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Why Do Most US Cruises Have to Stop in a Foreign Port?

Why Do Most US Cruises Have to Stop in a Foreign Port?

Have you ever wanted to take a cruise that only visits ports in the United States? Unless you’re traveling with a small-ship cruise line, you’re likely out of luck. A nineteenth-century law (the PVSA) aimed at protecting US interests is the reason why.

The Passenger Vessel Services Act of 1886 (or PVSA) prohibits foreign-flagged ships from transporting passengers directly from one US port to another.

However (with only one exception), all of the large cruise ships operating in US waters are flagged in other countries, even though several major cruise lines are based in the United States.

Although the Passenger Vessel Services Act was meant to protect and promote domestic shipbuilding, most cruise ships today are built overseas, usually in Italy, Finland, or Germany.

Because of the prevalence of foreign-flagged ships serving United States ports, most cruises from the United States have to make a stop in a foreign port on each sailing.

What is the Passenger Vessel Services Act (PVSA)?

The Passenger Vessel Services Act of 1886 is a piece of US legislation relating to cabotage. Cabotage is the transport of goods or passengers between two places in one country by a transport operator from a different country. 

Basically, the PVSA prohibits foreign ships over five tons from carrying passengers from one US port to another without stopping at a foreign port. The law applies to ships traveling in US coastal waters as well as rivers and lakes.

The PVSA, as it was originally written, stated that “No foreign vessels shall transport passengers between ports or places in the United States, either directly or by way of a foreign port, under a penalty of $200 for each passenger so transported and landed.”

That penalty has also increased to $798, which is assessed per passenger, not per ship. With many cruise ships transporting thousands of passengers, that could add up to a hefty bill!

US Customs and Border Protection interprets the PVSA, monitors violations of the law, and collects the fines.

Why was the Passenger Vessel Services Act signed into law?

As the complete title of the Passenger Vessel Services Act states, it was created as “an Act to abolish certain fees for official services to American vessels, and to amend the laws relating to shipping commissioners, seamen, and owners of vessels, and for other purposes.”

I can’t speak to the mysterious “other purposes” referenced in the above quote, but essentially the PVSA was signed into law during the Cleveland administration to protect and promote both domestic shipbuilding and the US transportation industry.

This piece of protectionist legislation was written to make sure that foreign companies weren’t able to take over passenger transportation in US waters. The law was supposed to protect jobs by ensuring that only US-owned companies operating US-flagged ships with US crew would be able to transport passengers around the US.

You can read the complete text of the PVSA, including all updates and addenda, on the U.S. Customs and Border Protection’s website.

Isn’t the law actually called the Jones Act?

You’ll often hear that foreign cruise ships traveling between US ports also have to visit a foreign port because of the Jones Act. However, this is inaccurate. Even some cruise lines cite the Jones Act as the reason why their ships need to stop in a foreign port. Nope! The Jones Act is an unrelated law affecting freight traffic.

The Merchant Marine Act of 1920, also known as the Jones Act, is a federal statute enacted to develop and support a merchant marine. It was considered necessary to bolster commercial activity, as well as to create a naval auxiliary in case of war or national emergency.

The Jones Act requires shipping of goods between US ports to be conducted by US-flagged ships.

If you’d like to read the complete text of the Jones Act (just as a warning, it’s 22 pages of legalese, if you print it out) you’ll see that it in no way pertains to cruise ship passengers or cruise ship itineraries.

What rules do cruise lines need to follow to avoid violating the Passenger Vessel Services Act?

Foreign-flagged ships only need to follow PVSA rules if the itinerary begins and ends at a US port. Cruises that begin or end in another country don’t have to abide by these regulations. This is because those itineraries aren’t essentially transporting passengers from one US port to another. They can visit more than one US port, as long as they begin or end in another country. I know, the PVSA can be incredibly confusing!

However, there are basically just two rules that cruise lines operating foreign-flagged ships in US waters need to follow.

1. A cruise itinerary must include a stop at a foreign port if it visits another US port during the voyage

Any foreign-flagged cruise itinerary that begins and ends in the US and visits more than one US port needs to visit a foreign port during the voyage. Since “cruises to nowhere” on foreign-registered ships were outlawed in 2016, this includes all cruises that begin and end in the US!

This is why Alaska cruises from Seattle make a short stop at Victoria, BC, and cruises between California ports and Hawai’i make a stop at Ensenada, Mexico.

2. A cruise itinerary must include a stop at a distant foreign port if it embarks at one US port and disembarks at a different US port

Closed-loop cruises, or itineraries that begin and end at the same port, can stop at any foreign port to satisfy the PVSA. But itineraries that begin in one US port and end in another, like a Panama Canal full transit from coast-to-coast, are required to make a stop at a distant cruise port.

This excludes any ports located in North America, with a few exceptions. So, ports in Canada, Mexico, Bermuda, Central American countries, and most West Indies islands are not distant foreign ports.

Often called the ABC islands, Aruba, Bonaire, and Curaçao are West Indies islands, but are considered distant foreign ports by US Customs and Border Protection.

Part of the Leeward Islands of the Netherlands Antilles, the ABC islands are geologically part of South America, unlike most Caribbean islands. However, so is the island nation of Trinidad and Tobago, which strangely is not considered a distant foreign port despite also being the southernmost island country in the Caribbean.

Cartagena, Columbia is another popular choice for cruise itineraries that need to stop at a distant foreign port. Due to its location on the Caribbean Sea, this South American port is a popular stop on Panama Canal cruises.

Colorful Cartagena Columbia is a popular choice for cruises that must stop at a distant foreign port

Exceptions to the PVSA rules

The PVSA doesn’t apply to cruise ports in the US territories of American Samoa, the Northern Mariana Islands, or the U.S. Virgin Islands.

It also doesn’t apply when transporting passengers between a port in Puerto Rico and another port in the US. After the passage of the Puerto Rico Passenger Ship Act in 1984, ships have also been exempt from the PVSA restriction on transporting passengers between ports in Puerto Rico.

What scenarios do cruise passengers need to watch out for to avoid a PVSA fine?

Cruise lines want to avoid hefty PVSA fines, so they carefully create itineraries that follow the law. Sometimes a cruise ship can’t dock at a foreign port because of bad weather, so the Captain is forced to violate the PVSA. US Customs and Border Protection may or may not waive the fine, depending on the situation.

This violation wouldn’t be the fault of the passengers, so the cruise line would be responsible for any assessed fines. But if you’re at fault for violating the PVSA, the cruise line will pass the fines along to you. Or they’ll just deny your itinerary if it would be a violation.

As a passenger, you usually won’t need to worry about a PVSA violation, unless you choose not to complete the entire itinerary on certain types of cruises. Or, if you try to book back-to-back cruises that would create an itinerary that’s in violation of the law. Here are some examples.

Disembarking at another US port on a closed-loop cruise

Closed-loop cruises from the US (itineraries that begin and end in the same port) require you stop at any foreign port. But if you visit a second US port and you choose to break the closed loop, that’s a violation of the PVSA. Here are some examples.

Let’s say you’re on a short cruise out of Los Angeles, stopping at California’s Catalina Island and Ensenada, Mexico before returning to LA. While on Catalina Island, you learn that an emergency situation has come up and you need to return home right away by helicopter.

Because you’ve been transported by a foreign-flagged ship to another US port without visiting a distant foreign port, it’s a violation of the PVSA.

Or, you leave from Miami on a Bahamas cruise that stops in Key West before returning to Miami. Although it sounds like a fun idea, you can’t disembark the ship a day early in Key West and skip returning to the original port.

The same rule applies here. Although you visited a foreign port in the Bahamas, it’s not considered a distant foreign port. Because you’d be disembarking at a different US port, this would be a violation of the PVSA.

Missing the beginning of a closed-loop cruise

Let’s say you’re booked on a closed-loop cruise from Boston that stops at Portland, ME as its first port-of-call. The cruise continues on to a few Canadian ports before returning to the US and finishing up in Boston.

However, your flight is delayed, and you can’t make it to Boston in time for embarkation. Can you just fly to Portland to catch up with the cruise ship?

This would be a violation of the PVSA because you’re not stopping at a distant foreign port. Since it wouldn’t be considered a closed-loop cruise for you, the cruise line would be fined if they let you on in Portland (then they’d pass the fine along to you).

What should you do if you find yourself in this situation? Hopefully you were smart and purchased travel insurance to cover your trip! But if you really want to meet up with your ship, reach out to the cruise line and let them know what happened before you book a new flight. They might allow you to join the cruise, but if they do they’ll almost certainly pass the PVSA fine along to you.

Or, you could meet the ship at its first Canadian stop. That itinerary would have you embarking at a port outside the US, so it wouldn’t trigger a violation.

Certain back-to-back cruises could create a violation

Even though back-to-back cruises are made up of separate sailings, US Customs and Border Protection sees them as a single itinerary for a passenger. Although cruise lines will usually prevent passengers from booking itineraries that violate the PVSA, it’s possible that one could slip through the cracks.

If the cruise line doesn’t notice the violation until after you’ve booked, you may be denied boarding.

An example of a back-to-back that would violate the PVSA:

You’re booked on a repositioning cruise from Miami to Québec City. You also want to book the next sailing on that same ship, a New England and Maritimes cruise that ends in New York. This would be a violation, because the same ship would be transporting you from Miami to New York without a stop at a distant foreign port.

What happens if a cruise line violates the Passenger Vessel Services Act?

Cruise lines want to avoid violating the PVSA. Fines for the thousands of passengers on a large ship can cost a cruise line millions of dollars! But sometimes rough weather conditions, an unexpected port closure, or other unforeseeable events make it impossible for a ship to stop at a planned foreign port.

The Captain is expected to make a reasonable effort to stop at a different foreign port if possible. If this proves to be impossible, US Customs and Border Patrol has the authority to waive or reduce penalties if the offense wasn’t willfully committed.

What ships are allowed to cruise between US ports without stopping at a foreign port?

US-flagged cruise ships embarking from ports in the United States are able to visit other US ports without stopping at a foreign port. But, the ship and crew must meet certain criteria to be registered in the United States.

For a ship to be flagged in the US, these restrictions need to be followed:

  • A US company must own the ship
  • The ship must have been built in the United States
  • The crew must consist only of US citizens and permanent residents authorized to work in the US

Although many major cruise lines are headquartered in the US, if their ships are foreign-flagged, those ships need to follow the rules set out in the PVSA.

Pride of America

Norwegian Cruise Line’s Pride of America is the only large cruise ship in the world that sails only in Hawai’i. NCL operates year-round seven-day cruises that begin and end in the US state, not visiting any foreign locations. It’s allowed to do this because it’s a US-flagged ship.

NCL’s Pride of America sailing past the Nā Pali coast in Hawai’i (image courtesy of Norwegian Cruise Line)

Pride of America has a predominantly US crew, and the ship was partially built in the United States (construction was started in Mississippi, but completed in Germany). The US government granted a special exemption to allow the mostly German-built ship to have United States registry.

US-flagged small-ship cruises

There are several US cruise lines that operate small ships within the United States. Companies including American Cruise Lines, UnCruise Adventures, and Alaskan Dream Cruises all have US ships and crew. Their US-flagged ships are permitted to operate in US waters without having to visit a foreign port.

Controversy around the Passenger Vessel Services Act

The PVSA and its impact on the cruise industry has been a controversial topic for decades. In 1998, the topic was the subject of a hearing in the U.S. House of Representatives.

Those who wanted the PVSA to remain in place said that the law is essential to protect cruise lines operating US-flagged ships, especially those with small ships that sail domestic routes. Allowing foreign-flagged ships that aren’t required to pay US minimum wage could force those cruise lines out of business.

Advocates for repealing the law argued that the PVSA has led to a loss of ships, a loss of jobs for US crew and dock workers, and has dramatically increased the cost of domestic cruising for American citizens. Abolishing the PVSA would increase trade in the US cruise industry and help local economies.

In 2011, a bill was introduced in the House proposing to amend Title 46 of the US Code to allow the operation of foreign-flagged cruise ships to operate in United States waters without having to abide by the PVSA’s restrictions. The bill didn’t pass, but the PVSA still remains a controversial topic among politicians, the cruise industry, and cruise fans.

What do you think about the effect of the Passenger Vessel Services Act on cruising? Should the PVSA be abolished, left in place, or modified? Do you have any questions about the PVSA? Let me know in the comments below!

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Carrie Ann Karstunen

Robert Ford

Wednesday 10th of March 2021

We absolutely hate the PVSA! We live in Southern California and love to travel to the Northwest and Alaska. But the PVSA has prevented us from connecting back-to-back cruises, like Seattle to Alaska with Seattle to Los Angeles. We love to stop in Vancouver BC, but the PVSA stops us from doing those back to back.

Carrie Ann

Friday 12th of March 2021

Hi Robert! I agree it's ridiculous that we can't do certain B2B cruises because of an old law put into place before the cruise industry existed. I hope the PVSA will be done away with for cruise travel - or at least ignored like so many other outdated laws.

Cameron C. Cook

Tuesday 9th of February 2021

I think an exception to the PVSA should be made now that Canada has banned all ships through 2021. This has effectively shut down cruises to, and from, Alaska, and the New England cruises that regularly make ports of call in Canada.

If not a permanent change, then a temporary until Canada relaxes it's Covid restrictions.

Carrie Ann

Wednesday 10th of February 2021

Hi Cameron, I agree completely. I think the PVSA makes zero sense for modern cruise travel! I hope it will change - even temporarily like you mentioned. Thanks for the comment!