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I have no plans to make such a trip but the question was inspired by this recent question: Entering Greece from Bulgaria on dirt roads

I am an Irish citizen and hence I can stay indefinitely in Ireland and also other EU countries such as France. Ireland is in the EU but not Schengen; France is in both. If I sail from a small port in Ireland to a small port in France, would I have committed an offence.

I have received and accepted a good answer but here is part of the motivation for my question. I am exploring to what extent the EU or Schengen area operates as one country. However, similar issues might apply to a sea trip from continental US to Hawaii or Alaska.

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  • Are you only asking about staying in the Schengen area legally or about entering France legally?
    – Willeke
    Feb 16 at 12:54
  • I had assumed that, as an EU citizen, my presence in France would be legal. It is the legality of the entry which is not obvious.
    – badjohn
    Feb 16 at 13:10

2 Answers 2

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It is not an offence to sail to France, but it is an offence if you try to evade the mandatory border and immigration control when arriving for the first time at a French port. Without checking the precise rules for France, I believe you are supposed to notify the port in advance and the port authorities will inform the immigration authorities.

Sea ports are actually only considered internal Schengen borders when used for regular ferry traffic. If you arrive to France with a recreational vessel, you are strictly speaking subject to border control even if you arrive from another Schengen country, although many countries, I believe also France, are not so very strict about that. The obvious reason is that when you arrive to France through international waters, French border protection will have no means to know if you are arriving from:

  • e.g. Denmark (EU and Schengen) and therefore not subject to either immigration nor customs check
  • e.g. Norway (Schengen, but not EU) and therefore subject to customs, but not immigration check
  • e.g. Ireland (EU, but not Schengen) and therefore subject to immgration, but not customs check
  • e.g. UK (neither EU nor Schengen) and therefore subject to both immigration and customs check
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  • 5
    I've never heard of someone crossing from the UK to France with small boats ;)
    – Shmiel
    Feb 16 at 13:19
  • 3
    @Shmiel During the Dunkirk evacuation :-)
    – Traveller
    Feb 16 at 13:25
  • @Shmiel I guess that some of the small boats go back for more passengers.
    – badjohn
    Feb 16 at 14:17
  • @badjohn It probably only goes back empty. Or maybe there are also people running away from the UK... Who knows...
    – Shmiel
    Feb 16 at 14:31
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    I have heard of someone on a surfboard (with a sail) crossing from the UK to France by accident, easiest solution was to turn around and sail back. (No passport and so on.)
    – Willeke
    Feb 16 at 15:50
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Generally speaking, if you are physically able to cross a border, it's your duty either not to do it, or to report to some designated locations. In some places, it may be legal for citizens of one of the bordering countries to cross without reporting if they have no goods to declare to custom, but illegal for citizens of third countries.

In the specific example of landing at a French port in a non-commercial vessel, you don't have to do anything if you're coming from another Schengen country, but you are legally mandated to report to customs if you're coming from a non-Schengen country, even if that country is in the EU and even if you're an EU citizen. The French customs website has instructions. They're only in French unfortunately, so I'll translate some excerpts them here. The form that you need to fill in has instructions in English as well as French.

Who is concerned?

Any person on board a pleasure vessel (…), regardless of nationality, arriving directly at a French harbour from a harbour outside the Schengen area, or leaving France to go to a country outside the Schengen area.

You are subject to border controls and you must enter or leave France at one of the designated border crossing harbours (…) during fixed opening times.

By derogation (…) you may enter France at a non-designated harbour if you strictly follow the following procedure:

  1. The captain of the vessel (…) asks for authorization to enter the port.
  2. The captain addresses the form (…) to the harbour office (…) at the latest 24 hours before arriving, or if the crossing lasts less than 24 hours, at the latest when the vessel leaves the harbour located outside of the Schengen Area.

I don't know what the penalties are for not following the procedure, but if you get caught, at a minimum, customs tend to have broad permissions and could decide to do a very thorough and disruptive search of your vessel.

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