New Guidelines Help Seafarers Applying for US Visas

Jun 2, 2014

by Douglas B. Stevenson, Director, Center for Seafarers’ Rights

Attorney Marc Gorrie has helped the Seamen’s Church Institute (SCI) prepare two online guides for seafarers seeking to obtain visas needed for shore leave in the United States. The United States is one of the few countries in the world requiring foreign crewmembers of commercial ships and airplanes to have a visa before they can go ashore. Despite having ratified the Convention on Facilitation of International Maritime Traffic, which prohibits countries from requiring seafarers to have a visa to go ashore,[1] the US continues to insist that foreign seafarers have a D-1 crewmember visa before they can leave their vessel in American ports.

Online US Visa Guides

How to Apply for a United States D (Crewmember) Visa – General

How to Apply for a United States D (Crewmember) Visa – Chinese Seafarers

N.B. The Maritime Labour Convention, 2006 in Standard A.1.4.5(b) requires shipowners to pay for crewmember visas.

The History

United States lawmakers originally established immigration laws to place limitations on categories of persons allowed to immigrate. The Immigration Act of 1875 was the first piece of American legislation that limited entry into the country. Later, the Immigration Act of 1917 recognized that not all foreigners entering the United States planned to immigrate and created special provisions for foreign seafarers on ships arriving at US ports. The 1917 Act legitimized seafarers’ temporary shore leave, but at the same time required ships’ masters to present crew lists to immigration officers and detain all crew on board until inspection by an immigration officer and medical examiner.

In the Immigration Act of 1924, the United States created a system of visas requiring foreign immigrants to obtain an immigrant visa to enter the United States. The Act did not require non-immigrant seafarers to obtain an individual visa; rather, the vessel’s crew list served as a visa. The US imposed severe penalties on shipowners if seafarers did not return to their ships upon sailing. (These penalties were designed to stop the common practice at the time of shipowners signing on extra crew before sailing to the United States, knowing that many intended to jump ship.)

The Immigration and Nationality Act of 1952, which consolidated a number of immigration laws into one comprehensive statute, created the D-1 crewmember visa. It required foreign persons “serving in any capacity on board a vessel or aircraft” to obtain a D-1 visa to enter the United States temporarily. In creating the D-1 visa, Congress recognized the importance of seafarers’ shore leave to international commerce and wanted to remove unnecessary barriers to their temporary entry into the United States. At the same time, however, Congress also did not want foreign seafarers using their status to illegally remain in the United States.

Non-immigrant Visas Today

Since the establishment of the D-1 visa in 1952, shipping and seafaring have undergone significant changes, making the visa an unnecessary burden to seafarers’ obtaining shore leave. As our annual Seafarer Shore Leave Survey has shown, the biggest reason for denying shore leave in the United States is lack of visa. However, until we can change the laws, seafarers must continue to obtain a visa before sailing to the United States if they want to go ashore.

[1] 3.19.1 Standard. Crewmembers shall not be required to hold a visa for the purpose of shore leave.