Customs Processes and Entering Tonga

Entering a new country by sailboat often results in some interesting experiences due to different laws and procedures for customs, immigration, agricultural, and health concerns. The procedures for each country vary, and sometimes the procedures are radically different. The process can take anywhere from a few minutes to several hours. It can involve going to one location, or visiting multiple offices separated by miles of distance.

In most countries, sailors have to visit a customs office, meet with a uniformed official, fill out a customs form describing your vessel, show your vessel documents, give a list describing your crew, and possibly pay a customs fee. Then, you have to go to an immigration official (sometimes in another building, sometimes at a police station or airport) and have your passport stamped, possibly fill out some other forms, and possibly pay a fee for that. A few countries also have separate officials for agricultural purposes who want to know about any fresh foods you may have and want to impress upon you not to bring anything ashore (the concern being that critters from another country not be introduced in theirs). And, in some rare instances, you may have a separate official who wants to know of any health concerns (anyone sick on board, or to see proof of vaccinations). Usually, this latter case is handled by simple questions by customs or immigration. We also may have to see a harbor master and pay fees for some countries. In some countries, the officials may want to visit your vessel and board and inspect the boat themselves. This is rare though.

Since sailors are frequent travelers between countries. We all understand the rules and why its important not to expose another country to health risks, or to pollute a country with alien insects. The bigger concern these officials have is really with larger vessels bringing large cargoes, and crews, from other countries. Or with boats bringing crew who depart a vessel and try to illegally immigrate into their country.

In some countries, like Martinique, officials have streamlined the process for cruisers to the point that sailors simply come in and log into a computer, fill out some forms, and print out what they need to leave. No people involved at all. In most countries, we just see one or two officials who combine the functions of customs, immigration, health, and agriculture.

In Tonga, we were required to pull our boat up to a customs wharf and tie off. They had four officials board our vessel – in a process that took about 3 hours to complete. We had already heard it is customary to provide some refreshments of juice and cookies, so we were prepared for that. They had customs, immigration, agriculture, and health officials. The people were very friendly and even asked questions about our home country and family and shared information about their country and families. I had to leave at one point to go ashore and get local currency from a nearby ATM to pay the officials. They were very patient and worked with me when I didn’t have exact change.

The important thing we have found when dealing with customs officials is to show respect, keep a relaxed and friendly attitude, and never try to rush or change the process. We have heard stories of people who have had negative experiences with customs. Sometimes this is due to an official who is having a bad day. But, its clear a lot of the times when a cruiser has a negative experience (usually someone gets chewed out, grilled on many details, or kept much longer than the normal process) someone makes a mistake in adopting to the local process expectations. Not dressing properly, or not using good manners with the official are two of the most common mistakes. Or, suggesting they should change their process because its not as good as the last country they visited (as if these officials aren’t thoroughly familiar with their neighbors).

The Tonga entering process was certainly the most complicated process we have seen to date. It is a process which would seem correct for larger vessels. But, considering Tonga has a very high number of visiting foreign sailing yachts, you would think they would want to streamline the process. But, I suspect this process has become a part of their society and they wish to continue it for reasons of ceremony rather than efficiency. It certainly gave us an opportunity to meet several locals and introduce them a bit to our way of living.

The important thing is that we are now welcome to visit Tonga and, while obeying their laws and customs, learn more about their society and experience the wonder of their environment. Even the official paperwork and processes is part of the experience. So, we try to enjoy all of it.

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