Handguns On Board Boats: Federal, State, & International Considerations

Handguns On Board Boats: Federal, State, & International Considerations

Well, you are excited about taking your boat through the beautiful waters off the U.S. coast from your home state, other U.S. states’ waters, and then on an international travel adventure to visit other countries, foreign waters, and their ports.

But, you are aware of the modern-day pirates (without eye patches) roaming the seas, especially certain foreign waters, and even the possibility of some bad folks attacking you, coming on board your boat, stealing your valuables, and taking you hostage wherever you may be on the water. Your life and the lives of your loved ones may very well be at stake.

So, you have decided to take your .45 ACP semi-automatic pistol with 1,500 rounds of ammo and open carrying your gun on board just in case. And you do have your state’s concealed carry weapon permit, have taken a couple of handgun skills and safety courses, and know how to handle your handgun.

Is this a wise decision and is it legally acceptable to have a gun on your boat on the different domestic and foreign waterways?

Considerations for Your Decision to Have a Gun On Board Your Boat

What are some of the up-front considerations and decisions surrounding possibly taking a gun on your boat?

Where will you travel to on your boat?

You could run into some Somalia pirates or other pirates in foreign or international waters if you decide to go in those areas on the international leg of your trip. But, you will be mostly in American state coastal and federal waters, while in just a few international and territorial waters.

So carefully decide where and near what countries and states you will travel. And know the laws of those different countries and states. What a huge and essential start to your trip. You know that certain foreign countries are embargoed and sanctioned by the United States, and there could be serious arms concerns if you venture into or near those foreign waters, like North Korea, Syria, Iran, Iraq, China, Cuba, etc.

It is difficult to determine the precise line of demarcation between one countries waters and territory boundaries and anothers. You don’t want to be involved in an international incident and end up spending time in a foreign prison, because of your .45 pistol. Or worse yet losing your life and the lives of your loved ones.

Is it worth it to take a gun on board your boat?

There are at least a few areas of initial, up-front practical concerns about having your gun on board in various domestic waters and in foreign and international waters. You know that the concealed carry permits/licenses, their laws, and enforcement widely differ among the various U.S. states. This is also true of the different countries and waterways. But, will these complex and conflicting differences be meaningful and time-consuming hassles, regarding having a gun on your boat in domestic, foreign, and international (seas not under the jurisdiction of any country) waters? This is a complex matter, to say the least.

Once a vessel/boat/ship is 24 nautical miles (27.62 miles) from any coastline, it is generally considered on the high seas, or international waters in the Contiguous Zone and the law of that vessel is the law of the country where the ship is registered and whose flag the ship is flying. There really is not an all-encompassing police body that protects against international waters safety and security violations nor terrorist attacks.

TIP: The International Maritime Organization (IMO), an agency of the United Nations, is responsible for international security and safety of seas not under the jurisdiction of any country, currently has 174 member states, and develops treaties, conventions, and programs for compliance for only the member countries, e.g. the program for the Suppression of Piracy and Armed Robbery Against Ships. There is not an IMO police force with authority to board and inspect vessels, protect against terrorists, and issue penalties and punishments in international waters.

According to Justia.com, here are just some of the Maritime and Admiralty International and Federal Laws: https://www.justia.com/admiralty/laws/

19 Key Questions to Consider Before Deciding to Have a Handgun on Your Boat

Here are just a few questions to ask yourself initially:

  • Must your gun be concealed at all times and must you have your carry permit with you?
  • Will your state’s gun permit/license be recognized by all states when on their waterways? Are there unique state regulations from other states you must follow?
  • Can you open carry your gun on board your boat?
  • Do you need to reveal that you have a gun on board when visiting the various states’ waters, foreign country waters, and in international waters, if asked by authorities?
  • Is self-defense on the open seas a valid reason in every country for having a gun on board (TIP: Unlike the U.S., some countries do NOT have the “right to bear arms.”)
  • Do you need to declare your gun in every country and each port you traverse through?
    What paperwork, import or export permit, if any, are required for the U.S. and for each country and/or port visited and for their waters, to be completed in advance?
  • May you carry all four of your handguns on your boat?
  • May you carry your planned 1,500 rounds of ammo on your boat?
  • May your boat be boarded and searched without your permission and by whom in the U.S. waters, in international waters, and in other countries’ waters?
  • Will your gun(s) be automatically confiscated, no matter if any wrongdoing by you, or must you surrender it (them), either temporarily or permanently?
  • Does your handgun have to be stored in a holster on board and must it have a snap?
  • Is there a 3-step requirement to access your onboard gun?
  • Must you have a lockable gun safe on board and keep your handgun in it?
  • Does ammo have to be stored on board separately from your gun?
  • What federal, state, and international laws and rules apply?
  • What are the effects on your actions from the roles and rules of U.S. Department of Homeland Security, Customs Border Protection, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), U.S. Coast Guard, and your state’s departments and regulations?
  • Will you have quick access to your onboard gun if you need it?
  • Is the firepower of your onboard .45 ACP pistol adequate for the usual defense needs against terrorists and attackers on the water?

NOTE: There was a recent hijacking attack in 2017 by Somalia pirates in two high-speed skiffs off the coast of Somalia. According to the International Maritime Bureau, 35 people who were held hostage by Somali pirates were killed in 2012 and deaths of hostages was increasing. There were over 300 people held hostage in many locations by various Somali pirates alone in 2011. The BBC reports that Somali pirates alone seized 1,181 hostages and were paid many millions of dollars in ransom in one year, 2010. We are all aware of the Maersk Alabama hijacking and the terrible 5-day capture of Captain Phillips who was held hostage by pirates in the Indian Ocean. Pirates operate now not only near Somalia, but also in the Arabian Sea, the Red Sea, the Indian Ocean, Strait of Malacca, Kenya, Indonesia (#1), India, Peru, Nigeria, and other places. Greece, Russia, Germany, China, Italy, and Bulgaria have all had victims of pirate attacks at sea. Ask yourself “What is the probability of actually encountering bad guys on the open seas where you will be boating?” and “Should you take a chance and visit certain countries and areas?” and “How can you best be legally and defensively prepared on the waters?”

TIP: According to the Maritime Executive Report, pirate attacks are now coupled with terrorist organizations which are financing and providing material support to enable pirate capability further and reach. The modern terrorists realize that they can recruit the poor and desperate to deliver their political and religious messages through piracy. Drug Cartels worldwide have also started to get into the mix finding piracy as a way to finance their efforts. With terror groups entering into partnerships with drug cartels, the increased connectivity of drug cartels and piracy becomes apparent. This can be seen in the waters off the coasts of countries like Burma, Sri Lanka, Mexico, Brazil, and the Caribbean Islands. Alarmingly, there have been reports in the countries mentioned above, of the presence of Mexican cartel, various piracy, and Middle Eastern and Pacific Rim terrorist elements previously only recorded in the regions they were known to exist in. This sheds light on their global networking success and the growth of their respective industries as a whole, according to the Maritime Executive organization, whose mission is to provide in-depth analysis and report maritime issues.

See https://www.maritime-executive.com/aboutus.

Handgun Versus RPGs and Machine Guns

What if those (Somalia or any) pirates do attack you and try to board your boat and take you hostage? What good will your pistol do you against typical pirate weapons, like AK-47s, AR-15s, machine guns, and shoulder-held Rocket-Propelled Grenade (RPG) launchers? Maybe the best decision is to not have a gun on board your boat. And probably not an 18-inch 50-caliber gun mounted on a forward turret. Of course, to have a gun on board and which one to have is strictly your call, and there is not a carte-blanche recommendation from me.

Even when in the U.S. if your home state’s carry laws and the permit/license you have differ from those of the other state’s and you are in the other waters, then what? Does it matter? (HINT: Yes, it does.)

TIP: Maybe the best decision is not to go where the pirates have been active or where there is a high-threat level. Or, not to even enter foreign and International waters.

U.S. Federal Law Applies When Traveling Outside U.S. with Firearms on Boats

Moving across borders and waters of other countries with a gun involves complex considerations, and there are many regulations. Uncertainty and the probability for misunderstandings exist, and caution is necessary. Of course, laws of the various countries visited rule related to this, and it is your responsibility to research and know the applicable current laws of the different countries where you will travel with guns and ammo on your boat. The laws change frequently, so do your current research. The same is true of other U.S. federal laws and the many state laws. You may not be aware of some of the common federal, country, and state law requirements.

You Are Subject to Federal International Traffic in Arms Regulations

Those who intend to travel from the U.S. to a foreign country by any mode of travel with firearms and/or ammunition should know that both the temporary and permanent exportation of these items are subject to U.S. federal export licensing regulations for handguns, rifles, shotguns, ammunition, and related parts and components, per International Traffic in Arms Regulations (ITAR). These export regulations require that prior to traveling outside the U.S. with firearms and/or ammunition, departing persons must obtain a valid and appropriate Department of State Trade Controls or Department of Commerce Bureau of Industry and Security export license or a valid license exemption under 22 CFR 123.17 – 22 CFR 123.18 or 15 CFR 740.14(e).

You need to be especially aware of an important federal law when possessing firearms on board your boat when going to foreign destinations. It is 22 CFR 123.17(c). It allows certain individuals to take certain firearms to certain destinations, using a specific procedure, without the usual need for an export license. Homeland Security Investigations is the primary U.S. federal law enforcement agency responsible for enforcing U.S. export control laws. Failure to comply with the federal regulations for temporary export of firearms and/or ammo from the U.S. may result in detention, seizure, and forfeiture of firearms and ammo and possibly arrest and criminal prosecution.

Can You Take Your .45 ACP Pistol and 1,500 Rounds of Ammo to the Bahamas?

So, does U.S. law permit you to take your .45 ACP pistol and 1,500 rounds of ammo to the Bahamas without an export license? If so, what do you need to do… what is the procedure?

TIP: Any removal of firearms and/or ammo from the U.S. even temporarily for any period of time is considered an “export” and requires compliance with all U.S. laws and regulations.

This only applies to U.S. citizens and U.S. lawful permanent residents who are not otherwise prohibited from possessing firearms. It says in part that:

The Required Declaration and Exemption Procedure

“Port Directors of U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) shall permit U.S. persons to export temporarily from the U.S. without a license not more than three non-automatic firearms in Category 1A (semi-automatic pistols up to .50 caliber max) Section 121.1 of this subchapter and not more than 1,000 cartridges therefor”, provided that the:

  1. person declares the articles to a CBP officer upon each departure from the U.S.,
  2. person presents the Internal Transaction Number (ITN) from submission of the Electronic Export Information in the Automated Export System per Section 123.22 of this subchapter,
  3. person presents the articles to a CBP officer for inspection,
  4. firearm and ammunition are with the individual’s baggage or effects, whether accompanied or unaccompanied, but not mailed,
  5. firearm and ammunition must be for that person’s exclusive use and not for reexport or other transfer of ownership, and
  6. person must declare that it is his intention to return the article(s) on each return to the U.S.

If you meet all the above qualifications, then you are eligible to use the export license exemption, do not need a federal license, and can follow this Procedure and its requirements:

  1. You can use CBP Form 4455 or CBP Form 4457 to declare at the U.S. Customs Office at your port of exit which guns specifically you are taking out of the country with youNOTE: A U.S. CBP Form 4455 or 4457 is used to register personal items of foreign origin which will be exported temporarily before traveling abroad, to facilitate duty-free re-entry of same articles upon traveler’s return to the U.S.
  2. The firearms and ammunition exported under this exemption must be for your exclusive use and not for reexport or other transfer of ownership. You cannot use this export exemption to gift or sell a gun to someone abroad, nor can you decide to leave a gun behind when you return home to the U.S.
  3. This exemption only qualifies for a Temporary Export, meaning that you do have plans to return to the U.S.
  4. The firearms and ammo may not be exported to multiple countries during the same trip or to a country other than the end-destination declared in the Electronic Export Information.
  5. No firearms and/or ammo may be exported to certain countries that are subject to U.S. arms embargoes.

See this Link for details: www.ICE.gov/cpl/faq

Examples of Guns and Ammo On Boats in Countries & Federal Export License Exemptions

So if you are taking your boat trip and going hunting in Africa with your rifle, handgun, and 900 rounds of ammo which you have onboard, you do not need a U.S. export license, since you meet the above requirements (2 firearms and 1,000 rounds or less of ammo) of 22 CFR 123.17. But, you must make a declaration via the Automated Export System (AES), pursuant to 22 CFR 123.22, and submit the AES ITN along with the firearms/ammunition to U.S. Customs Border Protection for visual inspection prior to departure from the U.S.

There may be other applicable U.S. laws and regulations depending upon specifics and your travel situation. And, of course, you are responsible for knowing and complying with any foreign laws of the various countries, such as requirements for import licenses or advanced authorization prior to transporting or carrying your firearms and ammo into any foreign country.

Illegal to Carry Gun Into Mexico

Recognize that taking firearms and ammo on a boat to Africa is different from taking them by boat to Mexico which is different from Canada, etc. Vessels entering Mexican waters with firearms or ammo on board must have a permit previously issued by the Mexican Embassy or a Mexican consulate. Entering Mexico with a firearm, certain knives, and even a single round of ammunition is illegal, even if taken into Mexico unintentionally. A long prison term in a Mexican prison cell awaits.

Canada law requires officials confiscate guns from those crossing any border that denies having them in their possession. And confiscated firearms are never returned. In Australia, all pistols, revolvers, and ammunition are prohibited imports and will be sealed on board a vessel or taken into custody at the first port of entry. In France waters, firearms which have no legitimate sporting or recreational use are not permitted entry. Entering Jamaica waters with a firearm or even just one round of ammo is a serious crime and can result in a long prison sentence. In the Bahamas, those arriving by private boat are required to declare firearms and every single round of ammunition to Bahamian Customs, and to leave them on board the boat in a secure compartment while in the Bahamas. If boarded by Bahamian officials or Customs, the exact information on your Bahamian Permit will be checked item by item (e.g., round for round) against your actual supply… and must exactly match or severe penalties will result.

Some countries additionally require foreign Import Licenses/Permits and also require the declaration of guns and ammo before you enter their country. Failure to do so may result in the country detaining you, denying entry, arresting you, imprisoning you, and/or seizing your firearms and ammo. Be careful out there on the high seas and in other countries with your guns and ammo.

As the owner of your U.S.-flagged boat, you are responsible for knowing the relevant laws for possessing and storing weapons in your country of origin (i.e.the United States), for your state of residence (e.g., Florida), as well as for any country you visit.

What About Your Boat with Guns and Ammo in International Waters?

Generally, I understand as a non-legal layman that a vessel legally flying an American flag in International waters may carry firearms and ammo which are allowed by U.S. federal laws. This is true in International waters, but a boat must enter various foreign ports in its travels, and each has its own regulations and restrictions. The territorial waters regulations of different countries are stricter than ones for International waters. Realize that no country can claim sovereignty over International waters, according to the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). However, some countries do apply their countries’ jurisdiction laws there.

Col Ben Scuba Diving in Mexico's Yucatan Peninsula...Without a Gun
Col Ben Scuba Diving in Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula…Without a Gun

Does The Concealed Carry Permit You Possess for Your State Affect Your On-board Gun?

Briefly, the answer is “yes” and the specific firearms and carry laws and regulations of your state apply. So if your state concealed carry permit/license law allows open carry, then it will also apply on board a boat. But, you must also follow the specific laws and regulations of the countries you are in. For example, in my home state of Florida, Florida Statute 790.725 allows me to fish, hunt, camp, and shoot at a range and only then Open Carry to and from those activities. So, when fishing from my boat I could legally Open Carry only then, even though Florida is one of a handful of states not allowing Open Carry. But, if I am in a foreign countries waters that does not permit Open Carry, I could not, whether or not my state’s law allows it. So, there are many things to consider; do your research for the country you plan to visit and for your state.

Even in the U.S., one state’s laws about carrying and/or using guns can significantly differ from another state’s laws. There is not universal Constitutional Carry, some states do not recognize other state’s permits, reciprocity varies, and concealed carry laws differ. What is legal in Florida, for example, could result in serious legal consequences in Massachusetts or the Bahamas.

Can the U.S. Coast Guard Board Your Boat, Make Inspections, Seizures, & Arrest You?

According to 14 USC Section 89, the U.S. Coast Guard can make inquiries, examinations, inspections, searches, seizures, and arrests upon the high seas and waters over which the U.S. has jurisdiction, for the prevention, detection, and suppression of violations of U.S. laws. For such purposes, Coast Guard officers may at any time go on board of any vessel subject to the jurisdiction, or to the operation of any U.S. law. Officers may make arrests or take other lawful actions, including seizures of merchandise and vessels, fines, and penalties.

Who May Board, Inspect, & Seize Your Boat & Arrest You on Your Boat in Your State?

For example in my state of Florida, law enforcement officers of the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, sheriff’s deputies of the various Florida counties, municipal police officers, and all other law enforcement officers, per Florida Statute 943.10, have the authority to stop any vessel, remove or relocate vessels that are a hazard to public safety, to enforce all boating safety laws, and to conduct vessel inspections. So they can enforce existing Florida Statutes about gun-related matters on boats. Know who is authorized to do this in your state.

State Laws and Agencies About Guns on Boats

As an example for clarification, I want to give my state of Florida’s related laws as they apply to guns on boats. Florida Statutes related to carrying and shooting handguns and the use of deadly force certainly apply to Florida residents and those who have a Florida Concealed Carry Weapons License, but they also apply to those same folks and those same matters when they are on a “conveyance” (i.e. boat, vessel, automobile, aircraft) on the waterways with a gun.

TIP: The laws of foreign countries must also be honored, of course, in addition to your state’s laws, so know them for the countries you will visit by your boat, as well as the laws of your state.

Per Florida Statute 790.25, Florida law allows any law-abiding citizen over the age of 18 (who is not otherwise prohibited by law from owning a gun) to possess a concealed firearm or other weapon for self defense or other lawful purpose (loaded or unloaded) within the interior of a private “conveyance” without a license or permit… if the firearm or other weapon is securely encased OR is otherwise not readily accessible for immediate use. Several other states have a similar law, so check your state’s law.

If a boater has a valid Florida CCW License (or one from a state with a Florida reciprocity agreement), the boater can carry a handgun concealed on their person in Florida waters, as in an automobile. So this Florida law also applies to guns on boats and any conveyance, but remember your state’s law may be different so know them. And keep in mind that these laws change frequently, so re-check these laws before decision making.

Also, per Florida Statute 790.25, it is lawful for a person engaged in fishing, camping, or lawful hunting or going to or returning from a fishing, camping, or lawful hunting expedition to own, possess, and lawfully use firearms and other weapons, ammunition, and supplies… and to Open Carry when involved in the above activities.

But, Florida Statute 790.053 says it is unlawful for a person to Openly Carry on or about his or her person any firearm or electric weapon or device. However, it is not a violation for a person licensed to carry a concealed firearm who is lawfully carrying a firearm in a concealed manner, to briefly and openly display the firearm to the ordinary sight of another person, unless the firearm is intentionally displayed in an angry or threatening manner, not in ordinary self-defense. So in Florida do not Open Carry unless involved in fishing, camping, or lawful hunting. Florida Statute 790.25 also adds that a person firing weapons for target practice in a safe place not prohibited by law, or going to or from there may Open Carry.


Traveling by boat, vessel, or any conveyance out of the U.S. with firearms and ammo involves many important considerations. There are many federal, state, international, and country-specific laws and regulations that apply. There is no international police force to protect you against terrorists in international waters. Security laws of the different countries visited apply, vary considerably, and most are very strict about guns on board. And your state’s and countries laws are complex and applicable. Anyone departing the U.S. by any conveyance, including boats and vessels at sea, and who is traveling with firearms and/or ammunition in their possession must comply with all applicable laws, including federal, state and country specific regulations, governing the lawful exportation of these controlled items, per U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

Further, those who intend to travel from the U.S. to a foreign country with firearms and/or ammunition should know that both the temporary and permanent exportation of these items are subject to U.S. federal export licensing regulations for handguns, rifles, shotguns, ammunition, and related parts and components, per International Traffic in Arms Regulations (ITAR.) But, you may qualify for a license exemption and must follow a specific procedure with declarations and submission of forms to receive it. The Concealed Carry laws of your home state and country apply and so do other countries’ laws and regulations, in addition to U.S. federal laws.

Be prepared by deciding upfront do you really want to visit certain countries and specifically to what countries you will travel by boat, then research and know the applicable laws before you depart. Seriously consider and answer the question “Is it necessary and is it worthwhile to take a firearm on board to the countries I will visit?” Answer for yourself my above 19 Key Questions to help you decide to have a handgun on board your boat when you travel to other countries. Be Prepared and Be Safe!

Success and Happy and Safe Travels!

Photos by U.S. Coast Guard-Dweydert and Author.

* This personal opinion article is meant for general information & educational purposes only, and the author strongly recommends that you seek counsel from an attorney for legal advice and your own personal certified weapons trainer for proper guidance about shooting & using YOUR firearms, self-defense and concealed carry. It should not be relied upon as accurate for all shooters & the author assumes no responsibility for anyone’s use of the information and shall not be liable for any improper or incorrect use of the information or any damages or injuries incurred whatsoever.

© 2018 Col Benjamin Findley. All Rights Reserved. This article may not be reprinted or reproduced in whole or in part by mechanical means, photocopying, electronic reproduction, scanning, or any other means without prior written permission. For copyright information, contact Col Ben Findley at ColBFF@gmail.com.

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"Col Ben" is retired with 30 years service in the U.S. Air Force, with joint services Special Ops duty and training, and is Air Force qualified as "Expert" in small arms. He is a Vietnam-era Veteran. Ben is an experienced NRA-Certified Pistol Instructor, NRA Range Safety Officer, and FL Concealed Carry License Instructor. Ben recently wrote the book "Concealed Carry and Handgun Essentials for Personal Protection" (second printing) with 57 comprehensive Chapters about concealed carry and handgun principles, techniques, and tips for both experienced and new shooters. His reference book is endorsed by several organizations and is available on his website at FloridaHandgunsTraining.com. Contact him at ColBFF@gmail.com.
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