How To Register A VHF Marine Radio

Many people fail to register their marine radios. One reason is that they don’t know how. So how do you register a marine VHF radio?

Fortunately, registering your radio is a free and straightforward process.  You just need to complete an online application. Once completed, you will get an MMSI number, and your radio will be successfully registered.

As a Coxswain in the South African Nation Sea Rescue Institute, my job is to find vessels in distress. Registering your radio makes a crucial difference to how quickly I can find you when you need me to.

The process is quite simple. I’m here to help you understand the following: 

  • The background of VHF radios and the safety of life at sea
  • Why you should register your marine VHF radio
  • How you can register it and be safe at sea.

📻 Marine VHF Radios And The Safety Of Life At Sea

Marine VHF radios are near essential communication tools at sea. Recreational vessels operating in USA waters don’t need VHF radios on board. But it is still vital to carry one.

Society has become reliant on smartphones, and, to be sure, they are great tools. But their offshore range is limited.

In fact, you would be overly optimistic if you expect to be able to use your phone beyond 10 miles off the coast. And not having communication is a sure recipe for getting yourself in a tight spot.

Enter the humble VHF radio promoted as a crucial piece of equipment by the international institution of SOLAS (Safety of Life At Sea). VHF radios let you communicate further than a smartphone. And to any other vessel without knowing their contact number.

In some countries, like South Africa, having a VHF radio may even be a legal rule, depending on how far offshore you go.

®️ Register Your Radio To Unlock Its Full Potential

Your marine VHF radio can be used for much more than two-way voice communication. You can unlock a whole suite of added safety features when you register.

What Do You Get When You Register Your Radio

The whole reason for you to register your radio is so that you can be issued a Maritime Mobile Service Identity (MMSI) number. This number is a combination of an identification number and a contact number.

In other words, your local Search and Rescue authority should have a database of MMSI numbers. This allows them to identify you during your distress call. It also allows other radio users to get in touch with you directly, using your MMSI as a contact number.

Your MMSI Number Enables Digital Selective Calling

A more recent addition to the capability of the VHF radio has come in the form of Digital Selective Calling (DSC). This new DSC function on a radio allows the user to send a digital message. This can be a call to a specific radio, a group of radios, or all radios in the vicinity.

In other words, DSC infuses your marine VHF radio with some of the capabilities of a smartphone.

If, for example, you find yourself in distress, you can use a broadcasted DSC distress message. 

It will send an alarm to all ships within the VHF range. And it will only stop transmitting the alarm once the distress has been resolved. All vessels and port stations that receive the message will also see your MMSI number. Which helps Search and Rescue identify you.

DSC Links With Your GPS And AIS

Did you know your marine VHF radio can be linked to your GPS? You can also connect your GPS to your radio if you have entered your MMSI number to unlock the DSC function.

The message will contain your GPS location in the data if you send out a DSC distress broadcast. If another vessel opts to respond to your call, the distress location will appear on its GPS. This will cut down precious moments of trying to plot your position by hand.

🤔 How Do You Register Your VHF Radio?

Hopefully, by now, I have convinced you to register your VHF radio, but if you’re still unclear about the process, read on for clarity.

It is typical for local governments to control and issue MMSI numbers. For example, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) registers VHF radios in the USA. They also issue MMSI numbers.

The FCC uses a few private registrant agencies to register private VHF radios. So, the easiest way to register your radio is through one of these agencies. They include BoatUS and the United States Power Squadron.

You will need to complete an online form with all your details. These include the type of vessel, the vessel’s registration papers, and your emergency contact details.

If they need any further details, they will contact you. Otherwise, you will be issued your MMSI number, meaning that your VHF radio has been registered.

But, if your vessel is longer than 65 feet or used in foreign waters and ports, you will need to register for a Ship Station License. This is only available directly from the FCC, and you need to contact them to guide you through the process.

The process is similar in most countries. So check who is the agency responsible for issuing MMSI numbers and make contact with him. In most cases, including the UK and South Africa, you should be able to register your VHF radio via an online platform.

This short video shows you the simple process of registering your VHF radio equipment.

What Do You Do With Your MMSI Number?

Just getting your MMSI number isn’t going to help you. You need to program it into your radio, which should be the very next step.

On your radio, go to the DSC menu. Upon opening this menu, your radio should ask you to enter your MMSI number to proceed. So go ahead and enter the number on your radio and save it.

Now you should have access to your DSC functionality. And if you linked your radio to your GPS and AIS, the MMSI number should sync across all those platforms.

Consider Getting A VHF Operator License

The final thing you should consider is getting a VHF operator license. Where the MMSI number is assigned to your equipment, an operator license is given to you personally.

This process is a bit more complicated and involves attending a one-day course and completing a written and verbal exam. But, the benefit is that it makes you proficient in radio communication. This means you will be much better at providing accurate information.

Being proficient on the radio isn’t just helpful in preventing radio errors. It improves your odds of being rescued because you will be able to use your radio better and provide accurate information.

The video below highlights the main topics of an operator license, including which marine VHF channels to use for different scenarios:

⏳ How Long Does A VHF License Last?

The lifetime of your VHF license will depend on the country where it was issued. For example, the UK and South Africa have indefinitely valid licenses. Your license may need to be reviewed every five years in the USA, but the process is straightforward.

However, it is important that you keep your details updated even if the license isn’t due for renewal. For example, if you move the radio into a new boat, you must transfer the MMSI number and reregister the details.

🙋‍♂️ Will Your Radio Still Work Without An MMSI Number?

You may also wonder if your radio will still work without the MMSI number, and the answer is yes. Your radio telecommunications will work just fine. However, you won’t get the added safety and convenience functionality with DSC and AIS integration.

💭 Final Words

Registering your VHF radio is a reasonably simple online process. You must complete the online forms, providing details about yourself and your vessel.

After that, you will be issued an MMSI number and certificate. Make sure that you enter the MMSI number into your radio. Otherwise, it won’t mean much to you.

Now with your newly registered safety equipment, it’s time to learn the etiquette of communication over VHF, such as ship-to-ship or hailing the Coast Guard.

I’m the founder and chief editor here at Sailing Savvy. I’m a lover of being out on the water and sampling Caribbean rum! Currently, I run an SEO consultancy in addition to this little corner of the interwebs. Welcome, and I hope that we can provide the portal you need to dive into your next aquatic adventure.