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How long does it take to board a cruise ship?

02 Dec 2023
Matt Hochberg

Boarding a cruise ship has become very easy, and while it might have similarities with an airplane, it's not as complicated.

Gangway to cruise ship

The first day of a cruise is busy with important things to do during the embarkation process, along with a lot of excitement, anticipation, and plenty of exploring along the way.

Those new to cruising might be concerned about how long it will all take, and what to expect when you're welcomed aboard.

This will serve as a guide for what to expect so you know the important steps along the way.

The basics of checking-in

Allure of the Seas in Galveston cruise terminal

There three basic components to the cruise check-in process: pre-cruise, checking-in, and boarding.

Prior to the cruise beginning, you can complete the online check-in from the Royal Caribbean app.

Download the app and sign into your Royal Caribbean account. If you don't have one, you can create it very easily and then link your reservation to your account.

RC app

At 45 days before sailing, you can check-in.  It's a really good idea to do the online check-in because it will save you a lot of time later at the cruise terminal. If you do all the steps, you'll breeze through it later.  In my opinion, it's better to take time at home rather than when your vacation is beginning.

To do online check-in, you'll need your travel documents, a credit card, and be able to take a selfie photo.

If you skip any of the steps, you're just going to have to do it later anyway.

Equally important is to select a check-in time.

Royal Caribbean requires guests to have a check-in time as the window to arrive at the cruise terminal. The earliest times will go fast, so try to get a time as soon as check-in opens 45 days before your cruise sail date.

Ready to check in

There's one more step of the check-in process, the health questionnaire, but you cannot complete it until 24 hours before the cruise.  So make a reminder to do that the night before the cruise.

Read moreRoyal Caribbean check-in process

When to arrive

Tampa sign for Radiance

If you're wondering what time to arrive to the cruise terminal, refer to the time window you picked at the check-in process.

This is the time you can check-in, not the time you'll board.  

When you arrive, the port agents may ask you what check-in time you have.  If you arrive too early, you may be directed to wait in an area until it's closer to your time.

Port Canaveral check-in line

The check-in time is an estimate, so don't sweat it if you're late. Royal Caribbean will still admit you, but do your best to pick a time that works for your schedule.

If you arrive on time for your window, it should just be a matter of parking your car and getting in line at the terminal.

What you need to bring to check-in


There's plenty you should bring on a cruise with you, but only a few items that are critical for the check-in process.

You can refer to our packing list for what you should pack overall, but you will need a few things in hand on embarkation day:

  • Passport or other travel documentation
  • Royal Caribbean app or a printed boarding pass
  • Luggage tags printed and attached to your luggage
  • A credit card

Be sure to keep these items with you in your carry-on bag, rather than the bags you provide to the porters to be delivered to the ship.


Port of Tampa

The second step now that it's embarkation day is to actually check-in for the cruise.

As you walk in, a port agent will verify you have what you need and a valid boarding pass.  This isn't when you actually check-in, but a step to ensure if you don't belong there not to waste any more time. It should be less than a minute to verify you're in the right place.

Passing through security is next and this is just like going through airport security.

Boston terminal

You'll put your carry-on bags on the screening machine belt, and remove any metal from your pockets.  Don't worry, you can leave your shoes and belt on and it's okay bring liquids. Just make sure not to try to bring any prohibited items, or security will confiscate it.

Read more: What not to bring on a cruise

Going through security could be a few seconds or a few minutes, depending on how long the line is. Security lines rarely exceed a five minute wait.

At this point, you're ready to actually check-in.  Most terminals Royal Caribbean operates from have agents with tablets that will process you, rather than having to walk up to a counter.

Matt checking in

The agent will scan your SetSail pass on your app (or paper if you printed it). If you did the pre-cruise check-in earlier, than this is a matter of verifying everything you entered is correct.

Otherwise, the agent will enter the information for you.

If you did everything pre-cruise, this step should take a minute. If you didn't, it could take 5-10 minutes depending on how many people are in your party.

Boarding the Ship


This final phase of boarding a cruise has the widest possible time because of how many factors are in play.

If the ship is ready to board passengers, you could be directed to immediately board. Sometimes they will still send you to be seated so that groups can go up and board as not to overwhelm the gangway.

If the ship has not been cleared to start boarding, then you'll be sent to sit and wait.

Waiting area

A ship might not be ready for boarding to begin for a number of reasons:

  • All the passengers from the last sailing have not disembarked yet
  • Local authorities have not cleared the ship
  • A technical issue preventing boarding

Unfortunately, there's no to know precisely what time a ship will begin boarding. It could vary from sailing to sailing.

If you check-in for your cruise in the late morning or early afternoon, it's probable the ship will have already been boarding passengers prior to your arrival. But a later check-in time means less time onboard on the first day, and likely a more crowded cruise terminal.


Getting to the terminal too early and you might be trading waiting in your hotel for the terminal.

Once it's your turn to board, you'll have to verify your sailing credentials one more time and then you can proceed aboard.

Usually there's an optional photo opportunity to stop at, but you can bypass it if you wish.

Allure of the Seas at the gangway

The time to get on is very short, and involves walking through a gangway to get there.  Think of it like a longer airport jetway.

Total time could be 10 minutes or up to an hour.

How long will it take to board a cruise ship?

Terminal A gangways

Depending on how much you do pre-cruise and how efficiently the process is running overall, you could go from curb to ship in as little as 10 minutes.  Or it might be closer to an hour.

If you arrive before the ship has started boarding, you can expect at least a half hour. If other travelers aren't prepared or the system is wonky, expect that time window to grow to as much as 45-60 minutes.

In practice, Royal Caribbean has a very efficient boarding process, and it's been our team's collective experience that 10-20 minutes is the norm once you arrive at the terminal.  The key is to complete all the steps in the app pre-cruise to expedite everything.

Embarkation split

Royal Caribbean's newest terminals are efficient enough to be able to handle 2,000 passengers an hour at peak times. The cruise line has a goal of getting passengers, 10 minutes from car to bar".

This is largely done thanks to facial recognition software that processes passengers quicker by eliminating paperwork and additional screening time. 

Matt started Royal Caribbean Blog in 2010 as a place to share his passion for all things Royal Caribbean with readers. He oversees all the writers at Royal Caribbean Blog, and writes a great deal of content on a daily basis.  He has become one of the foremost experts on a Royal Caribbean cruise.

Over the years, he has reached Pinnacle Club status with Royal Caribbean's customer loyalty program.

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