Licensing Onboard Electronics 

Your VHF radio, EPIRB, radar, TV etc. must all be covered by appropriate licences, as must any other transmitting equipment onboard a boat. 

A Ship Radio Licence (or Ship Portable Radio Licence) will be required for most boats together with the requisite licence authorising the operation of communication equipment.

In the UK Ship Radio Licences and Ship Portable Radio Licences are issued by Ofcom.

VHF Licensing

The primary function of maritime radio is to ensure safety of life and vessels at sea. To prevent unnecessary interference, the radio spectrum worldwide is governed by the International Radio Regulations.

In accordance with UK legislation all maritime radio transmission equipment on a vessel owned by a UK citizen or registered in the UK must be:

  1. compliant with national requirements
  2. covered by a Wireless Telegraphy Act Ship Radio Licence or Ship Portable Radio Licence
  3. operated by (or under the direct supervision of) a holder of a maritime radio operator's certificate

Full details of each of these requirements can be found in Ofcom booklet "Ship Radio Information" Of19a.

Ofcom also licences requirements for marine radio (other than ships). Details of the licences available can be found on the Ofcom web-site and the RYA also provides guidance on the regulations for the benefit of clubs.

Ship Radio Licence

A Ship Radio Licence is appropriate, unless you are licensing a DSC handheld VHF or a handheld VHF for use on more than one vessel (which requires a Ship Portable Radio Licence). A Ship Radio Licence is required as soon as any maritime radio transmission equipment is carried on board a vessel.

This could include any of the following (and this list is not exhaustive):

  • Fixed or portable VHF or VHF/DSC Radio
  • MF / HF Radio equipment
  • AIS transponder
  • EPIRB or PLB
  • Satellite Communications / SES equipment
  • SART
  • Radar
  • Active Radar Target Enhancer
  • ATIS equipment

Your Ship Radio Licence document details what equipment is covered by the licence and should be updated whenever changes are made to the equipment onboard.  

Ship Portable Radio Licence

The use of a handheld VHF which is not covered by a Ship Radio Licence can instead be covered by a Ship Portable Radio Licence. This allows a handheld VHF to be used on more than one vessel. However, the Ship Portable Radio Licence is intended for use in UK territorial waters. In place of an internationally recognised call sign, the Ship Portable Radio Licence has a T (reference) number, which is not recognised internationally. The details of a Ship Portable Radio Licence are not sent to the International Telecommunication Union (ITU)) and the licence states that it, " covers the use of the radio equipment in UK territorial waters." 

Use on the high seas is not prohibited by the terms of the licence, however such use may conflict with international requirements, particularly in proximity of territorial waters of other administrations.

Radio use in the territorial waters of other administrations is subject to the regulations and authorisations of those administrations. Therefore a Ship Radio Licence and an international call sign are required even if the vessel in question is only carrying a handheld VHF.

The Ship Poratble Radio Licence can also be used to licence an EPIRB and/or PLB but it cannot be used to licence AIS devices. Such licensing is required in addition to registering the EPIRB/PLB with the Maritime and Coastguard Agency (MCA).

Handheld VHF with DSC

A draft standard (the UK Interface Requirement) has been developed to allow Ofcom to authorise the use of handheld VHF DSC in UK territorial waters.  It is therefore now possible for handheld VHF DSC sets, which conform with the UK Interface Requirement, to be individually licenced with a UK Ship Portable radio licence. 

Licensing can at present not be extended to authorising use outside UK territorial waters, however Ofcom has made a submission to the European Commission so that other Member States can comment. In the mean time as Ofcom views handheld VHF DSC as an important aid to safety particularly for those in small boats, it is pressing ahead and authorising the use of qualifying sets in UK territorial waters.

Full details of how to identify sets which can be licenced and information on how the set can be used under the Ship Portable Radio Licence are available in the Ofcom Ship Radio VHF FAQs

Call signs and MMSI

Vessel callsigns are allocated when the first application for that vessel is made for a Ship Radio Licence. This callsign remains with the vessel regardless of changes of ownership or vessel name, unless it ceases to be a UK vessel, is destroyed or is unlicensed for a period of two or more years.

Maritime Mobile Service Identity (MMSI) numbers are only issued when DSC (Digital Selective Calling) and or Ship Earth Station (SES) equipment is fitted on a vessel. This will happen when either an application for a new Ship Radio Licence or an amendment to the equipment on board a vessel with an existing licence is made.

A handheld DSC set should not be programmed with the MMSI allocated on the Ship Radio Licence as using a handheld DSC programmed with an MMSI, other than one that starts 2359xxxxx, is not authorised by the Ship Radio (or Ship Portable Radio) Licence and is therefore unlawful.

A handheld VHF with DSC should be licenced on a Ship Portable Radio licence and programmed with the allocated MMSI 2359xxxxx. 

Ofcom is required to collect details of the vessels it licences and their equipment which is contained within the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) Maritime Mobile Access and Retrieval System (MARS) database.


EPIRBs and PLBs are also maritime radio transmission equipment must be licensed through the Ship Radio Licence, however they must also be registered with the MCA Beacon Registry to ensure that the Rescue Co-ordination Centres (MRCC) have the information they require for search and rescue, in the event that an EPIRB or PLB is activated. In the UK MMSI numbers are not issued to these devices.

Links: On-line EPIRB registration or contact details.

Maritime Radio Operator's Certificates

Without a maritime radio operator's certificate, a VHF radio may be monitored for safety purposes or used to summon assistance in a distress situation, but it may not be used for general transmissions.

General transmissions can only be made by a licensed operator or by someone under the direct supervision of a licensed operator.

The maritime radio operator's certificates changed with the introduction of the Global Maritime Distress and Safety System (GMDSS) and Digital Selective Calling (DSC). If you have a pre-GMDSS radio operator's certificate, this remains valid but only for pre-GMDSS equipment. You must upgrade your operator's licence if you wish to use GMDSS maritime radio equipment.

There are 4 certificates which are valid for the operation of GMDSS maritime radio equipment:

  • Short Range Certificate (SRC)
  • Long Range Certificate (LRC)
  • Restricted Operator's Certificate (ROC)
  • General Operator's Certificate (GOC)

The SRC covers the use of VHF and VHF/DSC equipment on board pleasure vessels and is available through RYA recognised training centres.

The LRC is required if a pleasure vessel is is equipped with MF, HF and / or satellite communications equipment. The LRC is administered by the Association of Marine Electronic and Radio Colleges (AMERC) Tel  01539 742745.

The ROC or GOC is required if it is mandatory for a vessel to be equipped with maritime radio equipment under the Merchant Shipping Radio Installation Regulations (1998) for example cargo vessels over 300GT and passenger vessels. They are sometimes also needed for smaller vessels as the SRC and LRC are not STCW certificates. The ROC and GOC are also administered by AMERC.

Thinking about having a television on board?

Unless you live aboard (i.e. your boat is your main residence) a television on board is covered by the TV Licence for your main residence. For more information visit the TV licensing web-site.

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Article Published: August 28, 2009 15:21

Article Updated: July 29, 2016 15:17


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