Navigating Cruising Bureaucracies In Europe

Written by Suellen Tomkins, owner of FP Helia 44 Wild Heart

So you’ve bought your new catamaran and have opted for a factory pick up in Europe? Brilliant! An incredible cruising adventure waits; but before you set sail, let’s talk about the necessary customs and immigration formalities for a bit. You’ll be sailing in predominately EU countries, and navigating the customs requirements in the EU; until you get to the Eastern or Southern Mediterranean. Some of these EU countries are part of the Schengen Visa system, which governs immigration and travel requirements. So at a basic level, it pays to understand which countries are part of the EU and Schengen Visa system.

In general, there are 2 parts to customs and immigration-related to cruising in Europe, and they work a little independently. There’s you, the boat owners  (and other crew), and then there’s the boat itself.

VAT and a foreign flagged vessel in Europe

Let’s start with the boat. Value Added Tax (VAT) is payable on a yacht in Europe unless it is registered overseas. While this exempts your boat from VAT, it also limits the duration that your yacht can stay in the European Union (EU) to 18 consecutive months. You can reset this “clock” by taking the boat out of the EU and having documented evidence that you have done so. Once you have left the EU temporarily, you can sail again in EU waters for another 18 months.

In our case, Wild Heart, our Fountaine Pajot Helia 44 catamaran, is registered in Australia (as I’m an Australian citizen) with the Australian Maritime Safety Authority Ship’s Register. So we are an Australian flagged vessel. To be listed on the register, there is documentation to complete together with a one-off fee. Once registered, the final boat registration papers you receive is a critical part of the documentation needed for customs, immigration and marina stays. Don’t lose this.  Actually, the hardest part of this process is choosing a name for your yacht that’s not currently on the Register, as the name (or spelling) has to be unique. You can search the register for names already registered here.

Wild Heart in our first Spanish port of entry after leaving France, La Coruna

Schengen Visa and travelling in Europe

Next, is your personal immigration; this is where things get a little more complicated, so stay with me. In Europe, this is governed by the Schengen Visa system, which encompasses most European Union countries but not all. You can read more about it here and here (for Australians). The Schengen Visa allows travellers to move freely across borders of those countries that are part of the Schengen agreement. However, some countries can be part of the EU but not part of Schengen, for example, Croatia. Here’s the formal explanation for Australian’s from the site:

“You don’t need a visa to travel to countries in the Schengen area for up to 90 days in any 180-day period. If you leave the Schengen area and return within the same 180-day period, the previous stay will count towards the 90 day maximum.

If you stay more than 90 days in a 180-day period in the Schengen area without a valid visa, you may be fined or banned from entering the Schengen area.”

To complicate matters, Australia has bilateral agreements with some Schengen countries; these agreements allow you to spend up to 60 or 90 days in the specific region for tourism, regardless of stays in other Schengen countries. However, the way this is administered varies by country, so you have to check the relevant countries rules around this agreement. Also, if your spouse has an EU passport, technically, you have the same rights to travel in the EU and Schengen as the EU passport holder; but have your marriage certificate handy and to prepare to argue the case, if the local immigration authorities (looking fabulous in their uniforms) are not on top of all the regulations. Here are the EU regulations around this which are available in multiple languages.

Also be aware that in non-Schengen countries, like Croatia, may have limits on the period of stay as well. If you’re choosing to stay in a Schengen country for an extended time, you can apply for an extended stay visa in some countries however they expect you to reside there. There are other limitations on how this can be used for travel and make sure you understand if there are any personal tax implications. If you can personally get an EU passport, this is the simplest option for travelling in the EU.

In our circumstances, my husband has an EU passport from Britain (hello Brexit!) and so travels under the EU “freedom of travel” rules. As our surnames are different and we did not have our marriage certificate with us, we opted for a conservative approach to avoid falling foul of the authorities until the very end of our trip. That meant sailing quickly from La Rochelle, France to Croatia to get me, with my Australian passport, out of the EU. This still allowed time to enjoy the Baelerics Islands and southern Italy. We then relaxed and slowed our travel, spending the remainder of our time in Montenegro (non-EU/non-Schengen) and Croatia (EU/non-Schengan). All this juggling is known as the “Schengen Dance.” As we had planned to winter “Wild Heart” in Bari, Italy, I counted on Scott’s EU travel rights for the few additional days we needed in the EU before our flights.

A couple of final additional considerations to ensure you are well prepared.

Boat Stamp

This is rarely used in Europe but becomes vital in Montenegro where you can purchase VAT free fuel. A boat stamp is critical to complete the purchase. Having this made before you travel, saves searching for one in Montenegro.

An example of a boat stamp for Wild Heart

Boat and Travel Insurance

This may go without saying, but 2 other critical aspects of planning for is boat insurance and travel insurance. Boat insurance, not only for peace of mind to protect your investment and to supply to marinas when you check in. Proper travel insurance that covers sailing is also critical. Many general travel insurance policies do not cover sailing, so it’s best to be cautious. You’ll be a long way from home for, and accidents and ill health do happen unexpectedly.

Being prepared for these formalities will help you plan and manage your cruising time in Europe. Lastly, everyone’s personal circumstance is different, and cruisers have various approaches to managing this aspect of cruising life. It pays to do your own homework and make choices and decisions that work best for you and your yacht.

You can read more about our travels, and sailing experiences in the Mediterranean at, including a map of our anchorages and marina stops. Please leave a comment if you have any questions or connect on Instagram: @wildheartgypsyspirit and Facebook: Travel Sail Explore with SV Wild Heart


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