A shipboard radio station includes all the transmitting and receiving equipment installed aboard a ship for communications afloat. Depending on the size, purpose, or destination of a ship, its radio station must meet certain requirements established by law or treaty. For example, large passenger or cargo ships that travel on the open sea are required by the Communications Act and by international agreements to be equipped with a radio station for long distance radio communications. Small passenger ships that travel along the coast may only need to communicate at shorter range with coast stations. These are examples of "compulsory ships" because they are required or compelled by treaty or statute to be equipped with specified telecommunications equipment.
Smaller ships used for recreation (e.g., sailing, diving, sport fishing, fishing, water skiing) are not required to have radio stations installed but they may be so equipped by choice. These ships are known as "voluntary ships" because they are not required by treaty or statute to carry a radio but voluntarily fit some of the same equipment used by compulsory ships.
Ship stations may communicate with other ship stations or coast stations primarily for safety, and secondarily for navigation and operational efficiency. The FCC regulates marine communications in cooperation with the U.S. Coast Guard, which monitors marine distress frequencies continuously to protect life and property. All users of marine radio, whether voluntary or compulsory, are responsible for observing both FCC and Coast Guard requirements.
VHF Channel Listing
The chart below summarizes a portion of the FCC rules -- 47 CFR 80.371(c) and 80.373(f)
|DISTRESS SAFETY AND CALLING - Use this channel to get the attention of another station (calling) or in emergencies (distress and safety).
|INTERSHIP SAFETY - Use this channel for ship-to-ship safety messages and for search and rescue messages to ships and aircraft of the Coast Guard.
|COAST GUARD LIAISON - Use this channel to talk to the Coast Guard (but first make contact on Channel 16).
|NONCOMMERCIAL - Working channels for voluntary boats. Messages must be about the needs of the ship. Typical uses include fishing reports, rendezvous,scheduling repairs and berthing information. Use Channels 67 and 72 only for ship-to-ship messages.
||96, 679,68, 69, 718, 72, 78, 794, 804
|COMMERCIAL - Working channels for working ships only. Messages must be about business or the needs of the ship. Use channels 8, 67, 72 and 88A only for ship-to-ship messages.
||15, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 18, 19, 635, 677, 79, 80, 88A1
|PUBLIC CORRESPONDENCE (MARINE OPERATOR) - Use these channels to call the marine operator at a public coast station. By contacting a public coast station, you can make and receive calls from telephones on shore. Except for distress calls, public coast stations usually charge for this service.
||24, 25, 26, 27, 28, 84, 85, 86
|PORT OPERATIONS - These channels are used in directing the movement of ships in or near ports, locks or waterways. Messages must be about the operational handling movement and safety of ships. In certain major ports, Channels 11,12 and are not available for general port operations messages. Use channel 20 only for ship-to-coast messages. Channel 77 is limited to intership communications to and from pilots
||15, 53, 12, 14, 20, 635, 65, 66, 73, 74, 7510,7610, 77
|NAVIGATIONAL - (Also known as the bridge-to-bridge channel.) This channel is available to all ships. Messages must be about ship navigation, for example, passing or meeting other ships. You must keep your messages short. Your power output must not be more than one watt. This is also the main working channel at most locks and drawbridges.
|MARITIME CONTROL - This channel may be used to talk to ships and coast stations operated by state or local governments. Messages must pertain to regulation and control, boating activities, or assistance to ships.
|DIGITAL SELECTIVE CALLING - Use this channel for distress and safety calling and for general purpose calling using only digital selective calling techniques.
|WEATHER - On these channels you may receive weather broadcasts of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. These channels are only for receiving. You cannot transmit on them.
||Wx-1 162.55 Wx-2 162.4 Wx-3 162.475 Wx-4 162.425 Wx-5 162.45 Wx-6 162.5 Wx-7 162.525
1. Not available in the Great Lakes, St. Lawrence Seaway, or the Puget Sound and the Strait of Juan de Fuca and its approaches.
2. Only for use In the Great Lakes, St Lawrence Seaway, and Puget Sound and the Strait of Juan de Fuca and its approaches.
3. Available only In the Houston and New Orleans areas.
4. Available only in the Great Lakes.
5. Available only In the New Orleans area.
6. Available for Intership, ship, and coast general purpose calling by noncommercial ships.
7. Available only In the Puget Sound and the Strait of Juan de Fuca.
8. Available for port operations communications only within the U.S. Coast Guard designated VTS radio protection area of Seattle (Puget Sound). Normal output must not exceed 1 watt.
9. Available for navigational communications only in the Mississippi River/Southwest Pass/Gulf outlet area.
10. Available for navigation-related port operations or ship movement only. Output power limited to 1 watt.
Who Needs a Ship Station License
You do not need a license to operate a marine VHF radio, radar, or EPIRBs aboard voluntary ships operating domestically. The term "voluntary ships" refers to ships that are not required by law to carry a radio. Generally, this term applies to recreation or pleasure craft. The term "voluntary ships" does not apply to the following:
- Cargo ships over 300 gross tons navigating in the open sea;
- Ships certified by the U.S. Coast Guard to carry more than 6 passengers for hire in the open sea or tidewaters of the U.S.;
- Power driven ships over 20 meters in length on navigable waterways;
- Ships of more than 100 gross tons certified by the U.S. Coast Guard to carry at least one passenger on navigable waterways;
- Tow boats of more than 7.8 meters in length on navigable waterways; and,
- Uninspected commercial fishing industry vessels required to carry a VHF radio.
- Ships required to carry an Automatic Identification System (AIS) transceiver by the U.S. Coast Guard regulations enacted pursuant to the Maritime Transportation Security Act of 2000.
Ships are considered as operating domestically when they do not travel to foreign ports or do not transmit radio communications to foreign stations. Sailing in international waters is permitted, so long as the previous conditions are met. If you travel to a foreign port (e.g., Canada, Mexico, Bahamas, British Virgin Islands), a license is required. Additionally, if you travel to a foreign port, you are required to have an operator permit.
Radio Equipment You May Use
You do not need a license to use marine VHF radios, any type of EPIRB, any type of radar, GPS or LORAN receivers, depth finders, CB radio, or amateur radio (an amateur license is required). Ships that use MF/HF single side-band radio, satellite communications, or telegraphy must continue to be licensed by the FCC.
Radios with Digital Selective Calling (DSC) Capability
If you have a marine radio with DSC capability, you must obtain a nine-digit maritime mobile service identity (MMSI) number and have it programmed into the unit before you transmit. Each vessel needs only one MMSI number. Prior to obtaining an MMSI number, you will be asked to provide certain information about your ship. It is important that you obtain an MMSI number because the U.S. Coast Guard uses this information to help speed search and rescue operations.
If your vessel requires licensing by the FCC you will obtain an MMSI number during the application/licensing process when you file online with the FCC. After the FCC grants a new, modified, or administratively updated ship station license, it reports the MMSI and certain other data to the International Telecommunication Union's Maritime mobile Access and Retrieval System (MARS) so that other countries' search and rescue authorities also have access to the information. Licensees may check the MARS
database to confirm that their information is listed and up to date.
If your vessel does not require a license you may obtain an MMSI by contacting either BoatUS
, Sea Tow Service International, Inc.
, Shine Micro
, or United States Power Squadrons
. Information is contained in the Public Notice (pdf
) announcing agreements with and the procedures for private entities to apply to issue MMSIs.
If your vessel requires licensing by the FCC after you have obtained an MMSI number from BoatUS, Sea Tow Service, Shine Micro, Inc., or United States Power Squadrons, that MMSI number cannot be used during the application/licensing process when you file with the FCC. MMSI numbers issued by other authorized entities are valid only for ship stations that do not have FCC-issued licenses. Since the ULS will not accept the MMSI that was issued by another entity, you should leave the field blank and the FCC will issue you a new MMSI number.
Obtaining a License
File FCC Forms 159
with the FCC, through electronic filing in ULS. Per Public Notice DA 15-72, the FCC no longer mails license authorizations. If you provide an email address on your application, a link to print your official copy of your license will be automatically emailed to you when the application has granted. Licensees may also log into ULS
to download official authorizations. Instructions can be found at How to Obtain Official Authorizations from ULS.
The license is valid for a term of ten years.
Licensing a Fleet of Ships
Under certain conditions, two or more ships having a common owner or operator may be issued a fleet license for operation of all ship radio stations aboard the ships in the fleet. This allows an applicant to file a single application for multiple ships. The total fee due for the fleet license, however, is the fee due for a single license multiplied by the total number of ships in the fleet. You must retain a copy of the fleet license with the station records on each ship. Fleet licensing is not available for any vessel required to have its own MMSI number; such vessels must be licensed individually. If any of the vessels use DSC or AIS equipment, an MMSI number is required and you must apply for individual licenses rather than a fleet license. When filing Renewals, Renewal Modifications, Modifications and Updates to fleet licenses, applicants are required to attach a self-certification statement to their filing. This statement should indicate that the licensee does not have DSC or AIS on-board any of the vessels that are covered by the fleet license. If it is discovered that there is a DSC or AIS equipment on-board, a regular license should be obtained for each vessel that requires an MMSI. The fleet license should then be modified to reduce the number in the fleet, or cancelled if there are fewer than two vessels that do not require MMSIs.
Obtaining a Restricted Radiotelephone Operator Permit
File FCC Forms 159
electronically in the Universal Licensing System (ULS)
with the FCC. You do not need to take a test to obtain this permit. The FCC will send the permit to you via Electronic Authorizations
and it will be valid for your lifetime. Electronic Authorizations
can also be accessed by logging into License Manager. Don't forget to sign and date your application and include any applicable fees; otherwise it will be dismissed.
Operating a Marine Radio While Your Applications are Being Processed
You may operate your marine radio after you have mailed your application(s) to the FCC so long as you fill out, detach, and retain the temporary operating authority attached to the application form. The temporary operating authority is valid for 90 days after you mail your application to the FCC and should be kept with your station records until you receive your license/permit through the mail.
Making Changes During Your License Term
If you change your mailing address, legal name, or ship name, you must complete an Administrative Update in ULS
. There is no fee required. No action is required when you add or replace a transmitter that operates in the same frequency band.
IMPORTANT NOTE: The procedures described above for making changes to your license DO NOT apply if you are selling your vessel. In those circumstances, see the information described below under “What to Do If Selling Your Ship."
If you operate a marine VHF radio, radar, or EPIRBs aboard a voluntary ship operating domestically, you are not required to renew your current license. Although a license is no longer required for these ships, you may still renew your license and retain your call sign.
The FCC will send you a Renewal Reminder Notice via email (if an email address is on file) approximately 120 days prior to the expiration date of your license. You must submit a Renewal application electronically via ULS
along with the proper payment to renew your license.
If you submit an application for renewal before your current license expires, you may continue to operate until the FCC acts on your application. You do not need a temporary permit but you should keep a copy of the renewal application you send the FCC.
You must stop transmitting as soon as your license expires, unless you have already sent your renewal application to the FCC.
If your station license has expired, you must complete an application for a NEW station license. There is NO grace period. You may use the temporary operating authority to operate your marine radio while your application is being processed.
Lost Licenses or Permits
If you lose your license, you can obtain an Electronic Authorization
by logging into License Manager.
What to Do If Selling Your Ship
If you sell your ship, you may request a cancellation of your license via ULS
Once your license is cancelled, the new owner may apply for a NEW license.
Or you may request a transfer of control or assignment of the vessel to the new owner. See "Assigning or Transferring a Ship Station License."
If you have a RESTRICTED RADIOTELEPHONE OPERATOR PERMIT, you should retain it for future use since it is authorized for your lifetime.
Assigning or Transferring a Ship Station License
Subject to the FCC's advance approval, you may assign a Ship Station License (as when you are selling a vessel) or transfer control of a Ship Station License (as when there is a change in the ownership of the licensee or its parent company). To obtain the FCC's approval for the assignment or transfer of control, you must electronically file FCC Form 603 via ULS. There is no fee required. After the transaction is consummated, the assignee/transferee must file a notification of consummation through ULS. The notification of consummation must be filed within thirty (30) days of the actual consummation. (It must also be filed within six months after the FCC gives public notice of its consent to the application.)
Even though a station license may no longer be required, you must continue to follow the operating procedures for calling other stations, maintaining a safety watch, and relaying distress messages as specified in the FCC Rules. You may identify your ship station over the air using your FCC-issued call sign, maritime mobile service identity (MMSI), the state registration number or official number of your ship, or the name of your ship.
Do I Need a Restricted Radiotelephone Operator Permit?
If you plan to dock in a foreign port (e.g., Canada or the Bahamas) or if you communicate with foreign coast or ship stations, you must have a RESTRICTED RADIOTELEPHONE OPERATOR PERMIT (sometimes referred to by boaters as an "individual license") in addition to your ship radio station license. However, if (1) you merely plan to sail in domestic or international waters without docking in any foreign ports and without communicating with foreign coast stations, and (2) your radio operates only on VHF frequencies, you do not need an operator permit.
File electronically with the FCC. You do not need to take a test to obtain this permit. The FCC will send your permit via Electronic Authorizations
and it will be valid for your lifetime. Don't forget to include any applicable fees; otherwise it will be dismissed
NOTE: A ship radio station license authorizes radio equipment aboard a ship, while the restricted radiotelephone operator permit authorizes a specific person to communicate with foreign stations or use certain radio equipment (e.g., MF/HF single sideband radio or satellite radio).
Using Your Radio on Multiple Ships
If you can provide justification for the use of a single transmitter from two or more ships, a portable ship station license may be issued. This could authorize various types of marine radio equipment to be carried from ship to ship.
Using Hand-Held Marine VHF Radios on Land
You must have a special license, called a marine utility station license, in addition to a ship station license, to operate a hand-held marine radio from land -- a ship station license IS NOT sufficient. You may apply for this license by filing electronically in ULS
with the FCC. To be eligible for a marine utility station license, you must generally provide some sort of service to ships or have control over a bridge or waterway. Additionally, you must show a need to communicate using hand-held portable equipment from both a ship and from coast locations. Each unit must be capable of operation while being hand-carried by an individual. The station operates under the rules applicable to ship stations when the unit is aboard a ship, and under the rules applicable to private coast stations when the unit is on land.
You may install your radio in your ship by yourself. All internal repairs or adjustments to your radio must be made by or under the supervision of an FCC-licensed technician holding at least a General Radiotelephone Operator License. It is recommended that the radio be inspected by the service person when installed.
Marine VHF Channels
The marine VHF channels are divided into operational categories, based on the types of messages that are appropriate for each channel, and are available for the shared use of all boaters. You must choose a channel which is available for the type of message you want to send. Except where noted, channels are available for both ship-to-ship and ship-to-coast messages.
The document Marine VHF Radio Channels contains a list of the marine VHF channels and their designated uses. The channels listed in the table are the only channels you may use, even if your radio has more channels available.
YOU MUST NOT TRANSMIT --
- False distress or emergency messages.
- Messages containing obscene, indecent, or profane words or meaning.
- General calls, signals, or messages on channel 16, except in an emergency or if you are testing your radio (these are messages not addressed to a particular station), or
- When your ship is on land (for example, while the ship is on a trailer).
Voluntary boaters are not required to keep radio logs or keep a copy of the FCC's rules. Regardless of whether or not you have a copy of the rules, however, you are responsible for compliance.
Your station and your station records (station license and operator license or permit, if required) must be shown when requested by an authorized FCC representative.
In addition, the Commission's rules requires that the radio installations on certain vessels be inspected periodically by an FCC-licensed inspector. Checklists for conducting these inspections are available under the Ship Inspection Checklist tab at the top of the page. Also, the United States Coast Guard has posted an inspection list for Automatic Identification System Installations here
Violating the Rules
If it appears to the FCC that you have violated the Communications Act or the rules, the FCC may send you a written notice of the apparent violation. If the violation notice covers a technical radio standard, you must stop using your radio. You must not use your radio until you have had all the technical problems fixed. You may have to report the results of those tests to the FCC. Test results must be signed by the commercial operator who conducted the test. If the FCC finds that you have willfully or repeatedly violated the Communications Act or the rules, your authorization to use the radio may be revoked and you may be fined or sent to prison.
Making a Call Using Voice Calling on VHF
- Maintain your watch. Whenever your boat is underway, the radio must be turned on and be tuned to Channel 16 except when being used for messages.
- Power. Try one watt first if the station being called is within a few miles. If there is no answer, you may switch to higher power.
- Calling coast stations. Call a coast station on its assigned channel. You may use Channel 16 when you do not know the assigned channel.
- Calling other ships. Call other ships on Channel 16. You may call on ship-to-ship channels when you know that the ship is listening on both a ship-to-ship channel and Channel 16. NOTE: To do this the ship has to have two separate receivers.
- Limits on calling. You must not call the same station for more than 30 seconds at a time. If you do not get a reply, wait at least two minutes before calling again. After three calling periods, wait at least 15 minutes before calling again.
- Change channels. After contacting another station on Channel 16, change immediately to a channel which is available for the type of message you want to send.
- Station identification. Identify, in English, your station by your FCC call sign, ship name, the state registration number or official number at the beginning and end of each message.
How to Call Another Ship Using Voice Calling
- Make sure your radio is on.
- Speak directly into the microphone in a normal tone of voice -- clearly -- distinctly.
- Select Channel 16 (156.8 MHz) and listen to make sure it is not being used. NOTE: Channel 9 (156.45 MHz) may be used by recreational vessels for general-purpose calling. This frequency should be used whenever possible to relieve congestion on Channel 16.
- When the channel is quiet, press the microphone button and call the ship you wish to call. Say "[name of ship being called] THIS IS [your ship's name and call sign (if applicable)]."
- Once contact is made on Channel 16, you must switch to a ship-to-ship channel.
- After communications are completed, each ship must give its call sign or ship name and switch to Channel 16.
How to Call Another Ship using DSC
Ships whose radios are fitted with DSC will be watching VHF Channel 70, as well as Channel 16. Channel 70 is exclusively used for digital selective calling. The DSC is equipped with appropriate alarms to announce that a call has been received. Your radio operators manual should describe all of the available features and procedures for making and receiving calls. Generally, you must know the MMSI number of the ship that you want to call, but if you suspect that the ship has DSC you can send an all ships call using low power first to a geographic area which only includes the intended vessel (coordinates are selected by operator prior to sending the call, check operators manual). When you are in distress you can send a distress call to all stations. Other ships will acknowledge the call only after waiting to see if a coast station answers first. These acknowledgements will be on Channel 16. Only if no coast station has answered your call within a few minutes will another ship answer.
Certain cautions should be observed.
Do not send a distress call as a test. Severe penalties can result if false distress alerts are transmitted and not cancelled by the appropriate procedure.
Do not under any circumstances transmit a DSC distress relay call on receipt of a DSC distress alert from another ship on VHF or MF channels. In this case, you must listen on Channel 16 for 5 minutes. If no acknowledgement is noticed or no traffic is heard, acknowledge the alert by radiotelephony on Channel 16 and inform the RCC (Coast Radio Station, or Coast Guard).
How to Place a Call through a Public Coast Station
Boaters may make and receive telephone calls to and from any telephone with access to the nationwide telephone network by utilizing the services of Public Coast Stations. Calls can be made to other ships or telephones on land, sea, and in the air.
IMPORTANT: A ship owner who plans on using these services should consider registering with the operator of the Public Coast Station through which he/she plans to operate. If a person is not registered with the Public Coast Station, then billing information must be given to the Coast Station operator each time a call is made, which results in additional time and effort.
Making Ship to Shore Calls
- Select the public correspondence channel desired.
- LISTEN to see if the channel is busy (i.e., speech, signaling tones, or busy signal).
- If not busy, say, for example, "Pleasure craft [name of ship] calling [name of Public Coast Station] on Channel XX.
- If busy, wait until the channel clears or switch to another channel.
- When a coast station operator answers, say, "This is [name of ship and ships phone or billing number if assigned] placing a call to [city and phone number desired]." Give the operator billing information. If billing information for your ship has not been registered, the operator will ask for additional identification for billing purposes.
- At completion of call say, "[Name of ship] OUT."
Receiving Shore to Ship Calls
To receive public Coast Station calls on VHF-FM frequencies, the receiver must be in operation on the proper channel. Coast stations will call on 156.8 MHz (channel 16) unless you have Ringer Service (which requires a second receiver).
Ship to Ship Calls
Contacts between ships are normally made directly but you can go through your coast station using the same procedure as ship to shore calls.
Marine Emergency Signals
The three spoken international emergency signals are:
- MAYDAY -- The distress signal MAYDAY is used to indicate that a station is threatened by grave and imminent danger and requests immediate assistance
- PAN PAN -- The urgency signal PAN PAN is used when the safety of the ship or person is in jeopardy.
- SECURITE -- The safety signal SECURITE is used for messages about the safety of navigation or important weather warnings.
When using an international emergency signal, the appropriate signal is to be spoken three times prior to the message. You must give any message beginning with one of these signals priority over routine messages.
Marine Distress Procedure
Speak slowly -- clearly -- calmly.
- Make sure your radio is on.
- Select VHF Channel 16 (156.8 MHz).
- Press microphone button and say: "MAYDAY --MAYDAY-- MAYDAY."
- Say "THIS IS [your ship ID]."
- Say "MAYDAY [your ship name]."
- Tell where you are: (what navigational aids or landmarks are near).
- State the nature of your distress .
- Give number of persons aboard and conditions of any injured.
- Estimate present seaworthiness of your ship.
- Briefly describe your ship (meters, type, color, hull).
- Say: I will be listening on Channel 16."
- End message by saying "THIS IS [your ship name or call sign] OVER."
- Release microphone button and listen. Someone should answer. If not, repeat call, beginning at Item 3 above.