For the vast majority of recreational boats the communication radio on board will be a VHF Marine Band radio. The FCC has published very helpful guidelines regarding station licensing.
Who Needs a Ship Station License
You do not need a license to operate a marine VHF radio, radar, or EPIRBs aboard voluntary ships operating domestically.
There are two terms in this declaration that require careful definition: voluntary and operating domestically. The FCC explains both.
The term "voluntary ships" refers to ships that are not required by law to carry a radio. Generally, this term applies to recreation or pleasure craft.
The term "voluntary ships" does not apply to the following:
- Cargo ships over 300 gross tons navigating in the open sea;
- Ships certified by the U.S. Coast Guard to carry more than 6 passengers for hire in the open sea or tidewaters of the U.S.;
- Power driven ships over 20 meters in length on navigable waterways;
- Ships of more than 100 gross tons certified by the U.S. Coast Guard to carry at least one passenger on navigable waterways;
- Tow boats of more than 7.8 meters in length on navigable waterways; and,
- Uninspected commercial fishing industry vessels required to carry a VHF radio.
- Ships required to carry an Automatic Identification System (AIS) transceiver by the U.S. Coast Guard regulations enacted pursuant to the Maritime Transportation Security Act of 2000.
Ships are considered as operating domestically when they do not travel to foreign ports or do not transmit radio communications to foreign stations. Sailing in international waters is permitted, so long as the previous conditions are met. If you travel to a foreign port (e.g., Canada, Mexico, Bahamas, British Virgin Islands), a license is required. Additionally, if you travel to a foreign port, you are required to have an operator permit.
If you meet all of the requirements as listed above, then the VHF Marine Band radio on your recreational boat is eligible to be licensed-by-rule. This means principally that you do not need to obtain an FCC-issued ship station license.
FCC Ship Station License
If your recreational boat does not meet all the criteria for being licensed-by-rule, then your boat needs an FCC Ship Station License. An FCC Ship Station License provides a callsign for your ship and also can provide a maritime mobile service identity (MMSI) for your ship. Note that boats that are eligible for being licensed-by-rule can still obtain an FCC Ship Station license if they desire one.
Licensed-by-rule Ship Station
If your recreational boat radio transmitter is considered licensed-by-rule and you don't have an FCC Ship Station license, then your station does not have a callsign. Generally the boat name is used as the callsign in radio communication. Because most modern VHF Marine Band radios are now digital selective calling (DSC) radios, licensed-by-rule boats can obtain and should obtain an MMSI. The FCC has authorized several private agencies to concern MMSI to boats that are licensed-by-rule. But boats that are not eligible to be licensed-by-rule should not obtain an MMSI from a private agency. Since boats that are not licensed-by-rule will require an FCC Ship Station license, those boats should obtain an MMSI from the FCC as mentioned above.