The Recreational Mariner's Guide

3. Svalbard

Rules and Regulations

The information below is in addition to that presented in the Norway Rules and Regulations chapter; some of which also applies to Svalbard.

Norway has absolute sovereignty over Svalbard under a treaty originating in 1920 and The Governor (Sysselmester) in Longyearbyen governs the territory.

Under the treaty, Svalbard may not be integrated as a part of Norway and is a non-military zone. The signatories, especially the Russians who had mining interests in Svalbard at the time of signing, have specified rights under the treaty. 

Immigration

Though Svalbard is not part of the Schengen agreement, passport requirements are the same as for the rest of Scandinavia and no additional visa is required. Happily, days spent in Svalbard do not count towards the 90-in-180-days Schengen limitation.

Customs

There is no Customs clearance into Svalbard but boats are officially required to clear Customs upon their return to mainland Norway. 

Note that ordinary import quotas for alcohol and tobacco apply when you return to the mainland.

Search and Rescue Insurance

The Governor requires that all sailboats traveling outside Management Area 10 have approved Search and Rescue (SAR) Insurance. As Management Area 10 only includes areas around Van Mijenfjorden, Isfjorden and Kongsfjorden, you must have your SAR insurance organized before departing the mainland.

You must file an online travel plan form with the Governor prior to your arrival in Svalbard, so they can inform you what level of SAR coverage they require for your intended voyage. We recommend that you start this process several months before your planned departure to give the Governor time to decide what SAR cover they will require and then time for you to obtain the required insurance.

Some possibilities for SAR insurance:

  • PJ Hayman & Co: They offer a travel insurance policy with a search and rescue clause, but they will only insure residents of the UK who are under 69 years of age.
  • If Europeiske: They will insure you at a premium of 10% of the guarantee sum as stipulated by The Governor. Though the insurance details are only available in Norwegian, they will insure international travellers and non-If customers. At the time of writing the insurance does not have an upper age limit.
  • Pantaenius: Pantaenius is a Danish-based yacht insurance company and they offer SAR insurance under their Personal Accident Policy for those already insured with them.

Polar Bears (Isbjørner)

There are about 300 polar bears in Svalbard, with more in the Barents Sea population, so the chances are good of seeing a polar bear anywhere in the archipelago.

If you come across a polar bear in or near Longyearbyen, call 112 immediately

Polar bears are curious, relatively fearless, and totally unpredictable as they can change instantly from curious to aggressive. Signs that show a bear is under stress are:

  • flattened ears
  • turning away
  • hanging lips
  • yawning

Heightened aggression may be indicated by:

  • front foot stamping
  • growling
  • brief charges 

However, there are times when a bear may initiate a charge without any of these indicators.

Bears can move unbelievably quickly on land and may swim faster than you can row a dinghy. They are used to leaping out of the water and onto an ice floe to grab a seal in one swoop, so the leap onto the deck of a boat is not beyond their capability. 

In fact, when Carl Emil Pettersen circumnavigated the archipelago in his Colin Archer vessel Rundø in 1972, he had a polar bear jump on deck from an ice floe. Pettersen just managed to slam the heavy companionway shut as the bear was charging him. The claw marks on the companionway were clearly visible and cherished until the vessel was sunk by ice off East Greenland a few years later. 

To illustrate the seriousness of the danger, in 2020 a Dutch visitor was killed by a bear while camping at the Longyearbyen campsite, and in 1995 a young woman was killed by a bear while hiking in the hills above Longyearbyen. 

Having to shoot a polar bear would be a tragedy, so keeping a good lookout, especially in broken ground, is vital. If a polar bear is spotted, leave the vicinity as quickly as possible, but do not run. Never move towards the bear, not even to take a photograph!

More on polar bears in Svalbard

Protection

The risk of polar bear attacks are taken very seriously by the authorities, who strongly recommend that you carry a firearm and mandate deterrents for protection when traveling outside the settlements. 

The use of bear spray (Section 4.2) is not permitted

Pyrotechnics

In order to scare off a bear, the Governor mandates deterrents such as a flare gun and thunder flashes. Since polar bears live on pack ice and so are used to loud shot-like noises, it may be that the flash will cause more consternation than the thunder. 

Flare gun cartridges may bounce before exploding and so could actually bounce behind the bear and drive it towards the shooter, therefore practice with your flare gun is highly recommended.

The Governor suggests placing trip flares around the perimeter of a campsite. Placing them around the dinghy while off hiking could deter a polar bear from shredding it. (Another option is to bring a small inflatable dinghy ashore as a backup in case the primary dinghy is damaged.) It would be really unfortunate to be marooned on land without a dinghy with the boat anchored 400 m away in icy cold water.

Rifles and Shotguns

Renting/Borrowing Firearms

Although foreigners are not permitted to purchase weapons in Norway or Svalbard, it is legal for a licensed agent to rent a firearm to a foreigner (Section 2) who has a valid firearm possession licence. It is also legal to borrow a firearm from a private individual for polar bear protection (Section 3.1). 

These Longyearbyen agencies rent firearms and deterrents for polar bear protection, as well as other expedition equipment, such as GPS’s and PLB’s:

As part of the application for a non-Norwegian, you will need to have the lender’s information, a copy of your passport, documentation showing you are experienced with handling a firearm, and a good conduct report from your local police.

At time of writing the online form is only usable for Norwegian citizens, so you will have to contact The Governor by email or telephone.

Needless to say, this process should be initiated many months before your planned departure.

If you are going to rent a firearm in Longyearbyen, going ashore outside Management Area 10 prior to obtaining your deterrents is not only potentially dangerous, it may be in contravention of the regulation requiring you to carry the appropriate means to frighten off polar bears.

Temporary Importation of Firearms into Norway

For those bringing their own firearm, The Governor suggests the following:

  • calibre 308 or 30.06
  • expanding bullet of at least 10 grams
  • estimated energy of at least 2,200 joule at a distance of 100 meters

Note that semi-automatic assault rifles, automatic shotguns, and large pistols are illegal, except the latter for residents of Svalbard.

To temporarily import a firearm into Norway, the Norwegian Police’s temporary firearms importation application form (in Norwegian only) mandates that you must have documentation showing an invitation to a shooting competition or showing access to hunting terrain. Though not listed on the form, The Governor’s certificate approving your voyage to Svalbard should serve. We suggest you start this process well in advance of your planned departure for Norway.

If you are a resident of a non-EU/EEZ country, you are required to have a firearms licence from your country of residence or an official declaration stating that a licence is not required in your country of residence.

If you live in the EU/EEZ, your firearm is registered in your name, and you have an EU firearms pass, you technically don’t need a Norwegian Police firearms licence. However, as the Customs Importation Declaration form (see below) requests the police licence, we recommend that you don’t assume anything and investigate the matter thoroughly.

On arrival in Norway you will need to present the import licence to Customs and you will be required to fill in a Customs Importation Declaration form. You do not need to reapply for Svalbard, but you do need to follow storage and transport regulations, as The Governor has been known to check that firearms are appropriately stored.

Protocol

Polar bears have been protected from hunting in Svalbard since 1973 and harassment of one is a serious offense. Shooting a bear in self-defense should be done only when there is no alternative to protect human life. Large fines have been imposed in cases of shootings that were deemed avoidable. An experienced local guide suggests that shooting at a range longer than 30 m is likely to be considered unjustified. 

Protection of property is not usually considered justification for shooting, though there may be exceptions to this. The regulations on this read: “Animals may be killed in circumstances where this is considered necessary to eliminate an immediate risk to a person’s life or health or prevent substantial material damage.” [Emphasis added] (Svalbard Environmental Protection Act, Section 33)

If you must shoot, the chest or shoulder is the best place to aim since the bear’s head is so small. Follow immediately with another shot. Polar bears have a very slow metabolism, meaning that it takes a long time for their heart to stop even after being fatally shot.

Any shooting of a bear must be reported immediately and all parts of the carcass belong to the state. 

Though it is not mandated that you carry protection in the settlements, if you decide to do so, it is required that guns be unloaded and the action open, and firearms are not allowed inside buildings.

Environmental Concerns

The landscape and ecology of Svalbard are extremely fragile and there is little vegetation to hide scars. As the reproductive rates of the flora are low, it takes many years before disturbance to the soil is obscured by weathering.

Although there are areas in Svalbard where severe damage has already been done, in some cases in recent years and by sanctioned activities, most areas away from the few inhabited centres are relatively pristine. 

A high level of attention is focused on avoiding further damage and on repairing existing damage when possible. Official policy is to discourage the development of mass tourism and to actively control and concentrate tourist activity. Regulations are designed in the hope that visitors leave no traces behind them. 

An environmental fee is charged for each person on the boat, which goes into the Svalbard Environmental Protection Fund.

It is important that mariners adhere to these regulations. Every instance of protocol violation or poor seamanship requiring official intervention increases the likelihood of restrictions which could reduce future recreational boat access to Svalbard.

The Governor will provide you with a comprehensive list of environmental regulations in force when you apply to visit Svalbard, including what the area restrictions are at the time, but a brief overview of the main regulations follows:

  • Animals and nests should not be disturbed.
    • To moderate fierce diving attacks by arctic terns, hold a stick overhead to give them a diversionary target; it is, however, prohibited to strike at them.
  • There are areas with access restrictions, which, as you can see from the map, is all of the archipelago outside of Management Area 10, as well as Bjørnøya. Of primary concern for boats is the exclusion of human activity:
    • within 300 m of all of the Bird Sanctuaries between May 15th and August 15th
    • within 300 m of Moffen between May 15th and September 15th
    • within 500 m of Kong Karls Land all year round
    • within 1 nm of the south coast of Bjørnøya between April 1st and September 1st (boats > 40′ only). Passage to seek shelter in an emergency is permitted.
  • There are cultural heritage sites with a total ban on traffic, though special permission may be obtained from The Governor to visit Virgohamn, or with access restrictions to historic remains with the anchorage still accessible. Any artifacts or evidence of earlier human activity, including old whale and walrus bones, should be left as found.
  • Flying drones is heavily regulated. The regulations are actively enforced and any resulting fines may be substantial.
    • Flying drones is prohibited within 5 kms of the airport in Longyearbyen
    • Flying drones is prohibited within 20 kms of Ny Ålesund, which means it is prohibited throughout Kongsfjorden
    • Drones must not disturb wildlife, hence flying anywhere near breeding birds is not allowed
    • Flying drones within 12 nm of the shore at Bjørnøya is not allowed as of 2024
    • Flying drones in nature reserves in Spitsbergen will not be allowed as of 2025 (which translates to most of the archipelago)