What to know when taking your boat to the U.S.

Whether you’re heading down to the U.S. for your annual fishing trip, or taking your speed boat to the beach house for your summer vacation, there are some key things you should know when crossing the border. One of the main elements that can impact your journey south is how you plan on entering the country: via land or via water.

Entering the U.S. by land

Chances are, if you are entering the U.S. by land, you will be towing your boat behind your car. Before you get to the border, there are a few safety features you should think about that will speed up the entire process.

Trailer tips

Ensure that you are using the correct trailer type and size for your boat, and remember to execute caution when driving-your vehicle is both heavier and longer when your boat is attached. When crossing into the U.S., your boat trailer will be defined as a motor vehicle and therefore must have a Vehicle Identification Number. A VIN is a 17-character number that can usually be found on a plate or sticker at the front of the frame.


Make sure to keep all of your boat related paperwork on hand ready for your meeting with border officials. Paperwork should include ownership proof, any titles, licenses, and tax paperwork-this will also be necessary on your return to Canada. You will also be required to carry proof that your boat conforms to Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) standards, usually by filling out an official EPA document.  Another key piece of documentation you should have is a good travel insurance policy. While U.S Border Control probably won’t ask to see this, you want to make sure you have it incase you run into any unexpected trouble.

Importing a new boat

If you are taking your boat south with plans to register and leave your boat there permanently, then your  vessel may be subject to some duty. The following duty rates apply to boats imported for recreational purposes:

  • Sailboats and motorboats other than outboard motorboats: 1.5%

  • Outboard motorboats: 1%

  • Inflatable vessels: 2.4%

  • Canoes: Free of duty

  • Rowboats/other vessels not designed for use with motors or sails: 2.7%

Entering the US by water

We share a lot of things with our U.S. neighbors: similar values, a love of coffee, a passion for sports, and of course, The Great Lakes, allowing us the option of crossing the border via water.  Crossing the border in your boat may save you having to transport it to your destination, however it is not without its complications, and U.S. Customs and Border Protection are meticulous in monitoring who enters and leaves their waters.

Arriving in the US

You are classed as having ‘landed’ in the U.S. when your vessel first comes to rest in U.S. waters, whether that is at anchor, beached or at a dock. You are also considered to have arrived in the U.S. if you have had contact with another foreign vessel entering U.S. waters. Once you cross over from Canada, you are required to report to Customs for inspection. Law enforcement officers are allowed to inspect vessels entering their waters, for any reason.

Paperwork and documentation

As a Canadian citizen, once you have entered U.S. waters via boat, you will be required to report to Customs and Border Control who will review you. Make sure that you have all of the relevant documents on hand for everyone on board. The captain of the boat is responsible for ensuring everyone has their documentation. Relevant documents and information include:

  • Full name

  • Date of birth

  • Passport, NEXUS, FAST card, Enhanced Drivers Licence or Secure Certificate of Indian Status

  • Boat registration or licence number

  • Boat name

  • Boat length

  • CBP decal number for vessels more than 30ft

  • Dinghy licence and papers

  • Copies of prescriptions for any prescription medication

  • Value of any declarable merchandise

  • A signed letter of consent from the parent or guardian of any travelling minor, if the parent is not present

  • U.S. marina at which you arrived or will be arriving

Know what you have on-board

There are some items which are prohibited and if undeclared can cause serious trouble for you down the line. Regular food tends not to be a problem, however just like at airport customs, you are prohibited from smuggling livestock, large amounts of currency and illegal substances across the border. There are also a number of regulated items including certain dairy products, certain animal products and firearms.

Cruising license

If you are planning on cruising your boat in U.S. waters for up to a year you may be eligible for a cruising license. A cruising license is offered by the U.S. to Canadian-flagged vessels, although not to all foreign flagged boats. While they are not a requirement, they will save you time and money if you cross the border frequently in your boat.  A cruising license clears you from any formal entry and clearing procedures.

A foreign vessel, over 30ft, will have to complete a vessel entrance or clearance statement (CBP), costing $19, and physically report into a port of entry every time they cross the border.  You can obtain a cruising license when entering the U.S. at your initial check-in. License holders will not be required to pay the $19 fee for the CBP, or report to a physical port of entry, every time they clear U.S. waters.

Small vessel reporting system

The Small Vessel Reporting System (SVRS) program is offered to Canadians by U.S. Customs and is an online and telephone reporting system which allows boats to report their intended arrival. This allows border control to clear your entry immediately, or notify you if they wish to inspect your vessel.

Border video terminals

Two-way video telephone terminals are offered as an alternative for sailors who are too far from a Customs port. Simply open the door of the terminal, and use the handset to speak to an officer who will ask for your boat and passenger information. The camera is used to identify passengers and show documents. If granted entry, the officer will give you a clearance number which should be logged.


No matter how you are entering the U.S., you will always have to deal with crossing through Customs and Border Control, however if you’re honest and organized you can speed up the process and let your great American boating adventure begin.