Wednesday, April 2, 2014

Getting Straight With US Customs & Border Patrol

Riding the bus down the Keys was like being in a foreign country
Flying by the seat of my pants.  That’s how I’ve handled this SVRS thing.  I used to be so organized and meticulous and could knock a project like this out neatly.  But I just couldn’t seem to get a grasp on it and I’m not entirely sure that it’s my fault… I’m not going to tell you that this is how it will go for you, but this is how it went for us.  And if I can save you a little aggravation… well, you’re welcome!

Lets begin at the beginning.  What is SVRS and why do I need it?  Well, you DON'T.  SVRS - Small Vessel Reporting System is available to qualified persons and offers facilitated customs and immigration clearance for low risk recreational boaters at the time of arrival from foreign ports.  If you haven't registered with the SVRS system you must go to Customs within 24 hours of entry to the US in person.

The ICW where it meets the Seven Mile Bridge
If you DO have it, you may be able to satisfy your Customs & Immigration requirements with a simple phone call.
Is it absolute?  No. (nothing is absolute with the government)  MOST will not be required to go to CBP (Customs & Border Patrol) personally.

What does SVRS cost?  It’s free.  You complete an online application which puts you into their system.  You go to a designated CBP location for a personal interview where you will be photographed and fingerprinted, maybe asked some questions.  That’s it. 

Well, that’s not entirely it.  If you have a vessel 30 ft. or more in length, you must also provide information about your vessel and apply for a DTOPS decal.  DTOPS- Decal/Transponder Online Procurement System - The application is available online.  There is a yearly fee (as of now) for this decal of $27.50.  Your decal number is linked to you in the SVRS system.  The decal is displayed on your boat and it may lessen your chances of being detained or boarded for inspection by CBP.  

The "OLD" Seven Mile Bridge
Sounds simple right?  Mmhmm.  Well in the end, it is.  But the application process is a little bit disjointed.  

I learned about SVRS and DTOPS long before we left home to go cruising.  It would have been great if we could have applied for the decal while we were still at home where getting mail was easy.  There were two reasons why we didn’t.  One, because of the annual fee for the decal.  You don’t need it until just before leaving for the Bahamas.  

The second reason, is that SVRS processing is not available at all CBP locations.  There wasn’t a local office where we could appear in person for the interview in Port Aransas, TX. (where we lived).  So, we waited until we arrived here in Marathon, with the Key West office (Miami Processing Center) a short bus ride away.  You can go to the list of eligible CBP locations to choose the most convenient one for yourself. 

The Bus Ride was the best part.  Just LOOK at these colors!
The DTOPS decal can take 4 to 6 weeks processing time so plan ahead. I completed the online application for the decal and received an email confirmation.  A couple of days later, we received another email notification that a receipt was available for viewing by logging in to our online account.  Important:  This is where I got the decal number needed to complete your SVRS application when linking a vessel.

Moving on…  The SVRS application is separate from the DTOPS application.  If you are associating a vessel to your application, have your decal number ready. The application is very short and it asks for very basic information. We used our passports as identification.  Important: Everyone on your vessel must submit an application and schedule an individual interview. 

A weather balloon?
What made it interesting for us?
We didn’t have a mailing address to receive our DTOPS decal for where we planned to be in 4 to 6 weeks, so we used our home address.  This means that once the decal arrived in Texas, we had to figure out how to get it to the boat. Inconvenient.

We use Mac and iPad for internet.  The DTOPS and SVRS online applications work best using Internet Explorer.  We had to download Chrome on the iPad to complete the DTOPS process.  We had some problems in trying to complete our online applications with Safari and were unable to link our vessel online. (we completed the application WITHOUT adding a vessel and brought our US Documentation certificate with us to our personal interviews to have it added manually.  It was not a problem.)

The streets of Key West.  NOT what I had expected...
We had not realized that BOTH of us needed to be in the SVRS system.  I had to scramble to enter myself (I had applied in Bruce’s name) the night before and was unable to get an interview scheduled.  When we arrived at the interview, we just played it off as if we both had appointments.  When they told me that I wasn’t on the schedule, I told them we had computer problems…  (Is that lying to the government?) They were very good about it and did my interview anyway… (Uncle Sam, if you're reading this... I apologize for that little white lie)

The busses run from Marathon to Key West approximately every two hours.  The traffic can make a huge difference.  This means that you either need an appointment well after 1:00 pm or you should take the really early bus.  We took the 10:18 am bus and barely made it to the airport in time for our appointments.  Had the traffic been worse, we would have been late.  The good news is, the CBP officers seem to be used to this and told us it was fine if we were a little late.  But you should call.

Yes, there really ARE roosters running around in Key West
Another reason you should call the day of your interview… is that the location of your interview stated on your confirmation email, may or may not be correct.  Call the number when you head that way to see if you need to go to the airport or to the Simonton St. location.  I think they literally decide where they’re going to work each day on the morning of…  This has caused many people to scramble when they show up in the wrong place… otherwise known as the place stated on their appointment confirmation…

CBP at the Airport
So, to wrap it up… 
  • Plan ahead, review the list to pick your processing location.  
  • Get your DTOPS decal on its way. (Ours ended up arriving at our home in about a week)
  • Use Internet Explorer to do both DTOPS and SVRS applications online if possible.  
  • Register every person on board individually and set up your interview dates and times.  They only do interviews two days a week in Key West, and at limited times.  Try to get your times together.
  • If you’re riding the bus to get there, review the bus run times and make your interview appointments leaving lots of time to get there.
  • Pack a lunch.

After it was all over with, we found food at the airport.  
Now... we're straight with the government.  We are photographed and fingerprinted and will have to give up any thoughts of a future in crime.  But we probably would have made poor criminals anyway...

The ride home!


  1. Thank you for this. After your post, I went and researched this. I am in the GOES system (so no interview), but my husband isn't. We also don't have our boat yet but I'd like to get this done. Your information is very helpful.

    1. You're very welcome. I think there was a checkbox for people already in the system which could certainly change the process for you. I'm sure the process is undergoing continuous change, so give it a month and it might be different for everyone! Thanks for reading our blog.

  2. I must admit that I wasn't familiar with this! Will get working on it while we still have a permanent address. I saw a location in Gulfport, MS ... good excuse to visit the beach.

    Enjoyed your last post as well. How cool that Marathon has so many seminars to learn from, meet people, and share ideas. Sounds better and better!

    1. I have a friend who said that the check-in process had a lot to be desired when they first began this program. I'm hoping to find it a little more streamlined when we us it.. It doesn't hurt to be prepared anyway!

      Marathon has so much going on, it's impossible to get it all in. People are coming and going all the time and there's a wealth of information to be had. Don't miss it!

  3. Very in-lighting. Thanks so much....I am starting mine ASAP. Just waiting for my new passport to arrive.....I let it go and had to re-apply. Had one for 33 years in the US Navy and retired in 96......Well it expired and cause I was not active duty had to re-apply. Gee seems I was lost in the system...even though I had the old passport.

    1. Yeah Richard, you've gotta keep those things up! Much easier to renew than to re-do! I'm not sure where the nearest office is for you, but they are adding them as they can. Dot those I's!