A Primer on U.S Visas for Foreign Yacht Crew

21 December 2010 By Eliot Norman

To work on a yacht in U.S. waters, you will need a visa if you are not a U.S. citizen or legal permanent resident (Green Card holder). Ideally, you should apply in advance for a B1, the same visa issued to business visitors. Each entry on the B1 can be issued for up to six months.

Suppose you are French or Swedish and on your last trip you did not need a visa to visit the United States. This type of admission – called a Visa Waiver – that admitted you for up to 90 days does you no good at all for working on a yacht. If you are here on a Visa Waiver and by chance you find a job on a cruising megayacht while in Ft. Lauderdale or San Diego, you should immediately fly to your home country or the nearest foreign country (usually Barbados for East Coast crew) that will let you apply for a B1 visa and then fly back to join your yacht. Hopefully, your captain has not gotten tired of waiting and left without you.

The B1 rules for yacht crew sound simple enough:

“Members of the crew of a private yacht sailing out of a foreign port which will be cruising in U.S. waters for more than 29 days may be documented with B1 visas if they establish that they have a residence abroad which they do not intend to abandon and are otherwise qualified.”

So far so good. But consider these qualifiers:

1. The yacht must be a private yacht. It cannot entertain paying guests. It must be maintained for charter and/or solely for the pleasure of its owner.

2. Cruising for more than 29 days in U.S. waters does not mean multiple long weekend trips from Fr. Lauderdale to the Bahamas and back. Be prepared: you will be asked at the U.S. Embassy for the yacht’s planned cruising itinerary in U.S. waters when applying for the B1 visa.

3. No dayworking

4. “Sailing out of a foreign port” means that the home port must be foreign, as shown by: slip fees, yacht club membership, amount of time spent there, taxes paid, etc. There is no clear rule.

5. Don’t be fooled, however, by the “foreign flag” flying from the stern. Which flag the ship flies is not determinative and not mentioned in the B-1 rules. A megayacht registered in Liberia and docked 11 months a year in Ft. Lauderdale is not “sailing out of a foreign port” and will not qualify to hire foreign yacht crew. A U.S.-flagged yacht that spends eight months a year in Cannes, France does sail out of a foreign port when it cruises during the winter in Florida; and the U.S. owner will be able to keep his French crew while in the U.S. on B1 visas.

6. Your “home port” as crew must also be overseas. Be prepared to show that you pay taxes somewhere else, own a foreign residence or rent one; and have strong ties to a country other than the U.S. If you don’t have a foreign residence to go back to when the sailing season is over, you may not be admitted or be allowed to stay year after year in B1 status. Remember: as foreign yacht crew you are still only “visiting” the United States.

7. Source of payment: This can trip up many foreign crew. It does not matter that that the captain and owner are American. You cannot get paid unless payment comes from a foreign source, ideally from a foreign company or from a foreign bank account and deposited directly in your foreign bank account. B1 yacht crew cannot receive a U.S. payroll check without violating his/her status and risking removal and loss of the visa.

8. Plan ahead. Do not expect your visa to be issued the day you apply. Check waiting times at the U.S. Consulates. Consider applying for a combination B1/B2 Visa so when you are not working, you can be “just visiting” on the B2 and keeping an eye out for the next berth.

If crew and the yacht owner, crew agency and captain respect these basic rules, foreign crew can use the B1 foreign yacht crew visa to their advantage.

Eliot Norman is a partner in the Immigration Practice Group at Williams Mullen, a full-service corporate law firm. He regularly advises yacht owners and management companies on visa rules for foreign crew. For more information: 804.420.6482.