General Operations

Whether or not a station license is required for your vessel, you must follow the prescribed 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.

In order to obtain a restricted radio operator permit, you must file an application with the FCC in ULS. Please be aware that there is no requirement to take a test to obtain a Restricted Operator 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. If you have a DSC-Capable VHF radio and are in need of an MMSI for this device, please see the MMSI page for further information.

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.

VHF Handheld

Prohibited Communications

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.

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.

Radio Procedures

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. Please familiarize yourself with the procedures for how to cancel an unintended distress call prior to putting your radio into service.

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:

  1. MAYDAY -- The distress signal MAYDAY is used to indicate that a station is threatened by grave and imminent danger and requests immediate assistance
  2. PAN PAN -- The urgency signal PAN PAN is used when the safety of the ship or person is in jeopardy.
  3. 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.

  1. Make sure your radio is on.
  2. Select VHF Channel 16 (156.8 MHz).
  3. Press microphone button and say: "MAYDAY --MAYDAY-- MAYDAY."
  4. Say "THIS IS [your ship ID]."
  5. Say "MAYDAY [your ship name]."
  6. Tell where you are: (what navigational aids or landmarks are near).
  7. State the nature of your distress .
  8. Give number of persons aboard and conditions of any injured.
  9. Estimate present seaworthiness of your ship.
  10. Briefly describe your ship (meters, type, color, hull).
  11. Say: I will be listening on Channel 16."
  12. 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.

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 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.

VHF Channel Listing

The chart below summarizes a portion of the FCC rules -- 47 CFR 80.371(c) and 80.373(f)
Type of Message Appropriate Channel(s)
DISTRESS SAFETY AND CALLING - Use this channel to get the attention of another station (calling) or in emergencies (distress and safety). 16
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. 6
COAST GUARD LIAISON - Use this channel to talk to the Coast Guard (but first make contact on Channel 16). 22
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. 13, 67
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. 17
DIGITAL SELECTIVE CALLING - Use this channel for distress and safety calling and for general purpose calling using only digital selective calling techniques. 70
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.

Bureau/Office: 

Updated: 
Tuesday, October 4, 2022