Basing your yacht in the BVI
Perhaps you have decided to make a lifestyle change; sell it all, buy a boat, cruise the Caribbean and make a few dollars while you are at it by taking passengers on board. Or maybe you are cruising elsewhere in the world and would like to explore chartering in BVI waters. Before you pack it all in and set sail for this tropical sailing paradise you need to be aware of the intricacies of operating a charter business in the British Virgin Islands.
This brief outline serves the purpose of giving you a general overview of what you should know before you arrive to charter in the BVI.
NOTE:This information is relevant Pre-Covid. Some information is not applicable while Covid protocols are in place.
Trade License / Yacht Registration
Just as if you were opening a shop, boutique or restaurant ashore somewhere, no one may operate a commercial recreational vessel in BVI waters without first obtaining a license.
You don't have to flag your vessel in the BVI to base here, but if you decide to Trident Trust can assist. They are also able to advise on the benefits of forming a company.
If you are intending to be a BVI-based charter yacht, you will need to operate under a BVI Trade License. The following two options are available:
- Apply for your own Crewed Charter Yacht license Application forms can be obtained from and returned to the government’s Department of Trade, Investment, Promotion and Consumer Affairs office. It takes approximately 3 months for approval. You may choose to file on your own or use the services of an agent or lawyer to assist in the process.
- Operate under the Trade License of a recognized Clearinghouse/Charter Management Company in the BVI. Example: Regency Yacht Vacations or CharterPort
Business trade Licenses are renewed annually in January
Small Commercial Vessel Certificate
In February 2004 the BVI passed the THE MERCHANT SHIPPING (SAFETY OF SMALL COMMERCIAL SAILING AND MOTOR VESSELS) REGULATIONS. Any vessel chartering in BVI waters, whether the yacht is BVI based or foreign-based, is expected to be compliant with the MCA Blue or Yellow Code, or the MGN280 which supersedes the former. The codes are concerned with the construction of a vessel, its machinery, equipment and stability, and the correct and safe operation of the vessel.
The “Blue Code” relates to passenger (non-cargo) sailing yachts less than 24 metres long and carrying 12 or less passengers.
The “Yellow Code” relates to passenger (non-cargo) power yachts less than 24 metres long carrying 12 or less passengers. The SCV (Small Commercial Vessels) Code for the Caribbean relates to commercial vessels which are cargo, and passenger vessels of less than 24 metres, carrying no more than 150 passengers.
The MGN280 can be found here whilst the Blue and Yellow Codes can be downloaded from this site.
If you are having your yacht surveyed and certified prior to arriving in the BVI, it is wise to check the following list of approved surveying authorities.
Additional documents required include:
- BVI Radio Station License
- Operator’s License
Licenses are obtained through Telecommunications Regulatory Commission located in Road Town.
Annual Recreational Commercial Vessel License
Once you have approval through the Trade Department, whether in the form of your own license or a management trade license, you proceed to Customs where you pay your Commercial Recreational Vessels License. This annual license is due for renewal on the 1st of November each year. The cost is dependent on the size of vessel and ranges from $400 - $800. Mark the above date on your calendar. Missing payment can cost you $5,000.
- As of November 2021, non BVI based yachts must obtain a charter authority to conduct a charter in the BVI. To conduct multiple charters one must obtain temporary status with work permits. This must be done by working with a local charter company/clearinghouse.
- A yacht must have a Cruising Permit for their party when on charter. It is a “per person per day” tax payable to customs. BVI Based: $4 pp/pday and Non BVI Based: $16 pp/pday
- If you are going to pick up National Park Mooring Buoys during the charter, you must have a National Parks Trust permit. Annual or per charter permits are available. Pricing is based on capacity and whether the yacht is locally based or foreign based.
- If fishing is offered on a yacht (whether it is with rental gear, personal gear or the yacht's gear), a registration number is required for the yacht and every person wanting to fish must have a fishing license.
Aside from the requirements of having to enjoy hosting people, being outgoing and possessing great élan, the standard building blocks of a great charter captain, the marine safety code requires all BVI-based skippers to hold a VISR recognized captains license with STCW certification.
The 1st Mate/Chef
The first mate/chef should also be hospitable, and very flexible. Formal culinary qualifications are certainly an asset. All crew working on a crewed yacht based in the BVI are required to have completed the STCW basic qualifications course.
In order to work in the BVI as crew of charter vessels (ie. allowed to do limitless charter pick ups), crew (non BVI citizens) must hold BVI work permits. The order of things is first the Trade License, and then comes the work permits. This order only differs if one chooses to operate under the trade license of a yacht management company. Work permit applications are obtained from and returned to the Labour Department.
The process seems daunting, but it’s no different from what non-citizens go through to enter the US or the UK to work legally. The name(s) on the trade license is the employer; therefore if you are the holder of the trade license you require a Self-Employed work permit whereas an Employee Permit is required for hired crew. Upon approval, permission is granted to enter the territory. Immigration status is then granted and the charter vessel becomes a viable BVI-based operation.
Work permits can cost about $1000 - $1200 each and must be renewed annually. A cash bond of $1000 - $3000 (dependent on country of citizenship) per person must be posted. The bond will be returned upon departure from the territory.