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Ship Radio Stations



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 FCC Forms 159 and 605 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 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).
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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.
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Using Hand-Held Marine VHF Radios 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 Forms 159 and 605 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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Acceptable Marine VHF Radios

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 an acceptable 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 the FCC Office of Engineering and Technology web site.
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.
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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.
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Prohibited Communications

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.
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Ship Inspections

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.
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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.
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Making a Call Using Voice Calling on VHF
How to Call Another Ship Using Voice Calling
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
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."
  13. Release microphone button and listen. Someone should answer. If not, repeat call, beginning at Item 3 above.
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Last reviewed/updated on