International law requires that every merchant ship is registered in a distinct country. This is called its flag state. Ship registration is the process by which a ship is documented and given nationality of the country that the ship has been documented to. Most cruise lines have a preference where they register their ships:
- AIDA: Italy
- Azamara Club Cruises: Malta
- Carnival Cruise Line: Panama
- Celebrity Cruises: Malta
- Costa Cruises: Italy
- Disney Cruise Line: Bahamas
- MSC Cruises: Panama
- Norwegian Cruise Line: Bahamas
- Princess Cruises: Bermuda
- Royal Caribbean International: Bahamas
All ships are bound to the law of their flag state, including as an example the employment law for the crew. It is usual to say that the ship sails under the flag of the country of registration. That’s the flag at the tail of the ship.
Does this nationality have an influence on the safety level of ships? The answer is no. To enter the waters of any nation, the ship needs to be certified by their coast guard. Since a cruise ship can’t be certified by every national coast guard, there are instead a few countries which have internationally recognized certifications. In this industry two coast guard certificates are trusted globally: the United States Coast Guard and the Italian Coast Guard. If ships are certified by one of these, they are considered safe and are allowed to approach every port on the globe.