If I’m on a Cruise Ship, What Laws Do I Have To Adhere To?

By: Julia Layton  | 
Is it easier to get away with a crime on a cruise ship? Actually, it might be. Maritime laws are murky and jurisdictions overlap. These ships are in the harbor of the U.S. Virgin Islands. See more pictures of paradise.
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Millions of people step onto a cruise ship each year and leave the real world behind. The law seems not to apply in this floating city of swim-up bars, slot machines and faraway ports of call. And in a way, it's true: The law of the land doesn't quite make it to the high seas. This is great news for a resident of Maryland looking to get in some poker on vacation. It's not such great news for the victim of a crime on board a cruise ship.

Aside from the distant possibility of an onboard fire, hitting an iceberg or getting raided by pirates, cruise ships seem entirely safe. Piracy does still happen — in 2005, a cruise ship off the coast of Somalia was hit with grenades in a failed hijacking attempt (or, as the FBI calls it, an attempted "vessel conversion").


But an onboard crime? Where would someone run to after they've stolen your wallet, or worse, committed rape or murder? It's a logical line of thinking, but it doesn't always apply. About 400 people have gone missing from cruise ships in the past 20 years, which works out to about 20 people per year.

That might not seem like much when you consider the tens of millions of people who take cruises each year. But it seems like a huge number when you consider the difficulty of enforcing the law on the open seas. Very few of those cases have been thoroughly investigated, let alone solved.

The problem is that maritime law— the law that applies to people on the water— is famously convoluted. Not all cruise ships are required to report crime statistics to any governing body, so the question of who's supposed to investigate when a crime does occur is a sticky one.

So what happens when a cruise ship passenger or crew member commits a crime? Do they just get away with it? Let's find out what laws apply when you're on a cruise.