Ship Registration: Law and Practice

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British Virgin Islands

British Virgin Islands

10.1 The British Virgin Islands (‘the BVI’) consists of a group of islands and islets in the easternmost part of the Virgin Islands archipelago in the Caribbean Sea, situated to the east of St John and St Thomas and to the north of St Croix, all part of the US Virgin Islands. The largest island in the BVI is Tortola where the capital, Road Town, is situated. The population is approximately 35,000. Originally a Dutch colony, the BVI was annexed by the British in 1672 and was part of the Leeward Islands colony between 1872 and 1960. A period of direct rule followed, after which self-government was first introduced in 1977. The BVI is now a British Overseas Territory. Under the 2007 Constitution, which replaced an earlier one dating from 1976, the Governor, who is appointed by the Crown, has reserved powers on matters such as defence, security and external affairs.1 There is a House of Assembly consisting of a Speaker, one ex-officio member (the Attorney-General), and 13 members who are each elected for a four-year term. There is an Executive Council comprised of the Premier, four other Assembly members and the Attorney-General, who has no vote. The country’s main industries are tourism and offshore financial services. Rum is a major export. The legal tender is the US dollar. 10.2 The Virgin Islands Shipping Registry (‘VISR’) is a government department. The registry has been classified under the UK Merchant Shipping Act 1995 as a Category 1 registry (unlimited tonnage and type) since June 2008 and is the most recent Red Ensign Group registry to be advanced from Category 2 to Category 1 status.2

Sources of law

10.3 BVI law is based on English law. Some Westminster statutes and subordinate legislation apply in the BVI, while local legislation often adopts English legal principles. The registration of ships under the BVI flag is governed by the Merchant Shipping Act 2001, as amended (‘the Law’) which consolidated and replaced the previous BVI statutes dealing with ship registration and other merchant shipping matters. The Law applies much of the UK provisions of law relating to registration and safety. Unless otherwise stated, references in this chapter to sections are references to sections of the Law. In the Law, the BVI are referred to as the Virgin Islands and a ship that is registered in the Virgin Islands is defined as a Virgin Islands ship.3

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Vessel eligibility

Vessel type

10.4 Since 2014, any type of vessel may be registered as a Virgin Islands ship, provided it meets the required internationally recognised safety standards and is owned by persons qualified to be the owners of BVI ships. The popularity of the BVI as a destination for cruising yachts is said to have contributed to VISR’s success in attracting foreign-owned yachts to the BVI flag, Yachts will be considered separately in paragraph 10.32 below. Part VIII of the Law also provides for the registration of submersible craft, the details of which are recorded in a separate part of the register in accordance with section 11(3) of the Law.

Age limits

10.5 Whilst there are no mandatory age limits for Virgin Islands ships, age is a factor that is taken into account when assessing the acceptability of a ship for registration under section 7 (refusal of registration).


10.6 Section 4(1) provides that the following categories of persons are qualified to be the owners of Virgin Islands ships:
  • (1) Virgin Islands citizens;
  • (2) British citizens;
  • (3) British Dependent Territories4 citizens;
  • (4) British Overseas citizens;
  • (5) British subjects;
  • (6) persons who under the Hong Kong (British Nationality) Order 1986 are British Nationals (Overseas);
  • (7) persons, other than those referred to in paragraphs (1)–(6), who are nationals or citizens of a Member State of the European Union or European Economic Area including the overseas territories of such Member State;
  • (8) bodies corporate, incorporated in any Member State of the European Union or European Economic Area, including the UK, and having a place of business in any such Member State;
  • (9) bodies corporate incorporated in any relevant British possession, other than the Virgin Islands or in any overseas territory of a Member State of the European Union or the European Economic Area and having a place of business in any such possession or overseas territory; and
  • (10)

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    (10) bodies corporate incorporated in the Virgin Islands or incorporated in a Member State of the Caribbean Community5 or the Organisation of Eastern Caribbean States6 and registered in the Virgin Islands.
10.7 Furthermore, section 4(2) provides that a person who is not qualified under subsection (1) to be an owner of a Virgin Islands ship may nevertheless be one of the owners of such a ship if:
  • (1) a majority interest in the ship, within the meaning of section 5, is owned by persons who are qualified to be owners of Virgin Islands ships; and
  • (2) the ship is registered in accordance with the provisions of section 5.

Finally, sections 5 and 6 provide that where the majority interest in the ship is owned by persons who are not resident in the Virgin Islands, the ship shall only be entitled to be registered if a ‘representative person’ is appointed in relation to the ship. A representative person is either an individual resident in the Virgin Islands, or a body corporate incorporated in the Virgin Islands with a place of business there. Intended owning entities that are not BVI incorporated or registered will usually appoint a professional BVI service provider approved by the VISR as a local representative person. The local representative has certain responsibilities under BVI anti-money laundering rules and in relation to vessel emergencies.

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