Preparing for Your First International Flight: Part 1

Preparing for Your First International Flight: Part 1

A mile of concrete will launch you and your airplane to anywhere, but not without the right paperwork filed in the right places. Association member Pam Busboom takes us through the process, step by step.

January 2016

So you’re finally ready to stretch your wings and leave the confines of the United States. Good for you! But be forewarned: when you first investigate what is required for international flight originating from the United States, the to-do list is daunting.

And, make no mistake, getting it all lined up is a task that will require attention, fortitude, patience, a computer with internet access—and a cup filled with your caffeine- or alcohol-based beverage of choice. If you’re so armed, let’s get started!

What exactly is required for you and your airplane prior to an international trip? Each country has slightly different requirements, and there is paperwork required by the United States to let you come back after your international visit.

The bad news is there is a lot to do. The good news is that once you get through all of it, things become much easier for future trips.

Comprehensive requirements

First, let’s look at the list of requirements to get to and from your chosen destination.  (Keep in mind, this is an everything-but-the-kitchen sink list!)


Pilot and passengers’ requirements

To act as PIC, the pilot must have:

a current Passport;

Pilot certificate with an English-proficient endorsement;

Valid medical certificate;

Restricted radio telephone operators permit; and

Letter of Authorization to fly the aircraft (if it is not registered in the pilot’s name).


If you are carrying passengers, each of them must have a current passport as well. Children traveling with only one parent must have a notarized statement of approval from the absent parent giving permission for travel with the dates of the trip.


Aircraft requirements

But wait; we’re not done yet. In addition to personal documents, the aircraft has to have paperwork and equipment, too. All U.S.-registered aircraft must have:

A standard Airworthiness Certificate;

A permanent registration certificate;

A radio station license;

Operating limitations information;

Weight and Balance information;

An ID plate;

12-inch registration marks;

Transponder with Mode C; and

ELT communications on 121.5 MHz or 406 MHz.


If the aircraft has fuel tanks installed in the baggage or passenger compartments, a Form 337 must be on board.

For overwater flights, a life vest/flotation device for each person aboard is required, and life rafts are recommended.


U.S. Customs and Border Patrol

We’re still not done. In order to both leave and come back to the U.S., you also have to be set up with U.S. Customs and Border Patrol (CBP). This agency requires:

Registration on and use of the Electronic Advance Passenger Information System (eAPIS); and A customs decal (these are good for one calendar year).



Yet another thing you’ll want to consider when preparing for an international flight is verifying your aircraft insurance. Be sure that your policy covers travel into your proposed destination country.

Liability coverage also must be carefully scrutinized, as each country sets its own liability coverage limits—make sure you have adequate coverage. In some countries (i.e., Mexico) it may be necessary/prudent to also carry a local country liability policy.

Finally, virtually all international destinations require that you carry a copy of your insurance binder with you (or, at least, the salient parts) which you will need to get from your insurance company prior to your trip.


ICAO flight plan

And finally, the icing on the cake, if you are going to be flying in international airspace, you are required to use an International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) flight plan.

Now, keep in mind that we are all going to ICAO flight plans anyway: effective Oct. 1, 2016, the U.S. is adopting it as the standard format. But if you’re like us, you haven’t made that switch yet, and I’m here to tell you that there is a learning curve.

According to the AOPA website:

Use of an ICAO flight plan is currently required if the flight will enter international airspace. While an ICAO flight plan and an FAA flight plan are similar in many ways, there are some important differences. Some items are the same on both forms: aircraft ID or tail number; aircraft type, fuel endurance, and number of people on board. New items on the ICAO flight plan include a Wake Turbulence category, and Type of Flight. The biggest change, though, is found in the equipment suffixes box, box 10. The ICAO codes used to denote the type of equipment on board the aircraft are different than the codes used by the FAA.

I’m leaving it as an exercise for the student (Didn’t you hate it when you heard or read that phrase in a class or textbook? Pretty much guaranteed confusion ahead!) to figure out the ICAO flight plan. Be sure to check out helpful videos on the AOPA website and other great online tools, and check your FAR/AIM, too.

How’s that cup of beverage doing? Need a refill? If so, get it now, because the fun is just beginning. Keep in mind that the preceding information is the comprehensive list of what may be required, and not every country may require everything on this list. (My husband Rich and I figure that being compliant with all of these items is actually easier in the long run. After all, it is easier to have it and not need it than need it and not have it!)

And before we go any further, a caveat! Since we fly a GA single, my focus is the requirements for what are loosely categorized as Part 23 aircraft. There may be additional requirements and/or restrictions for LSAs and experimental aircraft. For example, experimental aircraft will likely need a special airworthiness certificate. And while light-sport aircraft are generally permitted in other countries, a light-sport pilot certificate may not be. If you plan to fly internationally in an LSA or experimental aircraft, extend your research accordingly. 

FCC Form 753-B has been replaced by FCC 605 Quick-Form Application for Authorization in the Ship, Aircraft, Amateur, Restricted and Commercial Operator, and General Mobile Radio Services.
Even if you have your old paper FCC radio operators’ license (or if you don’t have any such animal), you need to register a new Form 605 with the FCC. This can be done either online or by mail.
A closer look at the list

Let’s take a closer look at this plethora of stuff. Before you hyperventilate, be assured that much of this is pretty straightforward and/or items you already have.

Passports? Likely you already have these in this post-9/11 world, but it might be a good time to check the expiration date—many countries want you to have at least six months of valid time left on the document while you are traveling.

Letters for children? Probably a good idea even if you aren’t traveling outside the U.S.

A medical certificate for the pilot-in-command? Well, that’s pretty much a given as well. (Third-Class medical reform notwithstanding.) You will need to pay careful attention to country-specific requirements. The Bahamas, for example, allow LSA to be flown by pilots with a light-sport pilot certificate and their driver’s license. However, Canada requires at least a third-class medical and does not recognize U.S. recreational pilot certificates or sport-pilot certificates. (See Transport Canada document TP 15048 for details. The link is in Resources at
the end of this
column. —Ed.)

For the airplane, if you don’t have a standard airworthiness certificate, a permanent registration, operating limitations information, ID plate and an ELT (either frequency), you have problems other than flying internationally!

On weight and balance, well, you’re doing that already for flights (right?), so all you have to do is make sure you have a hard copy of it with you.

Twelve-inch numbers? Those are the standard numbers most of us have, and if your airplane doesn’t, temporary decals are fine.

The Mode C transponder is likely not an issue for many of us, either, as that is standard equipment in any IFR airplane. And while it may be possible to reach (and return from) some destinations without one, pretty much every international flight is going to require it. If you do not have a Mode C transponder, I’d recommend that you think very carefully—and research even more carefully—before making an international flight.

As for the overwater requirements for flotation devices, that’s an important safety item whenever you are going to be flying more than glide distance away from land. While there is no specific FAA requirement for small General Aviation aircraft to have life rafts or life preservers on board to make a water crossing, ICAO regulations do require it when traveling internationally. And, of course, if the aircraft is operated for compensation or hire, this compliance is mandatory under the FAA.

Finally, if we can agree that not too many of us will have fuel tanks installed in either the baggage or passenger compartments (and those that do, will, of course, have a Form 337), we can—with a huge sigh of relief—realize that our dauntingly-long list has been significantly reduced.

Effective Oct. 1, 2016, the United States is adopting the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) flight plan as the standard format. There is a learning curve, so be sure to check out helpful videos on the AOPA website and other great online tools, and check your FAR/AIM, too.
What’s left?

Now that we’ve discussed the obvious items, what remains?

For the Pilot in Command:

Pilot certificate with an English-proficient endorsement;

Restricted radiotelephone operators permit; and Letter of Authorization (if the aircraft is not registered in the pilot’s name).

For the aircraft:

A radio station license; and CBP decal.

For the flight:

Enrollment in and use of the eAPIS system.


This is where the proverbial rubber meets the road. Let’s roll up our sleeves and start dealing with these.

PIC requirements

Let’s start with the last item first. The Letter of Authorization only applies if you are flying someone else’s airplane. If this is the case, get the owner to issue you a notarized letter stating your explicit permission to take the airplane to the destination country during the time period desired. Be sure that all the insurance coverages you need are also in place (as discussed earlier in this article), as foreign travel is not a given with GA aircraft insurance policies.

Next up, the private pilot certificate and the English-proficient endorsement. Go ahead (yes, right this minute!) and pull out your license. Flip it to the back side and take a peek. If yours looks like mine, you will see a line reading “English proficient.” Now, I can’t guarantee that everyone has the same, but my suspicion is that when you traded in your old paper certificate for the new plastic one (for those of us who have had those certificates for a while) the English-proficiency question was on the form.

While the ability to read, speak, write and understand English has always been a regulatory requirement in the U.S., an endorsement stating as much has not. The ICAO has been requiring this proficiency endorsement since 2008. The FAA agreed to bring U.S. certificates in compliance as well, with full implementation by March of 2009.

So the short story is you likely already have the endorsement on your certificate. If you find that you don’t, you should order a replacement certificate to remedy the oversight and this can be done either online or by mail. Information and instructions for acquiring a replacement certificate can be found on the FAA website. (See Resources at the end of this article for this and several other helpful links. —Ed.)

Now let’s tackle the restricted radiotelephone operators permit (RR). I don’t know about all of you, but way back in the Dawn of Time when I got my private license, I was also issued a radiotelephone operators permit FCC Form 753-B. It was just a piece of thick paper that you filled out with your name and signature that essentially said you were allowed to operate a radio.

A quick scan of the FCC website tells you that FCC Form 753-B has been replaced by FCC 605 Quick-Form Application for Authorization in the Ship, Aircraft, Amateur, Restricted and Commercial Operator, and General Mobile Radio Services.

What does this mean? Well, even if you have your old paper FCC radio operators’ license (or if you don’t have any such animal), you need to register a new Form FCC 605. This can be done either online or by mail, but I highly recommend the former, not only because it is faster (a few days vs. four to six weeks) but also because you can get the radio station license you need for your airplane at the same time. Yup—not only do you need a radio operator’s permit, but your airplane has to have a permit to be a radio station (aka broadcast center).

At this point in the proceedings, it is time to flex those fingers and start using the computer in earnest. We are about to embark on a journey through government forms, applications, passwords and terminology.

Perhaps a break is in order first, as by this time, your cup is likely empty and your head aching. Let’s pick this up next month, when I’ll walk you through how to register on the FCC website and apply for your radio license documents as well as how to get enrolled with eAPIS and order your CPB decal. 

Pam “The Queen of Everything” Busboom and her husband Rich “The Prince of Whatever is Left” are both pilots with private certificates. Pam has over 400 hours, while Rich (who also holds commercial, CFI a­nd CFII ratings) has more than 7,000 hours. They and their single engine aircraft are based in northern Colorado. Send questions or comments to .

ICAO flight plan

FAA Flight Planning Information


ICAO flight plan help


Documentation request forms

Replacement airman certificate


FCC 605, “Quick-Form
Application for Authorization
in the Ship, Aircraft, Amateur,
Restricted and Commercial
Operator, and General Mobile
Radio Services”


Transport Canada regulations

TP 15048, “Flying to Canada –
What You Should Know”