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Do You Need a Licence to Sail a Boat in Europe?

Whilst there are no formal legal requirements for a licence to sail in UK territorial waters, sailing in European waters does have certain legal obligations. Although the UK has decided to leave the European Union and is now negotiating the terms of departure, until these are complete the UK is governed by the existing EU regulations and framework for sailing boats.

No matter how tempting it is just to simply nip over to France for a day trip without any documentation, it is very unwise to do so. Any encounter with an official may result in either a significant fine or even the impounding of your boat. In this guide, we’ll consider the various forms of documentation both legal and advisable when considering sailing in European territorial waters. 

The first thing to consider when asking do you need a licence to sail a boat in Europe is the International Certificate of Competence.


International Certificate of Competence (ICC)

If you’re planning on sailing European waters, then you’ll need an International Certificate of Competence (ICC). The ICC is your “boat licence” and is important to obtain before you go to the European mainland. It is the skipper’s responsibility to ensure that they are aware of any qualification requirements before entering another country’s jurisdiction. An ICC is required for all the inland waterways of Europe and for both inland and offshore coastal waters of the Mediterranean countries. Failure to have the document may lead to your boat being impounded whilst you seek an ICC skipper to release the vessel. The assessment can be taken in a single day and is assessed on the following:

  • Regulations- safe speed, lookouts, signals, distress signals, etc.
  • Coastal water regulations- separation schemes, navigation lights, sound signals, etc.
  • Safety- life jackets, fire extinguishers, flares, etc.
  • Boat preparation and planning- engine checks, weather forecast, fuel levels, etc.
  • Navigation- charts, plotting, tide tables, tidal streams, etc.
  • Pilotage- buoys and IALA system, port entry and departure signals, etc.
  • Practical skills- the ability to give a safety briefing, engine use and maintenance, crew communication, mooring, safety procedures, etc.

It’s important to remember that the ICC is NOT the sailing equivalent of the EU driving licence for road vehicles. The validity of the ICC is determined by the country you are visiting. Some countries may indeed accept the ICC as an alternative to their own national qualification, but this should never be assumed as a given. An ICC does not state the maximum size of the boat the certificate is valid for; this varies from country to country. Restrictions such as how far offshore you can sail, or the type of boat may also apply. It’s always wise to check the local regulations for these exemptions before you visit.   

Further details and requirements can be found on the RYA website.


Other Documentation Required for European Sailing

Along with the ICC there are other factors to consider when asking do you need a licence to sail a boat in Europe. Once you leave UK waters and enter European waters, you will require papers for the boat and for the all of the crew on board. These are known as your Ship’s Papers and include the following:

  • Registration Document

Whilst not compulsory in the UK, these are essential in Europe. They apply to boats which are sailed or driven to a foreign port and may include RIBS, dinghies, sports boats, etc, which are trailed to other countries. You must have the original documents as photocopies are not acceptable. It’s also recommended to carry any additional proof of ownership such as a bill of sale, especially if the boat is registered on the UK’s Small Ships Register (SSR). Any tender craft should be marked T/T (name of the mothership). However, If the tender is to be used beyond ship to shore distances, then it may be treated as a pleasure craft in its own right and will require the same paperwork as the mothership. If the owner of the boat is not on board, some countries demand a letter authorising the use of the vessel to combat against illegal chartering.

  • Maritime Radio Licences

It is a legal requirement under the International Radio Regulations that all transmitters have a licence. In addition, all maritime radio equipment must be covered by a Ship Radio Licence and may only be operated by the holder of the licence. This must be carried on board and covers all maritime radio equipment such as VHF, VHF DSC radio radar, EPIRB, AIS, etc. This will provide you with an international call sign and where applicable, a Maritime Mobile Service Identity Number (MMSI). These are issued by OFCOM. A handheld DSC VHF can only be licensed on a Ship Portable Radio Licence and, at present, cannot be licensed for use abroad. International Radio Regulations state that a maritime radio station is controlled by an operator holding a certificate both issued and recognised by the government to which the station is subject. In the UK this is normally the RYA issued Short Range Certificate (SRC). It is essential that you check the validity of the SRC overseas.

  • Insurance

This is generally compulsory for most European countries and evidence of it must available to be produced. Some countries have a minimum level of cover whilst others may require a translation. Check the territorial limits of your cover before you sail.

  • Status of Union Goods Evidence

A basic principle of the EU is freedom of movement throughout the European Union. This applies to both goods made and supplied in the Union and to goods which have been imported and released for free circulation. Any boat which has this status may move without being subject to a customs procedure from one point to another within the EU. In order to prove this status VAT must be accounted for as well as any applicable customs duty. Whilst checks are infrequent, it is wise to carry the original purchase documents showing that VAT has been paid. A T2L document can be issued by HMRC retrospectively to provide evidence of EU origin, however, it is not seen as evidence that VAT has been paid on the craft.

  • RCD Compliance or Exemption

All watercrafts including personal and recreational may only be put on the market/service within the EU/EEA if they meet the Essential Requirements specified in the Recreational Craft Directive (RCD). There are certain exemptions. All RCD complaint craft must have a Builder’s Plate which includes the CE marking affixed to them. RCD complaint boats must also be marked with an identification number such as a Watercraft Identification Number (WIN), a Craft Identification Number (CIN) or a Hull Identification Number (HIN). This is dependent on when the boat was certified complaint. Evidence of exemption such as a craft being put into service in EEA waters prior to 16 June 1998, is also required. This may be in the form of docking bills, lifting, or bill of sale.

  • Voyage Log

Whilst not compulsory, it is good practice for the UK flagged pleasure craft to keep a log of its voyages, particularly when on longer trips. It is not unheard of for foreign officials to request to view the log.

  • Passport

Every crew member on board must have a valid travel document such as a passport. If you have any non-EU citizens on board, you may need to clear them through immigration and ensure they have the relevant visa requirements.

  • European Health Insurance Card (EHIC)

The EHIC entitles you to free/reduced cost emergency medical treatment whilst visiting countries in the EEA and Switzerland. It is valid for up to 5 years and can be renewed up to 6 months in advance of the expiry date. However, this should not be seen as an alternative for medical/travel insurance.


This article was published in March 2018 and was last updated in December 2022.


Written By: Samantha Wilson

Samantha Wilson has spent her entire life on and around boats, from tiny sailing dinghies all the way up to superyachts. She writes for many boating and yachting publications, top charter agencies, and some of the largest travel businesses in the industry, combining her knowledge and passion of boating, travel and writing to create topical, useful and engaging content.

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