Which VHF Marine Radio Channels To Use [& When?]

There are channels for emergencies and urgent matters only, boater-hailing channels, working channels for relevant communications, ship-to-ship channels, port operation channels, and weather channels.

These are further divided into channels used by commercial vessels and recreational vessels. Additionally, some channels are restricted and intended for use by the United States Coast Guard (USGC) only.

With so many channels available for communication on a marine VHF radio, it may be confusing to decipher which channel is used for specific instances.

The sheer number of channels at your disposal may be overwhelming. However, as a holder of a GMDSS radio license, I will break everything down for you in a logical order.

Now let’s get into it!

I have compiled a summary for each channel and explained when and for what these channels should be used.

  • Channel 16 and 1022: For emergencies only
  • Channel 09: Boater Calling (commercial and non-commercial)
  • Channel 10, 73, 1007, 10, 1018, 1019, 73: Working Channel (commercial) general communication
  • Channel 68, 69, 71, 1078: Working Channel (non-commercial) general communication
  • Channel 06, 08, 13, 67, 72, 77: ship-to-ship safety communication
  • Channel 1021, 1023: Restricted. Use of USCG only
  • Channel 20, 1020, 20, 1065: Port Operations
  • Channel WX1, WX2, WX3, WX4, WX5, WX6, WX7: Weather Radio Frequencies

The protocol of operating a VHF radio is strict, and for a good reason. For some people at sea, these channels are the fine line between a life-threatening and fatal situation.

Familiarize yourself with the most important channels, even if you are not the one primarily responsible for radio operations.

The emergency channel numbers (at the very least) should be known by every person onboard.

The channels discussed below are the ones used for U.S. marine VHF radios. While some channels may be the same internationally, the American channels differ somewhat.

🚨 Emergency Channels

Emergency channels are used for (and only for) emergency and urgent situations.

Misuse of this channel is not only bad etiquette but could result in citations, and tieing up the channel for non-emergency calls could put other vessels at risk if they attempt to make contact.

Channel Numbers: 16 (International Distress, Safety, and Calling), 1022 (Coast Guard Liaison and Maritime Saftey Information Broadcasts)

Scenarios In Which You Would Contact This Channel:

The scenarios may differ, as will the degree of urgency. This will be communicated by either saying

“mayday,” “pan-pan,”; or “securitΓ©.”

Examples of emergency situations include:

  • Sinking
  • Fire
  • Piracy attacks
  • Severe injury or sickness requiring urgent medical attention

Channel 16 must be monitored at all times while vessels are not using their radios.


VHF Channel 16: Transmit- 156.800 | Receive – 156.800

How To Use Emergency Marine VHF Channels

As seen in the examples above, emergency channels should only be used in dire or potentially dire situations.

Distinguishing and communicating the severity of the situation is clarified by the distress call used.

For instance, “mayday” is only used when the situation is absolutely life-threatening or danger is grave and imminent, and assistance is required immediately.

The term “pan-pan” (pronounced as pahn-pahn) will be used when the situation at hand is dangerous but has not yet escalated to “mayday”; status.

When an important announcement needs to be made to alert other vessels to something that could be potentially hazardous, the term “securtΓ©” (pronounced securi-tay) is used.

It can also be implemented when needing to communicate impending hazards related to weather conditions.

Additional Safety Features Built Into A VHF Radio

Your VHF radio is your lifeline. In more modern times, and with technological advances, additional features have been added to marine VHF radios to ensure your safety further while at sea. So, register your marine VHF radio to unlock these added safety features.

Maritime Mobile Safety Identity (MMSI)

This is a nine-digit number issued to Americans with a registered VHF radio by the National Telecommunications Administration (NTIA).

This number is a way of identifying your vessel. The International Telecommunications Union regulates it in Geneva.

This number will also be used for Digital Selective Calling (DSC), Automatic Identification Systems (AIS), and any other equipment used to identify a ship or coast guard station uniquely.

Digital Selective Calling (DSC) For Emergency Situations

Digital Selective Calling (DSC) is a feature found on newer VHF radios.

What It Does:

  • Stores all your vessels information in the device
  • Information includes the vessel’s name and location if the ship is equipped with GPS.
  • Can transmit the nature of your emergency

To operate a DSC, you must have a short-range radio license. DSC forms part of the Global Maritime Distress and Safety System (GMDSS) and works on channel 70.

The DSC system works from your VHF radio, so the range will be the same. However, all VHF radios with DSC have a red button because of the following reasons:

  • When the button is pushed, the system will relay your position and identity through channel 70.
  • The message is repeated every 3-4 minutes until the radio receives an “accept” message from another ship.
  • You should report your mayday call on VHF channel 16 after you have engaged your DSC button.

🚀 Boater Calling Channels

This hailing channel is used for commercial and non-commercial (or recreational) boats.

And, like channel 16, it is also required to be monitored by all vessels at all times while not actively using their radios.

This channel is used to make initial contact with other vessels and ports or the coast guard.

Channel Number 09

Scenarios In Which You Would Contact This Channel:

This channel would be used to establish initial contact when trying to contact a specific station. Then further communications would move to a working channel agreed upon by both parties.

Frequency: Transmit- 156.450 | Receive- 156.450

🩳 Non-Commercial Working Channels

These channels are where communication would continue after making contact on channel 09. Non-urgent matters, requests, and other information is relayed here.

Working channels are not permitted for casual conversation, and messages need to be brief, to the point and follow marine VHF radio protocol.

Channel Numbers 68, 69, 71, 1078

Scenarios In Which You Would Contact This Channel:

Working channels should only be used to communicate relevant information, such as weather, docking, ETA inquiries, etc.

Talking about matters that do not relate to sea safety and exchanging information regarding it is forbidden.


Channel NumberTransmits On:Receives On:
68156.425 (MHz)156.425 (MHz)
69156.475 (MHz)156.475 (MHz)
71156.575 (MHz)156.575 (MHz)
1078156.925 (MHz)156.925 (MHz)

πŸ‘· Commercial Working Channels

While commercial and non-commercial boats will make contact through VHF channel 09, the working channels they move to after that will differ. With exclusively assigned channels for each type of boat.

Channel Numbers 10, 73, 1007, 10, 1018, 1019, 73

Scenarios In Which You Would Contact This Channel:

The same applies to commercial ships and recreational boats using the working channels.


Channel NumberTransmits On:Receives On:
10156.500 (MHz)156.500 (MHz)
73156.675 (MHz)156.675 (MHz)
1007156.350 (MHz)156.350 (MHz)
1018156.900 (MHz)156.900 (MHz)
1019156.950 (MHz)156.950 (MHz)

The Differences Between Commercial And Non-Commercial Or Recreational Vessels

Commercial vessels refer to vessels that are used to generate income (large-scale fishers, container ships, cruise liners, tankers, etc.).

These vessels have stricter health and safety requirements for the boat and crew.

Recreational vessels are privately owned vessels used purely for pleasure activities and do not generate any form of income for the owner/operator

πŸ” Intership Channels

VHF Radio Channels 06, 08, 13, 67, 72, 77

Scenarios In Which You Would Contact This Channel:

When you need to communicate with another ship for safety reasons

Communicating when at risk of collision is essential to ensure you don’t put yourselves in an irreversible situation.

Depending on whose right of way it is, one ship may need to slow down or maneuver (as an example), so it is essential to communicate with each other.


Channel NumberTransmits On:Receives On:
06156.300 (MHz)156.300 (MHz)
08156.400 (MHz)156.400 (MHz)
13156.650 (MHz)156.650 (MHz)
67156.375 (MHz)156.375 (MHz)
72156.525 (MHz)156.625 (MHz)
77156.875 (MHz)156.857 (MHz)

🚫 Restricted Channels

Channel Numbers 1021, 1023

Scenarios In Which You Would Contact This Channel

These channels are reserved for the U.S. coast guard. It is illegal to use these channels and may result in a fine


Channel NumberTransmits On:Receives On:
1021157.050 (MHz)157.050 (MHz)
1023157.150 (MHz)157.150 (MHz)

βš“ Port Operations Channels

Channel Numbers 20, 1020, 20, 1065

Scenarios In Which You Would Contact This Channel

  • When traveling through waters managed by the port (shipping lanes, inside a port)

This includes moving to an anchorage spot outside the port, leaving a shipping lane, entering a shipping lane, moving from one section of the port to another as well as entering or leaving the port.

  • When needing to conduct any operation that may affect the port
  • Requesting port pilots, tug boats, and any safety drills

You must request permission to conduct any of these activities. Failure to do so may place yourself and others in danger, and you may receive a fine.

You may also use this channel to report an emergency or security information; however, channel 16 is recommended.


Channel NumberTransmits On:Receives On:
20157.000 (MHz)161.600 (MHz)
1020157.000 (MHz)157.000 (MHz)
1065156.275 (MHz)156.275 (MHz)

β›ˆοΈ Weather Radio Frequencies

The National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) broadcasts marine and coastal weather forecasts produced by the local weather agencies.

These weather forecasts assist ships and ports in planning passages and shipping routes. The coverage of these broadcasts typically extends to 25 nautical miles from the shore.

Channel Numbers WX1, WX2, WX3, WX4, WX5, WX6, WX7

Channel NumberFrequency:

Some of the channels have been updated recently. For example, the old Coast Guard channel was 22A and has since been changed to 1022.

The website for the United States Coast Guard and the U.S. Homeland Security has a table that lists both old and new frequencies.

πŸ“± Frequency And Range On VHF Marine Radios

Frequency refers to the number of complete oscillations that pass a specific point per second. For example, you could tune a VHF radio to “listen” for a specific frequency to send and receive messages at that particular frequency.

The range involves many variables, so the answer here is not as specific. The primary factor is the line of site. The antenna on the radios has to be able to “see” one another.

If you want to increase your range, you can adjust the height of the antenna or move it to a higher location. Changing your radio frequency not to monitor weaker signals is another option.

πŸ€” How Do You Communicate With The Coast Guard Via VHF Radio?

Coast guard should only be contacted When you are in an emergency situation.

Channel number: 16, 1022

Depending on how urgently you need help, you could contact the Coast Guard directly by calling – “coast guard, coast guard, coast guard” and relaying your message.

You can use standard emergency radio etiquette (mentioned above). If you need urgent help from anyone nearby, you can use the mayday call:

“Mayday, Mayday, Mayday”

With either of these options, you need to communicate your location, situation, and what help you require. It is also essential to communicate the number of people onboard the vessel.

🌏 Are The Same Channel Frequencies Used Globally?

The USA has different channels than the rest of the world. In the USA, parts of the radio spectrum have been sold to other industries (like railways).

Most VHF radios give you the option to switch between international frequencies (“Int”) and USA frequencies (“USA”)

βœ”οΈ Which Channel Should My Marine Radio Be On?

You should constantly monitor the emergency channel (16); however, your radio should be on the appropriate channel for your needs.

If you have multiple radios on your vessel, you should have one constantly on channel 16 and the other on the working channel for your region or the type of operation/communication needed.

πŸ“» Which Channel Should I Use For A Radio Check?

Channel 09 can be used for a radio check, but it should be kept brief, followed protocol, and the line should be freed up once your check has been confirmed.

πŸͺͺ Do I Need A Licence To Operate A VHF Radio?

For recreational activities (not in the USA), some countries do require you to have a license regardless of your activities.

πŸ”’ Are There Different Types Of VHF Channels?

Yes, there are two types. Simplex and duplex. Simplex VHF channels are radio channels that transmit and receive messages using the same frequency.

You can either transmit or receive a message. They cannot happen simultaneously.

Duplex VHF channels are radio channels where you can transmit and receive messages simultaneously (like a phone call).

Even though both parties are on the same channel, their transmitting and receiving frequencies will differ slightly.

πŸ—£ Final Words

You do not need to place unnecessary pressure on yourself to memorize all the numbers of the marine VHF radio. Most vessels will have an up-to-date list of the channels near the radio itself.

In time though, it will likely become second nature when tuning and radioing other stations. The most important channels to remember for emergencies are 09, 16, and 1022. 

These are the channels that are monitored most often. If you find yourself in a potentially dire situation requiring help, these are channels you would reach out to.

Channels 09, 68, 69, 71, and 1078 will be the channels you need to remember for your daily non-urgent marine communications and boater hailing, assuming your vessel is recreational.

If there is even the slightest chance that you may need to operate a marine VHF radio, be sure to familiarize yourself with the channel numbers and their purpose.

Furthermore, knowing how to articulate your emergency properly (should one need to be called in) is essential for the safety of yourself and those on board.

I’m the founder and chief editor here at Sailing Savvy. I spent a decade working as a professional mariner and currently, I mix those experiences with digital publishing. Welcome, and I hope that we can be the hub you need for safe passage.