Brilliance of the Seas in Boston

[ANALYSIS] What is the Passenger Vessel Services Act (PVSA)?

You may have seen or heard this acronym around the cruise boards; PVSA. But what is it, what’s its purpose and how does it affect cruisers?

It stands for the Passenger Vessel Services Act, or PVSA. It is a piece of US legislation designed to protect American maritime interests. It’s sometimes referred to US’s Cabotage laws. Cabotage is the maritime term for protecting domestic lines interest along that country’s coastline. The PVSA along with the more widely known Jones Act are the United States two attempts at this.

Every country has their version of it, however the US’s is one of the most strictest.

Here it is in its raw format from the US Code of Federal Regulations:

46 CFR §551.03

U.S. Code › Title 46 › Subtitle V › Part D › Chapter 551 › § 55103

(a)In General.—Except as otherwise provided in this chapter or chapter 121 of this title, a vessel may not transport passengers between ports or places in the United States to which the coastwise laws apply, either directly or via a foreign port, unless the vessel—

(1)is wholly owned by citizens of the United States for purposes of engaging in the coastwise trade; and

(2)has been issued a certificate of documentation with a coastwise endorsement under chapter 121 or is exempt from documentation but would otherwise be eligible for such a certificate and endorsement.


The penalty for violating subsection (a) is $300 for each passenger transported and landed.

19 CFR §4.80a

CFR › Title 19 › Chapter I › Part 4 › Section 4.80a

(a) For the purposes of this section, the following terms will have the meaning set forth below:

(1)Coastwise port means a port in the U.S., its territories, or possessions embraced within the coastwise laws.

(2)Nearby foreign port means any foreign port in North America, Central America, the Bermuda Islands, or the West Indies (including the Bahama Islands, but not including the Leeward Islands of the Netherlands Antilles, i.e., Aruba, Bonaire, and Curacao). A port in the U.S. Virgin Islands shall be treated as a nearby foreign port.

(3)Distant foreign port means any foreign port that is not a nearby port.

(4)Embark means a passenger boarding a vessel for the duration of a specific voyage and disembark means a passenger leaving a vessel at the conclusion of a specific voyage. The terms embark and disembark are not applicable to a passenger going ashore temporarily at a coastwise port who reboards the vessel and departs with it on sailing from the port.

(5)Passenger has the meaning defined in § 4.50(b).

(b) The applicability of the coastwise law ( 46 U.S.C. 55103) to a vessel not qualified to engage in the coastwise trade (i.e., either a foreign-flag vessel or a U.S.-flag vessel that is foreign-built or at one time has been under foreign-flag) which embarks a passenger at a coastwise port is as follows:

(1) If the passenger is on a voyage solely to one or more coastwise ports and the passenger disembarks or goes ashore temporarily at a coastwise port, there is a violation of the coastwise law.

(2) If the passenger is on a voyage to one or more coastwise ports and a nearby foreign port or ports (but at no other foreign port) and the passenger disembarks at a coastwise port other than the port of embarkation, there is a violation of the coastwise law.

(3) If the passenger is on a voyage to one or more coastwise ports and a distant foreign port or ports (whether or not the voyage includes a nearby foreign port or ports) and the passenger disembarks at a coastwise port, there is no violation of the coastwise law provided the passenger has proceeded with the vessel to a distant foreign port.

(c) An exception to the prohibition in this section is the transportation of passengers between ports in Puerto Rico and other ports in the U.S. on passenger vessels not qualified to engage in the coastwise trade. Such transportation is permitted until there is a finding under 46 U.S.C. 55104 that a qualified U.S.-flag passenger vessel is available for such service.

(d) The owner or charterer of a foreign vessel or any other interested person may request from Headquarters, U.S. Customs and Border Protection, Attention: Cargo Security, Carriers & Immigration Branch, Office of International Trade, an advisory ruling as to whether a contemplated voyage would be considered to be coastwise transportation in violation of 46 U.S.C. 55103. Such a request shall be filed in accordance with the provisions of part 177, CBP Regulations ( 19 CFR part 177).

So in short it says that if a vessel wants to transport passengers between two US ports it must be flagged, or registered, in the US. To do this, the ship must be built in a US shipyard with US steel, owned by a US citizen and crewed by 90%+ American citizens. As it stands now, there is only one such medium-large cruise ship that meets these requirements; NCL’s Pride of America.

A CGI render of Project America which became the m/s Pride of America

Now on paper it’s pretty clear that these regulations are designed to promote as much US business and create as many jobs as possible. However it is my opinion that that this legislation, and it’s commercial maritime sibling the Jones Act (Merchant Marine Act of 1920), are doing more harm than good.

PVSA and How it Relates to Cruisers

The rule-of-thumb that lines use when planning itineraries to ensure compliance, is if it’s a foreign flagged ship leaving from and returning to that same US port, you need to make a call in a nearby foreign port. This is why most ships call on Nassau for example or Victoria, BC if it’s an Alaskan cruise.

If you’re embarking from one [for example Cape Liberty, NJ] and debarking at another [for example Ft Lauderdale], you need to call a distant foreign port, [such as any in South America or the A,B,C Islands]. This comes into play when a ship is repositioning from the east coast or sailing from one coast to another. That is why Cartagena, Curacao or Aruba are included on all one way Panama Canal cruises.

An early render of Project America

Another way this affects itineraries are on those that sail from the West Coast to Hawaii; they have two options. Either a one way to/from Vancouver to Honolulu or a round-trip out of a US west coast port but make a ‘technical stop’ in Ensenada for just half a day. This is to meet that nearby foreign port requirement.

An interesting note, let’s say separately you book some combination of cruises where you board in one US port and disembark in another without meeting the South American requirement. Also lets just say that the cruise line doesn’t catch it during the booking process. You will actually get a red stamp on your passport that says PVSA Violation. If US Customs sees this, you will be required to pay the $300 fine to them before being allowed back into the country. This may be years after your cruise took place.

An important thing to remember is that cruisers shouldn’t worry about this. It only occurs when booking back-to-back trips or if you do some weird, irregular booking. Say, for example, combining a Canada & New England trip with an east coast repositioning trip, along with a 7 night Caribbean itinerary.



Will this be changing anytime soon? Absolutely not. The US is holding onto it’s very last bit of shipbuilding industry that it has left. Excluding military vessels, the few remaining US yards put out between 2-3 mid-size ships a year combined. These are either container vessels sailing from the west coast to Alaska & Hawaii or oil/product tankers sailing between costal ports with refined fuels. The US will never see another medium-large scale cruise ship built possibly ever. We just don’t have the infrastructure, resources or key talent for these types of projects.

NCL former, former CEO Colin Vietch.

Case and point, the demise of American Classic Voyages. They attempted to build a small fleet of 70,000gt US flagged ships and sail them in Hawaii and US coastal cruises. They got a lot of government funding, sponsorship and incentives to build this. Well what happened was the project was mega delayed and completely over budget. NCL, under Colin Vietch, came in and purchased the vessel for all of $24 million and parts to a second ship, negotiated an exemption of the PVSA to finish the vessel overseas and had it towed over to Lloyd Werft in Germany. What emerged was the US Flagged (yet foreign built) Pride of America and Pride of Hawaii (now sailing as the Norwegian Jade).

The only line actively building overnight passenger vessels in the US is American Cruise Line. These ships are only around 250ft in length and only carry 200pax. Lindblad is building two 100pax ships on the west coast, but after the second one is delivered this year, there aren’t plans for any more.

Looking Forward

If we were to open the flood gates to foreign flagged ships sailing on whatever routes they want, we obviously will increase port calls which will better for ports and local economies. Now of course this will be at the expense of US flagged ships meaning less will be built and maintained. However, as mentioned above, the shipbuilding industry in the US isn’t anywhere close to what it was when this legislation was written, so what exactly is it protecting?

Perhaps a creative solution is required whereby large ships/lines are able to easily obtain wavers of the PVSA. This will certainly help bring back the cruises-to-nowhere that were canceled in 2015.

If you have any questions or comments on this article, feel free to post in the comment section below. This is a pretty hotly contested topic in the maritime industry and I’d love to know your thoughts. Would you take a one way cruise from Boston –> Ft Lauderdale stopping in Newport, New York, Baltimore, Norfolk, Charleston and Savannah?