Depending on your nationality and the country from which a vessel operates, you will need certain visas (like a C1 visa, D visa, or a combined C1/D visa) in order to work on a cruise ship. These visas are temporary in nature and are distinct from work visas or residency permits (like B-1 visas and green cards). In this article, we focus on working on a cruise ship based in the U.S., in part because such a large percentage of cruise ships operate out of the U.S., and in part because the visas needed for employment on a U.S. cruise ship are illustrative of the types of visas you need for any sort of cruise ship employment.
Before detailing what C1, D, and C1/D visas actually are, which won’t take much space because they are actually quite simple, we should note a couple of things about cruise ship employment and the cruise industry in general. First, virtually all cruise ships fly foreign flags, or flags of convenience, which blurs the nationality, as it were, of the cruise ship. A great deal of cruise ships are registered in places like Panama, but operate out of the U.S., so in addition to meeting whatever work-eligibility requirements Panama imposes, you need a work visa for the U.S. This may seem to complicate things, and in a sense it does, but it also makes cruise ship employment possible for people of many different nationalities. If a cruise ship were only registered in, for instance, the U.S. or some western European country – in other words, if it were registered in a country with strict employment requirements for foreign workers – cruise ship jobs would be much harder to secure without American citizenship, European Union citizenship, or residency in either area. Indeed, cruise ships are registered in certain foreign countries in no small measure because these countries impose less regulation (like employment rules) on cruise ships. A U.S.-based cruise ship would have an extremely difficult time staffing their ships if everyone needed to be an American citizen or in possession of a green card. Instead, they can hire workers from all over the world legally because of temporary visas designed specifically for ship workers.
Second, and as we pointed out in our general guide to what documents you need to work on a cruise ship, cruise lines will assist you in securing the necessary papers for employment on their ships. Cruise lines employ tens of thousands of people from scores of countries, so they are deeply familiar with the requirements of cruise ship employment. In order to embark on a cruise ship career, you might only need a passport – any other documents or visas for working on a ship can be obtained with the help of the cruise line. In the cruise industry, there is not a total imbalance of leverage between cruise lines and prospective employees; it is not as if owners can pull from an endless supply of desperate workers who have exhaustively researched the rules of cruise ship employment. Cruise ships need crew members, and if they didn’t help people with the paperwork necessary for employment, they would have difficulty staffing their ships.
As implied, the visas required for working on a U.S.-based cruise ship are only necessary to secure if you are not a U.S. Citizen or a U.S. Permanent Resident (green card holder). They also aren’t necessary for Canadian Citizens. If you have any other nationality or immigration status, you’ll need a C1 visa, D visa, or C1/D visa. All three of these visas are basically transit visas that allow a person to get to their vessel of employment. A C1 visa allows someone to travel to the U.S. by plane to join the crew of a cruise ship, and a D visa allows someone to travel to the U.S. on a ship to join the crew of a ship. In most cases, if you are eligible for one you are eligible for the other, and hence in the majority of cases people are simply given C1/D visas. These visas can’t be secured once you arrive to the U.S. They must be applied for at a U.S. Embassy abroad, in most cases in your home country (or country of residence). More information about C1 visa, D visas, and C1/D visas can be found on U.S. Embassy websites. (This link happens to go the U.S. Embassy in Greece, but this is essentially arbitrary. It can be found on other embassy websites, and the main information provided by the Embassy in Greece, with only a few insignificant exceptions, is applicable to anyone interested in C1, D, and C1/D visas. Of course, your nationality is relevant in that it will dictate what the U.S. Embassy in your country needs for your visa application, but the C1, D, and C1/D visas themselves don’t change.)
In short, to work on a U.S.-based cruise ship, you need a C1 visa, a D visa, or a C1/D visa, unless you are a U.S. Citizen, a U.S. Permanent Resident, or a Canadian Citizen. These visas are quite minimal in that they essentially only allow transit through or a brief stay (if you are waiting for a ship to depart) in the U.S. that is entirely connected with ship employment. Thus, they are to be distinguished from any sort of work visa, business visa, or even tourist visa. Securing visas always seems complicated, but remember that if you are hired by a cruise ship, they will help you with the process. Visas are something you don’t necessarily have to worry about prior to applying for cruise ship jobs.