At 23:00 hours UTC on 31 December 2020 the Brexit transition period ended and at that point the UK ceased to be a European Union (EU) member state and became a “third country”.

Officially, the UK has held third country status since it left the EU on February 1, 2020. However, during the transition period, the UK remained in the EU Customs Union and in the Single Market with free movement of people, capital, goods and services – the four freedoms. As a third country we no longer have the right to these EU freedoms. As far as the EU is concerned, we are now just another country that makes up the rest of the world and we can expect to be treated as such.

The EU-UK Trade and Cooperation Agreement, which was reached on 24 December 2020, forms the basis for the future relationship between the UK and the EU. However, in terms of the issues that the RYA has been working on since the referendum, this agreement has made little if any difference.

UK Customs and VAT issues

The RYA estimates that up to 33,000 British people who go boating in Europe may be affected by the new UK Customs and VAT legislation which penalises ordinary people who, as UK nationals and residents, have followed the rules and utilised the freedoms that were available to them as a result of the UK’s membership of the EU.

The RYA believes that it is important that the customs and VAT relief arrangements applied since the transition period ended are fair and reasonable. The RYA considers that the new arrangements do not currently meet these requirements.

Northern Ireland

The protocol on Ireland/Northern Ireland came into force at the end of the transition period. It is a mechanism that is intended to avoid a hard border on the island of Ireland, protect the all-island economy and the Good Friday (Belfast) Agreement, and safeguard the integrity of the Single Market. This means that Northern Ireland will continue to apply the Union Customs Code and will remain aligned to a limited set of EU Single Market rules needed to avoid a hard border.

Northern Ireland remains part of the customs territory of the UK. However, EU customs duties will apply to goods entering Northern Ireland if those goods are at risk of entering the EU Single Market (i.e the Republic of Ireland). No customs duties are payable if goods entering Northern Ireland from the rest of the UK are not at risk of entering the EU Single Market.

In order to avoid a hard border on the island of Ireland, and to protect the integrity of the Single Market, EU VAT rules for goods will continue to apply in Northern Ireland. However, the UK (i.e. HMRC) is responsible for applying VAT legislation, including the collection of VAT, and the setting of VAT rates. In addition, VAT exemptions and reduced rates applied in Ireland may also be applied in Northern Ireland.

In spite of this, clarification is still required on recreational boat movements under the Protocol. HMRC is aware of the RYA’s concerns and has undertaken to provide this information as soon as possible. 

The RYA will continue to seek clarity until the situation for boats which were lying in Northern Ireland at the end of the transition period is fully understood and clarification on the procedures for boat movements, with Northern Ireland as the departure point or the destination, has been received.

Geographical Penalties
- VAT and import duty (currently 0%) can become payable purely by virtue of the vessel being in the “wrong” geographical location at 23:00 UTC on 31 December 2020.

- HMRC gave insufficient notice that to qualify for Returned Goods Relief (RGR), boats needed to have been in the UK in the past and that boat owners would need to evidence this.

Within the four freedoms and as a EU member state, recreational boat owners had a right to buy and keep their boats wherever in the EU they wished, as long as the VAT was paid. They did not have a choice about where the VAT and, if applicable, import duty was paid, as this was determined by the national legislation bringing the EU VAT Directive and Union Customs Code (UCC) into force in EU member states. 

In April 2019 HMRC advised the RYA that, “In the event of the UK, leaving the EU without a deal, HMRC will allow RGR for any pleasure craft, which has union paid status and belongs in the UK because of registration or the nationality/place of establishment of the owner. We believe that temporary admission should allow any without those qualifications to land in the UK.”

This indicated to the RYA that boats would either be eligible for Returned Goods Relief (RGR) or for Temporary Admission as the return within 3 years condition of RGR had, in practice, generally been waived by HMRC for recreational craft. The statement was therefore taken at face value and was understood to mean that a boat which belongs to the UK would be able to return to the UK without paying VAT and import duty irrespective of whether it had been (or when it was last) in the UK.

Recreational craft coming to the UK, that were in free circulation and were lying in the EU when the Brexit transition period ended at 23:00 UTC on 31 December 2020 have already paid VAT (and duty) according to the legislation that was in force prior to the end of the Brexit transition period. On 14 September the RYA was told by HMRC that the UK legislation (now in force) would ignore this and requires that a boat which was lying in the EU27 at the end of the transition period has to have been in the UK under its current ownership. Furthermore, the owner has to demonstrate that to be the case, if it is to be allowed to enter the UK with relief from import VAT and duty as returned goods. 

The short notice with which this advice was provided coupled with the ongoing travel restrictions posed by COVID-19 and weather conditions limited the ability of recreational boat owners to return to the UK. We believe that the timing of this guidance was insufficient in normal times. It was entirely impractical and unreasonable during the pandemic.

We will continue to lobby MPs on the unacceptable stance the government has taken, by making Returned Goods Relief unavailable to anyone whose boat hasn’t been in the UK during their ownership, but who has complied with the law while the UK was a member of the EU. 

The RYA believes that a solution for such owners, which is both workable and reasonable, is to allow anyone who is resident in the UK to bring their boat to the UK if it was in free circulation in the EU at 23:00 UTC on 31 December 2020 irrespective of any of the conditions of RGR by a specified date, which should be set once the restrictions on travel imposed as a result of the coronavirus pandemic have been lifted. When setting a date, the Schengen Area immigration restrictions now in force should be taken into consideration.

Inadequacy of Returned Goods Relief
- Returned Goods Relief (RGR) may be appropriate for the movement of commercial goods but for recreational boat owners the conditions are too rigid and double taxation can result. 

- It is important that the new customs and VAT relief arrangements are fair and reasonable. The legislation in force does not currently meet this standard.

In April 2019, HMRC advised the RYA that, “In the event of the UK, leaving the EU without a deal, HMRC will allow RGR for any pleasure craft, which has union paid status and belongs in the UK because of registration or the nationality/place of establishment of the owner. We believe that temporary admission should allow any without those qualifications to land in the UK.”

This indicated to the RYA that boats would either be eligible for Returned Goods Relief (RGR) or for Temporary Admission as the return within 3 years condition of RGR had, in practice, generally been waived by HMRC for recreational craft.

The first indication that this would not be the case in the future came from HMRC on 14 September 2020 when it was announced that the RGR conditions would be strictly enforced. 

As a result of the RYA’s lobbying a one-year transitional arrangement was legislated. This has since been extended by six months and provides those owners who have been in the UK with their boat previously, but not within the three years prior to the date of import, the opportunity to return to the UK by 30 June 2022, provided the boat was lying in the EU27 at the end of the transition period and the other RGR eligibility conditions are met. 

The ongoing travel restrictions may limit the ability of recreational boat owners to return to the UK. The extension to the transitional arrangement is clearly a step in the right direction. 

The RYA is concerned that HMRC has provided no explanation as to when or the reasons why the previous policy of routinely waiving the three-year condition under RGR was changed. Despite this they have stated that the return within three years condition will in the future be strictly enforced, HMRC claims its operational policy on this has not changed.

HMRC has the ability to waive the requirement for a boat to return within three years condition but has stated that this will only be done if HMRC considers it reasonable to do so in view of any exceptional circumstances which the owners of goods can present and is only done on a case by case basis. 

The RYA will continue to seek clarification from HMRC and will lobby MPs with a view to achieving fair and reasonable conditions and timescales that private recreational boats must meet in order to return to the UK without VAT and import duty becoming chargeable. 

Border Controls

- You must now report your arrival in and departure from the UK when travelling aboard a recreational craft. See entry & exit formalities. However electronic advance reporting for immigration purposes is being developed.  UK Border Force (a directorate of the Home Office) carries out immigration and customs controls on passengers and goods entering the UK on scheduled flights and vessels arriving at major airports and ports. It is also responsible for immigration and customs controls at any small port that handles maritime traffic (including yachts, Rigid Hull Inflatable Boats (RHIBs), motorboats), this is referred to as General Maritime.

The government has long aspired to address the gaps in the data it receives on people arriving in the UK, and to increase the quality, reliability and usefulness of the intelligence generated, to help the Border Force better align its resources to its priorities.

Advance Passenger Information (API) is key to Border Force making well-informed risk-based decisions about operational deployments. The absence of API for General Maritime arrivals, of the type and extent available for General Aviation, is the most significant gap in terms of Border Force’s ability to manage the risk from General Maritime arrivals efficiently and effectively.

Since the Brexit Withdrawal Agreement was ratified on 31 January 2020, the government has been working to develop its ‘Submit an Advanced Voyage Report’ service and the RYA has been closely engaged with that programme since November 2019. It is now going through a period of stringent testing before being released, initially as a voluntary reporting system until it beds in and becomes mandatory.

From what we have seen and tested, the service can be accessed from a PC, laptop or smart phone and is simple to use and comply with once reporting becomes mandatory. For those who sail regularly with the same crew on the same boat, many of the fields can be pre-filled meaning that only the actual arrival and departure voyage details need to be completed. Furthermore, these details can be amended en route.

The RYA continues to engage with the Border Force to ensure that the ‘Submit an Advanced Voyage Report’ service is sufficiently flexible to allow for changes in voyage plans.


Using RYA Qualifications to work in EU

Every national government has the absolute right to accept or indeed to choose not to accept various qualifications for use on vessels within their territories. No amount of lobbying by us to the UK government will change that and indeed the UK government has no authority to insist upon any latitude in this area. In reality, it would be difficult for the UK government to argue for recognition of RYA qualifications in another EU member state when in fact the UK does not allow the use of their qualifications in UK territorial waters. 

Each EU member state is entitled to make their own decisions about what qualifications they will accept and we are aware that now that UK is a third country, some no longer accept UK qualifications on vessels under their respective flags. 

RYA professional qualifications (e.g. commercially endorsed certificates of competence) are accepted by the UK government for use on UK-flagged commercial yachts but such qualifications are not, and never have been, STCW-compliant certificates. As such, RYA professional qualifications are not subject to the mutual-recognition mechanism envisaged in the STCW convention and do not fall with the scope of the EU Directive on the mutual recognition of seafarers’ certificates. 

RYA professional qualifications are accepted by several non-UK national administrations for use on vessels flying their flags but this is a matter for each of those administrations individually and there is no obligation on them to do so. The act of leaving the EU will not necessarily change this position, nor will it have any impact on the acceptability of RYA professional qualifications to the UK government for use on UK-flagged commercial yachts. 

However, in order to overcome problems where some overseas administrations do not recognise RYA qualifications, holders of commercially endorsed Yachtmaster Offshore or Ocean Certificates of Competence may wish to explore the route from RYA Yachtmaster to MCA Master, II/2, code vessels less than 200 GT/Officer of the Watch yachts, less than 500 GT.

We are continuing to work with the Department for Transport, the Maritime and Coastguard Agency and the Foreign Commonwealth and Development Office, to ensure that RYA qualifications are as widely recognised as possible.


Advice and guidance

As 2021 progresses we will learn more about what Brexit means in reality. Our advice and guidance will be updated as and when we learn more about how the changes in work practice. 

The RYA VAT Guide
This document provides members with information which is intended to help them assess the VAT status of their vessel both in the UK and in the EU. This guide includes the information we received prior to the end of the Brexit transition period from HMRC and DG Taxation and Customs Union together with any information that has been received since then. 

RYA advice on boating abroad
Paperwork (including healthcare for UK nationals visiting the EU and towing) 
Entry & exit formalities (including foods imports and travelling with pets)
Red diesel abroad

These pages will continue to be updated on an ongoing basis during 2021 as further information becomes available. If you are boating abroad and you find something has changed or come across something new, please let us know by emailing  

Lobbying your MP

To support the RYA’s lobbying work, you are encouraged to contact your local MP directly. 

If you would like to contact your MP, please follow these steps:

- Enter your postcode, or that of your RYA affiliated club, into the search facility on to find details of your local MP
- Compose your letter to your MP.  If you wish, you can use this template to put together your letter. Information about the Brexit issues on which the RYA is currently lobbying can be found above. 
- Save your letter and then either:

a.  Print, sign and post your letter to the MP’s House of Commons address (House of Commons, London, SW1A 0AA); or

b.  Attach your letter to an email and then send to the MP’s Westminster office (Email addresses for MPs can be found on their profile on

If you are an RYA Member and you have any questions about contacting your MP or the RYA’s ongoing work on Brexit, please contact

Government 'Brexit: new rules are here' guidance
Government guidance can be found on GOV.UK.

This includes a tool which enables you to check what the new rules mean for you. By answering a series of questions about your circumstances you are directed to the information relevant to you.

Latest Updates

Boating post-Brexit and beyond: What’s the latest?

Essential round-up from the RYA... (July 2021)

RYA Certificates of Competence to be reinstated in Spain

RYA issued certificates are to be recognised in Spanish waters... (May 2021)

Following the successful cooperation on VAT and customs, the leading European, British, and international leisure marine associations continue to provide clarity on the new post-Brexit trade relationships... (May 2021)

RYA and British Marine challenge HMRC's post-Brexit plans for private pleasure craft

Ongoing lack of clarity from HMRC threatens a disastrous ripple effect...(February 2021)

Brexit: Where things stand for recreational boaters

RYA releases end of year statement... (December 2020)

Customs Status of Boats: European Commission shares Post-Brexit plans with RYA

The European Commission has provided further clarification on its position on the customs status of boats after the end of the Brexit transition period... (November 2020)

More guidance needed urges RYA and British Marine as HM Treasury announces 12-month extension on Returned Goods Relief

RYA and British Marine jointly persevere in asking Government to increase 1 year Returned Goods Relief extension period... (October 2020) 

UK boat owners left stranded in Europe and leisure marine industry faces turmoil due to Government inaction

RYA and British Marine release joint statement on Brexit discussions with HMRC... (October 2020)