Every so often we receive an email or telephone call from someone asking why cruise ships can’t sail from one U.S. port to another. 

The reason is because there is a Federal law which prohibits foreign flagged ships from coastwise trade between U.S. ports.  Only U.S. flagged ship can do that.  The thought at one time was that such a law would promote U.S. shipping by providing preferential treatment of US vessels over "foreign" vessels.

Jones Act - Cabotage - U.S. Shipping - Cruise Ship The law in question is the Passenger Vessel Services Act of 1886 which applies to passengers. The Merchant Marine Act of 1920 applies to goods.  This is a U.S. Federal statute which regulates maritime commerce in U.S. waters and between U.S. ports.  Section 27, known as the Jones Act, deals with the concept of "cabotage" (coastal shipping).  The law requires that all goods transported by water between U.S. ports be carried in U.S.-flagged ships, constructed in the United States, owned by U.S. citizens, and crewed by U.S. citizens. 

This is why you don’t see a cruise ship sailing from New Orleans to Galveston and letting off passengers (for example).  The reality today of course is that virtually all cruise ships are foreign flagged in order to avoid US taxes and occupational laws. So the entire US based cruise fleet can’t sail from one US port to another.

Critics of the law argue that the law increases the costs of shipping good between U.S. ports.  U.S. shipbuilders are also substantially higher than vessels constructed overseas.  As a result, U.S. shipyards now build only 1 percent of the world’s large commercial vessels.

There is now a bill which has been introduced  to amend the law to allow foreign-flag cruise ships to operate in the coastwise trade of the United States.  It was introduced by Representative Blake Farenthold (R-TX) and co-sponsored by Ron Paul.  Representative Farenthold believes that opening up coastal trade to all cruise ships will result in more cruise ships sailing from one US port to another and the US and Texas would benefit economically.

However, U.S. shipbuilders and companies engaged in coastwise trade are opposed to amending the law.  A recent controversy regarding shipping crude oil from the Strategic Petroleum Reserve reveals that the new bills will face strong opposition.

The Boston Herald published an article discussing the Obama administration’s decision to waive the requirements of the Jones Act against foreign flagged ships regarding the transportation of oil from one U.S. port to another.  The Jones Act cabotage requirements prohibit shipments from reserve holdings on the Louisiana and Texas coasts to East Coast refineries.

Buyers of the oil wanted to use large tankers to transport the 30 million barrels being sold, because they are larger and cheaper than most U.S. coastwise vessels and barges.  However, there are only nine large tankers flying the U.S. flag, all of which sail from Alaska to California.  The administration let the buyers use foreign ships for 46 out of 47 shipments.

This caused American shipping companies to become "understandably furious," according to the Boston Herald which calls from the repeal of the Jones Act.  "The Jones Act is a smelly piece of protectionism that should have been repealed 50 years ago," says the Herald.

My prediction is that the bill will not make it out of committee. 

Even changing the Jones Act will not significantly affect the cruise industry, which will continue to buy foreign ships, fly foreign flags, and hire foreign employees to save money.   

  • What happen when cruise is sailing to “nowhere” (for example Port Everglades/Port Everglades) with the Jones law ?

  • Annette Cortez

    I asked the question about Carnival Cruise sailing from New Orleans to say, Key West and back. Short cruise for us that can’t take 7 days off and was told about this law. Sucks for people that would love to cruise but cant take that much time off. 🙁

  • MikeRenna

    A friend is taking the Carnival Pride from Baltimore to Port Canaveral (Jan 2012) as the first stop, then going to Nassau. Carnival says the Pride is registered in Panama. So how are they able to do that – go to Port canaveral as the FIRST stop?

  • Vickie

    Princess Cruises says I can’t take their Alaska southbound cruise from Anchorage, Ak to Vancouver, BC and then continue on a repositioning cruise from Vancouver, BC to Los Angeles. The first cruise is 7 days and the second leaves the same day the first ends and is 3 days. (all on the same ship)

  • Jerry

    So I just took a cruise to Alaska…and have cruised many times before. The Jones Act is pretty much not going to affect the cruise lines, as they’ll just continue to build and employ foreign, as well as flag their ships in the same way (to save money), but it DOES affect the passengers like you and I. I just came back from an Alaskan cruise a few days ago, and we had a beautiful voyage through the Tracey Arm Fjord, and then onto Skagway, Ketchikan, and Juneau…but instead of a 4th Alaskan port, like Sitka, we had to waste time to actually stop in Victoria, BC (Canada) to satisfy the requirements of this stupid Jones act. It was a complete waste for us. We docked at 7:30PM…when everything in town was closing up…and only ported for about 3 hours before having to be back on the ship. A TOTAL waste of time. We could have spent a day in Sitka as a nice port option, but instead, because all the Alaskan ports are US based,we had to make a foreign stop, and Victoria was the quick and dirty way to satisfy that requirement. We had no time to do anything, see anything, or enjoy anything. They just need to do away with this protectionist act already.

  • Jerry

    I also want to cruise to Hawaii next year…but instead of cruising out of California or something (cheaper flight for us), we actually have to cruise Hawaii, and then return to Vancouver due to the same silly Jones Act. Makes it more expensive for us to now have to fly out of a foreign city, rather than just allowing us to cruise the Hawaiian ports, and then return to L.A. or something. Makes no Sense.

  • Johanne Maiore

    I would like to Know as à Canadian resident, is IT possible to do à back to back Cruise . First Cruise honolulu. To Vancouver than the second Cruise from Vancouver to alaska finish in gin seatle. Please i née dans answer as soon as possible. So i CAN plan my 2015 cruises.

  • Anita Green

    We were planning to cruise Hawaii to Vancouver, and then Vancouver to Alaska, and back to Seattle, and we are US citizens. Is it possible for us to do that?

  • Daveincave

    Johanne m, the law is only for anerican citizens.

  • Paul Wiggins

    Hi I’m confused with this jones act and I hope that you can clear it up.
    I’m from Australia and a few of us are booked from Seattle to Vancouver ( 7 day Alaska )10hrs in port, Then Vancouver to Honolulu ( 10 Day )15hrs in port. Then Honolulu to Sydney ( 19 days ).
    This is one long cruise From Seattle United States to Sydney Australia( consisting of 3 cruise bookings ).
    We would very much appreciate it if you could help us with all this confusion.
    Regards Paul

  • Paul Wiggins

    Regarding my previous post I forgot to say that we are traveling on the Carnival Legend for the whole cruise ( Seattle to Sydney ).8th September 2015 – 15th October 2015.

  • John

    The comments I have read regard tourism and the Jones act. There is no doubting that American flagged ships are a national asset. Trained shipbuilding yards, trained American sailors, and efficient operating American companies are needed. It is important to note that the American ships and the American sailors are certified by the U.S. Coast Guard. Just look at the Germanwings airplane pilot left alone in the cabin. That would not have happened on a U.S. plane as a crewmember would have also been in the cabin. Same idea on U.S. Ships. We have tighter rules. Your safety in cruising is up to you. It is the little things which can be the difference. The Jones Act plays a vital role in our country in several ways.

  • Thomas

    The act is effectively killing the American shipbuilding industry with no discernible benefit for the economy. We should be building more than 1% of the world’s large vessels, but it won’t happen as long as we have this act making the costs be 3 or 4 times what it would cost to build elsewhere. It also has no benefit for security in the cruising industry because every ship I have been on puts security of their passengers very high up on their list. As for the “sick” ship issue, having or not having this law doesn’t help that in any way. It is just a stupid useless act that is apparently protecting some special interest’s needs at the cost of every cruiser who would like to just take a cruise around the US and at the cost of every port that would benefit from being able to host cruise ships coming into tour their cities and spend money.

    Just repeal this act already and let everyone get on living their life the way they want to.

  • Beth Strickland

    I just cruised on Celebrity Solstice in May 2015. Due to my mother’s death, I left the ship in Juneau. The ship charged my husband and I $300.00 each to exit the ship. We were told it was because of the Jones Act. Is this correct? Is there any way to get reimbursed for this fee?
    Thank you
    Beth Strickland

  • teddybrinker

    I have a felony charge on my record since 1999 for less than 1 qt ounce of pot. I would like to travel overseas but need to have a passport. what would be the best way to get my passport back?

  • Helen gray

    Cruised booked to Alaska on Norwegian pearl, my husband has a prior conviction from 12 years ago, so he needed permission from Canada to port there. Which could take 60 days but you can’t get a live person when you call the embassy. So we decided to book a flight from the last American port back to Seattle .the cruise line said we would be in violation of the jones act. They won’t give us a letter saying he won’t get off ship in Canada we can’t reach the Canadian consolate, so what should we do ? The ship leaves in 2 weeks and to cancel we lose a lot of money, and to take him off because it was a casino deal it will cost the rest of us another 700 dollars and because they only told us this 3 weeks before our cruise we are a a standstill because we can’t get reimbursed for any of our trip because it is so late.
    What can we do??? HELP!!

  • Ben

    Here’s the thing many of you have wrong with the Jones Act. It was not put in place to protect “cruisers.” It was put in place to protect against cargo ships wiping out our national shipping. What happens when we repeal this law? You will never again see an American Flagged ship. Some of you may consider this to be ok. Well what happens when a war breaks out or China goes off the reservation? You don’t have any ships and you don’t have anyone that knows how to build ships, you also don’t have anyone trained to operate the ship. These aren’t jobs folks. They’re careers. The GAO has said that any negative impact on the economy is so minuscule they couldn’t even measure it.

    There is one American Flagged cruise ship by the way, the Pride of America, operated by NCL.

  • Jody

    If we could get the Jones Act repealed then people in San Diego could cruise TO Florida and get on a ship there to the Caribbean. Hopefully, that would encourage more cruise lines to depart from San Diego.
    San Diego needs more cruises departing from there and not just going to Mexico, the Panama Canal or Hawaii.

  • Jacques

    We’re stuck with the same problem (Vickie, June 5 2012 comment) the other way around. Too bad.
    I do not understand this law. The coastal cruise ends in Vancouver(not a US port), the ship has to be emptied of all of its passengers and we all have to go through customs. It is not only a port of call. Vancouver is the end of that cruise. According to what I know, cruise ships are NOT commercial ships thus cannot transport and trade merchandise. Wouldn’t it be more simple to decree that recognised cruise ships would be exempted and then every one would be happy? I fully support the Jones Act for commerce but, in 1920, cruises did not exist so let’s all reajust to the NEW reality.

  • Toni

    Hi need help if possible before tomorrow
    I am looking at wanting to book a back to back cruise in America have been told by lot of people that it can be done and then another set of people said no we can’t because of the Jones Act which America has.
    First cruise 30 Sept 2016 to the 8 October 2016 is Seattle to Seattle for Eight days visiting Santa Barbara, San Francisco, Astoria and Victor (British Columbia) and then back to Seattle.
    The second cruise 8 October 2016 for 24 nights is Seattle to Sydney with the following ports Honolulu, Maui, Suva Fiji, Vila Vanuatu, Mystery Island Vanuatu, Noumea New Caledonia and then Sydney.
    Is it possible to do these cruises without breaking the Jones Act that America has.
    Sorry for the short notice on this question
    Kind regards

  • Sue Simmonds

    We have a cruise booked from Seattle to Alaska and back to Vancouver. We would like to book a second cruise Vancouver to Honolulu, we were told we would be in violation of the Jones Act, but after reading all the comments I am now not sure, same ship arrive in Vancouver in the morning and the next cruise starts that afternoon. Would appreciate clarification.

  • Mark Esquibel

    Toni and Sue, this response is for you two. First off, the Jones Act only applies to American citizens and no one else. Secondly, the Act only affects Americans on foreign flagged cruise ships that begin AND end in a US port, of which there are two types. A “closed loop” cruise begins and ends in the SAME US port and requires stopping at ANY foreign port. An “open loop” cruise begins and ends in DIFFERENT US ports and requires stopping at a *distant* foreign port. Now for clarification, if you begin OR end your cruise in a foreign port, then none of this is applicable.

    Toni, you are perfectly fine with your back to back cruise. The first segment is permitted as a standalone, closed loop Seattle cruise with a stop in Canada. And as a combined cruise, you are effectively starting in Seattle and ending in a foreign port, Australia.

    Sue, you can do either cruise independently, but not combined because then you would effectively be cruising from Seattle to Honolulu with only a stop in Vancouver which for the purposes of this cruise, is not considered to be a *distant* foreign port.

  • P Cran

    Is there a legal problem if we choose to disembark prior to the end of a cruise at a US based port?

  • Gaye

    If a passenger forgot their original passport, license at the originating port (Tampa) but the 1st stop after departing Tampa is Key West, can the passenger board in Key West if the correct identification is obtained and the passenger gets transportation?

  • Brett Wood

    My family wish to do three back to back cruises on the ship Carniival Legend, those being:
    1. Seattle to Vancouver
    2. Vancouver to Honolulu
    3. Honolulu to Sydney (Australia).
    Carnival Corporation insist that it violates the PVSA and will not book it. Carnival Australia insist that it is perfectly legal as we disenbark in Australia.
    Mixed messages….which one is it?

  • PAT


  • Wendie Hume

    Brett Wood we have booked exactly what you are asking. Our travel agent told us it was fine. The more i read the more i become confused. But i think because it starts in Seattle and ends in Sydney makes it ok. Can someone confirm this. As we are fully booked and paid i dont want to be stranded .

  • Discouraged

    We were booked on a cruise leaving from Vancouver but flight had delays which caused us to not be able to connect to get to Vancouver. Called cruiseline that we had booked everything thru (cruise, air, transfers, insurance)for assistance. We were told there were no flights to get us to the ship and that they could not get us to the first port (all Alaska ports) because of the Jones act. We, therefore had to cancel the trip and have been fighting with cruiseline, air carrier and insurance to try to get some of our money back. We were on the first flight of our two flights and ready to leave when it developed engine problems which apparently is not covered by insurance.Does this sound accurate about first port and Jones act?

  • Paul Barton

    The cruiseline can choose to charge the $300 penalty for violating the Passenger Vessel Service Act (the Jones Act is for cargo) and could still have embarked.

  • Wayne

    Do these back to back cruises cruises on he same ship comply with the PVSA?

  • Cecil Guillote
  • charles mirabal

    The jones act serves us no purpose, cruise ships fall under different rules. We no longer build ship. Foreign carriers take advantage uf the jones act, and vice versa, it coast us three times as much to ship cargo.if a cruise ship leaves tampa and stops at key west, is it not violating the johes act.the U.S builds 1 per cent of ships, we are keeping 1000.00s of jobs from our people.are we stupid or what. The Jones act is 100 years old, it no longer serves us.

  • Tony Serra

    I have the same stupid question. I believe this does not qualify under the JONES ACT MY TRAVEL AGENT SAYS OTHERWISE.
    We want to leave a US port (San Francisco) and cruise 3 days on HAL to Vancouver, Canada.(foreign port) This leg of the trip is no problem. The day we arrive we disembark in the morning. That afternoon the same ship travels back to Seattle Washington. No Jones Act violation correct? However we are told we cannot board this “new cruise” in a new room to travel back to the United States. This makes absolutely no sense to me whatsoever. If the ship is not breaking any maritime law traveling on the same day back to the United States then why would we be breaking any laws as passengers?

    • Tim Markwald

      I think your TA is whacked. We routinely do the Honolulu -Vancouver/Vancouver-Seattle run.