Visiting Australia

By Marcel Vaarzon-Morel and Troy Martin

Lately our firm has been seeing an increase in the number of clients seeking legal advice on importing their vessels into Australia temporarily. The advice generally sought covers what to expect when importing a vessel into Australian waters in respect to customs, taxes, visas, importations and registration you may find yourself liable for. 

The present government rules and regulations make the process a headache for international travellers crossing the seas to this island. There is no one size fits all answer to how to travel here temporarily as it depends on a sizeable (and seemingly ever increasing) number of factors, including; size of the vessel, length of time you’re planning on staying, where you came from, what (and who) else you’re bringing and what food or drink the vessel may be carrying. 

Below you will find some answers to the most common questions we receive from this increasing group of international nomads.  However, in true lawyer fashion we warn that this is a guide only and your circumstances may be different (trust me, there is always a curveball in the most unexpected places). It is vital that you seek expert advice that is tailored to you and gives you the best chance smooth sailing through our protected boarders. 

One last thing! Visas are notoriously specific – depending on citizenship, age, health, family circumstances, and exact reason for travel. We are going to be assuming one thing, that you are visiting for the sole and only purpose of being a tourist or for visiting family. Again, it is incredibly important that you get advice on your eligibility on your visa.

What do I need?

Long gone are the days you can sail from country to country under the navigation of the wind and current. Traveling to Australia on board a private yacht requires preparation… and lots of it. Some are obvious (passport), some are less obvious, Passenger Cards (detailing information about yourself and what you are brining) & Smallcraft Arrival Reports (detailing information about your vessel). 

A Visitor Visa (if staying over 3 months) or an eVisitor Visa (less than 3 months) would likely be the most appropriate Visa for you – unless you’re a New Zealander (your special!). 

For ease of use You also need to bring details of your Vessel. If your yacht is greater than 24 meters it will be classed as a super yacht and subject to further requirements. Ideally, you will want the following:

  1. Ownership details – particularly if the owner is a corporation;
  2. Diagrams of the Vessel;
  3. Bill of Sale;
  4. Flag Details (Certificate);
  5. Bill of Sale or some proof of ownership
  6. List of equipment and items onboard the vessel
  7. Itinerary

Do I need to pay import duty (customs duty) or GST?

Generally speaking, no. The Australian government provides exemptions for visitors importing vessels under their own steam on a temporary basis (being less than 12 months). However, there two main ways to do this.  By applying for a temporary importation (you will likely be required to provide a security (cash bond or bankers letter of indemnity) or  an undertaking that will cover the amount of duty and taxes (GST) that would be applicable under a normal importing. 

Alternatively, a Control Permit, which is subject to strict conditions can be applied for allowing you to enter Australian waters for a specified period of time (not exceeding 12 months). Eligibility to the Control Permit is dependent on certain factors including, purpose of its visit, the visa type the importer is (i.e tourist), and the ownership structure of the Vessel (i.e. is it a company that owns the Vessel?).

What if I am staying longer than 12 months?

Australia is big. Twelve months is nowhere near long enough to sail through all the various waters along our coastline (and actually take in the beauty of it). There’s also places to go (on land), family & friends to see. It is not uncommon for people to want to stay for longer than 12 months. If this is the case. Then, the first hurdle is your visa. Your normal holidaying visa maxes out at 12 months. You must get this extended (possible under certain conditions). 

However, if you Vessel remains in Australia the entire time, you may be hit with GST calculated as the value of your vessel plus costs of importing your vessel. You may also be liable for customs duty (and then GST on that). However, this depends on where your yacht was built and the size of your yacht. 

Thankfully, if you entered into a Control Permit you may be able to request an extension (subject to a maximum three years within a four-year period) and subject to satisfying the  eligibility conditions.

What can I expect when I arrive?

One word, attention, Australia has one of the strictest boarder security in the world, with a particular emphasis on biosecurity (and for good reason). In addition to providing your travel documents, you need to declare everything on board your vessel, from food, plant animal items to drugs (medical or otherwise) and firearms. Not declaring items on your passenger card is just asking for trouble.

In essence, you will need clearance before you (or your items) disembark. This may even be the following day after arrival! Upon entering Australian Waters you must travel directly to your destined port of entry.

What about crew members?

A crew member of a vessel is subject to different Visa rules. There is a special category of visa called the Maritime Crew visa (subclass 988) but this requires the yacht to be commercial (amongst other categories). If your yacht is a private yacht (typically superyacht) your crew that you are paying will likely have to apply for a Temporary Activity visa (subclass 408). Both these visas are subject to strict conditions and eligibility requirements.

Final thoughts

The challenge of crossing the ocean to visit Australian waters is something that should be encouraged to share this paradise with the world. I hope by writing this I have, at the very least, provided some guidance to help these sea ventures to navigate their way through the complex web of Australian bureaucracy. However, the challenge for the Australian government is even greater to bring antiquated laws up-to-date with the needs of the modern cruising yachts person. If this can be achieved then the economic benefits to this country will be immense, you only have to look across the Tasman Sea to see the benefits reaped from a progressive government.