What laws apply on a cruise ship?

What laws apply on a cruise ship?

What fascinates many people about a cruise is the constant change between different countries and waters.

Hardly any other form of travel allows you to discover so much of the world in such a short time - and enjoy the incomparable feeling of freedom at sea. Sometimes there is no country in sight, but that is exactly what always leads to legal ambiguity: Which laws actually apply on a cruise ship? After all, these are relevant when it comes to, for example, alcohol consumption in the on-board restaurant, gambling in the cruise ship's casino or other questions. Therefore, here is a brief overview to provide legal clarity.

aida aidacosma abu dhabi port

AIDAcosma Abu Dhabi cruise terminal

The legal situation often causes ambiguity when it comes to cruises

If you want to book a cruise today, you have a large selection of providers, ships and routes. Many people decide primarily based on individual taste and budget. For example, they ask themselves which countries they want to visit, how much time they have available to do so and how much money they can or want to spend. On this basis, they filter for suitable offers. However, they run the risk of overlooking a stumbling block: depending on the cruise ship, the legal situation can vary and influence the travel experience. Therefore, another factor should definitely be taken into account when planning your trip: the question of which law applies on the respective ship. After all, it crosses many borders between countries or even continents on its route. It is often unclear whether the nationality of the provider, the respective port or other factors are decisive when it comes to legal questions. The answer is: As long as the cruise ship is in international waters is located, i.e. more than twelve nautical miles from any mainland, the so-called flag law applies. A look at the ship's flag reveals the legal peculiarities.

Take the applicable law into account when booking

However, it is not yet possible to see the flag during the booking process and so the question arises as to how you can still find out the “nationality” of the cruise ship in order to find out about the applicable laws. Research is the be-all and end-all here, which means that all relevant information about the respective provider should be obtained before booking. Because a cruise ship often sails under a different flag than you initially suspect. An AIDA ship can sail under the Italian flag and a TUI ship can sail under the Maltese flag. The providers often do not choose the flag of the country in which they offer their cruises - but the one in which they find the best conditions, for example in terms of taxation. When booking, it is therefore important to research the flag certificate of the respective provider, which can often be done quickly and easily via the Internet these days. If necessary, it is also worth making a quick call to the respective tour operator. But why is this actually so important?

Cruise ships are also not a legal vacuum

During a cruise, various legal questions may arise that can only be answered if the nationality and therefore the applicable law are clarified. These questions concern, for example, the documents required for the trip, the amount of VAT on the ship or the age at which alcohol can be served or access to the on-board casino. The list is far from over, and VAT is the best example of how confusing the issue can be even when cruising within the European Union: VAT was actually supposed to be standardized within the EU by the 2006 EU Directive, and On most cruise ships, the purchase of food and drinks on board is exempt from VAT. However, each country has implemented this EU directive into national law and interpreted it differently. It is therefore important for every cruise to find out about legal issues in advance in order to avoid misunderstandings or even legal consequences such as fines - and to save money by ordering food and drinks VAT-free in advance or taking advantage of other legal special features.

And what if the ship is in a port?

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Costa Toscana in Dubai

As if the issue wasn't complicated enough, the law applicable to the cruise ship may change once it enters a national port. If the ship leaves international waters, national law applies. This is independent of the ship's flag and is already the case inland, i.e. near the coast. In this case, “also” means that, strictly speaking, both apply - the law of the country in whose port the cruise ship is docked and the law of the flag state. In practice, such cases are handled in such a way that the application of both legal systems must be weighed up against each other and decided on a case-by-case basis. Of course, when passengers disembark from the ship, they must comply with the laws of the country in which they are located. It therefore makes sense to find out about this in advance when planning a cruise. Depending on your itinerary, this may mean researching more or fewer countries and their laws.

Be careful about gambling on the cruise ship

Many passengers choose a cruise not only because of the route, but also because of the stay on board. Because traveling on a cruise ship is a very special experience with lots of entertainment. Boredom never occurs. From its own shopping center to hairdressing salons and swimming pools to countless restaurants, it offers everything you would find in a small town on land - and much more. In addition, most large and renowned cruise ships have their own casino, some of which can accommodate several thousand guests. But here too there can be legal uncertainty, as gambling is strictly regulated in almost all countries, so different rules may apply depending on the flag and port. There are also differences from ship to ship, for example in terms of formalities. So if you like to play and don't want to do without it on a cruise, you should find out about it in advance respective special features, also in legal terms. Then nothing stands in the way of having fun on board.

Who actually enforces the laws on board?

Staying on a cruise ship presents a number of stumbling blocks from a legal perspective. But the question also arises as to who actually controls and enforces the laws. After all, there are no police on board. The captain is responsible for this, meaning he has all the authority to ensure law and order on his ship. Of course, he must not act arbitrarily, but must adhere to the respective legal situation. If this is the case and a violation occurs, he may even detain or imprison the person in question until he or she can be handed over to the appropriate authorities.


Moving between different ports and international waters brings with it numerous legal peculiarities for cruise ships. This applies to both passengers and for employees on board. However, if you inform yourself in advance and choose the right provider, you usually don't have to worry about any difficulties and may even be able to benefit from advantages such as VAT exemption. In addition to criteria such as the route or price, when planning a cruise, you should also pay attention to which flag the ship is sailing under and which ports it calls at. Particular attention should also be paid to special features such as gambling in order to be able to use them legally and book a cruise that suits your own taste.