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.
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.
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
- 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.
- 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).
- 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).
- Under the Italian flag are Costa and AIDA, with all vessels being registered in Genoa.
- 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.
- Under the royal flag of The Netherlands/Holland are all Holland America ships (a Carnival brand).
- Madeira (Funchal) is the offshore registry of Portugal, registered in Portugal ships are from the fleets of Classic International and Iberocruceros (Carnival's brand).
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- Generally, ships sailing under the flag of convenience offer lower salaries or pay crew/staff later than required.
- 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.
- Busy work schedule without the necessary rest time between assignments (compared to the standard).
- 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).
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
- Lebanon, Liberia, Luxembourg
- Malta, Marshall Islands, Mauritius, Myanmar
- Netherlands/Dutch Antilles
- 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).
- PAN-PANAMA (22,6 %) registry port Colon
- LBR-LIBERIA (11 %) registry port Monrovia
- MHL-MARSHALL ISLANDS (6%) registry port Majuro
- HKG-HONG KONG (5,8%)
- GRC-GREECE (5,3%)
- BHS-BAHAMAS (5%) registry port Nassau
- SGP-SINGAPORE (4,8%)
- MLT-MALTA (4,4%) registry port Valletta
- CHN-CHINA (3,5%)
- CYPRUS (2,5%) registry port Limassol
- SOUTH KOREA (1,6%)
- NORWAY (1,5%) registry port Oslo
- UK (1,4%)
- JPN-JAPAN (1,4%)
- GERMANY (1,4%)
- ITALY (1,3%) registry port Genoa
- ISLE OF MAN (1,3%) registry port Douglas
- INDIA (1,2%)
- DENMARK (1%)
- ANTIGUA & BARBUDA (1%)
- USA (1%)
When the Coronavirus crisis started (2020), Looyd's List ranked as "the world's top 10 flag states" the following countries:
- Panama, with total GT 234,735 million tons, total DWT 350,511 million tons, total vessels 9596
- Liberia (187,801M / 299,328M / 4295)
- Marshall Islands (170,971M / 276,365M / 4313)
- Hong Kong (130,306M / 206,273M / 2739)
- Singapore (96,101M / 142,956M / 4914)
- Malta (82,443M / 116,279M / 2588)
- Bahamas (64,127M / 77,341M / 1474)
- China (61,065M / 91,718M / 5130)
- Greece (38,042M / 65,755M / 1527)
- 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.
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 name||Year built||GT Tonnage||Flag-state|
|Virgin Voyages (all ships)||-||-||Bahamas|
|Star Breeze||1989||9975 gt||Bahamas|
|Carnival Sunrise||1999||101509 gt||Bahamas|
|Seabourn (all ships)||-||-||Bahamas|
|Silversea (all ships)||-||-||Bahamas|
|DCL-Disney (all ships)||-||-||Bahamas|
|NCL-Norwegian (all ships)||-||-||Bahamas|
|MV Glory Sea||2001||24318 gt||Bahamas|
|MS Paul Gauguin||1997||19170 gt||Bahamas|
|Windstar Cruises (all ships)||1988||5307 gt||Bahamas|
|Ocean Nova||1992||2183 gt||Bahamas|
|Genting Star Cruises GHK (all ships)||-||-||Bahamas|
|Genting Dream Cruises GHK (all ships)||-||-||Bahamas|
|Ocean Adventurer||1975||4376 gt||Bahamas|
|Crystal Cruises (ocean ships and yachts)||-||-||Bahamas|
|RCGS Resolute||1991||8378 gt||Bahamas|
|MS Hamburg||1997||15067 gt||Bahamas|
|Seven Seas Voyager||2003||42363 gt||Bahamas|
|MS Bremen||1990||6752 gt||Bahamas|
|Vidanta Alegria||1990||15271 gt||Bahamas|
|SeaDream (all yachts)||-||-||Bahamas|
|Seven Seas Mariner||2001||48075 gt||Bahamas|
|ms The World||2002||43188 gt||Bahamas|
|Aegean Paradise||1990||23287 gt||Bahamas|
|MS Delphin||1975||16214 gt||Bahamas|
|Saga Pearl II||1981||18627 gt||Bahamas|
|Carnival Inspiration||1996||70367 gt||Bahamas|
|National Geographic Endeavour||1966||3132 gt||Bahamas|
|Carnival Imagination||1995||70367 gt||Bahamas|
|Carnival Fascination||1994||70538 gt||Bahamas|
|National Geographic Explorer||1982||6471 gt||Bahamas|
|Fred Olsen (all ships)||-||-||Bahamas|
|Carnival Sensation||1993||70538 gt||Bahamas|
|mv Minerva||1996||12900 gt||Bahamas|
|RCI-Royal Caribbean International (all ships)||-||-||Bahamas|
|Island Sky||1992||4200 gt||Bahamas|
|Carnival Sunshine||1996||103881 gt||Bahamas|
|Star Princess||2002||108977 gt||Bermuda|
|Sun Princess||1995||77441 gt||Bermuda|
|Seven Seas Navigator||1999||28803 gt||Bermuda|
|Diamond Princess||2004||115906 gt||Bermuda|
|Royal Princess||2013||142714 gt||Bermuda|
|Emerald Princess||2007||113561 gt||Bermuda|
|Pacific Princess||1999||30277 gt||Bermuda|
|Crown Princess||2006||113561 gt||Bermuda|
|Island Princess||2003||91627 gt||Bermuda|
|Oceania Sirena||1999||30277 gt||Bermuda|
|Golden Princess||2001||108865 gt||Bermuda|
|Grand Princess||1998||107517 gt||Bermuda|
|Caribbean Princess||2004||112894 gt||Bermuda|
|Ruby Princess||2008||113561 gt||Bermuda|
|Pacific Explorer||1997||77441 gt||Bermuda|
|Sea Princess||1998||77499 gt||Bermuda|
|Sapphire Princess||2004||115875 gt||Bermuda|
|Caledonian Sky||1991||4200 gt||Bermuda|
|Coral Princess||2002||91627 gt||Bermuda|
|Andaman Explorer||1963||1090 gt||Cayman Islands|
|MV Ventus Australis||2018||4508 gt||Chile|
|National Geographic Endeavour II||2005||2716 gt||Chile|
|MV Santa Cruz II||2002||2664 gt||Chile|
|MV Stella Australis||2010||4508 gt||Chile|
|MV Ushuaia||1970||2923 gt||Comoros|
|Princess Eleganza||2015||480 gt||Croatia|
|Celestyal Olympia||1982||37584 gt||Cyprus|
|Celebrity Xploration||2007||319 gt||Ecuador|
|Galapagos Legend||1963||2890 gt||Ecuador|
|MV Isabela II||1979||1025 gt||Ecuador|
|Queen of Galapagos||2007||307 gt||Ecuador|
|Yolita II||2007||250 gt||Ecuador|
|Celebrity Xpedition||2001||2842 gt||Ecuador|
|La Pinta||1982||1438 gt||Ecuador|
|National Geographic Islander||1995||1021 gt||Ecuador|
|MV Reef Endeavour||1996||3125 gt||Fiji|
|Ocean Endeavour||1982||12907 gt||Finland|
|Club Med 2||1992||14983 gt||France|
|MS Deutschland||1998||22496 gt||Germany|
|Costa (all ships)||-||-||Italy/Genoa|
|AIDA (all ships)||-||-||Italy/Genoa|
|Pacific Venus||1998||26594 gt||Japan|
|Asuka 2||1990||50142 gt||Japan|
|MS Expedition||1972||6334 gt||Liberia|
|Ocean Majesty||1966||10417 gt||Madeira|
|Grand Classica||1991||52926 gt||Madeira|
|TUI (all Schiff ships)||-||-||Malta|
|Celebrity (all ships)||-||-||Malta|
|Hapag-Lloyd (all ships)||-||-||Malta|
|TUI-Marella UK (all ships)||-||-||Malta|
|Princess Iris||1992||40876 gt||Malta|
|MSC Seaview||2018||152050 gt||Malta|
|MSC Meraviglia||2017||171598 gt||Malta|
|Sea Cloud Cruises (all ships)||-||-||Malta|
|MS Berlin||1980||10550 gt||Malta|
|MSC Seaside||2017||152050 gt||Malta|
|Ocean Dream||1981||36674 gt||Malta|
|Azamara (all ships)||2001||30277 gt||Malta|
|Star Clippers (all ships/tall-sailing yachts)||-||-||Malta|
|MV Corinthian||1990||4077 gt||Malta|
|Pearl Mist Cruises (all ships)||-||-||Marshall Islands|
|Hebridean Island Cruises (all ships)||-||-||Marshall Islands|
|Seven Seas Explorer||2016||56000 gt||Marshall Islands|
|Oceania (all ships)||-||-||Marshall Islands|
|HAL-Holland America Line (all ships)||-||-||Netherlands/Rotterdam|
|MV Plancius||1976||3434 gt||Netherlands|
|Pacific Eden||1993||55819 gt||Netherlands|
|Viking Ocean (all ships)||-||-||Norway/Oslo|
|Hurtigruten (all ships)||-||-||Norway/Oslo|
|Carnival Splendor||2008||113323 gt||Panama|
|Carnival Conquest||2002||110239 gt||Panama|
|Carnival Pride||2001||85920 gt||Panama|
|Carnival Liberty||2005||110320 gt||Panama|
|Carnival Ecstasy||1991||70526 gt||Panama|
|Carnival Paradise||1998||70390 gt||Panama|
|MSC Orchestra||2007||92409 gt||Panama|
|Carnival Fantasy||1990||70367 gt||Panama|
|MSC Magnifica||2010||95128 gt||Panama|
|MSC Splendida||2009||137936 gt||Panama|
|Carnival Valor||2004||110239 gt||Panama|
|MSC Armonia||2001||65542 gt||Panama|
|Carnival Horizon||2018||133500 gt||Panama|
|Carnival Glory||2003||110239 gt||Panama|
|Carnival Elation||1998||70390 gt||Panama|
|Carnival Vista||2016||133500 gt||Panama|
|Carnival Victory||2000||101509 gt||Panama|
|Carnival Dream||2009||128251 gt||Panama|
|Carnival Magic||2011||128048 gt||Panama|
|MSC Opera||2004||65591 gt||Panama|
|MSC Poesia||2008||92627 gt||Panama|
|MSC Lirica||2003||65591 gt||Panama|
|MSC Preziosa||2013||139072 gt||Panama|
|Carnival Freedom||2007||110320 gt||Panama|
|MSC Musica||2006||92409 gt||Panama|
|Carnival Miracle||2004||85942 gt||Panama|
|Carnival Breeze||2012||128052 gt||Panama|
|MSC Sinfonia||2002||65542 gt||Panama|
|MSC Fantasia||2008||137936 gt||Panama|
|MV Ortelius||1989||4575 gt||Russia|
|MV Polar Pioneer||1985||1753 gt||Russia|
|Knyaz Vladimir||1971||9159 gt||Russia|
|MS Birka Stockholm||2004||34924 gt||Sweden|
|Cunard (all ships)||2004||148528 gt||UK|
|RRS James Cook||2006||5401 gt||UK|
|RRS Discovery||2013||5952 gt||UK|
|Pacific Jewel||1990||70310 gt||UK|
|Hebridean Princess||1964||2112 gt||UK|
|Majestic Princess||2017||142714 gt||UK|
|RMS St Helena||1989||6767 gt||UK|
|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 America||2005||80439 gt||USA-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.