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ESTA Requirements when sailing to the U.S. on a Boat or Yacht

Updated: Aug 16, 2023  | Tags: ESTA Boat, ESTA Requirements

Setting sail across the Atlantic on a private yacht is an adventurous and unique way to travel to the United States. Yet, it's vital to understand the necessary travel authorizations required before embarking on such a journey. One key aspect to consider is the Electronic System for Travel Authorization (ESTA) for citizens of Visa Waiver Program (VWP) countries. This article will explore whether ESTA is required when travelling by private yacht, what the experience entails, and how to apply for it.

Understanding ESTA and the Visa Waiver Program

Before delving into specifics, it's crucial to comprehend what ESTA and the VWP are. ESTA is an automated system used to determine the eligibility of visitors intending to travel to the U.S. under the VWP. The VWP allows citizens of 41 countries to travel to the U.S. for business or tourism for stays of up to 90 days without a visa.

ESTA Requirement for Private Yacht or Boat Travel

As per the official U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) rules, if you're entering the U.S. by air or sea under the VWP, an approved ESTA is required. Therefore, if you're a citizen of a VWP country and plan to sail to the U.S. on a private yacht, you must have an approved ESTA. It's important to note that the ESTA is only valid when entering the U.S. through a designated VWP signatory carrier. However, private yachts are not considered signatory carriers, hence the situation gets a bit complex.

Though an approved ESTA is required for sailing into the U.S. waters, the final authorization to enter the U.S. is made upon arrival by a CBP officer at the port of entry, based on the information provided and interviews conducted. Be prepared to present your approved ESTA and other required documents, such as a valid passport, at this time.

The experience of using ESTA on a Yacht or Trans-Atlantic Boat

While the experience of travelling on a private yacht is both adventurous and unique, using ESTA for such a journey comes with its own set of challenges. One of the major ones is communicating with the CBP and reporting your arrival. According to U.S. law, the master of the vessel or the person in charge must report their arrival immediately upon entering U.S. waters.

CBP has a system in place known as the Small Vessel Reporting System (SVRS), which is a voluntary program that allows boat owners or operators to report their arrival online. Despite the SVRS, in most cases, all individuals on the boat must present themselves for an in-person inspection with a CBP officer.

Expect to answer questions about your travel, your stay in the U.S., and any goods you're bringing into the country via the customs process. The inspection process is rigorous and can be time-consuming, but cooperation and patience can help expedite the process.

What are some popular transatlantic routes for sailing to the U.S. from Europe?

Sailing across the Atlantic is an epic adventure that requires careful planning and strategic decision-making. The journey's difficulty or ease largely depends on the route chosen, as the route influences the sea's conditions and the prevailing winds. There are several popular routes for sailing from Europe to the U.S., each offering a unique experience:

The Northern Route

This route is often chosen by those sailing from Northern Europe, specifically the UK or Ireland. The journey begins by heading northwest towards the southern tip of Greenland, then sails southwest towards the northeastern U.S. coast, usually ending in Maine or Massachusetts. This route benefits from the Gulf Stream's warm currents, which can aid in speedier travel. However, it's a challenging route due to the potential for rough seas and bad weather, and it's only feasible during the warmer summer months.

The Southern Route

This is one of the most popular transatlantic routes, often taken by sailors participating in the Atlantic Rally for Cruisers (ARC). Starting in the Canary Islands, sailors head southwest towards the Caribbean, following the trade winds. After reaching the Caribbean, sailors head north towards Florida or the eastern coast of the U.S. This route is popular due to its relatively steady and predictable winds, warmer weather, and the lure of Caribbean stops along the way.

The Azores Route

This route also begins in the UK or Northern Europe, but it first heads south towards the Azores, an island chain in the North Atlantic. From the Azores, sailors head west towards Bermuda before making their way to the U.S. eastern seaboard. This route provides a mix of both the Northern and Southern routes' challenges and advantages. Sailors can experience both temperate and tropical climates, and have the opportunity to stop in both the Azores and Bermuda.

Each route offers unique experiences and challenges, so the choice largely depends on the sailor's skill level, the time of year, and the type of adventure they wish to embark upon. It's also important to note that all of these routes should be undertaken with a seaworthy vessel, a skilled crew, and careful attention to weather patterns and sea conditions.

ESTA Application Process

The ESTA application process is entirely online, making it accessible and straightforward. Here are the steps:

  1. Complete the Online Application: Visit the official ESTA website and fill out the application form. The form requires answering questions regarding personal information, passport details, and a range of questions related to your travel plans and eligibility.
  2. Submit and Pay: After reviewing the information, submit the application. You'll be prompted to pay the ESTA application fee.
  3. Wait for Approval: The approval process usually takes place within a few seconds to a few hours. However, it's recommended to apply at least 72 hours before departure to account for any potential delays.
  4. Keep a Record: Although you don't need to print the ESTA authorization, it's advisable to keep a record of your application number for future reference.

Remember that an approved ESTA is valid for two years or until your passport expires, whichever comes first. It allows for multiple entries into the U.S. within its validity.


Venturing across the Atlantic on a private yacht is an unforgettable experience. However, it's important to navigate the complex waters of legal requirements, like obtaining an ESTA for citizens of VWP countries. Although having an approved ESTA is necessary, entry into the U.S. is ultimately at the discretion of the CBP officers at the port of entry. Ensure that you follow the proper channels to report your arrival and cooperate fully during the in-person inspections. With careful planning and compliance with these procedures, your trans-Atlantic yacht voyage to the U.S. should be smooth sailing.