No. 5 – VHF is not CB

Your VHF radio is a critical piece of safety equipment. It provides a common platform for communication between mariners from all over the world, and its use is governed by both US and international regulations.

Unfortunately, new boat owners rarely hear about those rules and regulations. And the protocols for using marine VHF radios are also rarely discussed. Perhaps because of its similarity to a Citizens Band (CB) radio, there’s a tendency to treat VHF like it’s the same as CB. But it’s not.

Icom M220

Photo courtesy Icom America

Guidelines for Making Calls

There are a number of resources on proper marine VHF etiquette, including:

The US Coast Guard Marine Radio Information page:

The FCC Ship Radio Station website:

As you might expect, there are also a number of YouTube videos available. Just search on “using marine vhf”.

Here are some things to focus on, if you’re not already familiar with them:

  • When to use Channel 16, and when not to
  • The proper way to request a radio check
  • The proper way to make and conduct radio calls
  • Which channels are used for what purposes
  • The NATO Phonetic Alphabet
  • Use of obscenities on VHF radio calls (don’t, it’s illegal)
  • The why and how of emergency calls
    • When and how to call “Mayday”
    • What to include in a distress call
    • How to use Digital Selective Calling (DSC) to make an emergency call
  • Using “Securite” and “Pan Pan”
    • Learn how to pronounce them
    • What they’re for and when to use them

Permits and Regulations

Using your VHF radio in US Coastal waters no longer requires a license. Just follow the rules above on proper use, and you’ll be OK.

HOWEVER…The same is not true if you venture into foreign waters (e.g. MEXICO). If you head south of the border, and you communicate with a foreign vessel or land station, you are technically required to have the following:

  • Restricted Radiotelephone Operator Permit (RR) for the person operating the radio
  • Ship Station License for each radio

Both types of permits are issued by the FCC. You will need to use the FCC Universal Licensing System to apply and pay for these items

Getting a Restricted Radio Operator’s Permit (RR) is pretty simple. It does not require any tests, there is a nominal fee, and it’s good for a lifetime.

The Ship Station License, on the other hand, is pricier ($200.00), but it’s good for 10 years. Your Ship Station License includes your official call sign, and a Maritime Mobile Service Identity number (MMSI, see below).

Digital Selective What??

All new (and many older) VHF radios have a feature called Digital Selective Calling (DSC). DSC is a safety feature, and provides a rapid way to make emergency broadcasts with position information. For more information, you can check out our post: “What the Heck is DSC?

In order to use DSC, you must have a Maritime Mobile Service Identity (MMSI) number. An MMSI is now required if your radio has DSC, regardless of whether or not you get a Ship Station License.

There are several places that can issue you an MMSI. As mentioned earlier, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) provides an MMSI when you obtain a Ship Station License. If you don’t need a Ship Station License, Boat US, Sea Tow, and the US Power Squadron can also provide MMSIs.

HOWEVER – if you are going to operate your boat internationally, your MMSI must be issued by the FCC, not by the other authorized agents. Which is why the FCC automatically assigns your radio an MMSI when you obtain a Ship Station License.

Do I really need to go thru this BS just to fish in Mexico?

The short answer is “yes, you should”. Although many people don’t follow the rules, and very few people have ever been nabbed by the Mexican Navy for violating the rules, it has happened. And you do not want to be on the wrong side of this if the Mexican Navy stops you to check for other paperwork, such as your FMM (visa), fishing license, or marine preserve passes…

In Conclusion…

So there you have it…5 things I’ve learned about boats over the years, that rarely get talked about. Hope this proves helpful!

And don’t forget about the related post: 5 Things I Learned About Trailers.