We examined reasons that support retaining the user fee exemption for cruise passengers. These reasons include the non-inspection of U.S. citizens on cruise ships, the recent inspection of many non-U.S. citizen passengers prior to boarding the cruise ship, the low risk associated with cruise ship passengers, and the level of assistance provided to INS by the cruise industry in the inspection process.

1. U.S. citizens on cruise ships are not required to undergo a thorough inspection process.

The majority of cruise ship passengers entering U.S. ports-of-entry are U.S. citizens.19 According to the INS Inspector’s Field Manual, “to minimize inspection time, U.S. citizen passengers who departed on the same cruise vessel are not required to report for inspection, but should be briefly examined upon disembarkation.” We did notice INS inspectors observing cruise passengers as they disembarked from the ship and were told that inspectors may conduct random checks of passengers during the disembarkation process. These checks are the extent of the contact many U.S. citizens have with INS inspectors during the inspection process on cruise ships and it does not equate to the level of inspection service that non-U.S. citizen passengers receive. This provision in the manual allows INS to reduce the number of inspections it conducts and the number of inspectors that otherwise would have to be supplied to conduct the inspection service for U.S. citizen passengers.

According to the majority of port directors we interviewed, the only immigration-related inspection that U.S. citizens receive at U.S. sea ports-of-entry occurs when an INS or Customs official, after receiving advanced passenger information provided by the cruise lines, checks it against automated databases prior to the ship’s arrival at the port.20 The checks are conducted on all passengers listed on the passenger manifest irrespective of citizenship. Providing this advanced passenger information is voluntary. However, the port directors we spoke with said this passenger information is usually provided, especially by the larger, more established cruise lines. When these advance checks are not conducted, the methods used by the individual inspector on board become the sole means of determining a passenger’s admissibility.21

2. Non-U.S. citizen passengers frequently have been inspected at U.S. air ports-of-entry prior to boarding the ship.

According to cruise line officials and port directors with whom we spoke, more often than not the non-U.S. citizen passengers going on cruises have flown to the United States, been inspected, and determined to be admissible at the air port-of-entry just prior to the ship’s embarkation.22 Cruise line officials questioned why these passengers needed to be re-inspected upon arrival at each U.S. port-of-entry because INS had already deemed them admissible to the United States. Some cruise line officials suggested the passengers could be granted a waiver from re-inspection for the duration of the cruise, especially because the cruise industry maintains close control over its passengers. Although there may be some merit to this suggestion, present federal law requires INS to conduct inspections of all non-U.S. citizens each time they seek to gain entry into the United States.

3. Cruise passengers present a low risk.

According to INS’s National Fines Office (NFO) data, cruise passengers present little risk of attempted illegal entry. The port directors we interviewed generally agreed with this and presented a general profile of an arriving cruise passenger as that of an older U.S. citizen on a vacation. To the typical passenger, the purpose of taking a cruise equates to going on a vacation for several days. Most cruise itineraries are circuitous in nature, with the same beginning and ending point. In contrast, air travel is viewed more as a mode of transportation to get from one destination to another where the duration of the stay can be indefinite.

According to cruise officials, passengers on cruises tend to sign up months in advance and the passenger population remains constant throughout a cruise. It is rare and usually due to extreme circumstances (e.g., weather delaying flights prior to embarkation, illness) that a passenger leaves or joins a cruise at midpoint. Cruise line personnel record any changes on the passenger manifest and alert INS inspectors to these changes prior to the inspection process.

To determine the extent and types of risk posed by cruise lines, and specifically by their passengers, we analyzed data from the NFO related to the number of offenses or violations committed at sea ports-of-entry where fines had been imposed.23 The NFO data we analyzed identified the carrier involved by name. From these data, we looked for specific violations of the Immigration and Nationality Act (INA) charged to cruise lines. We looked for violations of section 243 (removal of passengers and stowaways) and section 274C (document fraud), believing these would document instances of attempted illegal entry by cruise ship passengers. According to the NFO data, only 1 of the 47 section 243 violations documented as occurring at sea ports-of-entry involved cruise ships. There were no instances of section 274C violations recorded at sea ports-of-entry.

The overwhelming majority of the violations where fines were imposed at sea ports-of-entry, according to NFO records, involved three other sections of the INA. Two of these sections involve only crew members - section 251 (violations involving crew lists or longshore work), and section 254 (violations involving the control of non-U.S. citizen crew members). The third section involves passengers - section 273 (violations involving deficiencies in entry documents for non-U.S. citizen passengers).24 NFO records confirmed 94 fines charged against cruise lines for violations of section 273 over a 10-year period. The violations recorded do not indicate that cruise ship passengers are trying to enter the country by other than legal means.

Most of the port directors we interviewed agreed that cruise passengers generally present little risk of attempted illegal entry, especially when measured against the larger risk presented by air passengers. The NFO data we analyzed comparing the finable offenses imposed against air versus sea carriers supports the port directors’ contention.

4. Cruise personnel assist in the inspection process.

Cruise personnel perform various functions to help expedite the inspection process. When passengers board the ship, cruise personnel review the documents that passengers present to verify their citizenship and their eligibility to reenter the United States. According to the cruise officials with whom we spoke, cruise line personnel will deny boarding to anyone who does not have proper documentation. Cruise line personnel will retain possession of the passports or other forms of documentation from non-U.S. citizens during boarding and return these documents to passengers only when they report for inspection to depart the ship. Cruise personnel will inform the passengers where to report for the inspection on board the ship, distribute the documents to the passengers, and ensure that all non-U.S. citizen passengers report for the inspection. Without this assistance, INS could not complete the inspection process in a timely manner. In addition, INS would have to expend considerable additional resources to identify, locate, and inspect the passengers. At the same time, the assistance of the cruise ship personnel in the process allows the passengers to disembark the ship sooner. This permits the cruise line to maximize the remaining time to prepare the ship for the arrival of the new group of passengers who will depart on the ship later that day.

In addition, cruise industry officials informed us of their efforts to help ensure that individuals attempting to board the ship, especially at foreign ports, are not impostors or stowaways. This assists INS by making it harder for potential stowaways to succeed in gaining access to the ship and also acts as a preventive measure to help reduce or eliminate violations and the subsequent imposition of fines against the cruise line. One method used by several cruise lines is a ship-specific keycard that a passenger must present, along with photographic identification, whenever leaving and returning to the ship. Another method that one cruise line is pioneering makes use of a state-of-the-art database containing photographs of its passengers and crew for security personnel to verify identities. Cruise line officials informed us that they are exploring various alternatives to minimize the risk of stowaways or impostors. Without these measures, potential stowaways or impostors would find it easier to slip past security undetected and gain access to the ship, thus placing greater demands on INS to identify and deny entry to these individuals.


We conclude that INS is justified in requesting the removal of the exemption from user fees for cruise ship passengers who receive an inspection service. Since FY 1994, cruise ship passengers have accounted for 9 percent of all inspections at air and sea ports-of-entry, yet have contributed less than 1 percent of the funding collected. This inequity is similar to the “fundamental inequity” cited by Congress in 1990 when certain airline passengers were exempt from paying user fees. Congress adjusted the user fee program by removing the exemption for airline passengers, thereby charging all airline passengers for inspection services. The projected shortfall in the IUFA will make it increasingly difficult, and probably impossible, for INS to cover the operating costs of both air and sea port-of-entry inspections. The projected growth of the cruise industry will make maintaining a reasonable level of inspection service difficult for INS. INS will be unable to meet the additional needs of both industries without a corresponding increase in resources.

We recognize that a large segment of cruise ship passengers are U.S. citizens who currently are not thoroughly inspected. If Congress removes the exemption, U.S. citizens and non-U.S. citizens would be required to pay the same user fee regardless of the differing levels of service provided. We also recognize the likelihood that many non-U.S. citizen cruise passengers have been inspected upon arrival at air ports-of-entry prior to boarding the ship. Still, the law requires all non-U.S. citizen passengers to be inspected prior to entry into the United States, regardless of the time that has elapsed since the passenger’s latest inspection. While we accept that cruise passengers present a low risk concerning attempted illegal entry, by law they must be inspected and therefore it is not unreasonable for INS to request a fee to cover the cost of this service. Also, we recognize that the cruise industry plays a large role in expediting the inspection process. Both the industry and INS benefit from this assistance. Without this level of assistance from the industry and INS’s reliance on the integrity of the industry, INS would be unable to provide inspection services that even closely approximate the timeframes they are meeting now. If INS could not provide inspection services in the timeframes that the cruise industry needs, passengers could spend less time visiting U.S. ports during the course of the cruise or miss return flights after the cruise’s conclusion. In addition, the preparation time and departure schedules for new cruises might be delayed, and the cruise industry’s business may be negatively affected.

Removing the exemption for cruise passengers who receive an inspection service should ultimately serve the interests of both the cruise industry and the INS. The additional user fees collected should assist INS in covering the increasing cost of conducting inspection operations. However, the removal of the exemption is insufficient to provide INS with a long-term solution to projected shortages in the IUFA. Therefore, INS must seek additional solutions to address the potential IUFA funding crisis or examine the issues related to the increasing costs of providing inspection services at air and sea ports-of entry.

19 According to PAS data, from FY 1994 through FY 1998 approximately 75 percent of the passengers on vessels that INS inspected were identified as U.S. citizens.

20 According to the port directors we spoke with, the standard procedure is for the passenger information to be forwarded by the cruise lines to Customs. Customs then conducts the checks and informs INS of any potential “hits” or INS conducts its own checks. Operating policies or procedures at each port can differ usually depending on the proximity to, or the working relationships with Customs, which were generally described as good.

21 Inspections at sea ports-of-entry are conducted onboard the arriving vessel. Inspections at air and land ports-of-entry are conducted in a more controlled or stable inspection environment, where inspectors have ready access to terminals linked to various automated databases that assist in determining an individual’s admissibility. At U.S. air and land ports-of-entry, at a minimum, every passenger or individual has to physically pass before an INS inspector prior to being granted entry to the United States.

22 INS does not track individual passengers and therefore is unable to provide the actual numbers of non-U.S. citizen passengers who had been inspected prior to boarding a cruise ship.

23 The NFO’s mission is to promote and encourage compliance with the Immigration and Nationality Act (INA) by actively enforcing the statutes that relate to fines. The inspectors’ role in the process is to identify and document violations of the INA where fines can be imposed and forward these findings to the NFO.

24 According to NFO Guidelines, most documentary deficiencies will warrant a fine against the carrier, even if the improperly documented alien is permitted to enter the United States. A fine is not applicable under section 273(a)(1) if a passenger is a U.S. citizen, an alien arriving from contiguous territory (Canada or Mexico), an alien arriving as a working crew member, or an alien stowaway, which would be a finable offense under section 243. An alien passenger arriving with obviously fraudulent documents would likely incur a fine under section 274C also.