VHF Licensing and Operating

Researched by Rowland Woollven, January 2011


I have done some research to clarify the position on ourselves and VHF licensing and operating. All of the technical detail can be found on the Ship Radio Licence part of the Ofcom website:


The Ofcom site includes a lot of information and guidance. You may have to dot backwards and forwards, but the website is fairly user-friendly.

The Law

Licensing. The law is quite straightforward and unambiguous: your VHF set MUST be licensed (there are big penalties for failing to do this, and then getting caught.) Licences are FREE if done via the website


So, given that the process is free, relatively straightforward and gives you a T number (callsign for handheld VHF) and/or an MMSI number for a DSC set, it does not make a great deal of sense NOT to do it! Note also that you do NOT have to hold a Certificate of Competence in order to obtain a Ship Portable Radio Licence.

Operating your VHF

The legal requirement here is perfectly straightforward and unambiguous :

13. Maritime Radio Operator’s Certificate
13.1 Whilst it is not necessary to hold a Certificate of Competence in order to obtain a Ship Radio Licence or a Ship Portable Radio Licence, a maritime radio may be operated only by or under the direct personal supervision of a holder of the appropriate Certificate of Competence and Authority to Operate (normally granted by the Secretary of State. This is to maintain operational standards and ensure knowledge of current distress, emergency and safety procedures. The certificate holder is required to produce these documents when requested to do so by a person authorised by Ofcom.
13.2 The minimum Certificate of Competence that is required for use of a ship radio is the Short Range Certificate. This certificate covers use of both standard VHF and VHF/DSC equipment under the Global Maritime Distress and Safety System in sea area A1.
However, note also the exemption made here
4. Maritime Radio Operator’s Certificates
4.1 International legal requirement
Even if your radio is covered by a valid WT Act licence, you may not use it for general transmissions until:
> you have passed the relevant examination and possess a valid operator's certificate and authority to operate; or
> you are under the direct and personal supervision of someone who has done so.
(This requirement applies to all ports and marinas, as well as vessels, that use radio equipment with access to international maritime frequencies.) However, you can still monitor the radio for safety purposes or use it to summon assistance in a distress situation, without one. (My emphasis RW).
4.2 Why are operator’s certificates necessary?
As maritime radio exists primarily for the safety of life and vessels  at sea, it must be used effectively. Operator’s qualifications have been agreed internationally to ensure that users:
> possess the necessary operational skills; and
> know the procedures for general calling, and especially the procedures used in distress or safety situations.
To obtain an operator’s certificate, you must prove that you:
> understand and can use the correct procedures for radio use; and
> will not cause a nuisance to your fellow radio users (including other vessels and HM Coastguard).
You must also show that you are familiar with the procedures required  if you have to use your radio in an emergency situation. If you need to  send, respond to or relay a ‘MAYDAY’, you will be able to do so effectively – this could save someone's life.


Reflecting all the above:

a. You MUST licence your radio. Go to the website now!

b. You OUGHT to obtain your Short Range Certificate to operate it – but you are completely within the law to operate your VHF for distress and life-saving purposes with no training or certification whatsoever.

c. If you decide to operate under the legal exemption above, bear in mind that knowledge of the phonetic alphabet and the procedures for Mayday and Pan Pan calls may save  life; so at the very least, buy a book and learn them! Also bear in mind that using the ship-to-ship channels for inter-group chat, or contacting the Coastguard for anything outside a Mayday/Pan Pan, is unlawful.

The reality is that the Coastguard would much rather hear from you than about you – so don’t be afraid to use your VHF when you need to. Ofcom do carry out inspections in marinas and similar locations, but their interest and emphasis is on licensing, not certification –so go to the website now and licence your radio!


The RYA are the nominated competent authority for delivering Short Range  Certificate training and assessment to ‘the public’.

Charges have two components: the training/assessment course fee (set by the organisation doing the training under the auspices of the RYA), and the RYA administration fee (which at £30 you may consider a lot to turn a results sheet into a certificate!). 

Course providers have no latitude over the administration fee, so it is worth checking to see if any stated ‘course cost’ actually includes the fee, or whether it is an additional cost...

Researched by Rowland Woollven, January 2011

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