It's An International Industry

6 March 2009 By Janine Ketterer

As seen in various forums, the rules and regulations when it comes to non-American crew getting work while in the States tends to be a touchy and frankly hard-to-decipher topic. There are a lot of rumors and myths that need to be dispelled.

One of the biggest questions posed is: Can non-U.S. crew register with an agency and look for work in the U.S.? The answer: yes.

Eliot Norman, a crew immigration lawyer with Williams Mullen Immigration Practice Group, says “provided [crew] are lawfully here in tourist status, whether on a 90-day visa waiver or a B-1/B-2 visa with an I-94 card stamped B-2,” non-U.S. crew, indeed, can register and look for work.

Beyond simply registering, non-U.S. crew can also get on a boat (non U.S.-flagged obviously) while in the U.S. According to Rupert Connor of Luxury Yacht Group, “[Crew] just need to be sure to change their entry status from tourist to working, which normally requires a quick trip out of the country if they are stamped into the country on a tourism visa.”

Norman agrees, “[Crew] need to go to [say] Barbados if the vessel is sailing out of a foreign home port and cruising in U.S. waters for more than 29 days and come back with a B-1/B-2 visa if they do not have one, exit the U.S. and re-enter requesting a B-1 entry as foreign yacht crew.” Norman also asks crew to keep in mind that the vessel they’re working on must meet all of the qualifications for a B-1.

One forum posted put forward this comment: “Many of the international yachties’ CVs explicitly dictate obtaining a B1B2 visa; however, from what I've understood, it is against U.S. law for anyone to use the same B1 visa that was previously appointed for employment on a previous yacht that they once worked on.”

Norman disputes this claim, “A B1/B2 Visa is valid for work as yacht crew on any vessel. However, each entry is limited on the I-94 card to the vessel in question.”

Yacht crew are generally brought into the U.S. on a B-1/B-2 visa (B-1 is a business visa and B-2 is a tourist visa), as with very few exceptions, non-U.S. yacht crew must have a B-1 visa to work on a non-U.S.-flagged vessel in U.S. waters. Other entry forms include an I-94W. This means the candidate entered the U.S. with a passport that is eligible for the visa waiver program and is granted a stay of no more than 90 days. According to Connor, “This is a limiting entry for yachting professionals as you cannot work on a foreign vessel in U.S. waters without holding a B1 visa.”

Other important tidbits to keep in mind, a B-2 visa can be extended or changed to a B-1 visa, but according to Norman this can take several months.

Interestingly, it’s legal to look for work while you are on holiday in the U.S., “provided your primary reason for entering [the U.S.] was other than looking for work,” according to Norman. But it’s not legal to accept daywork while looking.

Connor points out that to legitimate yacht crew, “Entry into the USA is simple and easy.” However, avoiding overstay is very important. “Many yachts run on a very flexible schedule," Connor says. "A six-month entry stamp may seem like a long time when first issued, the vessel's schedule does not always result in a natural departure from U.S. waters before those six months end.” It’s each crewmember’s responsibility to keep track of their visas to be sure that they’re not in breach.

In Connor’s experience “all cases where crewmembers ran into difficulty were caused either by the crewmember's history or the crewmember's inappropriate or aggressive response to the immigration official. [There’s been] amazing cooperation from the Department of Homeland Security and a great willingness to assist the yachting community to interpret the rules.”

It seems to Norman that common sense is the key to all of these visa issues. “While you can file forms to extend status or fly outside the U.S. and re-enter, each case varies based upon its facts and you should seek competent advice before attempting to do so,” he says.