(Updated 14th November, 2022)
The transatlantic yachting season is here and crew recruitment remains hot. The Med season has seen a shortage of experienced crew, so those with B1/B2 visas are in especially great demand right now.
If you don’t have yours already and are hoping to winter in the Americas, West Indies and the Caribbean, here’s what you need to know…
The ‘B1/B2’ visa
Non-immigrant visas for entering US territory temporarily are classified ‘B-1’ for business, ‘B-2’ for pleasure, or ‘B-1/B-2’ for a combination of both. Valid for up to 10 years for stays of up to six months, it is not specifically designed for yacht crew, but it is the most appropriate class of visa for the industry, says the US State Department.
NB. DO NOT apply for the C-1 crewmember visa, as this is designed for other seafarers.
Following a COVID-era tweak to the rules, non-US crew can work on foreign or US-flagged yachts in US waters, though NOT employed directly by a US employer or on a US-registered payroll. US taxation laws for foreign nationals are a world of pain anyway, so this is always best avoided in any case.
Note that working, or accepting a job, while in the US on a holiday visa (B-2) is illegal and will get you deported if caught. This is technically also the case throughout the EU, though is generally not enforced. The US is less forgiving, so should you happen to be offered a job on board while ‘vacationing’ in the country, you will need to leave the US as a tourist (B-2) and re-enter as a worker on your B-1 visa, with the relevant boat papers. You may register with crew agencies, etc, while on holiday, but you can not officially accept the job while in the country as a tourist; you must exit first.
Unlike in the EU, you may not technically step off one foreign-flagged boat in US waters and join another back-to-back. It is a grey area that is best avoided by exiting the US and re-entering with fresh boat papers and the commensurate documentation.
How to apply
- Complete the application form (DS-160) and make an appointment at your nearest US embassy or consulate. In our case, in Palma de Mallorca and Barcelona, we use Madrid. COVID has created a severe backlog and reduced availability of appointments, so it can be worth trying other embassies if you have no joy in Madrid. The complete list of consulates is here: https://travel.state.gov/content/travel/en/us-visas/visa-information-resources/list-of-posts.html while official appointment waiting times can be found here: https://travel.state.gov/content/travel/en/us-visas/tourism-visit/visitor.html. While published waiting times for appointments can be extremely long, it is possible for seafarers to request an urgent appointment at the end of the online application process.
NB. It is crucial in your application to establish that you do not intend to abandon your residence abroad, as per rule 9 FAM 402.2-5(C)(5) (U) of the Foreign Affairs Manual. Usually, this will be ongoing property/residential ties, family ties, bank accounts and ongoing payments, car papers, and any other permanent connections to your country of residence.
- Pay the non-refundable application fee of US$160. For some nationalities, additional fees can apply.
- Print the application form and payment confirmation, and bring them with you to the appointment, as well as your passport (valid 6+ months beyond your stay) and two passport photos that meet the required format. Also bring any and all available supporting documentation showing the purpose of your visa application, such as boat papers, Seaman’s Book, employment letter or contract, yacht itinerary, proof of seafaring work history, future travel planned/booked and, importantly, proof that you can afford all expenses for the duration of your visit. If you have an old passport that shows a problem-free travel history (ie. no revoked visas or overstays, etc), bring that too. If in doubt, get an agent to check your documentation.
- It is not necessary to have a job lined up to apply for a B1/B2, but it can help. If you happen to be joining a commercial charter yacht, it’s an idea not to volunteer the name of the yacht, or at least, request an offer letter that doesn’t mention the boat’s commercial status. By letter of the law, “Yacht crew who will provide services on board a recreational vessel and 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”. In other words, the B-1 is aimed at crew on private vessels. Even though commercial yachts are considered to be private, it’s worth avoiding any confusion.
Success in an individual assessment can never be guaranteed, of course. Should you somehow be denied at the first attempt, it is possible to re-apply, but it’s best to be over-prepared than fall short of the requirements. Bring everything with you; from all the official forms and documentation to photos of your pet animals staying behind. The US is convinced that all foreigners want to move there, so it’s down to you to disabuse them of that conviction.
Once your visa is approved, it will be placed in your passport, which will be mailed to your registered address given in the application. It can take around 10 to 14 days from the date of your interview, though in emergency cases it may be expedited. **Check your visa thoroughly to ensure that all details are correct**
If in any doubt about the application process, the documentation required for the interview and the interview itself, it is explained in these useful Youtube videos by GrayLaw solicitors in California. They are not specifically aimed at yacht crew, but they are extremely clear and will help you navigate the process:
How to apply: https://youtu.be/dr3XSu1LvPk
Documents to bring to the interview: https://youtu.be/QAHvXxMPYPQ
If you don’t already have a contract, but are job hunting, it’s a good idea to print out some job advertisements from some recruiters’ websites (not social networks) listing a B1/B2 Visa as a requirement for the same type of jobs you are applying for. (hat tip to Lars Molin for this suggestion!)
Also print and bring along this letter by the Marine Industries Association of South Florida. It is addressed to US immigration officers unfamiliar with the yachting industry, explaining why ‘B1/B2’ is the most appropriate class of visa for yacht crew.
The interview itself, the 8 most common FAQs and tips: https://youtu.be/ae4d4l_a0fA
Entry and exit
Actual possession of a valid B1/B2 visa is not a guarantee of entry, as immigration officials still need to be satisfied with the purpose and length of your visit, so you should always travel to the US with the supporting documentation outlined above. Immigration officials in South Florida are used to yacht crew coming through, so denials of entry are rare here. If the boat you are joining is undergoing an extensive yard period, it helps to have a letter from the yard indicating the length of time and nature of work to be carried out. You should, of course, also check for any COVID-related restrictions prior to travel.
As ever, valid visa status and correct stamping of a passport are the bearer’s responsibility, so diarise expiry dates, keep a count of your number of days spent in the country and apply for visa renewal in good time, which you can do from six months out. The US is zero-tolerant to overstaying, so please ensure that you don’t fall foul of the authorities.
Avoid making unnecessary short trips to eg. The Bahamas or the Caribbean, as such visits may raise suspicions with immigration officials if staying on a B1 (work) visa. If the trips are work-related, carry any relevant documentation to justify your exit/re-entry.
Is ESTA a suitable alternative?
Since first publishing this article, we have been asked a number of times about using ESTA as a more-easily obtainable alternative. It can work, especially for short-stay rotational crew members, but there are limitations to bear in mind.
An ESTA would cover you for work trips of up to 90 days and, because it is multi-entry, it can cover you for trips to the Bahamas and back. Just as with the B1/B2, your employer cannot be a US entity with an ESTA. They are valid for up to two years, or until your passport expires, so the B1/B2 is obviously preferred.
There are agents and seafarers who claim that ESTA is valid only for travel via commercial aircraft or bonded vessel and cannot be used on private (or charter) yachts. There is no definitive information about this to be found on US government websites (which focus on passengers rather than crew), so we asked the US Customs and Border Protection section of the Department of Homeland Security for clarification. They replied thus:
“Thank you for contacting the U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) Information Center.
Crew are supposed to have a B1 or B1/B2 visa to enter the US by private yacht. You have to contact the CBP port where the yacht will enter the US to ask if the crew may be allowed to re-enter after a short trip to the Bahamas if they recently entered the US by air and have a current 90 day admission period.”
In other words, you’re supposed to have a B1, but as long as you have documentation to substantiate your travel history, you should be alright. Just make sure that the boat obtains prior approval before arrival.
More information about ESTA can be found here.
If you have any questions or would like our assistance with your application, please get in touch on +34 971 72 25 32 or email firstname.lastname@example.org