Marine VHF Radio

Marine VHF Radio

Ship Radio Stations

The Telecommunications Act of 1996, which became law on February 8, 1996, brought about fundamental changes in the licensing of ship radio stations.

This page contains information on radios that may be used aboard a ship, which ship radio stations must be licensed by the FCC, and how to use your marine VHF radio.

General Information About shipboard Radio Equipment

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.

Passenger ships that travel along the coast must be able 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.


Radio Equipment For Recreation Boats - Sailing - Water Skiing

Smaller ships used for recreation (e.g., sailing, diving, sport 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.

Maritime Radio Equipment

The maritime mobile and maritime mobile satellite radio equipment listed below may be used aboard a ship. If your ship must be licensed, all equipment is authorized under a single ship radio station license.

VHF Radiotelephone (156-162 MHz) - Used for voice communications with other ships and coast stations over short distances.

Digital Selective Calling (DSC) - Used with VHF, MF, and HF radio systems to establish communications with (call) ships or coast stations or to receive calls from other ships or coast stations. Uses two tone digital signaling protocol to selectively call a particular station or to call a group of stations, all stations in a particular geographic area, or to call all stations.

Radar - Used for navigating, direction-finding, locating positions, and ship traffic control.

EPIRB - Emergency Position Indicating Radio Beacons, or EPIRB's, are used when a ship is in distress, to emit a radio signal marking the ship's location. Extreme care must be taken to prevent inadvertent activation and batteries should be replaced prior to expiration date.

Single sideband Radiotelephone (2-27.5 MHz) - Used to communicate over medium and long distances (hundreds, sometime thousands of nautical miles).

Satellite Radio - Used to communicate by means of voice, data or direct printing via satellites.

Radiotelegraph - Used to communicate by means of Morse code facsimile, or narrow-band direct-printing, any technique for coding and decoding printed text over radio.

Survival Craft Radio - Used only for communications during distress incidents between ship and rescue vessels/aircraft or between lifeboats and rafts.

On Board Radio - These are low-powered radios used for internal voice communications on board a ship or for authorized short range communications directly associated with ship operations.

In addition, ships may use GPS or LORAN receivers, depth finders, citizens band (CB) radios, or amateur radios (an amateur license from the FCC is required).


Do I Need a Ship Radio Station License?

On October 26, 1996, the FCC released a Report and Order in WT Docket No. 96-82, FCC 96-421 eliminating the individual licensing requirement for voluntary ships operating domestically which are not required by law to carry a radio. The paragraphs below describe how the rules affect the maritime public.


You do not need a license to operate a marine VHF radio, radar, or EPIRB's aboard voluntary ships operating domestically.

The terms "voluntary" and "domestic" are defined below. Although a license is no longer required for these ships, you may still obtain a license (and call sign) by following the procedures outlined in Section IV.


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. In any event, 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 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 as described in Section III.


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. On April 17, 1996, the U.S. Coast Guard suspended enforcement activities concerning FCC Radio Station Licenses carried aboard voluntary ships.


You must obtain a nine-digit maritime mobile service identity (MMSI) and have it programmed into the unit before you transmit. Each vessel needs only one MMSI. Prior to obtaining an MMSI, you will be asked to provide certain information about your ship.

It is important that you obtain an MMSI 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 during the application/licensing process when you file FCC Form 159 and 605 with the FCC.

If your vessel does not require a license you may obtain an MMSI by contacting either BoatUS, Sea Tow Service International, Inc., or MariTEL. The contact information is contained in the Public Notice announcing the new procedures for private entities to issue MMSIs

If your vessel requires licensing by the FCC after you have obtained an MMSI from BoatUS, MariTEL or Sea Tow Service that MMSI cannot be used during the application/licensing process when you file FCC Form 159 and 605 with the FCC. MMSIs 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 not enter anything in item 10 on FCC Form 605, Schedule B. Leave this field blank and the FCC will issue you a new MMSI.



If you operate a marine VHF radio, radar, or EPIRB's aboard a voluntary ship operating domestically, you are not required to apply for a new license or 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 by following the procedures outlined in Section IV.


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.

A summary of these rules for the use of marine VHF radios is included in Section V of this Fact Sheet. 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.