Dock Lines

Easing your boat’s re-entry to the U.S.

SAN DIEGO — Boating in nearby foreign waters is one of the glories of SoCal boating. Yet for some boaters just the thought of clearing Customs when returning to the U.S. discourages them from exploring. But with advanced planning you can make your homecomings smooth and easy.

My first job involved running a multi-lingual information service at Washington Dulles International Airport in Washington, D.C. In solving international travelers’ problems I worked closely with immigration, customs and agriculture inspectors. While translating for them I learned much about what they looked for and why it’s important to be respectful, open and honest with inspectors.

The “ag” inspector gave me a lesson I’ll never forget when he sliced open a confiscated mango and orange and showed me the dangerous pests they harbored. Since then I always check USDA lists of prohibited foods before returning to the U.S. – and dump anything found on the list prior to re-entry.

Experienced boaters know to clear into Mexico or other countries at their first arrival port, but do you know you must clear your boat through U.S. Customs and Border Protection each time you return home?

Fishing trips or “cruises to nowhere,” during which you don’t dock or step off your boat, don’t require clearance, according to CBP’s website (, because it’s considered you haven’t left the U.S.

But if you’ve docked or disembarked in another country, unless you’re enrolled in a special expedited clearance program such as the Small Vessel Reporting System (similar to SENTRI or Global Entry), the vessel’s master must report and request an inspection at the nearest customs dock when first entering the country.

From Mexico, the closest port of entry is San Diego, though if you’re headed farther north in international waters, you may clear in at the customs dock closest to your first U.S. entry.

On Shelter Island there’s a small kiosk with a call button near the customs/police dock to summon CBP inspectors, but it often malfunctions. Or call CBP at 619-685-4300 (after hours at 619-550-9079) or 877-227-5511 elsewhere. Although CBP officers work 24/7, be prepared to wait several hours for their arrival.

Check the CBP website for information about duty-free purchase allowances and lists of permitted/prohibited foods.  Look for the “Know Before You Go” link plus answers on FAQ pages.

Prepare for your inspection by having your passports and boat documentation or registration papers available. Keep your receipts, especially for large purchases, for anything you’re bringing back, whether for personal use or gifts. Better yet, make a list of purchases.

Alcohol is limited to one liter per person over 21 per month.

Inspectors ask what fruits, vegetables and meats you’re bringing into the country. Some, like citrus, are always prohibited, others temporarily because of disease outbreaks or infestations. For some foods – particularly meats and open bags of pet food – I’ve received conflicting information from CBP agents. Always check the APHIS/USDA website (linked through CBP’s site) for latest updates.

We always use up or give away any questionable food items before returning to the U.S. to avoid confiscation.

Understand that inspectors have the right to search your boat and ask for details of your travels. Sometimes inspectors have looked in our lockers and even in compartments under beds.

Courtesy, openness and honesty always ease the process. Failure to report in to CBP may result in stiff fines, penalties and even seizure of your boat, especially if you’re caught smuggling. Concealing those extra bottles of booze or any illicit stash just isn’t worth the risk.

Be smart: comply with clearance rules on returning to the U.S. You don’t want your hidden orange to destroy American citrus crops.

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