Guide to Marine VHF/DSC Radios

An Introduction and Guide to Marine VHF/DSC Radios
At sea, marine VHF radios are the primary means of calling for rescue assistance and for controlling/coordinating a rescue situation.  It is not mandatory for a small leisure boat in the UK to carry a VHF radio. However if marine radios are used on board your boat, we must stress that all marine radio’s must be both registered and that the operator has both a valid license and operates the radio correctly.

All modern radios (made after 1999) are now VHF/DSC. DSC radios are “Digital Selective Calling” .These radios have extra features that are extremely useful in an emergency situation. Marine DSC radios are easily spotted - they have a red button on the fascia. The marine radio installation of DSC is part of a wide-ranging maritime safety initiative called GMDSS (Global Marine Distress and Safety System).


As marine VHF radios are the primary means of rescue, several items of legislation relate to the proper use of marine radios on all boats in UK waters.  Misuse of either radio licensing rules and/or radio operation can result in prosecution.

Registering Your Boat’s Radio

If you have any fitted or portable marine VHF radio on your boat, the radio MUST be registered. 

You will need the unique MMSI number to register your new radio.

To register your radio, and go the the”Ofcom” section (internet search “radio communications for small craft”).  Slightly confusingly, this Ofcom section is called “Spectrum Licencing”. Their phone numbers in Southwark (London) are 03001230000 or 02079813131 (or 3040). It is a lifetime registration.

Obtaining a Marine Radio Operators Licence

To operate a marine VHF radio, either the radio operator must have a radio licence, or the licence holder must directly supervise the person actually using the radio. Operating a marine radio without a licence is a  offence.

To obtain a marine radio VHF licence is straightforward. This licence is called a “Short Wave Certificate”. Most RYA training centres run a one day radio operators courses. See the list of all current training centres on the RYA website.  The RYA website has a summary of the course training details. This is only a one day course - however it is quite an intensive day for complete novices. Pennine Marine recommends that you do a bit of homework beforehand, just so that you are not starting the marine radio operator’s course from cold.

There is a simple test at the end of the RYA course. After you have passed this test, they will tell you how you can apply for a radio operators licence, the “Short Wave Certificate”. Contact details are as given above.

Going Further, Commercial Radio Use  and More Advanced Marine Radios

This advice listed above about marine radios is intended for small craft / leisure boat users with simple VHF/DSC radios.

For longer ranging expeditions, or other “radio” equipment such as commercial ship radio operations, AIS, longer range radios, EPIRB’s, SART’s, PLB’s  etc  please contact us for advice.