Cruise Ship Registry, Flag State Control, Flag of Convenience

   November 26, 2015 ,   Ships and Lines

Cruise ship registry and flags, what is flag-state (control & responsibilities), flags of convenience - all of these are the subject of the following survey. We offer you a list of smaller and really big cruise ships sailing under foreign flags and some info about cruise ship registration by cruise line company (current operator for chartered ships).

What is "Flag State" (definition)

"Flag State" is the ship's registration country under whose laws it is registered/licensed. Just like any marine vessel, a passenger ship operates under its flag state laws (also used if the ship is involved in an admiralty case). Flag states have the authority and responsibility for a ship, exercising control over the ships. They inspect the ships regularly, certify equipment and crew, issue safety and pollution-related documents, etc.

Each of the flag states has its own ship register where all ships sailing under its flag need to be registered. Some countries even have more than one ship register.

What is "Flag State Control" (definition)

The cruise ship's flag state controls the vessel and its crew - an absolute authority. Ships have to comply with all the flag state's maritime rules and regulations, which are, of course in accordance with the international maritime rules and regulations by the IMO (International Maritime Organisation). The flag state has the absolute authority over the ship, for not complying with the norms the flag state can impose penalties on the ship and crew. Flag states are required to carry out regular inspections, to ensure safe and secure shipping of passengers and goods, to send detailed inspection reports to the IMO. The IMO has 167 Governments as members.

biggest flag states list

For cruise ships registered in the USA - the USCG (US Coast Guard), search and rescue operations. "The Officer in Charge Marine Inspections" - for the inspection of all US-flagged cruise ships (and other marine vessels) relating to construction/equipment/manning, casualties/accidents and for investigations of cases of misconduct/negligence/incompetence of officers and crew.

For cruise ships registered in the UK - the MCA (Maritime and Coastguard Agency) is the flag state control executive agency responsible for the implementation of the GB's and the International maritime law and policies. It operates through the UK's HMCG (Her Majesty's Coastguard) - safety control, coastal water monitoring, and testing, issues licenses to officers/crew, monitoring of the UK's AIS network (real-time ship tracking).

What is "flag of convenience" (definition)

"Flag of Convenience" is called the flag state of a merchant ship when registered in a state different from that of its owners. More than half of all merchant ships in the world are registered under flags of convenience, and according to the latest statistics - around 90% of all commercial marine vessels calling on US ports are under foreign flags. There's only one big sea cruise ship registered in the USA - ms Pride of America, and the sole reason for that is she sails in Hawaii exclusively, the whole year-round.

cruise ship registry, flag states - CruiseMapper

As the market always determines the prices, often choosing a flag state means minimizing costs to maximize the revenue. And for a cruise ship owner, making a choice between using the fiscal advantages of registering ships in the open registry (under "Flag of Convenience") and registration in a national/close registry means making a choice between good business and not so good business.

In 1922, W. Averell Harriman (American politician/businessman/diplomat) registered two of his American-owned ships under the Panamanian flag, the main reason being to avoid Prohibition. In 1948, E. Stettinius (former Secretary of State under Roosevelt) founded the Liberian ship registry, later followed by Bahamas and Bermuda, Malta and Portugal. Some countries (like Italy and Holland/Netherlands) have cruise ships registered in their national registries.

World's most popular cruise ships flags of convenience

  1. The list of Bahamas-registered cruise ships includes some of the largest passenger ships in the world from the fleets of RCCL, NCL, and Carnival.
  2. Under the Panamanian flag operate 2 major cruise ship companies - Carnival (CCL started the "Panama flag state" cruising experience with the Mardi Gras ship in 1972) and MSC Cruises (brand of the Mediterranean Shipping Company, one of the world's largest container shipping lines).
  3. Bermudian Flag of Convenience and Cruise Weddings. Bermuda is offering its offshore registry for UK-owned ships since 1974. First, the P&O Cruises line changed its cruise ships' flags from London to Hamilton. Most of the Bermuda-flagged cruise ships (all registered in Hamilton) are from the fleets of Princess, P&O, and Cunard. And the main reason for that is the Bermudian flag of convenience allows captains to perform onboard weddings (the Bermudian flag is, of course, British, but Bermuda's registry has different legislation).
  4. Under the Italian flag are Costa and AIDA, with all vessels being registered in Genoa.
  5. Under the flag of Malta are the RCCL brands Celebrity and TUI. In Malta (Valletta) are also registered the ships of Celestyal Cruises transferred away from the expensive flag of Greece.
  6. Under the royal flag of The Netherlands/Holland are all Holland America ships (a Carnival brand).
  7. Madeira (Funchal) is the offshore registry of Portugal, registered in Portugal ships are from the fleets of Classic International and Iberocruceros (Carnival's brand).
  8. There are no cruise ships registered in Liberia today. For many years, Carnival, Royal Caribbean and Celebrity operated under the Liberian flag, but the dictator Charles Taylor changed all that. Under the Liberian flag of convenience, today sail many cargo ships, though.
  9. CCL-Carnival Cruise Lines is now the only major brand to split its ships between two flags of convenience (Panama and Bahamas), while the others usually stick to one.
  10. All Galapagos-based ships are Ecuador-flagged.

Cruise ship flags of convenience vs national flag

The flag of convenience helps ship owners to evade their home nation's "inconvenient" rules/regulations, and often for reasons that are not so good. The negative impact is solely on the crew/staff who works on such ships.

USA cruise ships (registered in the United States)

  1. Lower standards of working conditions due to lesser regulations. The crew on such ships often work under stress, or under dangerous conditions, and often without compensation.
  2. The crew is deprived of basic rights, such as the right to form/join trade unions, and the right to demand proper pay/working conditions.
  3. A ship under the flag of convenience is under its flag state's jurisdiction, but ship records and other documents can be easily manipulated in cases of illegal trade (like smuggling, for example). Crew members could be charged for a criminal activity they were not even a part of.
  4. Generally, ships sailing under the flag of convenience offer lower salaries or pay crew/staff later than required.
  5. Insufficient or no compensation in cases of onboard accidents. Such ships have the right to refuse to pay compensation to a crew member and/or his/her family.
  6. Busy work schedule without the necessary rest time between assignments (compared to the standard).
  7. Uncertainty/stress - working on a flag of convenience ship can endanger your career, resulting in sickness, physical and mental impairments, and even bad work record if you decide to seek justice.

Open registry /flag of convenience states today account for more than 55% of the world's shipping.

Flag of convenience list of countries with an open registry

Currently, 27 countries have been declared "Flag of Convenience" states by ITF Global (International Transport Workers' Federation). Founded in 1896, the ITF currently represents a combined membership of around 5 mill workers from 148 countries. ITF (headquartered in London, UK) runs an international campaign against these countries through its "Fair Practices Committee" (seafarers' & dockers' unions).

flags of convenience list

ITF's list of "bad guys" (flag of convenience countries) includes:

  • Antigua and Barbuda, Aruba
  • Bahamas, Barbados, Belize, Bermuda
  • Cambodia, Canary Islands, Cayman Islands, Cook Islands, Cyprus
  • GIS (German International Ship Register), Gibraltar
  • Honduras
  • Lebanon, Liberia, Luxembourg
  • Malta, Marshall Islands, Mauritius, Myanmar
  • Netherlands/Dutch Antilles
  • Panama
  • St Vincent, Sri Lanka
  • Tuvalu (Ellice Islands, Polynesia)
  • Vanuatu (South Pacific).

As a rule, cruise ships under the flag of convenience have a multinational crew and are owned by large multinational companies.

What is the difference between closed and open registries?

"Open Registries" are organizations that will register foreign-owned ships. One of the first open registries is the Liberian and Panamanian registries, followed by the Bahamian and Bermudian, and more recently - those of Malta and Portugal.

"Closed (national) Registries" require that a cruise ship be owned and constructed by national interests and to be fully or partially crewed by its citizens. This usually increases the ship's construction and operating costs. Italy (Genoa) and The Netherlands (Rotterdam) are two of the national registries featuring big-size cruise liners owned by companies like HAL-Holland America, Costa, AIDA.

Flag states list of the largest ship registries in the world

Note: These are flag-states serving all types of ships (official data 2011).

  1. PAN-PANAMA (22,6 %) registry port Colon
  2. LBR-LIBERIA (11 %) registry port Monrovia
  3. MHL-MARSHALL ISLANDS (6%) registry port Majuro
  4. HKG-HONG KONG (5,8%)
  5. GRC-GREECE (5,3%)
  6. BHS-BAHAMAS (5%) registry port Nassau
  7. SGP-SINGAPORE (4,8%)
  8. MLT-MALTA (4,4%) registry port Valletta
  9. CHN-CHINA (3,5%)
  10. CYPRUS (2,5%) registry port Limassol
  11. SOUTH KOREA (1,6%)
  12. NORWAY (1,5%) registry port Oslo
  13. UK (1,4%)
  14. JPN-JAPAN (1,4%)
  15. GERMANY (1,4%)
  16. ITALY (1,3%) registry port Genoa
  17. ISLE OF MAN (1,3%) registry port Douglas
  18. INDIA (1,2%)
  19. DENMARK (1%)
  20. ANTIGUA & BARBUDA (1%)
  21. USA (1%)

When the Coronavirus crisis started (2020), Looyd's List ranked as "the world's top 10 flag states" the following countries:

  1. Panama, with total GT 234,735 million tons, total DWT 350,511 million tons, total vessels 9596
  2. Liberia (187,801M / 299,328M / 4295)
  3. Marshall Islands (170,971M / 276,365M / 4313)
  4. Hong Kong (130,306M / 206,273M / 2739)
  5. Singapore (96,101M / 142,956M / 4914)
  6. Malta (82,443M / 116,279M / 2588)
  7. Bahamas (64,127M / 77,341M / 1474)
  8. China (61,065M / 91,718M / 5130)
  9. Greece (38,042M / 65,755M / 1527)
  10. Japan (28,689M / 42,933M / 3852)

The following infographic shows 2015 statistical data about the number of commercial vessels (passenger and cargo ships) registered in foreign states compared to those carrying the boat's national flag.

flagstate-registered merchant vessels infographic

Cruise Ship Registry

Cruise ships registry choices are made by cruise lines (or ship operators when the vessel is on charter). The main factors determining their decision are:

  • flag-state's capabilities to deliver the services the company needs
  • flag's reputation in the worldwide community of major international shipping companies
  • flag-state's performance (how a cruise ship is prioritized by port states)
  • seafarers pool (officers and crew) able to meet the flag's needs
  • the number of fees (charges) and taxes (country's tax rates).

In summation, because the cruise shipowner immediately becomes subject to all safety/labor/environmental laws of the flag-state, the majority of nations with the most popular open registries tend to be countries with the laxest safety/labor/environmental codes, low tax rates, very cheap port fees.

Ship nameYear builtGT TonnageFlag-state
Virgin Voyages (all ships)--Bahamas
Star Breeze19899975 gtBahamas
Carnival Sunrise1999101509 gtBahamas
Seabourn (all ships)--Bahamas
Silversea (all ships)--Bahamas
DCL-Disney (all ships)--Bahamas
NCL-Norwegian (all ships)--Bahamas
Albatros197328518 gtBahamas
MV Glory Sea200124318 gtBahamas
MS Paul Gauguin199719170 gtBahamas
Windstar Cruises (all ships)19885307 gtBahamas
Ocean Nova19922183 gtBahamas
Genting Star Cruises GHK (all ships)--Bahamas
Ocean Adventurer19754376 gtBahamas
Crystal Cruises (ocean ships and yachts)--Bahamas
RCGS Resolute19918378 gtBahamas
MS Hamburg199715067 gtBahamas
Seven Seas Voyager200342363 gtBahamas
MS Bremen19906752 gtBahamas
Vidanta Alegria199015271 gtBahamas
Amadea199129008 gtBahamas
SeaDream (all yachts)--Bahamas
Seven Seas Mariner200148075 gtBahamas
ms The World200243188 gtBahamas
Aegean Paradise199023287 gtBahamas
MS Delphin197516214 gtBahamas
Saga Pearl II198118627 gtBahamas
Carnival Inspiration199670367 gtBahamas
National Geographic Endeavour19663132 gtBahamas
Carnival Imagination199570367 gtBahamas
Carnival Fascination199470538 gtBahamas
National Geographic Explorer19826471 gtBahamas
Fred Olsen (all ships)--Bahamas
Carnival Sensation199370538 gtBahamas
mv Minerva199612900 gtBahamas
RCI-Royal Caribbean International (all ships)--Bahamas
Island Sky19924200 gtBahamas
Carnival Sunshine1996103881 gtBahamas
Star Princess2002108977 gtBermuda
Aurora200076152 gtBermuda
Oriana199569840 gtBermuda
Sun Princess199577441 gtBermuda
Seven Seas Navigator199928803 gtBermuda
Diamond Princess2004115906 gtBermuda
Royal Princess2013142714 gtBermuda
Emerald Princess2007113561 gtBermuda
Azura2010115055 gtBermuda
Artania198444656 gtBermuda
Pacific Princess199930277 gtBermuda
Crown Princess2006113561 gtBermuda
Island Princess200391627 gtBermuda
Oceania Sirena199930277 gtBermuda
Golden Princess2001108865 gtBermuda
Grand Princess1998107517 gtBermuda
Caribbean Princess2004112894 gtBermuda
Ruby Princess2008113561 gtBermuda
Pacific Explorer199777441 gtBermuda
Sea Princess199877499 gtBermuda
Arcadia200584342 gtBermuda
Oceana200077499 gtBermuda
Sapphire Princess2004115875 gtBermuda
Caledonian Sky19914200 gtBermuda
Coral Princess200291627 gtBermuda
Ventura2008116017 gtBermuda
Andaman Explorer19631090 gtCayman Islands
MV Ventus Australis20184508 gtChile
National Geographic Endeavour II20052716 gtChile
MV Santa Cruz II20022664 gtChile
MV Stella Australis20104508 gtChile
MV Ushuaia19702923 gtComoros
Princess Eleganza2015480 gtCroatia
Celestyal Olympia198237584 gtCyprus
Celebrity Xploration2007319 gtEcuador
Galapagos Legend19632890 gtEcuador
MV Isabela II19791025 gtEcuador
Monserrat1973151 gtEcuador
Queen of Galapagos2007307 gtEcuador
Yolita II2007250 gtEcuador
Celebrity Xpedition20012842 gtEcuador
La Pinta19821438 gtEcuador
National Geographic Islander19951021 gtEcuador
MV Reef Endeavour19963125 gtFiji
Ocean Endeavour198212907 gtFinland
Club Med 2199214983 gtFrance
MS Deutschland199822496 gtGermany
Costa (all ships)--Italy/Genoa
AIDA (all ships)--Italy/Genoa
Pacific Venus199826594 gtJapan
Asuka 2199050142 gtJapan
MS Expedition19726334 gtLiberia
Funchal19619563 gtMadeira
Lisboa195516531 gtMadeira
Astoria194816144 gtMadeira
Ocean Majesty196610417 gtMadeira
Grand Classica199152926 gtMadeira
TUI (all Schiff ships)--Malta
Celebrity (all ships)--Malta
Hapag-Lloyd (all ships)--Malta
TUI-Marella UK (all ships)--Malta
Princess Iris199240876 gtMalta
MSC Seaview2018152050 gtMalta
MSC Meraviglia2017171598 gtMalta
Sea Cloud Cruises (all ships)--Malta
MS Berlin198010550 gtMalta
MSC Seaside2017152050 gtMalta
Ocean Dream198136674 gtMalta
Azamara (all ships)200130277 gtMalta
Star Clippers (all ships/tall-sailing yachts)--Malta
Four Seasons Yachts (all)--Malta
Ritz-Carlton Yachts (all)--Malta
MV Corinthian19904077 gtMalta
Pearl Mist Cruises (all ships)--Marshall Islands
Hebridean Island Cruises (all ships)--Marshall Islands
Seven Seas Explorer201656000 gtMarshall Islands
Oceania (all ships)--Marshall Islands
HAL-Holland America Line (all ships)--Netherlands/Rotterdam
MV Plancius19763434 gtNetherlands
Pacific Eden199355819 gtNetherlands
Viking Ocean (all ships)--Norway/Oslo
Hurtigruten (all ships)--Norway/Oslo
Carnival Splendor2008113323 gtPanama
Carnival Conquest2002110239 gtPanama
Carnival Pride200185920 gtPanama
Carnival Liberty2005110320 gtPanama
Carnival Ecstasy199170526 gtPanama
Carnival Paradise199870390 gtPanama
MSC Orchestra200792409 gtPanama
Carnival Fantasy199070367 gtPanama
MSC Magnifica201095128 gtPanama
MSC Splendida2009137936 gtPanama
Carnival Valor2004110239 gtPanama
MSC Armonia200165542 gtPanama
Carnival Horizon2018133500 gtPanama
Carnival Glory2003110239 gtPanama
Carnival Elation199870390 gtPanama
Carnival Vista2016133500 gtPanama
Carnival Victory2000101509 gtPanama
Carnival Dream2009128251 gtPanama
Carnival Magic2011128048 gtPanama
MSC Opera200465591 gtPanama
MSC Poesia200892627 gtPanama
MSC Lirica200365591 gtPanama
MSC Preziosa2013139072 gtPanama
Carnival Freedom2007110320 gtPanama
MSC Musica200692409 gtPanama
Carnival Miracle200485942 gtPanama
Carnival Breeze2012128052 gtPanama
MSC Sinfonia200265542 gtPanama
MSC Fantasia2008137936 gtPanama
MV Ortelius19894575 gtRussia
MV Polar Pioneer19851753 gtRussia
Knyaz Vladimir19719159 gtRussia
MS Birka Stockholm200434924 gtSweden
Cunard (all ships)2004148528 gtUK
RRS James Cook20065401 gtUK
RRS Discovery20135952 gtUK
Pacific Jewel199070310 gtUK
Hebridean Princess19642112 gtUK
Majestic Princess2017142714 gtUK
RMS St Helena19896767 gtUK
Lindblad-National Geographic (all ships)--USA
UnCruise Adventures (all ships)--USA
AQSC-American Queen Voyages (all ships)--USA
ACL-American Cruise Line (all ships)--USA
Alaskan Dream Cruises (all ships)--USA
NCL-Pride of America200580439 gtUSA-Hawaii
Ponant (all ships)--Wallis and Futuna France/Mata-Utu

Why most cruise ships are registered in Bahamas/Panama, and not in USA?

The Bahamas (port of Nassau) is the No 1 registry of cruise ships worldwide and the world's 3rd largest ship registry after Panama and Liberia. Why cruise lines do not enjoy the idea of having their ships registered in the United States and prefer to operate ships registered in other countries?

The biggest of the largest in the cruise travel industry (Carnival, Royal Caribbean and Disney) along with major shipping companies (like Chevron, Texaco and Exxon - the parent company of Esso and Mobil) prefer The Bahamas as flag-state/flag of convenience (see the definitions below) over USA simply because for a "Bahamian" ship US labor laws do not apply.

On any marine vessels registered in the Bahamas there are no codes about the number of hours a seafarer may work or his/her days off, no minimum wages, staff can be punished by the captain in case of complaining about issues (such as safety or food quality, for example). In other words, while on the ship, the captain has the absolute authority. This is the classic maritime law. Similar "benefits" offer Panama and Liberia as flag states.