What is the Passenger Vessel Service Act (PVSA) in cruising?

The act of 1886, often confused with the Jones Act of 1920, stipulates that a “vessel may not transport passengers between ports in the United States… unless it is owned by a US citizen”

The Passenger Vessel Service Act is applicable for cruise embarkation or disembarkation in a US port. For other countries, check the cabotage article.


What is the Passenger Vessel Service Act (PVSA)?

To understand the PVSA, one needs to understand the difference between:

  • A nearby foreign port
  • A distant foreign port

A nearby foreign port is most of the Northern Caribbean ports and all of the Mexican & Canadian ports, which are considered as intermediate U.S. ports for the purposes of the PVSA.

A distant foreign port is a port further than the nearby foreign ports. These ports must be outside of the Bahamas, Bermuda, Central America, North America and West Indies. The port of Bonaire, Curacao and the Netherland Antilles are, however, considered as distant foreign ports.
Currently, an exception is applied to Puerto Rico.

To go back to the Passenger Vessel Service Act, this act covers any passengers that board a vessel that is larger than 5 tons – which is most of the cruise liners. The act restricted trade along a country’s coastline, to protect the local shipping industry. In Europe, it is referred to as Cabotage. The term describes a restriction between two points in a region or country pertaining to both people and goods, transported by air or sea.

So, what does the Passenger Vessel Service Act or Cabotage mean for cruise passengers?

Passengers embarking & disembarking within two US or nearby foreign ports have to do so on a ship that is built and owned by a U.S. company – therefore subject to US immigration & employment law. These ships are US registered (flagged), meaning they are under strict US Coast Guard regulations.

For any foreign registered ship (foreign-flagged) that only stops in a nearby foreign port, the passengers will have to embark and disembark in the same US point. For example, their cruise would need to start AND end in Fort Lauderdale. Alternatively, the cruise could begin at a US port, such as Miami, and end at a distant foreign port, such as Curacao.

On a foreign vessel, a passenger cannot board in Fort Lauderdale and disembark in Miami. It will be a violation of the PVSA unless the itinerary also visits a distant foreign port.

How does it impact the cruise itineraries?

Most cruise ships travelling through the Caribbean are foreign-flagged, which makes itinerary planning an interesting challenge!

The itinerary challenge is the reason why a foreign cruise ship can not start a trip in Anchorage, Alaska and end in Seattle, as it will be a violation of the PVSA. Most cruise lines will instead start or end their journey in Canada, which would make the itinerary possible as there is no restriction of transportation between a foreign port and a US port.

Another exception is the typical Panama Canal cruise from Los Angeles to Miami. The law allows a ship to pick passengers up in a US port & drop them in a different US port, only after visiting a distant foreign port, in this example, it is often Cartagena.

What happens if I miss my embarkation? 

The fine is now USD 798 per passenger in violation of the PVSA act.

Example 1: James is due to embark & disembark in Miami for a 7-night cruise in the Caribbean - the first port of call is Key West. Unfortunately, James' flight is delayed. He will not be permitted to board the ship in Key West as it would mean that it is not a round-trip anymore. An exception is if the ship docks in one of the distant ports during its itinerary. The cruise ship will advise the passenger to board at the first Caribbean port, which would be legal.

Example 2: Marcel & his wife are sailing from Alaska to Canada. Due to a medical emergency, Marcel has to be disembarked in Juneau and his wife decides to stay with him. The cruise line will endure a fine of USD 1,556 as they never went to a foreign port. It is the cruise line's decision if they want to pass it on to the passenger. In this case, the vessel can apply for a CBP medical waiver for medical emergencies.

Example 3: Cruise Line X is doing a repositioning cruise between Miami & Los Angeles through the Panama Canal and docking in three distant foreign ports. Unfortunately, due to bad weather, the vessel could not dock in any of the foreign ports. The cruise line will be fined USD 798 per passenger that travelled on this cruise. They will negotiate a lower fine or have it waived if the vessel can document that they made efforts to make it to the various South American ports.

For more on the PVSA, you can read the compliance publication – April 2010 - of the US Customs and Border Protection.