Suppose I'm a long distance swimmer and swim across a large body of water to another country, like from France to England, or from England to the USA. Do I need to pass customs? Do I need the same documents as I would need when entering via an airport or a harbor?

Suppose I don't start on a shore, but on a boat in international waters. Do the same rules apply?

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    Do you really mean to ask about customs (which is to do with goods transfer) or immigration (which is to do with people transfer)? Commented May 19, 2014 at 7:59
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    Both, if possible. I'm interested in the consequences of entering a nation this way, whether it's concerning goods or people.
    – Nzall
    Commented May 19, 2014 at 8:03
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    If you make it from UK to USA and still alive, then why not! Commented May 19, 2014 at 12:58
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    The answer to this question is obvious. Would have been more interesting "is there a way to legally enter a country by swimming? (such as a special permit or similar means)".
    – o0'.
    Commented May 19, 2014 at 15:37
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7 Answers 7


You can only pass through customs (or immigration) through designated ports of entry. This means that unless you have a special pass (for example, ship crews have special passes), you need to go through the customs and immigration process. This is a burden on you as the traveler.

It does not matter where you start the journey.

Your status in the destination country/territory will depend on your current nationality. For example, if you are allowed to legally reside and visit a country without a visa, you will not be an illegal alien (to prove this though, you'll have to provide documentation - like a passport).

However, there will still be issues with your departure as your arrival was not legal or documented. If questioned by police you will most likely be detained and deported for illegally entering the country.

As for goods (customs), it is more restrictive as each country has their own rules on what goods are allowed entry customs free, which goods need to be declared and which goods are forbidden.

In either way the burden is on you to make sure your travel is legal and authorized even if you don't need a visa to travel to the country; or your port/manner of entry was not through the normal channels.


Of course, why not? Note that a somewhat related, and much more common, situation does happen regularly as people move around with private crafts. In that case, it's up to you to follow all relevant rules and to report to the authorities within a certain time (usually it's understood you can at least dock to the harbor and walk up to the relevant office so you have already set foot in the country before getting clearance but you shouldn't wander around).

In a way, you could consider border checkpoints and all other enforcement measures as a convenience that helps travelers respect the rules but the mere fact that a border is not guarded does not exempt you from anything.

Where you come from during a particular trip also should not generally make any difference, countries typically define rules about entry, import duties, etc. independently of each other. While both typically happen in quick succession, the relevant event is entering the country, not leaving another one. Therefore, I see no reasons why you would be exempted by virtue of having transited through international waters.

Also, in many places where you would consider long-distance open-sea swimming (e.g. the English Channel), there are rules about safety and the like that would seem to be a more pressing concern (e.g. I believe than the French authorities do not allow swimming from their side so all recent crossings start from England). Realistically, you would secure authorization in advance and travel with an escort (a kayak to keep you company and a larger boat to make you visible, provide food, etc.) At the destination, authorities will be warned and might wait for you on the beach or wherever you plan to arrive.

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    So you just need to go to a border checkpoint within a certain time? How much time do you have?
    – Nzall
    Commented May 19, 2014 at 8:16
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    @NateKerhofs It would depend on the country, if allowed at all, my point was mainly that you are not exempted from anything.
    – Relaxed
    Commented May 19, 2014 at 8:23
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    @NateKerkhofs - do note that the Antigua example expressly prohibits anyone swimming from the ship ashore before the ship has docked and handled all the entry procedures, and the ship would be held liable if a passenger did that. Their answer to the question isn't "a certain time to get to checkpoint", their answer is "Don't."
    – Peteris
    Commented May 19, 2014 at 10:27
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    @natekerkhofs Rule of thumb would be "No limit as such, as long as it's the first thing you do." -- IE, come ashore, dry off, hail a cab to the nearest customs office to register your entry, probably fine. Come ashore, go sunbathing on the beach, have dinner at a restaurant, check into a hotel, go to the customs office the next morning... Be prepared to have a very well documented answer to the question of "And what have you been doing in between the moment you came ashore and the moment you checked in here?" Commented May 19, 2014 at 15:13
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    A friend kayaked to Alaska, didn't check in with customs until the next day when he arrived. They didn't look kindly on that, was deported.
    – Mark Mayo
    Commented May 20, 2014 at 0:53

Swimming over a random body of water to cross a border may simply be illegal without express prior permission from the border authorities - the question isn't "do I need to pass customs and have all the ordinary documents" (yes, you do), the question is "under what circumstances is this allowed at all".

Depending on the particular country, crossing a border in any spot that's not an explicitly allowed crossing point (both over water or ground) may be a crime that would get you detained and deported, or worse.

There is no basic right to simply travel across borders - you may only do it in a manner that both relevant countries allow, and they may (and do) place arbitrary restrictions, so ask the specific authorities of that country first. It's very likely that it would require prior registration and permit in order to do that legally.

Ship traffic has specific legal rules - if you've arrived on a ship from abroad and docked somewhere, it doesn't neccessarily mean that you're allowed to arbitrarily go on shore (or bring any goods) from the ship; but that's probably a different question.


There are some countries that allow for customs by mail for this type of crossing. For example, crossing into Canada via swimming or canoeing into the Quetico qualifies as a remote border crossing (link) because there simply are not customs offices in the middle of the wilderness. You still have to "pass customs" but you would not be arrested on site when you cross over, as you are pre-cleared for entry.

Passing into the US through the Boundary Waters Canoe and Wilderness area requires you to report to a customs office within a certain number of days of entry, so there is some leeway given, but ultimately you need to declare what you are bringing in to the country to the proper authorities.


If your swim is official and publicized, customs officials will be waiting for you on the shore. I understand this happened for people swimming Lake Ontario from the US to Canada, and for channel swimmers. I saw this for the man who recently tight-rope-walked above Niagara Falls - even before his family hugged him, he got his passport stamped. I believe Diana Nyad, who swam from Cuba to Florida, also had a photo op passport moment.

If the question is, can you sneak into a country by swimming across a border, the answer is yes, just as you can do by sneaking across a land border. But you would be in major trouble for doing so. Part of making the plans and arrangements for a long distance swim is contacting authorities and getting permission to land where you plan to land, and either to be met by immigration or to commit to getting yourself to an office as soon as you reach the shore.


There are answers stating that you can enter the given country only in the specified points. In the free movement zones, like Schengen, it's possible you can cross border anywhere (depending on the agreement between parties) but generally, you can't just enter the foreign country wherever you want.

But your problem can start even sooner, because first you enter the internal waters of the country, without permission and without registration. The registration rules apply to vessels, so entering it by the swimmer would be problematic. Even if you'd apply for the permission, it would be likely to be refused because of the problems with classifying you.

Unauthorized entering of internal waters of foreign country is something you should prevent in any case!

Suppose you survive, you'd be handled as a person illegally crossing the border. The legal actions depend on the jurisdiction and the mood of the officers. A Polish mountaineers group has illegally crossed the border between Poland and CCCP in Soviet times and they were deported back to Poland after spending night in police arrest, but it could end much worse.

Please take into consideration also, that Border Guards are usually armed!

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    The American hikers who crossed into Iran illegally from American Kurdistan had a harder time of it. As did the American nutbar who swam across the Yalu into North Korea. This South Korean guy cnn.com/2013/09/16/world/asia/south-korea-border-shooting got riddled with bullets by the South Korean military for trying a similar thing across the Imjin. Even between countries on friendly terms (where there is a formal frontier), one could expect to be taken into custody. Commented May 19, 2014 at 11:57

This is one of those questions that can be answered by just asking yourself, "If it was legal, wouldn't everybody be doing it?"

Like, here in the U.S., drug smugglers go to huge efforts to sneak drugs across the border, and we have law enforcement people who patrol the border trying to catch them. If there was no law requiring you to pass immigration or customs if you swim ashore, why would they go to all that trouble? They could just take a boat to 10 feet off shore, jump in the water wearing a life jacket stuffed with cocaine, and swim. They could wave cheerily to any coast guard or police officers who might be around as they did. Ditto for people who today are illegal immigrants. All they'd have to do is drive to a beach, swim out ten feet and swim back, and now they're legal.

I don't claim to be an expert on immigration law, but if there ever was such a loophole, I'm sure it was plugged many decades ago.

  • This makes very little sense to me. Being allowed to cross the border with no or few formalities does not make it legal to smuggle drugs.
    – Relaxed
    Commented May 20, 2014 at 15:34
  • @Relaxed That was, of course, intended to be an extreme example. But Customs basically serves two purposes: (a) prevent people from bringing items into the country that are illegal, or that are illegal without a special license or some such; and (b) collect import duties on items that are legal but subject to tax. So I guess you could imagine a system where you don't have to go through customs but are still barred from bringing in certain items, and they rely on somehow catching people who break these laws after they're in the country rather than at the border. But surely that would be ... Commented May 20, 2014 at 21:03
  • ... much more difficult than catching them at the border, and maintaining a border patrol to catch people who try to sneak over the border. But how would you impose import taxes if people were allowed to just skip Customs? They'd have to voluntarily go to some government office to pay the tax. I.e., they'd have to report to Customs or something just like it. Commented May 20, 2014 at 21:05
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    You can impose customs duties exactly like you impose other taxes or enforce many other rules, relying on self-control, random inspections and punishment. The truth is that's the way it has worked in Western Europe for many years, even before Schengen and even with non-EU countries like Switzerland. Now that border checkpoints have been officially dismantled, it's still illegal to smuggle drugs and people still get caught doing it.
    – Relaxed
    Commented May 21, 2014 at 7:35
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    It might have become somewhat easier in practice (not so sure about that, actually) but that's beside the point.
    – Relaxed
    Commented May 21, 2014 at 7:36

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