Sailing and Barge Boats on Canals and Waterways of France

Understand how to use a barge boat on French canals and waterways: operate locks, times you may sail and general rules, regulations and recommendations of the waterways...

A recreational permit is required to drive the inland waters of France if the engine power of the boat is greater than 4.5 kilowatts (6HP). Non-motorised vessels such as rowing boats, skiffs, canoes, kayaks, and pedal boats do not requite a licence.

The Navigable Waterways

Most navigable rivers and canals are managed by the Etablissement Public Voies Navigables de France,(VNF). It controls 6,700 Km of navigable waterways, while about 700 Km of this network are managed by the State or an autonomous ports. The balance - particularly the many rivers and canals of Brittany - is managed by local regional or departmental authorities.

The VNF website is in English and French with some articles in Dutch.

  • Voies Navigables de France
    Direction de la Communication et de la Promotion de la Voie d'Eau
    At: 175 rue Ludovic Boutleux, BP 820, 62408 Béthune Cedex
    Tel: 03 21 63 24 24
    Fax: 03 21 63 24 42

  • French Waterways provide comprehensive information on rivers and canals, and travelling them long- or short-term (in English)

Navigation charts are available from bookshops or alternatively from:

Many of the river guides are available in English, and the regional tourist offices often have information published in partnership with the VNF.

Inland boating

A skipper sailing the inland French canals and rivers must have an International Certificate of Competence (ICC) certificate and the Code Européen des Voies de Navigation Intérieure (CEVNI) permit and navigation rulebook. The CEVNI test can be taken at RYA recognised training schools. All pleasure boaters must pay a licence toll. This can be paid online and the licence printed out.

Any person planning to charter a boat (sea- or river-going) should request from the charter company details in writing of the certification required, what cruising area this is acceptable for and whether this certification meets the requirements of the relevant authorities in the area concerned.

  • For detailed information on the toll from the VNF in English (PDF)
  • More information from the Voies Navigables de France (VNF) Website (in English)


There are around 2,000 locks (écluse) in France. Some locks are automatic, some are operated by a lockkeeper others by the boat's crew. Lock-keepers areas are a good source of information and advice.

Rules for Conduct and Safety on the Waterways

Barge boating is subject to strict laws and regulations. The VNF issue guidelines for proper behaviour on the river, lakes and canals. The waterways are used for commercial transport and watersports as well as pleasure craft.

  • All boats travel on the right hand side unless otherwise directed
  • Merchant/commercial vessels have priority over pleasure boats
  • Descending (downstream) traffic has priority over upstream traffic
  • Overtaking takes place on the left hand side and in a safe place. The boat being passed should slow down to allow the faster vessel through
  • Follow the instructions on signs and speed limits
  • Use signal lights if travelling after dark or in fog
  • Every person on board should have a life jacket, and children's jackets should be adjusted to make sure they fit
  • Watersports and swimming must be done in designated areas
  • Waste must not be thrown overboard
  • Sailing is not permitted at night
  • VNF provide the complete guidelines

Owning a Boat

All boats must be registered with the local Commission de Surveillance des bateaux de la Navigation intérieure (CSN). A boat must carry proper identifying markings and have a vignette plaisance. This is a river permit which proves that the fee has been paid in order to use the boat on French waterways, the price of the vignette (disc/sticker) depends on the size of the vessel and the time spent on the river network. The disc/sticker must be displayed in a clearly visible place.

The vignette can be bought from a number of outlets around France (a local tourist office or Mairie will provide information) and can be issued on an annual basis or daily, with seasonal, monthly or 16 day vignettes also available. Vignettes are also sold online, payment by credit card, from the VNF website. See the heading "Vignette Plaisance" (an email address and printer are required for this).

  • For more information on the tariffs and locations selling them, visit VNF (PDF in French)

In addition to the vignette some tunnels and lifts charge a toll fee. These are the Mauvages tunnel, Riqueval tunnel, and the Montech lift. Prices vary depending on the size of the vessel.