arriving by air, land, or sea are no longer required to show proof of COVID vaccination.
Once you arrive in the country, you will be stamped in and given a set time period — usually a maximum of six months — that you’re allowed to remain in the country. You can always check your length of admission by finding your electronic I-94 card online at: www.cbp.gov/I94. Pay attention to the date and never overstay your visa. Bear in mind that your legal status is always your concern — do not rely on your captain or management company to alert you to expiration dates.