Crossing Borders: How-To Guide For Visiting Neighboring Countries

Expand your horizons with these flying tips.

You may be intimidated by the thought of international flying, particularly with the U.S. Customs and Border Protection’s Electronic Advance Passenger Information System — eAPIS — which was implemented in 2009. While you are subjected to major fines if you don’t comply, it is not a very complicated system. It simply involves an online portal process, and the compliance rate for eAPIS is greater than 99 percent for general aviation pilots, according to Tom Zecha, Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association’s manager of aviation security. Zecha is aware of only a handful of fines that have been levied, and those were in cases where there was blatant disregard for the law.

But eAPIS is only one step in the process of crossing our borders, and a fair amount of planning is definitely required. For some, the preflight planning is part of the fun and excitement of international flying. Others would rather have someone else handle the process. After you’ve completed your first international flight, you will likely find that it is not that complicated, and subsequent trips will be even easier since you know the procedures.

The Basic Needs

As an international flier, the first thing you need to do is dig out your passport and make sure it is valid for the duration of your trip. Depending on your nationality, you or your passengers may need a visa to enter the destination country and return to the United States. Visa applications can take time, so you may need to plan ahead. The rules are different for each country, but as a U.S. citizen, you don’t need a visa to visit our neighboring countries.

You also need to get a U.S.Customs Service decal for your airplane. In the past, you were able to purchase this decal at airports of entry, but now you must buy one through the Decal/Transponder Online Procurement System. In this simple online process, you pay a $27.50 user fee that covers the airplane for one calendar year. It may take awhile to get the sticker in the mail, so if you haven’t received it by the time you plan to depart, you can simply bring your receipt as proof that you paid the user fee.

In most cases, your aircraft insurance will cover you across the border. Many pilots believe that Mexico requires additional liability insurance. However, this is not necessarily the case. According to AOPA, as long as your liability coverage is equal to or greater than $300,000 and Mexico is included in your area of coverage, you are good to go. But regardless of the country you are about to visit, check with your insurance carrier to make sure you are covered.

There is also a list of documents and equipment required for airplanes traveling internationally, some of which you should already have in your airplane. See the sidebar on the next page for more information.

One basic requirement that applies to all international flights is an IFR or VFR flight plan or a defense visual flight rules flight plan if you are crossing an air defense identification zone. Remember to open and close the flight plan. Many countries also require you to be on a flight plan while flying within their borders, and some countries prohibit VFR flight at night. When crossing the border, you will also need to squawk a discreet code, and as always, it’s best to communicate with air traffic control whenever you can.

A minimum of one hour before your airplane leaves the ground when departing or arriving in the United States, you need to file an electronic eAPIS report. While it takes some time, the sign-up and activation processes and data entry for eAPIS are very straightforward for anyone who has used a computer and email. The information is stored, so planning subsequent trips will be much quicker.

Once your information has been loaded into the system, you can file either a notice of departure or notice of arrival. If you are unsure of the Internet accessibility at your destination, you can manifest both your departure from and return to the United States at the same time. About one minute after you file your manifest, you should receive an email with instructions for your flight. Make sure you bring this email on the trip either in a printed or an electronic format.

In addition to these basic requirements, there may be a list of things that need to be addressed depending on what you are bringing, the type of airplane you fly and which country you choose to visit. Make sure you do your research before you go. Here are some basic tips on how to visit our neighbors to the north, south and southeast.

Visit our friendly northern neighbor to discover beautiful mountains and pristine glacial lakes. (Photo courtesy of Tobias Alt)|

Canada

Canada is a paradise for outdoorsmen, with its vast forests and stunning mountains offering ample opportunities for hiking or hunting and oceans and rivers providing excellent boating and fishing. Canada also has a rich native cultural heritage, and a wide range of cultural exploration and unique shopping opportunities are available in Canada’s big cities.

Our neighbors to the north are known for being a friendly bunch and so is the country’s Canadian Border Services Agency. You do need to bring the basic documents listed on the previous page; plan to fly to a CBSA airport of entry and alert CBSA via telephone between two and 48 hours before your arrival. In this case, the CBSA, unlike agencies in most countries, wants the pilot, not a representative, to call directly.

Once you arrive, you will likely be greeted by a CBSA agent who will ask some questions and look at your documents. In some cases, however, your representative might not be around even if you arrive at your ETA. In this case, call the CBSA phone number again, and you may be cleared to enter over the phone.

If you plan to travel regularly to Canada, you can get what is called a CANPASS, which allows you to land outside of CBSA office hours and at CANPASS airports that are not regular airports of entry. The application process takes four to six weeks, according to the CBSA website, and the CANPASS is valid for five years.

Canada does recognize the U.S. Sport Pilot license. However, a medical certificate is still required for light-sport aircraft pilots. You should also be aware that if you are bringing a child into the country and both parents are not on board, a notarized letter from the nonpresent parent or parents is required. In addition, special equipment, such as shelter, signaling equipment and the means to make a fire, must be carried in the aircraft in some areas of Canada during certain times of the year.

The west coast of Mexico offers many exciting airports, with great whale watching and fishing nearby. (Photo by Pia Bergqvist)|

Mexico

Mexico is a big, multifaceted country with plenty to offer. Whether you want to get away from it all on a remote beach, hang out at a luxury resort, visit ancient ruins at one of several UNESCO World Heritage sites or take in the hustle and bustle of a big city, there is something for everyone.

On Dec. 31, 2013, Mexico implemented its new Advance Passenger Information system, its version of the data collection of crew, passengers and flight information for aircraft entering its borders that many countries, including the United States with its eAPIS, have introduced.

The Mexican government has contracted with communications giant ARINC as the sole provider of its API system. This makes Mexico the first country in the world without a public portal, according to Rick Gardner of Caribbean Sky Tours. An ARINC subscription runs in the hundreds of dollars a month, so you will most likely go through a third-party flight-planning provider. Several companies are already offering this service, including fltplan.com, Universal, National Business Aviation Association and several international travel companies (see “Get Help” on the next page). Jeppesen says it is in the process of developing a system separate from ARINC’s.

The implementation of the new system was fraught with confusion and misinterpretations, and it was initially not clear whether the rules applied to private aviation. The reason for this was that some rules don’t make sense for smaller airplanes. For example, data must be sent electronically to the Mexican government after the doors of the aircraft have been closed. Regardless, it does appear that the system applies to all aircraft. Some airports may not yet be enforcing the system, but the Mexican government can come after you later, according to several sources. A one-time entry can be bought for $35 or less if you have a subscription with a flight-planning provider. That is money well spent since fines for noncompliance can be steep.

In addition to complying with the API requirements, several documents need to be in the airplane. According to Gardner, you will need a private pilot certificate or higher since a Sport Pilot certificate will not be accepted.

The islands off our southeast coast have many scenic beach-side airports, such as Staniel Cay Airport in the Bahamas. (Photo courtesy of Neil Glazer)|

You can enter Mexico at any airport of entry (be aware that if you are arriving from a country other than the United States, other rules may apply), where you can expect to be greeted by army fatigue-clad guards with machine guns. They may look intimidating but are generally very friendly.

Once you enter the immigration office, you will pay for an entry permit, which is good for 180 days. The price for a single-entry and a multiple-entry permit, which allows for unlimited border crossings for the year, is the same. Depending on the airport, the immigration process can be a bit of a song and dance, with several desks to visit and possibly a few additional fees to pay. According to Gardner, there are three different types of airports in Mexico: private, government-run and government-owned but privately operated. While the government-owned airports have standard fee structures, the privately owned airports can set their own fees.

Some pilots are reluctant to fly to Mexico because they fear losing or having damage done to their airplanes. Gardner, who has flown extensively in Mexico for decades, says that airports where the Mexican military is present provide the best security. “If the military is not present, then you should verify what kind of security is offered,” Gardner says.

The Islands

You can’t beat the turquoise water, sandy beaches and subtropical temperatures of the Bahamas and Caribbean islands. Besides enjoying the great food and drinks, you can snorkel or scuba dive to a shipwreck, go zip lining, or take a nice, relaxing walk on the soft sand. Animal lovers can swim with dolphins, ride horses on the beach or share some bananas with a few monkeys. Shopaholics can also get their fix on some of the islands with local arts and crafts and great duty-free shopping.

Regardless of which island you fly to, you need Coast Guard-approved life jackets for the pilot and each passenger. You can rent life jackets and rafts, which are recommended, at several FBOs in Florida.

Since the islands constitute different countries, the rules and fees vary significantly. Familiarize yourself with them when you plan your flight. In general, countries will require several copies of a general declarations form related to the flight. You can expedite your time at the customs office by filling these out at home before you depart. In addition to the general declarations forms, the Bahamas require a C7A form for pilots planning to fly to more than one island. Some Caribbean countries require a Caricom eAPIS manifest to be submitted prior to arrival, departure or travel between those countries.

Again, things are always changing, and while the rules are never complicated, it is important to do your homework. You could even save yourself some money by doing a little extra research. For example, Air Journey founder Thierry Pouille says that recently the Bahamas implemented a $50 arrival fee and a $25 departure fee, making a lunch visit quite costly. However, the Bahamas Out Island Promotion Board is running a promotion through the end of April where pilots receive a $150 fuel credit if they stay two nights at certain hotels and visit two islands or a $300 fuel credit for four nights or more. Similar promotions may be available in the future there and in other countries.

Coming Home

When returning to the United States, the rules are different depending on where you are arriving from. When arriving from Canada, you may proceed to any airport of entry. However, Zecha recommends landing near the border in case something happens en route, such as a weather or bathroom diversion. You can alert CBP via flight service en route if your plans change, but it may be less of a hassle to simply plan on landing close to the border.

When arriving from Mexico or the Caribbean, you must land at the first airport of entry along your route of flight. There is, however, a way around this by applying for an overflight exemption.

You need to call the customs office at your airport of entry and inform them of your arrival. Note the name of the agent you speak with in case there are questions when you arrive. You need to arrive within 15 minutes of your recorded ETA. If your ETA changes, alert CBP via flight service en route. Upon arrival, you need to stay inside the airplane until approached by a customs officer. Pouille says you can expect to have to unload the airplane.

Before you have taken your first trip across the border, flying internationally may seem like an onerous task. But once you have tried it, you will find that it is not that difficult. You may even become addicted to the fun and adventure that flying across our borders in your own airplane provides.

Documents Required for International Flights

Pilot Documents:

. Passport for each occupant

. Pilot certificate (with English proficiency endorsement)

. Medical certificate

. Restricted radiotelephone operator permit

Aircraft Documents:

. Airworthiness certificate

. Aircraft registration (no pink slips)

. Operating limitations

. Weight and balance documents

. Radio station license (for the airplane)

. U.S. Customs Service decal

. Insurance documents

. 12-inch registration numbers (if crossing ADIZ)

. General declaration form

Equipment:

. 121.5 MHz and/or 406 MHz ELT (varies with country)

. Mode C transponder

. Two-way radio

. Survival gear (requirement varies)

. Navigation charts

. Cash (some airports don’t accept credit cards for fees or fuel)

Get Help

When it comes to crossing our borders, don’t rely on friends’ past experiences. Rules and regulations can change, and fines can be steep if you make serious mistakes. There are several companies that specialize in helping pilots fly internationally. And if you want to make your border crossing stress-free, you can join a group flight organized by a professional organization.

. The Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association has good information about crossing our borders on its member website, including some video

tutorials. (aopa.org)

. The National Business Aviation Association offers its members a portal shared with ARINC that allows for electronic data submission for entry into many countries, including Mexico. (nbaa.org)

. Air Journey organizes group trips to destinations around the globe but can also provide individual advice to those who want to travel alone. The company also provides low-cost eAPIS services. (airjourney.com)

. Bahamas & Caribbean Pilot’s Guide is a printed resource for pilots wanting to travel to the islands. It includes detailed information for public airports, including images and frequencies. (pilotpub.com)

. Caribbean Sky Tours is a membership association that assists with private flights to Mexico, Central America, the Bahamas and the Caribbean islands. Mexican API services are also available. (caribbeanskytours.com)

. Bush Pilots International, formerly known as Baja Bush Pilots, offers international travel assistance services and guide books and plans group trips, mostly south of the border. (bushpilotsinternational.com)

. Fltplan.com, Jeppesen and Universal provide assistance with flight planning and are all set up with the new Mexican API system. These companies offer various levels of services, generally through subscriptions. (fltplan.com, jeppesen.com, universalweather.com)

We welcome your comments on flyingmag.com. In order to maintain a respectful environment, we ask that all comments be on-topic, respectful and spam-free. All comments made here are public and may be republished by Flying.

Login

New to Flying?

Register

Already have an account?