Sometimes it appears that the world consists of three hemispheres: the Northern, the Southern and the US hemisphere.
The Carribean belongs, geographically and politically, to the Northern hemisphere. In the 19th and 20th century, a part of the Carribean has been carved out, and belongs now to the well-fenced US hemisphere. Traveling from one hemisphere to another is less of a big deal for Europeans. Doing this as a European cruiser family can cost a lot of time, and a lot of money as well.
This story is about sailing from the British Virgin Islands to the US Virgin Islands. The story will be twoandahalf thousand words long, although the journey itself is only seven nautical miles. Or 30 minutes with the ‚NativeSons Inc.’ ferry.
But our journey to the US was complicated and expensive.
No shortcuts to cross US borders
We could not find the information on the internet how to travel as a European Cruiser family to the United States. The only hint was a note on noonsite.com about Sopers Hole. The note says, that Sopers Hole/Westend of Tortola, is a good spot for the ESTA procedure.
ESTA is the visa waiver program of the US government for holders of a red / European passport. With an online application and a fee of 14 USD, a 90 days visum will be granted. Usually 90 days are sufficient for any touristic or business related travel. The process is easy and straightforward, and does not require any visit to the US embassy in the home country.
Traveling with a private boat is probably a niche activity. We have read the various webpages of the ‚Agency of Homeland Security‘, but there is no hint for foreign cruisers, how ESTA can work for them. Consequently, many cruisers apply for a permanent visum, which is a thorough and expensive process that requires the visit of the US embassy in the homeland plus the provision of all kinds of documentations. For more information, please check the homepage of the US embassy of your home country.
Since we are so much accommodated to the free movement across borders (and the US is still considered of being the #1 partner of the European community) we could not believe, that crossing US borders would be a major obstacle for us.
Despite not being fully integrated into the United States, the US Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico fall under the US Customs and Immigration regime. This is the US hemisphere, and stakes are high. The invisible wall has been erected, no need for any physical wall. That’s it with the bad news.
The good news are several:
- Once entered either the US VI, Puerto Rico or the US mainland with ESTA, the admission is granted for the entry to all US states and territories, for 90 days. Theoretically, we could sail now to Alaska, Guam or Hawaii.
- US customs and immigration are integrated. It is called ‚US Customs and Border Protection (CBP)‘. Once the CBP granted admission, you’re all set. This makes it much easier for cruisers and fool-proof.
- The US CBP services are without additional charges. Only the ESTA application costs money (14 USD per person).
Thus, we played luck.
We sailed on a Monday morning from Sopers Hole, BVI, to Cruz Bay, US VI, and appeared around noon time with our ESTA’s admitted on the US check point. The officers have been friendly to us, but send us back to BVI. They did not ‚denied‘ us, but explained to us, that we had to come with a commercial carrier first.
Wow, this was a bummer.
And an expensive and time consuming one. Since we had – once again – to clear in to BVI, which cost us 70 USD. Plus, we had to buy ferry tickets and spend at least two additional days to satisfy the procedure – instead of exploring the beaches and reefs of the Virgin Islands.
Making sense of the ‚commercial carrier‘ procedure
US authorities use commercial carriers as kind of a ‚filter‘: persons not eligible to enter the US get ‚sorted-out‘ already at departure. In principle, the commercial carriers are hold responsible to take back any passenger to their initial destination, if the passenger cannot cross the US border. Therefore, a private carrier checks the required passports and documents already at departure and identifies (and denies) persons not eligible to cross the US border.
Traveling with a private vessel across US borders WITHOUT admission stamp in the passport would undermine this principle. In the event of no admission granted by CBP, PLUS the vessel technically broken down (which is not unlikely), crew and boat would be ‚stranded‘ at US borders. Remember the movie with Tom Hanks stuck for weeks on an airport, neither able to enter the US nor travel home?
I guess, this is what should be prevented with this procedure.
Making sense of the high fees in British Virgin Islands
The government of the British Virgin Island collect very high fees for customs and immigrations from tourists. This are outstanding high cost and a serious damage to any cruising budget. All border stations are accompanied by a separate ‚Treasury office‘, where all fees are collected straightaway, cash only.
We have crossed BVI borders six times. Our observation is that fees vary during the day and from office to office. Therefore we will give brackets for the cost. This is Her Majesty Customs, there is no bribing. We received receipts for all payments done.
One word to the amounts collected by the BVI government.
Tortola and Jost van Dyck have been hit deadly by the hurricanes IRMA and MARIA in 2017, and might be hit again in the foreseeable future. The consequences can hardly be imagined by someone from Europe, who never experienced such a catastrophic event. For our understanding, we have followed for instance the story of #windtraveller, a cruising family based on Tortola, which just saved their lives but lost all their property in the hurricane. If you see the pictures of dozens of cruising boats piled up at the beach, you might get an idea.
Today, in February 2020, there are almost no visible traces of these devastations. Almost everything has been cleaned up and all infrastructure, streets and houses looks pretty new. The cost must be somehow be absorbed by the income generated in the BVI. And there is only one prime source of income: tourism. Thats us and our fees.
This would be a good reason for the high fees. At least this is what we are willing to give a little extra money for.
The ‚2 days ESTA for Cruisers‘ procedure
No shortcuts. Be cost sensitive.
Here is our procedure to travel from the Northern hemisphere to the US hemisphere on your own boat.
1. Day 1, morning: Enter the British Virgin Islands in Sopers Hole. Use a mooring ball (30 USD) or anchor in 15m. Dinghi-in to the ferry jetty on the North side. Fill out an arrival card per person and a form for the boat. The skipper should bring all passports. Fees:
- harbor fee 40-50 USD
- environmental tax 10 USD per person
- customs services fee 7-20 USD
2. Day 1 afternoon: Apply for ESTA via the respective web page, if you have not already. Westend has two restaurants with free WIFI: Omar’s and Passer’s. Use a group application for the entire crew. Have your passport at hand and ay per credit card or PayPal.
Wait a couple of hours, and check the status of your group application – there aren’t any other notifications.
You have to check the website! Check your email for the application number. Once the admission is arrived, print each ESTA separately (one per person). Check the validity date on the print out – it is important. Fees
- ESTA 14 USD per person.
3. Day 1 evening: Relax and have a beer. Don’t try to save money by booking ferry tickets in the internet. Don’t prepare any lunch boxes containing meat for the next day. Have a look on the boats graveyard on the East corner of Sopers Hole.
4. Day 2 morning: Show up at the ferry dock at 7.45h. Buy return tickets with NativeSons Inc. to Red Hook, St. Thomas. Tell them you will return this afternoon and they don’t need to collect your exit cards. Otherwise you have to once again fill and entry/exit form per person this afternoon. Fees and cost:
- Ferry 50 USD per person, 40 USD per minor below 11 years
- Departure tax 20 USD per person
5. Day 2 morning: On your boat ride to Red Hook, you might fill out the blue US customs clearance card (one per family). Enter the USA. The CBP office will ask you for the passport, your fingerprints and a photo. He will ask you where you stay in the US VI. Tell him that you are living on a boat and you cruise the BVI, the US VI and Puerto Rico and so on. (We did not mentioned – on purpose – Cuba as a cruising destination.) He will stamp „admission“ – which is valid now for 90 days.
6. Day 2 – still morning: There is not a lot to do in Red Hook – buy a coffee and a pair of sunglasses. The next ferry leaves at 11.45h back to Sopers Hole/Westend. Fees:
- Harbor fee BVI 10 USD per person
7. Day 2 noon: Once you arrive back in Westend, you can immediately check out from the BVI. You just need to hand in your departure cards.
- Customs services 1 – 5 USD
8. Day 2 afternoon: After you are seaborne again, you might head to Cruz Bay, St. John.
Cruz Bay is not very busy and St. John is almost entirely covered by the St. John National Park (National Parks are one of the best inventions of the United States and perfect for cruisers, too).
With a shallow draft (<2m or 6 feet) you might anchor in North side of the entrance. With a deep draft (>2,50 or 8 feet) you might anchor outside, use a mooring North of Cruz Bay and dinghy-in. Or just go straight to the customs dock. The clearance with the CBP officers will take you about 10 minutes.
- Harbor fee: 35 USD (only if you use the dock)
Arrived in the US
Congratulation – you just have arrived in the United States. You might love a couple of things about being in the United States, as we do.
First, the US people. Almost everybody is friendly and up for a littke chit-chat. The guy in Red Hook who owns an 84 feet boat and lives in NYC, and advises us where to get a SIM card. Nancy and Kent of Illinois, who gifted us remaining vegetables on their last day in BVI. Linda and Mike of Virginia, who live in the summer on a mooring, serve as ‚Park Volunteers‘ and swung by one evening to gives us the full run-down on St. John National Park. The first approach to somebody unknown we find very easy. Plus, there is a sincere interest of where we are coming from and what we are doing.
And, of course, everybody seem to be in love with our dog. People on sidewalks stop and ask to pet him. Cars drive-by, and the people inside start to ask questions about Vu. The colored have a thousand questions about his dread locks.
Second, safety. It was the first night we left the dinghy in the water. There is no need to lock our dinghi at the dock in Cruz Bay. The mooring balls in the Nation Park are reliable – the rangers test them yearly by pulling them with 11.000lb. St. John is by various metrics considered one of the safest islands in the Carribean.
Third, National Parks, something what is not so common in Europe. The concept of inexpensive and safe overnight places in the middle of nature drives an entire population into the parks. Trials are marked and maintained, garbage cans are available, and the area is patrolled by the park rangers. We regret that we only staid three days in the St. John National Park.
We will come back, for sure.
Traveling with a dog to BVI and the US
Checking our dog Vu into the BVI was another pain-in-the-neck. The British islands are rabies free and make it very complicated to bring in an animal from another country. We chose to clear Vu into BVI, since the US authorities acknowledge the UK standards.
The clearance for Vu in BVI required:
- Filling out various forms and get them signed and stamped by a veterinarian. The BVI authorities require that the signature is not older then 14 days or so prior application. The forms are available with travelwithpets.com. Cost:
- Vet 45 EUR in Martinique
- Forms 25 USD with travelwithpets.com
- Upon arrival leave the dog on the boat and inform the customs officer. He might call a vet to confirm the health status of your dog. In our case the vet was within 10 minutes down at the dock in Roadtown. Fees:
- Veterinarian service 10 USD
The clearance at the US CBP was only document reviewed.
And the CBP officer was asking for the name of the dog. She was laughing when the answer came: „Vu!!“.
The making-off of this procedure
We have to admit, that we have not been prepared for this border crossing. Finally, we made it. It took us in total five days and has cost us 575 USD with a family of four in February 2020. We might have saved 150 USD and three days.
Sometimes one need to learn from mistakes. And here are our slips and mistakes.
- We cleared in Roadtown, Tortola. The anchorage in front of the ferry terminal is quite choppy especially in strong Tradewinds, and we could have skipped Roadtown easily. Sopers Hole is much better for cruisers. In case of a crew change, the taxi ride to the airport is not much longer from Sopers Hole.
- Don’t clear into more then one harbor in BVI, since you are obliged to pay the harbor fee of 40-50 USD each time.
- There is no need for a mooring ball in Sopers Hole. You can anchor.
- We went without the admission stamp directly to US VI – this was a costly mistake.
- The application for ESTA can be done way in advance in Sint Maarten, for example – the ninety days count from the admission stamp in Red Hook.
- Stick to the BVI customs office opening hours (8-16.30h). You will be served after 16.30h, but will be charged over-hours.
- We had lunch boxes with ham and cheese. The one with ham got thrown away in Red Hook by the US CBP officers. You can spare yourself this disappointment.
We made all of these mistakes. We learned from it. And we hope you can learn from this article, too.