Tonga, the “Friendly Isles” consists of three main island groups and 170 islands of which only 36 are inhabited. They are scattered about the Pacific ocean in an area that is roughly 700,000 square kilometers (270,000 square miles). It’s easy to understand why so many uninhabited islands exist here as many are just giant coral or volcanic boulders rising up from the sea floor with no beach or way to access them.
Cruising through Tonga is a wonderful experience that will make you feel as if you’ve stepped back in time to the days of Captain Cook. You can literally go days or weeks without ever seeing another soul. Or, if you want company, you can find that too whether it’s in a local village or with other cruisers who gather at the more popular spots. The choice is yours.
And don’t be fooled by the remoteness of this gorgeous place, there is still lots to do, see and enjoy here. From it’s clear aqua waters and amazing diving/snorkeling opportunities to the soft sand beaches to hikes to the tops of the craggy cliffs where you can watch the Pacific Ocean beat against the volcanic rock below with the fury of the devil himself. There’s excellent fishing, shows put on by the locals and our personal favorite….spending time with the locals in their villages. Yes, you’re sure to find plenty to do in Tonga!
Checking In & Out
When we arrived in 2019 a few things had changed with the process from what we found on many cruiser sites. As of April 2019 Tonga requires a 24 hour advance notification before your arrival. The Small Craft Arrival Form can be downloaded from the Tonga Government site. CLICK HERE.
We use our Iridium Go for email when at sea but it does not allow you to send PDF files or large photos so we filled this form out and emailed it to them when we had internet. We left the arrival date/time as TBD and included a note in our email stating we would send an email 24 hours before our arrival. This worked out just fine for us. The email address to send the form is: email@example.com. Failure to submit the Notice of Advance Arrival can result in a substantial fine and/or refusal of entry into the country.
Ports Of Arrival
NOTE: AS OF 9 DECEMBER 2020 TONGA’S BORDERS REMAIN CLOSED DUE TO COVID 19. WE WILL UPDATE THIS INFORMATION AS IT BECOMES AVAILABLE.
As of February 2020 all yachts are required to check into and out of country in Nuku’alofa. This was put into place due to Covid. We would assume that at some point after borders reopen they will revert to allowing yachts to check into the other island groups as well. If they do, you will likely be able to check into one of three ports. One is located in each island group. From north to south you have Port of Neiafu in Vava’u, Taufa’ahau Wharf – Pangai in Lifuka in the Ha’apai Group and Nuku’alofa Port in Tongatapu.
Be sure to fly your Quantine flag and the Tonga courtesy flag as you enter their waters. Prior to arriving at the port you will notify the Maritime Radio VHF 16 with your expected time of arrival at the port. When arriving at the port you need to contact the Harbor Master who will instruct you on where to berth. While we were never boarded, you should be prepared to be boarded as they are cracking down on things due to issues with drugs, guns etc… being brought into their country.
See individual island group pages below for specific information on checking into or out of each group as the procedure is slightly different depending upon which group your are dealing with here.
You will get a free 30 day visa upon your arrival but if you want to stay longer you’ll have to purchase an extended on. It will be for 6 months and the price is around $70 TOP.
There is an $80 Inward Fee if you check in during business hours. After business hours there is an additional $20 Overtime Officer Fee. If you check in on a holiday or over the weekend the Inward Fee is $100 plus $20 for the Officer Overtime fee.
A Quarantine Fee of $22 TOP and a Rubbish Fee of $.50 TOP per kilo. You will also pay a Health Fee of $100 TOP.
There are harbor dues depending upon which harbor you check out of … yes, it varies. In Vava’u you pay $.45 TOP per gross ton per month you are there. In Nuku’alofa it’s $2.40 TOP per gross ton per month. Ha’apai doesn’t charge anything.
When you consider the exchange rate with the clearance fees paid in Tonga were pretty reasonable as these things go. The bigger issue is the process to get it all done.
“Patience Is A Virtue”
It probably goes without saying that this is a third world country and the government process rarely seems to go quickly or smoothly. Both years we visited we found that we had to go from office to office and often times the person we needed to see was not in so we had to wait. The first year we literally waited for the customs official because he was at a public ceremony to celebrate some event and no one else in the office can do his job. You can expect the process to take several hours and if it’s less, well then that’s a bonus. The key here is patience! Just try to remember that you are in paradise.
Local Movement Reports
When you move between island groups you are required to file a Local Movement Report which means you must check into and out of each island group. It can be a bit of a hassle depending upon where you are when you want to leave a particular group. The trip from the southern most island in Vava’u back to Neiafu is close to 15 km as the crow flies. By the time you account for negotiating around the islands you can figure it’s more like 25-30 km. We simply traveled back north to Neiafu to get more supplies, spent the night and then left the following day. We do know of cruisers who have checked out and then stopped at other islands on their way south or north but we certainly don’t recommend it. Of course we tend to be rule followers!
Banking & ATMs
You will only find banks and ATMs on the larger islands such as Vava’u in the town of Neiafu or in Nuku’alofa on Tongatapu. There are no ATMs in the Ha’apai group, however there is one bank in Lifuka where you can get a cash advance on your credit card. We did not do this so we can’t tell you the fee. The currency is the TOP (Pa’anga) but the Tongans will refer to it as a dollar so don’t misunderstand. If you ask the price of something they will say, “Fifteen dollars” but they really mean “fifteen pa’anga”.
Cell Service & Internet
Interestingly enough Tonga has some pretty decent internet/cell service with Digicel. We purchased sim cards in Neiafu and were able to get fairly fast service at a really good price. We paid somewhere around $50 TOP for the maximum amount of data (18 GB) which lasted us for a couple of weeks. Of course when you get to some of the more remote islands you won’t have service but surprisingly we did have internet at quite a few places in Vava’u and Nuku’alofa. We also had it at Lifuka in Ha’apai but it was a bit sketchy in the anchorage.
If you’re here from July to November you are almost certain to see a few humpback whales swimming about as you go from island to island. If you’re so inclined you can even pay to have the locals take you out to swim with the whales. It’s not something we feel good about as we’ve watched the way they harass them and race the boats up almost on top of the whales. (You can see this in the video below). It why we didn’t do this but it’s here if you choose to participate. Just ask the locals and they will guide you in the right direction.
The people here are so warm and friendly you’ll feel right at home from the moment you step on shore. When you go to the small islands and villages don’t miss out. Go ashore and visit with the villagers. They will welcome you into their villages with open arms and genuine smiles. Do yourself a favor and learn a little bit of Tongan. It really makes the natives feel special when you can say the basics such as “Hello”, “Goodbye”, “Please” and “Thank you”.
We’ve created a Language & Customs Guide to the South Pacific to provide you with facts about the islands, the most commonly used phrases in each language and some tips on the local customs. To view the guide click on South Pacific Guide Button or download it by clicking below.
South Pacific Language & Customs Guide Coming Soon!
“We just couldn’t get enough of the Tongan people.”
The “Friendly Isles” have a little bit of everything. There’s incredible, crystal clear waters, great diving & snorkeling, magnificent sand beaches, interesting caves both above ground and underwater, calm lagoons and cliffs where the ocean rages onto the shore like a beast coming in for its feeding. You truly can have it all in Vava’u!
We love the Vava’u Group the most. There are so many islands and such diversity that it’s hard not to spend most of your time in this amazing place. Click here to check out our favorite places and advice.
To pronounce Vava’u as the Tongans do, it is “Va vāh ooo” with the emphasis on the middle syllable. You will hear many tourists call it “Vava ow” but this is not the Tongan way.
We didn’t spend as much time in the Ha’apai Group as some cruisers. For us it was more a series of stopover points but we will share the places we visited and our thoughts.
This is pronounced “ah a pie”.
We can’t speak for others but for us, Tongatapu is really about provisioning before either heading south to New Zealand or north through Tonga. We did find some cool restaurants and provision stops here we’d like to share and whatever you do, don’t miss Big Mama Yacht Club on Pangaimotu.