How to Use a VHF Marine Band Radio

by Jeff Hemmel

The VHF (Very High Frequency) radio frequency range is the most common band used for marine communications. Boaters typically access the VHF band through cockpit-mounted radios, although small, lightweight hand-held units are becoming increasingly popular. VHF channels are numbered to simplify dialing in a specific frequency. Approximately 50 channels are now in use, with an additional seven dedicated to weather information. At one time, VHF users were required to obtain a license. That's no longer the case, but VHF users are expected to practice good VHF radio etiquette.

How To Use A VHF Radio

Most boaters will continuously monitor, or stand by, on Channel 16. This is the primary channel worldwide for hailing) another party. It is commonly used for distress calls.

Follow the established etiquette when communicating on VHF. Hail another boat by keying the microphone and calling the name of the boat several times, followed by the name of your own vessel. Example: "Lady KT, Lady KT, this is the Good Life on Channel 16, over."

Once you raise your party, agree to switch to a a noncommercial channel to allow others use of the hailing channel, as well as keep it free in the event of an emergency. "Good Life, this is Lady KT. Switch and answer 68." Good Life would then respond "Good Life, switching to 68." In the United States, Channels 68, 69, 71, 72, and 78A are common channels used for casual conversation.

After both boaters switch to the designated channel, one should hail the other and proceed with the conversation. When finished, common practice is for both to then return and monitor Channel 16. Announce your intentions before leaving the current channel: "Good Life out, standing by on Channel 16."

Most VHF radios have the ability to monitor multiple channels. Many boaters monitor Channels 16 and 9, the latter considered a backup channel for distress calls.


  • check Most modern radios are designed to receive NOAA severe weather alerts automatically. You can also check out the boating forecast on one of the seven designated weather channels.


  • close VHF Radios are for marine use only. Never use a VHF for communication on land.

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About the Author

Jeff Hemmel has been writing about the outdoor industry for 20 years, and is an avid boater, road cyclist, wakeboard, snowboard and personal watercraft enthusiast. His award-winning features, tests, and how-to articles have appeared in "Boating Magazine,", "Consumer's Digest," "Watercraft World,", "First Tracks" and Utah Skier Online.