Answers for Pilots: Bahamas calling

February 1, 2009

BahamasSo, you’ve had enough of winter weather and thoughts of flying to the Bahamas have spurred you to make plans for a balmy vacation. You know the basic requirements—passports for all, and for you, a pilot certificate, medical certificate, and restricted radiotelephone operators permit.

Your aircraft must have a Standard Airworthiness Certificate, permanent Registration Certificate, Radio Station License, Operating Limitations, and Weight and Balance. If the aircraft is registered in a name other than your own, bring a notarized letter allowing use of the aircraft.

ICAO requires an approved life vest flotation device for each occupant for flights in the Bahamas, and it’s recommended that you also carry a life raft. All U.S. registered aircraft must have an ID data plate and 12-inch registration marks when flying in the ADIZ.

U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) requires a $27.50 annual user fee decal. Normally, private flights do not pre-clear with CBP; however, if you or your passengers are taking expensive items, it is a good idea to declare them before you leave—making it less likely you’ll face a duty or tax on your own belongings when you return. Non-U.S. citizens may have pre-clearance requirements, so if this applies to you, be sure to contact the appropriate CBP office.

On departure, you must be on an activated IFR or Defense VFR flight plan for flying through the ADIZ, and you must make your first landing in the Bahamas at a Customs airport of entry. Call the FBO or Customs to announce your planned arrival time.

Flight plans are recommended for island flying, though you may need to open and close them from altitude if phones are not available. For island hopping flexibility, obtain a cruising permit at your airport of entry. VFR at night is prohibited except within the airport traffic areas of Freeport and Nassau.

When it’s time to head home, you must return your immigration tourist card and cruising permit, as well as pay a $15 per passenger departure tax. U.S. CBP requires advance notice of arrival—no less than one hour and no more than 23 hours, and you will need a completed CBP Form 178 . File a defense VFR or IFR flight plan and activate with Nassau, Freeport, or Miami FSS. ADCUS should not be depended on because the ADCUS message in flight plans is often not communicated; we recommend you call CBP to confirm.

You must land at the first airport of entry after crossing the U.S. border. Be on time—a little late is better than early, as CBP will allow a 15-minute window for your arrival time.

A word about eAPIS—CBP’s Electronic Advance Passenger Information System. Beginning May 18, 2009, pilots who fly internationally will have to provide passenger information to CBP for both departing and arriving back in the U.S. using this new electronic reporting system. But eAPIS is actually available now, and pilots may use it on a voluntary basis to file passenger manifests before launching on any international flight. Until May 18, pilots may choose to use either the CBP Form 178 or the eAPIS arrival manifest for returning back to the U.S. On May 18, it becomes mandatory to file eAPIS departure and arrival manifests with CPB.

In order to use the eAPIS system, you must register for an online account. Once the account is approved—a process that CBP officials say takes about a week—you will be able to use the system to file passenger manifests electronically. Under the new rule, manifests must be filed at least one hour before departing from or arriving in the United States, but there’s no time limitation on how far in advance you can file—thus providing the option to file both legs from home before you leave.

For more tips, visit AOPA’s international web section or call the AOPA Pilot Information Center, 1-800-872-2672.