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

Each channel on your marine radio has a designated function, with some set aside for distress calls, non-commercial communication, or port operations.

For instance, knowing that channel 16 is the international distress frequency is the first part to memorize.

16, along with others like channels 9 for hailing other boats and 22A for maritime safety information, are monitored continuously and are your go-to frequencies for assistance and vital information.

It’s crucial to understand how to operate your VHF radio properly and know the purposes of each channel to ensure effective and appropriate usage.

16, 1022Emergencies only
09Boater Calling (commercial and non-commercial)
10, 73, 1007, 10, 1018, 1019, 73Working Channel (commercial) – general communication
68, 69, 71, 1078Working Channel (non-commercial) – general communication
06, 08, 13, 67, 72, 77Ship-to-ship safety communication
1021, 1023Restricted. Use of USCG only
20, 1020, 20, 1065Port Operations
WX1, WX2, WX3, WX4, WX5, WX6, WX7Weather Radio Frequencies

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.

VHF Channel Overview

The protocol of talking over 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 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.

Primary Channels

Channel 16 is the most important VHF marine radio channel. It serves as the international distress, safety, and calling channel. You should always monitor Channel 16 when your radio is not in use.

Frequency: VHF Channel 16: Transmit- 156.800 | Receive – 156.800

Channel 13 is primarily used for navigational purposes by commercial, military, and larger recreational vessels, particularly for bridge-to-bridge communications.

Non-Commercial Channels

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

Frequency: VHF Channel 09: Transmit- 156.450 | Receive- 156.450

Working channels are not permitted for casual conversation, and messages need to be brief, to the point and follow marine VHF radio protocol for purposes like marina docking, communicating with locks, and bridge operations.

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)

Commercial Channels

Specific channels are set aside for commercial use, where businesses operating at sea handle logistic or operational communications. For detailed commercial channel information, you can refer to U.S. VHF Channel Information.

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 are used to generate income (large-scale fishers, container ships, cruise liners, tankers, etc.). They 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.

Weather Channels

NOAA Weather Radio frequencies, like WX1, WX2, WX3, WX4, WX5, WX6, and WX7, provide continuous weather information. They are critical for mariners to stay informed about weather conditions.

Channel NumberFrequency:

DSC and Emergency Channels

Digital Selective Calling (DSC) uses Channel 70 to send distress signals and safety announcements. This channel is strictly for DSC calls only and not for voice communication. It’s crucial that you do not use Channel 70 for regular communication as it could interfere with distress signals.

📢 Important: You need to register your marine VHF radio to unlock these added safety features.

Marine Channel Usage

Specific channels are allocated for different types of communications, such as port operations, intership coordination, and boater calling.

Intership Channels

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

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)

Port Operations Channels

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.

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

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.

Frequency Allocations

The VHF maritime spectrum is a range of frequencies allocated for marine communication, covering primarily the 156 to 174 MHz bands.

Duplex channels allow for communication on two separate frequencies: one for transmitting and one for receiving.

These channels are essential, especially in high-seas navigation and for vessels operating in U.S. territorial waters, enabling uninterrupted two-way communication.

International frequencies are standardized to aid in cross-border communication, ensuring that vessels from different nations can interact and understand each other when it comes to safety, navigation, and operational efficiency.

Transmission and Receiving

The range of a marine VHF 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.

Your marine VHF radio transmitter power is a critical factor, as it partly determines the distance over which you can communicate.

Generally, the allowed transmitter power for marine VHF radios can range from 1 Watt up to 25 Watts, with higher-powered transmissions used for longer-range or emergency communication.

Communication Best Practices

Effective communication on VHF marine radios is crucial for safety and coordination on the water. Knowing the proper etiquette and how to maintain clear communication helps ensure that messages are understood and acted upon promptly.

Etiquette and Procedures

For initial contact and non-emergency communication, use the pleasure-boat hailing channel 09.

Your communication should start with the call sign of the person or station you’re addressing, followed by your vessel’s name.

For instance, say the station name three times, followed by “this is,” and then your vessel’s name.

Maintaining Clear Communication

To ensure your message is effectively conveyed, speak in a clear, unhurried manner.

If you need to relay important information about your position or situation, use the standard NATO phonetic alphabet and digit pronunciation to avoid misunderstandings. Keep your messages concise to avoid occupying the channel for more than necessary.

Regularly monitor the essential channels, such as channel 16 for safety and emergencies and channel 13 for navigational purposes like requesting bridge openings.

Always remember that a VHF marine radio is a tool for public discourse among boaters and authorities, so maintaining professionalism during communication is essential.

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. 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.

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 another ship’s “accept” message.
  • You should report your mayday call on VHF channel 16 after you have engaged your DSC button.

Frequently Asked

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”)

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.

Which Channel Should I Use For A Radio Check?

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

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.

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.

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.