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.

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.

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 fill out a C1331 form to declare voyages on pleasure craft.

The C1331 form has always been required for those sailing to and from destinations outside of the EU and to the Channel Islands.

The Home Office has confirmed that the new online Submit a Pleasure Craft Report, which will effectively replace the C1331 by allowing recreational skippers to digitally submit information about their voyage and crew in advance of their departure to or from the UK, has been delayed.

It was due to go live at the end of 2021, but is still being developed by Border Force and will be launched ‘in due course’.

Instead, an electronic C1331, known as the eC1331, is available which allows skippers to submit their information by email, rather than printing out the C1331 form, filling it in and sending it to Border Force by mail. The eC1331 is only available as an Excel document.

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

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: a sailor’s 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.’

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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 say they will definitely be returning to France, once their Schengen allowance has refreshed in August.

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