Sub-menu Navigation
Back to Top
Sub menu

    Entry and Exit Formalities

    UK leaving the EU: The UK has triggered Article 50 of the Treaty on European Union, which provides a mechanism for the voluntary and unilateral withdrawal of a country from the EU, and is now negotiating the arrangements for its withdrawal from the EU. Until the UK's withdrawal negotiations are complete, in terms of the advice regarding boating abroad on the RYA website, UK residents remain EU residents, the UK remains in the EU for VAT, Customs and Excise purposes and there should be little noticeable difference when sailing between the UK and other EU countries.

    Ensign and Courtesy Flag


    A UK flagged vessel must wear her ensign as required by the Merchant Shipping Act 1995, which includes when entering or leaving a foreign port and on demand. It is recommended that the ensign is worn at all times in daylight, especially when near to or in sight of land or another vessel. The Coastal State may also have legislation which mandates an ensign being worn at other times. 

    Courtesy Flag

    Although a custom rather than a legal requirement, most countries expect a courtesy flag (a small version of the coastal state’s maritime ensign) to be flown by foreign flagged vessels at the senior signalling position, acknowledging that they will respect the Coastal State’s jurisdiction laws and sovereignty.

    The courtesy flag should be hoisted on entering another country’s territorial waters. On a single masted yacht the correct position is as the upper most flag at the starboard crosstrees. If a motor cruiser does not have a dedicated signal halyard, a suitable prominent position should be used as a substitute.

    You may cause offence in some countries if your courtesy flag is tatty, too small or not there at all.

    In some instances – such as the UK – the maritime ensign is different from the national flag.

    Ports of entry

    Some countries specify ports of entry (ports where one may lawfully enter a country), which should be used by a vessel arriving from abroad. It is often a requirement that you proceed directly to such a port of entry on entering territorial waters. A vessel arriving in a country from outside its customs territory should fly the Q flag until it has been given clearance from the authorities. Even once clearance has been given, some countries may ask to inspect the vessel’s papers periodically, for example at each port of call.

    Sailing your pleasure craft to and from the UK

    Customs Notice 8 explains the Customs requirements for private individuals who sail their pleasure craft to and from the UK. It includes Customs procedures for arriving and departing the UK and details on temporary admission (importation) for pleasure craft registered outside the EU.

    The notice can be downloaded from the website or alternatively contact the HMRC National Advice Service on Tel 0300 200 3700 to request a copy by post.

    Departing the UK

    If you are departing the UK and going directly to another EU country, there are no formalities with UK customs.

    If you are departing the UK and going directly to a non-EU country (which includes going to the Channel Islands), you must advise customs of your intentions using form C1331. The address to which the form must be posted can be found on the form.

    RYA members can read further guidance on using form C1331.

    Arriving in the UK

    If you are arriving into the UK directly from another EU country there is no need to fly your Q flag or notify customs of your arrival unless you have goods to declare or non-EU nationals on board.

    If you are arriving into the UK directly from a country outside the EU (which includes arriving from the Channel Islands) you must fly the Q flag from the 12 nautical mile (territorial waters) limit and report to Customs by telephoning the National Yachtline on +44(0)300 123 2012 or 0845 723 1110 (information about call charges can be found on the website). Again Notice 8 details the requirements for the completion of form C1331 and the address to which the form must be sent can be found on the form.

    RYA members can read further guidance on using form C1331.

    Customs and Immigration

    Unless you are certain that you do not need permission to enter a country you should fly the Q flag on first entering territorial waters. The crew should normally remain on board the vessel until the skipper has completed the necessary customs and immigration formalities, when the Q flag may be taken down.

    Within Europe, on a UK registered vessel, whether you need to fly the Q flag and contact customs and/or immigration will depend whether both your departure and arrival ports are within the EU and / or within the Schengen Area. If you have non-EU citizens on board the vessel, they may need to clear through immigration, even if the vessel is not required to clear customs. You should also check if they require a visa.

    Every crew member on board requires a recognised travel document such as a valid passport.

    Further afield practices vary and could for example include prior notification of your arrival and/or purchasing a cruising permit. The arrival (and departure) process may require you to visit the offices of several different authorities; it may be necessary to use (and pay) an agent. Your stay may be limited in duration either by restrictions on the temporary admission of the vessel or on the length of time the people on board are permitted to stay in the country, so you may be required to clear out of a country as well as in.

    A visa may be required; visa free travel is sometimes linked to having a return ticket (to leave the country) so you may need a visa to go to a country by boat that you have previously visited by air without one. It is advisable to check well before you intend to visit the country as visas can take time to procure. Some countries permit short visits visa free, but require a visa or a residency permit for longer stays.  

    Customs - EU Member States

    The EU Member States form a single customs area. In order to be allowed to move freely throughout the EU customs area, goods owned by EU residents must have the customs status of Union goods. A vessel which has the status of Union goods may move, without being subject to a customs procedure, from one point to another within the customs territory of the Union, and temporarily out of that territory by sea without alteration of their customs status provided that their customs status of Union goods is proven. You may therefore be asked to demonstrate that your boat has the customs status of Union goods when entering or whilst within the EU.

    It may still be necessary to clear customs when moving between EU Member States if you have goods to declare in excess of your personal allowances. 

    Immigration - Schengen Area

    The Schengen Area is a group of European countries which have signed a treaty to abolished border controls between each other. The EU member states except Ireland and the UK, Bulgaria, Croatia, Cyprus and Romania have implemented the Schengen rules as have the non-member states - Iceland, Norway, and Switzerland. 

    On entering the Schengen area from a non-Schengen country (or when leaving the Schengen area for a non-Schengen country), you may need to clear in or out with the immigration authorities. If in doubt check on arrival (or prior to departure) and be prepared to be subject to a passport (or recognised travel document) check.

    Belgium & the Netherlands

    When entering the Schengen area via either Belgium or the Netherlands, vessels from non-Schengen countries have in the past been required to complete and submit a crew list.

    Sample forms: Belgium Netherlands

    Netherlands: In reality skippers are finding it increasingly difficult to comply with the requirements as in many ports the authorities are simply not interested in having the form completed. Please note that you may be presented with different forms for each region in the Netherlands.

    Belgium:  The full Belgian immigration procedure for people entering and leaving the Schengen area by boat is published in Notices to Mariners NO.1 - 03 JANUARY 2019 NOTICES: 1-44. See notice 1/42 on page 185. In 2017 members reported that the requirement to complete a Schengen form on arrival and to have the form stamped prior to departure had been more strictly enforced.

    Related page

    Travelling with pets

    Related document

    UK Border Force poster - sailing your pleasure craft to and from the UK make sure you know the rules


    EU customs and tax allowances:

    Temporary Importation for non-EU vessels:

    Border Force information on

    MSN 1799 Rabies - carriage of animals on ships:

    Find books for your course at the RYA Shop

    eBooks in the cloud
    Our handy guide shows the books & DVDs that go with your course!
    Please select...