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 the Service
Do I need a ship radio station license?
Do I need a restricted radiotelephone operator permit?
How to get a license (if you need one)
How to operate your marine VHF radio
FCC information (Forms, Fees, Rules)
Rule changes affecting boaters with radio
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[You may want to see 'DISTANCE TO THE HORIZON/OBJECTS' page for explanation and calculations of distances)
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.
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.
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.
(SEE 'DISTANCE TO THE HORIZON/OBJECTS' page to calculate & estimate 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 EPIRBs, 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).
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On October 26, 1996, the FCC released a Report and Order in WT Docket No. 96-82, FCC 96-421 (text, WordPerfect), 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.
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 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.
WHICH SHIPS ARE VOLUNTARY?
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:
WHAT IS DOMESTIC OPERATION?
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.
WHAT RADIO EQUIPMENT MAY I 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. On April 17, 1996, the U.S. Coast Guard suspended enforcement activities concerning FCC Radio Station Licenses carried aboard voluntary ships.
WHAT IF I HAVE A MARINE RADIO WITH DIGITAL SELECTIVE CALLING (DSC) CAPABILITY?
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 (text - Word) announcing the new procedures for private entities to issue MMSIs
PUBLIC NOTICE (DA 01-2463)
Commission Announces Agreement Among Sea Tow Service International, Inc., the United States Coast Guard and the FCC to Assign Maritime Mobile Service Identities
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.
SHOULD I RENEW MY LICENSE?
If you operate a marine VHF radio, radar, or EPIRBs 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.
WHAT OPERATING PROCEDURES SHOULD I FOLLOW?
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.
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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. Section IV outlines the procedure for obtaining a permit. 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.
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).
HOW DO I OBTAIN A SHIP RADIO STATION LICENSE?
Obtain FCC Forms 159 and 605 (see Section VI) and file them with the FCC. The FCC will mail the license to you and it will be valid for ten years. Don't forget to sign and date your application and include any applicable fees, otherwise it may be returned.
HOW DO I OBTAIN A RESTRICTED RADIOTELEPHONE OPERATOR PERMIT?
Obtain FCC Form 159 and 605 (see Section VI) and file it with the FCC. You do not need to take a test to obtain this permit. The FCC will mail the permit to you and it will be valid for your lifetime. Don't forget to sign and date your application and include any applicable fees, otherwise it may be returned.
MAY I OPERATE A MARINE RADIO WHILE MY 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.
HOW DO I MAKE CHANGES DURING MY LICENSE TERM?
If you change your mailing address, legal name, ship name, ship official number, or state registration number you must complete FCC Form 605 for Administrative Update. There is no fee required. No action is required when you add or replace a transmitter that operates in the same frequency band.
Send your completed form to:
1270 Fairfield Road
Gettysburg, PA 17325-7245.
HOW DO I RENEW MY LICENSE?
The FCC will send you a Renewal Reminder Notice approximately 120 days prior to the expiration date of your license. You must submit FCC Form 605 along with the proper payment to renew your license.
If you send 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.
WHAT DO I DO IF MY LICENSE HAS EXPIRED?
If your station license has expired, you must complete FCC Forms 159 and 605 for a NEW station license. There is NO grace period. You may use the temporary operating authority (FCC Form 605A) to operate your marine radio while your application is being processed.
WHAT DO I DO IF I LOSE MY LICENSE OR PERMIT?
If you lose your license, you must request a duplicate in writing. For a duplicate SHIP STATION LICENSE, you must complete FCC Forms 159 and 605. There are no provisions for issuing duplicate restricted radiotelephone operator permits. If you need to replace a lost permit, you must apply for a new one using FCC Forms 159 and 605. There are fees required for requesting a duplicate license or a new permit.
WHAT MUST I DO IF I SELL MY SHIP?
If you sell your ship, you must file FCC Form 605 requesting cancellation to:
1270 Fairfield Road
Gettysburg, PA 17325-7245.
You cannot transfer your SHIP STATION LICENSE to another person or ship. The new owner cannot modify your license, but must apply for a NEW license.
If you have a RESTRICTED RADIOTELEPHONE OPERATOR PERMIT, you should retain it for future use since it is authorized for your lifetime.
HOW DO I LICENSE 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 FCC Form 605 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.
MAY I USE MY RADIO ON MORE THAN ONE SHIP?
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.
MAY I USE MY HAND-HELD MARINE VHF RADIO ON LAND?
You must have a special license, called a marine utility 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 FCC Form 601 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.
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WHAT TYPES OF MARINE VHF RADIOS ARE ACCEPTABLE?
The power output of your radio must not be more than 25 watts. You must also be able to lower the power of your radio to one watt or less. Your radio must be able to transmit on 156.8 MHz (Channel 16), 156.3 MHz (Channel 6) and at least one other channel. Your radio must be type accepted or certified by the FCC. You can tell a type accepted radio by the FCC ID label on the radio. You may look at a list of acceptable radios at any FCC field office, FCC headquarters, or FCC Web Site.
MAY I INSTALL AND SERVICE MY MARINE VHF RADIO BY MYSELF?
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.
WHAT MARINE VHF CHANNELS MAY I USE?
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.
HOW DO I MAKE 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.
WHAT COMMUNICATIONS ARE PROHIBITED?
YOU MUST NOT TRANSMIT --
DO I HAVE TO KEEP A RADIO LOG?
You do not have to keep a radio log.
DO I NEED A COPY OF THE RULES?
Voluntary boaters are not required to 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. If you would like a copy of the rules, refer to Section VI.
DO I HAVE TO MAKE MY SHIP STATION AVAILABLE FOR INSPECTION?
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.
WHAT HAPPENS IF I VIOLATE 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.
HOW DO I CALL ANOTHER SHIP USING VOICE CALLING?
HOW DO I 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 DO I 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
MAKING SHIP TO SHORE CALLS
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.
WHAT ARE THE 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
(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.
WHAT IS THE 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]
Release microphone button and listen. Someone should answer. If not,
repeat call, beginning at Item 3 above.
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All details concerning radio service eligibility, application procedures, operating requirements, and equipment standards can be found in the FCC Rules. Voluntary ships are not required to carry a copy of the rules.
Maritime Service Rules - 47
C.F.R. Part 80
Operator License Rules - 47 C.F.R. Part 13
The rules are available for a fee from the Government Printing Office at (202) 512-1803.
Federal Communications Commission
[accurate as of 4/07]
MARINE VHF RADIO CHANNELS
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 and 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. 9(fn6), 68, 69, 71, 72, 78, 79(fn4), 80(fn4)
COMMERCIAL - Working channels for working ships only. Messages must be about business or the needs of the ship. Use channels 8, 67, 72 and 88 only for ship-to-ship messages. 1(fn5), 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 18, 19, 63(fn5), 67, 72(fn7), 79, 80, 88(fn1)
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, 87, 88(fn2)
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 inter-ship communications to and from pilots 1(fn5), 5(fn3), 12, 14, 20, 63(fn5), 65, 66, 73, 74, 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, booting 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
Footnotes to table
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 Inter-ship, ship, and coast general purpose calling by noncommercial ships.
7. Available only In the Puget Sound and the Strait of Juan de Fuca.
The information contained on this page was accurate to
3/2004, except as noted. We advise you the reader to ascertain current accuracy.
The webmaster appreciates reporting of any errors or inconsistencies.
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