If you are sailing to France, here is what you need to know to avoid immigration and customs headaches for a smooth entry and exit from the country

UK sailors planning on sailing to France this summer are being warned that a shortage of officials means not all ports can be treated as Ports of Entry.

Last year, the French authorities aimed to simplify entry and exit for non-EU cruisers by allowing sailors to email their intended passage using a Préavis Police aux Frontières (PAF) Immigration/Notice of Immigration form in advance.

This would allow arrival at any port and not require a designated port.

These forms started to appear on some port websites, such as St Cast and St Quay Portrieux in Brittany, but not all, and it soon became clear that there were not enough French officials to go from port to port to check boat papers and stamp passports.

Yachts moored in front of houses in Honfleur in France

Honfleur in Normandy is one of France’s official Ports of Entry. Credit: Peter Cumberlidge

This resulted in the number of ports included in the Port of Entry scheme to be limited.

According to the Cruising Association (CA), the entire process for checking into and out of France for leisure cruisers from outside the EU remains under review, and is unlikely to change until after the introduction of the new European EES (Entry/Exit System) and ETIAS (European Travel Information and Authorisation System) which is expected to come into effect towards the end of 2022 and early 2023 respectively (since this piece was first published this has been pushed back six months to November 2023. Check schengenvisainfo.com for the very latest updates).

Sailing to France: Entry

The CA and the RYA are now advising those sailing the English Channel from the UK to France’s channel ports to choose an official Port of Entry. These are Dunkirk, Calais, Boulogne, Dieppe, Le Havre, Honfleur, Caen/Ouistreham, Cherbourg, Carteret, Granville, St Malo, St Brieuc/Légué, and Roscoff.

The CA has highlighted the although Boulogne is officially a Port of Entry, there are no PAF officials locally to process arrivals and departures, with some arrivals being advised to travel by train to Calais for processing.

From 1 June to 30 September 2022 a temporary concession has been introduced for British and Channel Island nationals visiting Saint Cast and Saint Quay, which will require a modified Declaration of Arrival/Departure form. It can be found here.

On arrival to Saint Cast and Saint Quay, recreational boaters will be required to complete the Declaration of Arrival form, one form is necessary per boat. These must be completed and sent to the marina office email address displayed on the form. The marina office will then forward the completed document to the maritime authorities in Saint-Brieuc for processing.

Once the form has been validated by the authorities, a copy will be returned to the marina office, who will then return it to the boat concerned. This copy should then be kept on-board at all times during the period that the boat remains in the Schengen Area so as to be available in the event of a customs visit, on land or at sea. The boat will then be cleared to sail elsewhere in Brittany.

If entry into the Schengen Area is via the Brittany ports of Saint-Quay or Saint-Cast, then departure from the Schengen Area of Brittany must also be via either of these two ports.

On departure from Saint Cast and Saint Quay, recreational boaters must download and complete the modified Declaration of Departure document. Similarly, one copy only is needed per boat and should be completed and sent to the email address of the departure marina. The marina office will then forward the completed document to the authorities in Saint-Brieuc. Once validated, a copy will be returned to the marina for onward transmission to the boat concerned. The boat will then be clear to leave the Schengen Area.

France’s Atlantic coast Ports of Entry are: Brest, Gironde Estuary & Bordeaux, Hendaye-Behobie, La Rochelle, Les Sables d’Olonne, Lorient, Nantes and St Nazaire.

France’s Mediterranean coast Ports of Entry are: Antibes, Bandol, Cannes, Cassis, Frejus-Saint Raphael (Port Santa Lucia), Gulfe de Fos (Port St Louis, Port Napoleon, St-Gervais), Hyères-Plage, La Ciotat, Le Lavandou, Marseille, Menton-Garavan, Nice, Port de Bouc, Port la Nouvelle,Port-Vendres, Sainte Maxime, Sanary, Sete, St Tropez, Toulon-la Seyne.

Those sailing to a port or marina that is not a Port of Entry, need to check whether an immigration form is available and what, if any, special arrangements for arrival have been made with the authorities.

If a form is available, then complete and send it to the email address on the form. If you do not get a reply to your email, call the named local Border Police (Police Aux Frontières – PAF) or Customs (Douane) to ask for advice. 

Police Aux Frontières officers handle sailors checking into and out of France. Credit: Getty

Police Aux Frontières officers handle sailors checking into and out of France. Credit: Getty

On arrival, all non-EU crew will need to see the local PAF or Customs (Douane) for immigration and customs.

This may involve travelling to the nearest PAF office; many are located away from marinas and are not open 24 hours. Boat papers may also have to be presented.

In case of extreme weather or other force majeure, boats from a non-EU country can enter any port or harbour with permission from the harbourmaster, but the crew must report the boat’s presence to the authorities at the nearest Port of Entry, and undergo immigration and customs checks. 

Sailing to France: Departure

On departure, the same process should be followed as arrival.

UK cruisers need to make sure passports are stamped on departure to avoid overstaying in the Schengen zone which could result in future entry being denied.

Since Brexit, visits to the Schengen zone are limited to 90 days in every 180 days for UK nationals.

Both the CA and RYA warn that PAF offices are not open 24/7 and crew should plan around this.

A boat with white sails sailing to France

Make sure you check out before leaving France to avoid overstaying in the Schengen Zone. Credit: Getty

The CA’s channel section secretary and council chair, Bob Garrett said the process may ‘seem onerous, but it is a legal requirement and those of us who have sailed beyond Europe will be aware of these processes in other countries.’

Other non-EU sailors visiting the EU have always had such processes for sailing to France, without the advantage of some of the flexibility now being offered. All reports the Cruising Association has received from its members of interaction with French officials have been good – friendly, helpful and accommodating. They want visitors for the friendship, the camaraderie and the tourist business, so they are making it as easy as possible within the legal framework and resources available,’ he added.

Sailing to and from the UK

Anyone cruising to and from the UK needs to inform Border Force and Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs.

The newly launched single Pleasure Craft Reporting (sPCR) online platform – www.spcr.homeoffice.gov.uk – is now the preferred option for reporting journeys for anyone leaving or entering the UK. This includes cruisers sailing from or to the Channel Islands and Ireland, as well as those sailing to or from other EU countries and the rest of the world.

The new platform is currently in ‘beta’ mode but will eventually replace the C1331 postal form and e-C1331 online forms. The eC1331 is only available as an Excel document. Details, such as passport numbers, can be stored to make filling out the form on return easier. It has also been renamed: ‘Pleasure craft on non-UK voyages: leaving or arriving in the UK (pleasure craft report (sPCR) fallback template.

All those sailing to France and back from the UK will need to fill out a C1331 or eC1331

The C1331 can be printed off and filled in before being sent to Border Force. The eC1331 can be emailed. Credit: HMRC

New users of the online service – www.spcr.homeoffice.gov.uk – will first be required to complete a ‘once only’ account registration, before being required to ‘add a pleasure craft’, and then proceeding to submit voyage plan data including: Boat Registration Number, MMSI and Callsign, AIS –an AIS transponder, not just a receiver, Skipper’s details, Full names, date and place of birth, passport or travel document details for all people on board, Goods documentation and Date and estimated departure and arrival locations and times for your voyage plan.

The voyage plan must be submitted at least 2 hours but not more than 24 hours before departure.

For those concerned about giving estimates of departure and especially arrival time, the ‘beta’ version allows a two-hour range.

The Cruising Association has discussed with UK Border Force the difficulty of giving relatively precise arrival times at the end of longer passages, and the UK Border Force advice is to give your best estimate and then update your report if you believe that either your arrival place will change, or the time will be outside the range you gave.

Data can be updated online or skippers can telephone the appropriate UK Border Force Operational centre* for the area of your arrival as soon as you can reasonably do so.

Pleasure craft arriving to the UK from outside the UK (including the Channel Islands) must fly the ‘Q’ flag as soon as entering UK waters (the 12 mile limit), and unless you are told otherwise by Border Force, you should call National Yachtline on 0800 123 2012 on arrival who may give you clearance to leave, tell you to wait for a Border Force Officer or to contact one of the regional numbers below.

The ‘Q’ flag must remain flying and all crew must stay on board until you have received clearance from a Border Force Officer.

Both the eC1331 and C1331 can be found here.

The eC1331 requires a United Nations Code for Trade and Transport Locations (UN/LOCODE) for the departure and arrival points.

Some skippers have experienced problems finding the UN/LOCODE of their destination, or reported the link on the eC1331 to the UN/LOCODE is not working, and this is being looked at.

A list of UN/LOCODEs can be found here.

Alternatively skippers can write in the full name of their departure and arrival locations along with the latitude and longitude coordinates.

Sailors using the eC1331 will need to complete two forms – one of the outward voyage, one for inward voyage.

If printing out the C1331, fill in part 1 and post to Border Force at the address provided.

For the return, fill in part 2 and ring Yachtline an hour before arrival.

The number is 0300 123 2012. It is open 24 hours a day, 7 days a week

Sailing to France: real life experience

Richard Turner and his wife, Bernadette, have sailed to France twice in 2022, aboard their Beneteau Oceanis 331, Jupiter, as part of a long term cruise around the UK.

Their first trip was in February, and they sailed from Falmouth to St Malo.

‘We arrived at the marina office and the staff didn’t know what we should be doing as far as checking into France. Instead, they suggested the main police station in the town. Officers there didn’t know but suggested the Police Aux Frontières (PAF) at the ferry terminal. It transpired the PAF officers had never done it before but they did stamp our passports, but didn’t ask for boat papers, or even visit the boat,’ explained Richard.

Roger and Bernadette chose to sail from Falmouth to St Malo, which is a port of entry. Credit: Getty

Roger and Bernadette chose to sail from Falmouth to St Malo, which is a port of entry. Credit: Getty

The couple cruised the coast but returned to St Malo to check out of France. The PAF in St Malo is only open from 0800-1600, Monday to Saturday. As Richard and Bernadette were leaving on a Sunday, their passports were stamped the day before.

Having cruised the Channel Islands, Richard and Bernadette returned to France due to weather.

Once again, when they arrived at the marina office in Cherbourg, staff didn’t ask them to check into France. When Richard inquired, marina staff rang the PAF office at the ferry port in Cherbourg and two officers visited the marina to stamp their passports. Again, the boat papers were not looked at and a visit to the boat wasn’t required.

When checking out of France, Richard and Bernadette visited the PAF office at the ferry port to get their passports stamped.

‘Everyone I speak to in the UK is shying away from going to France as they think it will be a nightmare, this is not the case,’ said Richard.

‘All the French marinas are desperate for us to come; a lot of them, like Cherbourg, are quite empty.’

Continues below…

His advice is to arrive and leave via a Port of Entry.

Richard used the eC1331 when leaving and arriving back in the UK.

‘Getting the UN/LOCODE was a real pain as the link provided on the form didn’t work; I ended up googling the UN/LOCODE for our port of arrival to find it,’ he said.

Richard completed the form on his iPad which converted it into a Numbers document without him realising. The eC1331 was sent back to him, and he had to save it as an Excel document before it would be accepted.

He used the eC1331 when sailing back to the UK.

‘The eC1331 is a very clunky system and doesn’t work properly,’ commented Richard.

‘It is not flexible for cruising, especially for us as liveaboards as often we don’t have a mobile phone signal. We could phone Yachtline but you need all the information the C1331 form requires at your fingertips,’ he added.

Richard and Bernadette returned to France in August 2022, once their Schengen allowance was refreshed, making the initial crossing from Falmouth to Roscoff.
They made an appointment with the PAF, which is located in the Roscoff ferry terminal, a 10 minute walk away, and were also visited by the Douane, although officers didn’t come onboard, or check anything.
From Roscoff, the couple sailed to St Malo via Treguier, Paimpol, Portrieux and Dahouet.

‘At none of these stops were we asked anything about immigration. And there did not appear to be any facilities to do so,’ commented Richard. ‘St Malo was the same as before – the marina did not ask us if we needed to sign in, or direct us to the PAF.’

From St Malo, Richard and Bernadette sailed to Cherbourg, via short stops in the Channel Islands.

‘We decided not to sign out of France whilst doing this,’ shared Richard, who said Cherbourg has a ‘very good system’ in place, with PAF making twice daily visits to the marina.

The couple then cruised to St Vaast, Fecamp and Boulogne, which have no PAF facilities, Dieppe, where PAF is located in the ferry terminal – a 20 minute walk from the marina – and Calais.

‘Boulogne no longer has a PAF facility. The marina advised us to take the train to Calais. So we decided to sail there instead. However, we did have a visit from the Douane [in Boulogne], who came aboard and gave us a full inspection. They were very pleasant. And they were also very surprised that this had not been done in Roscoff,’ said Richard.

Calais marina had a full set of details of how to get to the PAF at the ferry terminal. It is either a 40 minute walk or cruisers can take the free bus.

Richard said signing out of France was ‘very straight forward’. He said the “Submit a Pleasure Craft Report” (which is replacing the C1331) to report back into the UK was a ‘better system’ than the C1331 form, although you do need internet access to set it up.

‘On arrival in Ramsgate, we flew the Q flag, but did not receive a visit from Boarder Force. Rather surprising, given that they have their base here,’ commented Richard.

‘We did encounter a lot of British sailors who simply had not bothered to sign in/out of France, especially around Cherbourg, with sailing schools and charters from the Solent, making short stays. We also heard anecdotal reports that “the French weren’t bothered”. But I don’t think that I would like to put this to the test! advised Richard.

Andy du Port shares his experiences of sailing to France

Calais: No problem checking-in to the EU. The marina staff were very helpful and arranged for the Police Aux Frontières (PAF) to come to the marina to stamp passports if there were more than two or three yachts waiting. If necessary, the PAF office is only a 10 minute bike ride away.

On departure, the PAF were willing to stamp passports the day before if you needed to sail early the next day, even two days before at weekends.

Dunkirk: This is not a viable port of entry as the PAF are in Dunkirk West, which is a long way from Dunkirk East where yachts go.

Boulogne: May be a ‘port of entry’, but we were firmly told that the PAF were not available and we would have to go to Calais (by road) to complete formalities.

Dieppe: PAF don’t go to the marina, but are based in the ferry port, about a 10 minute bike ride.

They are not so flexible as Calais.

PAF officers will not go into the marina for formalities, according to Andy du Port. Credit: Peter Cumberlidge

Crews arriving in Dieppe, France must visit the PAF at the ferry port; they won’t attend at the marina. Credit: Peter Cumberlidge

We needed to sail quite early one morning but the PAF refused to stamp our passports until the day of departure.

Also, the PAF office is closed from 0600 to 0800 (no idea why), so we had to bike round at 0530 to be sure of sailing at 0630.

It became very clear that the PAF have very different rules in different ports.

Leaving/Arriving back in the UK

Having sent an e-C1331 for departure from the UK, I was given a reference (RQST) number, and any changes were dealt with very efficiently by phone.

Part 2 of the C1331 is irritating as it asks for ‘Date/place of expected return to the UK’ even though we were completing the form, obviously, having already returned.

It also asks ‘What ports have you visited?’.

In our case it was only five but could have been 20! Two silly questions, I think.

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