If I'm on a cruise ship, what laws do I have to adhere to?

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 harbor at the U.S. Virgin Islands. See more pictures of paradise.
Donald Nausbaum/Photographer's Choice/Getty Images

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 exotic 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 onboard 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 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. A 2007 congressional hearing on cruise ship safety revealed some surprising statistics. According to data provided by the world's biggest cruise lines, in the past three years, 28 people have disappeared on the open seas, and three have been found. Almost 200 people have reported cases of sexual misconduct or assault; and four people have been victims of grand theft [source: Tampa Bays 10].

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 on the water -- is famously convoluted. Cruise ships aren't even required to report crime statistics to any governing body, and 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.

Maritime Law: Murky Jurisdiction

A cruise ship in the open ocean follows the laws of the flag it flies under.
A cruise ship in the open ocean follows the laws of the flag it flies under.
Brad Wilson/Taxi/Getty Images

In 2006, a woman onboard a Royal Caribbean cruise ship sailing the Mexican Riviera reported being raped in her stateroom. She immediately returned to Los Angeles, where two FBI agents took her statement a week later, and told her there was nothing they could do. Ultimately, this case prompted the following year's congressional hearing.

International maritime law requires that cruise ships take every possible measure to provide safe passage. But when something goes wrong, jurisdiction is difficult to sort out.

At the time of the alleged rape, the ship was in international waters, but Royal Caribbean is registered in Liberia and the ship was docking in Mexico through the voyage. The cruise line noted 66 cases of alleged sexual assault between 2003 and 2005, without a single one prosecuted successfully [source: KCRA].

Because maritime law is so difficult to clarify (in part because every country has its own version of it), most cases of cruise ship crime are decided on a case-by-case basis. Law on a cruise ship (or any other ship) starts with the flag the ship is flying under. A ship flies the flag of the country where it's registered, and, in general, the laws onboard a ship are the laws of that country. However, when figuring out which laws apply on a sea vessel, territory also must be taken into consideration. Legal jurisdiction on the sea goes something like this [source: Justia]:

  • A country's internal waters -- areas like bays and ports -- are a part of that country. So when a ship is docked at the Port of Miami, all U.S. (and Florida) laws apply to the ship, its passengers and its crew.
  • Almost all of a nation's laws also apply in its territorial waters which extend up to 12 miles from its coastline (we'll look at an exception on the next page). A ship departing from a U.S. port cannot open gambling activities until it's 12 miles out, since gambling is illegal in most parts of the United States.
  • A nation has limited jurisdiction in its contiguous zone -- the area 12 miles to 24 miles from its coast. A country has certain rights within that zone, such as patrolling its borders. For instance, within 24 miles of the U.S. coast, the U.S. Coast Guard is allowed to board any ship suspected of drug smuggling, regardless of which flag it's flying under.
  • Once a ship is 24 miles from any coastline, it's on the high seas (or international waters). With the exception of certain rights within the contiguous zone, the law of that ship is the law of the country whose flag it's flying. So, a Liberia-registered cruise ship that's 25 miles off the coast of California isn't subject to U.S. law; it's subject to Liberian law.

Lawsuits against a cruise line are different, though. While it might seem like a U.S. citizen robbed in U.S. territorial waters off the coast of Los Angeles could sue the cruise line in Los Angeles, it actually depends on the cruise ship ticket's fine print. If the ticket says the cruise line can only be sued in Seattle, then a Los Angeles court will almost always refuse to hear the case.

This can all be bad news for the victim of cruise ship crime. But for the millions of people who take a cruise so they can engage in all the good-natured debauchery they want, the legal freedom of the high seas is actually good news. After all, if U.S. law applies on a U.S.-registered ship, how can that ship allow gambling? It's all about international waters.

The High Seas: Breaking Loose

The world's largest cruise ship, the "Freedom of the Seas," before a one-night cruise.
The world's largest cruise ship, the "Freedom of the Seas," before a one-night cruise.
Heiko Junge/AFP/Getty Images

From the 1950s to 1990, a cruise ship flying a U.S. flag had no gambling onboard. U.S. law applied -- end of story. Of course, the law changed after the gambling ban left only three U.S.-registered ships.

The Cruise Ship Competitiveness Act of 1991 made it legal for a U.S.-registered cruise ship to offer gambling once it made it to international waters. Since then, the U.S. cruise industry has been thriving. Aside from gambling, cruise ships offer alcohol included in the price of an adult ticket, with only the cruise ship determining whether someone should be cut off. And considering no one onboard is going to be driving home, few people are cut off. (This, along with scalable railings, might account for a few of those 28 cruise-ship disappearances in the last five years).

This legal leniency could extend beyond gambling. Technically, a cruise ship registered in the Netherlands, where prostitution is legal, could offer prostitution services while the ship was on the high seas (although Holland America doesn't do that). And a cruise ship registered in Amsterdam, where marijuana use is legal, could allow passengers to smoke pot onboard when it's in international waters -- although it would run the risk of illegal smuggling between countries.

Ships aren't just for vacations, though, and breaking loose doesn't just apply to recreational activities. A U.S. company called SeaCode plans to take full advantage of maritime law in its "hybrid outsourcing" business plan. Established in 2005, SeaCode has an innovative idea that stems from recent changes in immigration law (called H1-B) that make it much more difficult to get work visas for foreign skilled workers, most notably computer programmers out of India. What's SeaCode's plan? Buy a used cruise ship, register it in the Bahamas (where there are no H1-B visa laws), park it off the U.S. coast and put hundreds of programmers onboard full-time. SeaCode can house as many Indian programmers as they can fit in the ship (which is 600, according to the founders) and skip the U.S. visa process altogether. Labor laws are an exception within territorial waters. If the ship is registered in the Bahamas, U.S. labor laws don't apply. SeaCode will be operating under Bahaman labor laws three miles off the coast of California.

For more information on c­ruise ships, maritime law and related topics, cruise through the links on the next page.

Related HowStuffWorks Articles

More Great Links


  • Congressman wants better data on cruise ship crime. Tampa Bay’s 10 (AP). http://www.tampabays10.com/news/local/article.aspx?storyid=26877
  • Crime on the High Seas. FBI.gov. May 22, 2006. http://www.fbi.gov/page2/may06/cruise_crime052206.htm
  • Cruise Ship Law Overview. Justia.com. http://www.justia.com/admiralty/cruise-ships/
  • Cruise Ship Safety Questioned After Alleged Rape. Sacramento News. November 6, 2006. http://www.kcra.com/news/10258276/detail.html
  • Does international law apply to individuals or states? International Law and Organization. March 10, 2005 http://academic.umf.maine.edu/~erb/classes/law6.htm
  • Outsourcing: A sea change. Asia Times Online. May 6, 2005. http://www.atimes.com/atimes/South_Asia/GE06Df02.html
  • Rose, I Nelson. Casinos on Cruise Ships, Why Not on Airplanes? Gaming Law Review. November 6, 2006. http://www.liebertonline.com/doi/pdf/10.1089/glr.2006.10.519?cookieSet=1
  • Schaffhauser, Dian. From Offshore to Ship-to-Shore. SourcingMag.com. April 5, 2005. http://www.sourcingmag.com/blog/archive/from_offshore_to_ship_to_shore.html
  • Weiner, Eric. Cruise Ship Crimes in International Waters. NPR.org. March 8, 2006. http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=5251675