Sail to the US on the Visa Waiver program (May 2021)

‘You and your crew have been cleared to enter the U.S.’

was the answer that followed shortly after we filed the arrival with our yacht Mirabella in New York. In the end, the whole story how to enter the US by Pleasure Boat turned out to be fairly easy.

I wasn’t too sure about it for a long time and maybe some of you fellow sailors can/will benefit from our experience.

Sail to the US as a non-US resident, what is the challenge?

The visa rules that apply if you arrive to the US on a private yacht are different then when you arrive with an official carrier like an airline. For most european citizens and many other countries traveling to the US for tourism is not too complicated. Thanks to the Visa Waiver Program the need for a visa for short term visits is, as the name suggests, waived.  One needs to obtain an electronic travel authorization (ESTA) before starting the journey and on arrival you get a 90 days visa waivered stay.

If you arrive by a private pleasure boat, however, you are not eligible for the  Visa Waiver Program. In this case you need a B1/B2 Visa, an actual visa. This requires a bit more planning as the process can take some time and involves an in-person interview at your nearest US Embassy.

Cruising friends of ours have done this in the past and we were prepared to go down that road as well. Due to Covid, the waiting times at the  US Embassies in the Caribbean (Barbados, Grenada, Bahamas, Bermuda, etc…)varied a lot. Mostly the waiting time was many weeks, possibly months. Not practical for us.

Bermuda however, had a waiting time of one week only. Great, the decision was made quickly, we sail to Bermuda!
Unfortunatly, during our sail from Antigua to Bermuda a new Covid-19 wave hit Bermuda and everything went into shut down. By the time we arrived in Bermuda, the embassy stated the waiting time as ‘maybe 6 weeks’. Bummer.

The Visa Waiver program option

So, we searched for alternatives and found various information of cruisers who entered the US with just a Visa Waiver. They all did this in the Caribbean and the story goes like this: You sail to the BVIs with your yacht. You complete an ESTA. Then, from the BVIs, you take a normal ferry to the USVI, get your Visa Waiver for 90 days and return to the BVIs.

Next day or later you sail to the USVI with your own boat. As you posses already a Visa Waiver everything is in order and no B1/B2 Visa is required. The stay is limited to 90days from your first entry.

As we were in Bermuda when the problem with the closed Embassy arose a simple sail to a US Port of Entry with a ferry was not possible. However, we could fly to the US and return to Bermuda within days and then sail to New York.

Unsure if this is really a correct way of entering I asked the US Embassy in Bermuda and they pointed my to the official Customs and Boarder Protection website. But the website was not overly clear and left some room for interpretation in either direction.

How we actually did it

We decided to give it a go anyway. We filed in our ESTA, got it approved and flew to Atlanta for two nights. Visa Waiver and corresponding I-94 optained. A weather window to sail to New York opened shortly after we returned back  to Bermuda and so we set sail immediatly.

Before we left we filled in the electronic Notice of Arrival/Departure (eNOAD) and once we arrived we reported our arrival via the Customs and Border Protection App ROAM. Everything as per the book. 
Within hours after arriving we got the information from Customs and Border ”You and your crew have been cleared to enter the U.S.’

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