About the B1 B-2 visa…If you’re like me and you’re an American, you don’t need a visa to sail to America.
But, if you’re like my husband (Simon), who holds only a British passport, or like our crew member (Eve), who holds a New Zealand passport, you will need to sort out a visa before sailing in and around America.
In other words, if you’re a foreigner, you can’t just sail to America or an American Island and think the US Government will let you in.
Entering the States by boat is not the same as flying in
If you’ve ever flown to the States you would have had to follow a different visa process – either filled out an online form, paperwork on the plane or obtained a visa prior to arrival.
When sailing in and around America a different visa is required – one that must be obtained before arrival
For foreigners wanting to sail to an American island or the mainland, the most popular option is to obtain a B-1 B-2 visa.
The B-1 B-2 visa is explained on the US Visa’s website:
“Generally, a citizen of a foreign country who wishes to enter the United States must first obtain a nonimmigrant visa for temporary stay. Visitor visas are nonimmigrant visas for persons who want to enter the United States temporarily for business (visa category B-1), tourism, pleasure or visiting (visa category B-2), or a combination of both purposes (B-1/B-2).”
While researching the B-1 B-2 visa my husband and I looked at several different US governmental websites to get the full story
First, I wondered if the visa would work for my husband (sailing for pure pleasure) and for any paid crew that we had (crewing as a job). I also wondered how long a visa holder could enter the US for and finally, I was curious as to how much time was required to leave the States between stays.
After a lot of research I discovered that the B-1 B-2 visa allows foreigners access to the United States for a ten-year term allowing visits for up to six months at a time
Extensions to the visa can be applied for and the time offered can be up to six months more. If everything goes in favor of the applicant a sailor could sail around the States for a year if they hold the B-1 B-2 visa, are granted the full six month initial stay and are approved for the extra six month stay. (For more information on B-1 B-2 visa extensions B-1/B-2 visa extensions)
Before the visiting period ends, the visa holder must leave the States for a reasonable time and then they can return for another six months.
What is reasonable?!
Is a week enough or perhaps a month necessary before coming back into the States for a second six-month visit? The answer to this question is not black and white. Essentially, visa holders are granted access on a case-by-case basis.
The US government doesn’t want foreigners entering the States and working
They therefore ask people on the B-1 B-2 visa to leave after six months (or a year with the extension). If they see a visa holder visiting, leaving for a day and the returning they’re going to get suspicious.
Every time you enter the US on the B-1 B-2 visa the government official has the right to stop you from entering and/or reduce the amount of time you can stay. So just because a sailor has a visa it doesn’t guarantee accesses or full term access.
And what about having paid crew on your boat?
For a few minutes I went in circles to get to the bottom of this question.
One US government website explains that crewmembers are not allowed to enter the States under a B-1 B-2 visa. The website states:
‘Travel purposes not permitted on visitors visas (B-1/B-2) -> arrival as a crewmember on a ship or aircraft’ (Source: https://travel.state.gov/content/visas/en/visit/visitor.html)
However, when you click through to the crewmember visa (D), it states, ‘Travel purposes not permitted on Crewmember (D) Visa Examples:
‘Private yacht: You are a crewmember on a private yacht sailing out of a foreign port which will be cruising in US waters for more than 29 days.’
The site then explains that crew on private yachts need to get a B-1/B-2 visa. (Source: https://travel.state.gov/content/travel/en/us-visas/other-visa-categories/crewmember-visa.html)
A bit confusing – isn’t it?
So…what this means is that a private foreign boat can have paid crew on the boat, the boat can enter American waters but the crew on board will have to have the B-1 B-2 visa.
What cannot happen is for someone to obtain a B-1/B-2 visa and then fly/sail into the States and get a job as a crewmember on an American based boat.
At least, that’s my take on things. If I’m incorrect on my thinking, please fill out a comment below and I’ll make changes to this article.
To obtain the B-1/B-2 visa you’ll need to:
1. Determine the location of the closest US Embassy or Consular office. You can visit the following website to determine what the wait time is if you’re deciding between a few different embassy’s to go to. For example, if you’re sailing in the Caribbean there are a few countries/islands you can go to: https://travel.state.gov/content/visas/en/visit/visitor.html (Below is just a screenshot)
2. Fill out the DS-160 online form, supplying personal information and a digital photo. It’s best to have your passport to hand as you’ll need to supply your passport details and note the dates of previous visits to the States (look at the stamps in your passport).
For the photo you can take a headshot on your phone. Just make sure you follow the guidelines such as having a white or off-white background. The full guidelines are here: https://travel.state.gov/content/visas/en/general/photos.html
When I uploaded the photos I had to reduce the file size to get it to go up. I also suggest that you go get US passport photos from a photo shop. It would really suck if you turned up at the embassy and the photo you submitted had a problem.
Important: Write down the Application ID that is on the top right-hand side of the page! If you accidentally close the form before completing it the Application ID it is the only way to get back to your form.
The online form is located at: https://ceac.state.gov/genniv/
3. Pay the fee of $160 USD and note that it is non-refundable.
4. Book the interview at the location determined when first starting the application. Available dates and times will be present to choose from.
5. Go to the interview at the set date and time with your passport, the DS-160 confirmation page and perhaps hardcopy US passport photos (stop by a professional photo shop to get them). The photo you uploaded might not be good enough so just in case, bring extras.
Also, if you are paid crew on the boat, you’ll need to bring a letter from your Captain stating that you’re gainfully employed by a foreign flagged private boat.
6. Wait for the visa to be issued. The embassy states that it takes three to seven working days but our visa’s were ready in one day. You can check the status of your application through the online website.
7. The passport will then be sent to an address confirmed by you via a courier or, you can collect the visa from the courier company (like DHL). You cannot pick the visa up at the embassy.
8. Sail into America!
Our B-1 B-2 Visa Story – Applying in Barbados
After crossing the Atlantic and hanging out around the southern Caribbean Islands (St Lucia, St Vincent & Grenadines) we decided to research American visa options. Considering that there’s an US Embassy in Barbados we thought it might make sense to get the visa’s there so that we could enter various American Islands, like the American Virgin Islands, as we made our way north in the Caribbean.
Originally we were going to sail the 120 miles from Grenada over to Barbados but decided against it. The voyage would take around 20 – 25 hours and we’d have to sail into the trade winds and Atlantic rollers. The whole idea of crashing up and down non-stop for 20 hours did not sound appealing.
Furthermore, Barbados is not a top sailing destination. The two marinas are not sufficient to take larger boats and none of the few anchorages have good holding. The swell can also be considerable. Considering that our stay could be up to nine days we didn’t want to be forced into a miserable situation.
Instead of sailing to Barbados, we put our boat in Rodney Bay Marina, St Lucia
The marina is very familiar to us and we had a few friends around to keep an eye on the boat. We then flew from Castries (the airport in the north – about 20 minutes away from the marina) to Barbados. The flight took ½ hour and we booked it the day before we left. Tickets were around the $200 USD each and that’s with the ability to change the return dates without a penalty.
While searching on LateRooms.com I came across a few hotels/apartments for reasonable prices. I found one between the airport and Bridgetown in the area of the St Lawrence Gap. Within a couple hours we were all set up in Barbados ready for the B-1 B-2 visa interview process the following day.
The taxi ride to the American Embassy, located on an industrial site, took less than 20 minutes from the St Lawrence Gap area
Once at the Embassy, my husband, daughter and our crewmember, Eve, got in line to go through security. Unlike the old US Embassy in London, there were no armed guards, barricades or barbed wire encircling the US building.
While in the line, a G4S security guard checked their names off to ensure an appointment was, in deed, set. They were then asked to turn all electronic devices off and put everything accept the visa documentation into a locker outside the building.
After placing their items in the locker, they went into security and then into a waiting room
After a few minutes they were then told to go to another waiting room. Eventually, Simon and Eve were able to hand in their passports, do the interview and were told that within a few days their passports with the B-1/B-2 visa would sent to DHL who would then hold them at their airport office.
During the interview, my husband wasn’t asked much of anything other than to confirm the information on the DS-160 form. Perhaps the Barbados Embassy sees quite a few cruisers or full time sailors?
Eve, on the other hand, was told that she, ‘was not allowed to now fly into Fort Lauderdale and start working on a boat.’ I’m not sure why the embassy worker said Fort Lauderdale specifically – perhaps that’s a hotspot for disingenuous people?
Simon and Eve handed in their paperwork and passports and left the US Embassy within a couple hours
We then received word the following day that the visas were issued and we could pick them up at the airport DHL.
For our daughter, Sienna, who is both British and American, we went back to the US Embassy and collected an ‘emergency’ American passport for her. Sienna’s American passport had run out but we didn’t have the necessary paperwork to get a new one.
The passport lasts one year and we can extend it to the full length once we get the original birth certificate
Travelling around on a boat we don’t carry originals! Within the next year we’ll fly back to England and grab the original or have a friend mail it out to us. We can then post the passport and original birth certificate to get the full five-year passport at no extra charge.
What I liked best about getting the B-1 B-2 visa and Sienna’s passport in Barbados was the excellent service we received from the Embassy. There was a real person we could call to get necessary information, whenever we emailed the Embassy they responded within the hour AND I felt as if they bent over backwards to make everything happen for us as quick and as easy as possible.
So….if you’re near Barbados and need a B-1 B-2 visa I highly suggest that you consider the US Embassy in Barbados
(Never in my life did I ever think I’d be giving a positive review of a US Embassy! In the past, I’d rather watch paint dry and take a trip to the Embassy…)
And one final note: I booked our flights for Barbados for 9 days knowing that the visas could take that long. I booked our hotel/apartment for only 4 days hoping that we’d be able to fly back to the boat earlier. As luck would have it, we were able to change our flights and reduce our stay to four nights. Liat Airlines only charges the difference in the cost of flights so I had to pay $60 extra. Paying $60 is far less than extending the length of our stay in a hotel!