Planning on sailing in Europe? The Cruising Association shares its advice on what you need to know for a stress-free cruise in the EU
Planning on sailing in Europe? There’s a lot to think about!
This guide, prepared by the Regulatory & Technical Services group (RATS) of the Cruising Association (CA), will help you navigate the post-Brexit waters and ensure you are fully prepared when you set your course for the other side of the Channel (or the North Sea).
The most important question, however, is where you want to go, because the rules differ a great deal from country to country and ‘Europe’ can mean many different things for different purposes.
In a short article like this it’s impossible to cover every possible destination, so we’re going to focus on the UK’s EU neighbours (including France, the Netherlands, Spain and Portugal) but not Ireland, which is outside the ‘Schengen’ area, and has a Common Travel Agreement with the UK.
We will also assume that all crew members are UK passport-holders and the boat is UK-registered. If your situation does not fit this straightforward scenario then, obviously, you should seek specific advice.
Membership of the CA entitles you to email RATS to ask for this.
How long can I stay?
The basic rule, since Brexit, is that you can only spend 90 days in any rolling 180-day period in the ‘Schengen’ area as a whole – that is, in the area in which there is free movement of people ie Austria, Belgium, Croatia, Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Iceland, Italy, Latvia, Liechtenstein, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Malta, the Netherlands, Norway, Poland, Portugal, Slovakia, Slovenia, Spain, Sweden and Switzerland (unless you have an EU residency permit or a long-stay visa – see next question – or are travelling with a partner or spouse who has an EU passport).
The 90/180 rule means that if you enter the Schengen area and leave 90 days later then you cannot return to the Schengen area until you have been outside it for at least another 90 days.
You cannot simply put two 90-day periods in Schengen back-to-back in order to enjoy a full summer of cruising and then depart for 180 days over the winter.
If you stay in the area for less than 90 days, or make multiple short trips in and out, then you can return sooner – but, on any day that you are in Schengen, you must be able to look back 180 days and have only been there for 89 previous days or less.
The EU provides a helpful Schengen calculator (pbo.co.uk/schengencalculator) to work out how long you can stay on any occasion.
Overstaying your 90/180 allowance makes you an illegal immigrant to the Schengen area, and you may be fined or be refused entry in the future.
Note, also, that the Schengen rule governs how long people can stay.
The rules for the boat itself are different – we’ll cover that later.
If I want to stay more than 90 days, what can I do? Can I get a visa for an extended stay?
Some EU countries will issue a visa which allows you to stay in that single country (NOT in the Schengen area as a whole) for longer than 90 in 180 days, as a visitor.
For example, France has a well-developed VLS-T system which has been tried and tested by many CA members, and Sweden also offers a six-month visitor permit which CA members have used.
The French visa application process must be completed before you leave the UK and requires filling out a form, paying a fee (around £300 for a couple), and submitting significant personal documentation which includes financial details to prove you have sufficient funds to support yourself without working, and details of your health insurance.
You will also have to attend an interview at a visa processing centre, show that you have accommodation (a boat will do), and sign an undertaking not to seek employment.
Expect to spend several days filling forms, gathering documentation and travelling to the nearest visa application centre for your appointment.
The disadvantage of these visas is that they only apply to one country and are granted on the basis that more than 90 days are needed in that one country.
However, once you have entered the country with the visa then you will not be using up any of your 90/180 day Schengen allowance, leaving you with your full 90 days to spend elsewhere.
The CA has an explanation of the French visa application process in a webinar available at pbo.co.uk/frenchvisa.
What paperwork do I need to take on board?
Although not always mandatory, the paperwork to be carried on board should generally include:
- Original registration document and other proof of ownership eg bill of sale
- Proof of VAT status
- Ship radio licence
- Details of boat insurance cover (including a current receipt and, for some countries such as Italy, a translation) – insurance is mandatory in many European countries and is generally required by marinas
- Proof that full duty has been paid on any diesel fuel carried
- Crew list – for some countries such as Croatia and Turkey
- Voyage log
- Passports for all crew members, with visa(s) if necessary or evidence of compliance with the 90/180 day rule
- Global Health Insurance Card (GHIC) – or European Health Insurance Card (EHIC) if still valid n List of medications, eg copy of prescription, and short medical history if appropriate
- Evidence of the captain’s competence, particularly if you are planning to use the inland waterways
- Authority to operate maritime radio
What UK formalities do I need to follow when I leave the UK (and return to the UK)?
Under UK law you must report your departure from and arrival in the UK, giving details of your vessel, your voyage, the crew and any goods on board.
You can do this online, between two and 24 hours before your departure, by using the Submit a Pleasure Craft Report (sPCR) service.
This covers both customs and immigration. If online submission is impractical for you then you can post a paper form or email an Excel version of the form (available at pbo.co.uk/sailtouk).
When you return, you must again complete an sPCR and fly the Q flag until you have been cleared for entry.
Your boat will technically be liable to VAT and import duty on its current value, unless you are entitled to relief – but, in most cases, a boat that had UK VAT-paid status on its departure will be eligible for Returned Goods Relief on its return, and nothing will be payable.
It is important, therefore, to carry evidence on board of UK VAT having been paid – HMRC does not hold central records of VAT payments.
How do I clear overseas customs and immigration when I arrive and leave?
In principle, a small boat arriving in the EU from the UK must go through the same procedures as an aircraft or ferry.
This means the crew must undergo the appropriate immigration procedures and the vessel must be checked to see if any customs payments or other duties/taxes are due.
For Ireland, the Common Travel Agreement simplifies customs and immigration so that UK citizens can travel freely to Ireland (although they should notify the harbour master on arrival).
At the moment the EU’s entry and exit procedures are still evolving, and although the EU has made plans for two new electronic systems – the Exit/Entry System (EES) and the European Travel Information and Authorisation System (ETIAS) – their implementation has been delayed.
In the meantime, sailors need to get their passports physically stamped on arrival into the Schengen area and, crucially, on departure.
You must also be prepared to prove that no VAT or import duty is payable on your vessel, either because it has been in the EU for less than 18 months (which would normally apply if you are visiting for a short cruise on a yacht that is usually based in the UK) or because it already has EU VAT-paid status.
In some countries (eg the Netherlands) you can obtain an official certificate of entry which will prove when you first arrived.
Do I need to go to an official port of entry? What happens if I don’t?
You must arrange to meet with customs and immigration officials at a designated ‘port of entry’ as early as possible on arrival into the EU to obtain the necessary clearance.
The port or marina staff should be able to advise on the best way to do this, but don’t be surprised if this means an expensive taxi ride to a nearby commercial port (or even to a separate part of the port you are in) – and don’t simply sit and expect officials to come to you.
The same applies to your departure.
In both cases, opening hours can be restricted.
You must fly your Q flag until you have been fully cleared in, except in France where the Q flag only needs to be flown if you have dutiable goods on board.
The port of entry will give you a form to complete, which varies from port to port. Some can be completed in advance; others can’t.
If you don’t sign in via customs and official immigration channels then you are effectively an illegal immigrant potentially subject to fines and deportation.
If you sign in but don’t sign out, then you may be recorded as having overstayed your Schengen limit and may be fined or face difficulties when trying to enter the Schengen area in future.
In France, the ports of St Cast, St Quay, Lézardrieux, Tréguier, and Trébeurden in Brittany will become temporary Ports of Entry from 1 June to 30 September 2023.
The ports of Binic, Paimpol and Pontrieux were also added to the above list in July 2023. They are expected to operate under the same rules as the above ports.
This will permit boats arriving from or travelling to outside of the Schengen area to be checked in and out, but only for onward travel to Brittany.
Those wishing to sail further afield within the Schengen area will need clearance at a permanent port of entry.
Is there any extra paperwork I need to be aware of?
It’s important to research the rules for each country you intend to visit before you travel, as some have very particular requirements.
In Greece, transit logs are normally issued to all non-EU registered yachts.
In general, yachts must report in and out to the port police at each port, but this is not applied consistently.
French officials have announced that five ports in Brittany will become temporary Ports of Entry from 1 June to 30
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Also evidence should be held of the payment of the Greek E-TEPAI yacht tax.
This is paid for online and must be obtained immediately on (or in advance of) your arrival in Greek waters.
The CA provides extensive information on individual countries on its website.
What happens if I have to leave my boat in the EU (for repairs, for instance)?
Under normal circumstances, if a yacht without EU VAT-paid status stays in the EU for more than 18 months, then VAT becomes due when the 18-month temporary admission (TA) period expires (at the rate prevailing in the country it is in on expiry).
There are no ‘days of grace’ for this. If you do want to keep your UK VAT-paid boat in the EU for more than 18 months without paying EU VAT, then you can take it out of the Schengen area and re-enter for a ‘reset’.
This needs careful management and solid documentary proof, and you should seek advice first (for example from RATS). Some EU countries will extend the TA period by up to 6 months if a yacht is laid up and certain conditions are met, but it is not clear whether this would include a yacht being repaired.
Again, this is a complex area and specific advice should be sought.
Also, owners should be aware that they may have to pay VAT again when they return their vessel to the UK if the repairs can be regarded as improvements to the boat.
This is because Returned Goods Relief can be invalidated by improvements to the boat carried out outside the UK.
The VAT will be calculated by reference to the current market value of the upgraded boat on its return.
Should I be concerned that I have red diesel in my tank?
A non-EU private pleasure craft visiting a foreign port is permitted to have UK red diesel in its main tanks as long as the diesel was purchased outside the EU.
It is important to have evidence such as fuel receipts and a record of engine hours to prove this.
If, under SOLAS V requirements, you need to carry additional diesel outside your main tanks in order to safely make the journey to the EU, then you should use secured approved containers and be able to show receipts for the purchase.
You should use the diesel in the containers to re-fill your tanks at the earliest opportunity.
More detailed advice and information from the CA on the use of red diesel is available at pbo.co.uk/reddiesel
Is there any mandatory equipment I need to carry for cruising in EU waters?
Apart from an ensign, a courtesy flag for each country you are visiting and a Q flag, there is no other mandatory equipment that you must have on board.
In France, French-registered boats (or boats owned by French residents) are required to have three red hand flares; visitors are not required to have flares or other safety equipment but if they do then everything must be in date.
Do I need any proof of competence to sail in the EU?
You don’t officially need any qualifications to sail a boat under 15m in the northern coastal waters of the EU.
If your boat is over 15m or capable of more than 20km/h (around 11 knots) then you need an International Certificate of Competence (ICC) to cruise in the Dutch, Belgian and German inland waterways.
For French inland waterways, the ICC is strongly recommended, and for the coastal waters of some Mediterranean countries it is either recommended or essential (see pbo.co.uk/iccrequirements).
You can obtain an ICC from the RYA at pbo.co.uk/icc.
What food can I take on board? Are there any restrictions?
Having food on board is not a problem if it remains and is eaten on board, but there are serious restrictions about what can and cannot be taken ashore when you have arrived in the EU.
All imports are subject to EU regulations which strictly control both plant (fruits and vegetables) and animal (meat and dairy) products (and products containing them), even in the very small amounts that an individual yacht may carry.
You are allowed to take certain food products into the EU without problem – this includes some fish products, bananas, coconuts, dates and pineapples, and there are also exceptions for certain amounts of powdered infant milk, infant food or pet food required for medical reasons – but border officials have made a point about the regulations and anecdotes about checking for ham sandwiches in picnics are true.
If in doubt, you should leave any non-EU foodstuffs back on the boat and, if you are likely to take any EU-purchased food ashore then you should keep your receipts.
Can I take my pet on board with me when I cruise to Europe?
You can take your pet to all EU countries (except Ireland).
The pet will need to be vaccinated against rabies at least three weeks before your arrival in the EU and you will need to get an Animal Health Certificate (AHC) from your vet which will typically cost £150-£250.
Each AHC is valid for a single return trip of up to four months and must be obtained between one and 10 days of arrival, and you must enter the EU through an official port of entry.
For France, you’ll need to send electronic copies of the AHC to relevant French Customs office (douane) at your chosen point of entry 24 hours before your expected arrival, together with your pet’s microchip certificate (obtainable free online from several microchip registries) and a copy of their vaccination record.
Returning to the UK is more problematic – it’s not possible to legally re-enter the UK on a yacht with a dog or cat on board.
You must get a tapeworm treatment from a vet between one and five days before arrival in the UK and travel on an approved ferry route.
See pbo.co.uk/petsabroad for full details.
If I charter a boat, what do I need to take with me? Do I need proof of my sailing qualifications?
Each destination country will have its own requirements for qualifications, which you should check with your charter company before booking and travelling, but expect to need at least an ICC.
What about health insurance?
When travelling to an EU country, you should have a Global Health Insurance Card (GHIC) or a European Health Insurance Card (EHIC), and travel insurance.
The GHIC and EHIC will enable you to get emergency or necessary medical care for the same cost as a resident in the country you’re visiting, but it won’t cover other costs such as repatriation.
Are there any requirements with regard to my passport?
Your passport must be valid for at least three months beyond the date when you intend to leave the Schengen area, and it must have been issued less than 10 years before the day you enter.
Many countries beyond the EU, including Turkey, require passports to be valid for a minimum of six months from the date of entry.
Note that most EU countries require identification to be carried at all times, and some officials will only accept a passport for this.
What about driving in the EU?
If you plan to hire a car when you’re in the EU, you should take your driving licence with you.
The hire company may ask to see your driving licence information when you pick up the car.
You can share this information via a ‘check code’ from the DVLA which you can apply for up to 21 days before the hire period starts.
See pbo.co.uk/driving for more details.
The Cruising Association
Founded in 1908 specifically to meet the needs of the cruising community, the Cruising Association (CA) is acknowledged as the leading organisation for sailors and motor cruisers with over 6,400 members around the world.
The CA is at the heart of the world’s boating community as a leading provider of trustworthy knowledge and information.
Whether you’re just starting out and cruising in UK waters or planning to journey under power along the inland waterways of Europe or maybe you are a seasoned boat owner heading for more distant shores and blue water sailing, the benefits of membership are many and varied.
The CA is your most valuable, knowledgeable and practical cruising asset, providing services, information, help and advice to members wherever you are.
Discover what the CA can do for you at theca.org.uk/public/benefits
The Regulatory & Technical Services (RATS) group is made up of volunteer CA members.
RATS works on behalf of cruising sailors to represent their interests and address issues of concern or interest on regulatory and technical aspects of cruising. www.theca.org.uk/public/rats
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