VHF radio

Learn about the maritime radio services available to all boaties in New Zealand.

On this page:

Radio provides access to a variety of maritime services

Limited VHF coverage - there is no VHF coverage on many of New Zealand’s inland waterways.

There is good VHF radio coverage in the coastal waters of New Zealand.

Services include:

distress messages

maritime safety information

weather updates

navigational warnings

ship-to-ship communications

ship-to-shore communications

How to get a radio onboard

1. Choose a suitable type of radio

Choosing the right type of radio depends on your vessel type and the radio’s intended purpose.

There are a number of handheld and fixed VHF radios available at a range of prices, with some cheaper than a cell phone.

A fixed VHF radio has a greater range than a handheld radio and is better for regular communication, but you will not be able to access it or use it in an emergency where it is damaged by water, such as a capsize.

If attached to your person, a waterproof handheld radio will be usable even if you end up in the water.

2. Get licensed

Vessels travelling overseas have different requirements.

All maritime radio users need to be licensed (except in an emergency or distress situation) and hold a minimum of a marine VHF operators qualification.

Learn to operate your radio.

The minimum requirement for all users of Marine VHF Radio.

3. Get a call sign

You can get or update a call sign for your vessel through Coastguard Boating Education.

A call sign for your boat is the best way of making sure each radio transmission is individually identifiable.

It is registered on a national search and rescue database. This means that search and rescue authorities can access information about your vessel to help locate you faster in an emergency.

If you sell your vessel, you can either:

  • keep the call sign or
  • transfer it to the new owner

In both cases, you will need to inform the new owner and Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment or one of its agents, e.g. Coastguard Boating Education.

Call signs are only issued to vessels operating within New Zealand waters.

A call sign is a unique identification code and a legal requirement for all radios.

Your guide to communication

A helpful resource and a must for every skipper.

In this handbook:

learn the correct procedures for communicating

find information about coverage and services

find useful contacts and a glossary

two stickers for quick reference

Request print copy Download as PDF

Know your radio channels

Channels are publicised at vessel launching points. There are a total of 55 channels available for marine VHF radio use.

While many channels are dedicated to specific use, there are also channels that provide ship-to-ship and ship-to-shore communications. These channels are not monitored.


Channel 16 is monitored at all times by staff working at Maritime NZ’s Maritime Operations Centre. This channel is dedicated for distress safety calling.

The private operators’ radio network, including Coastguard radio, usually has operators who are very familiar with their local area. Some operate 24/7.


Channels 19, 20, and 79 provide continuous weather forecasts and reports from key weather stations. This service is operated by New Zealand Coastguard.

Taupo Maritime Radio

The MF/HF (medium and high frequency) maritime radio service is provided by Taupo Maritime Radio, from a site near Lake Taupo.

HF and MF (often referred to as SSB or single sideband) frequencies are used for long range marine communication.

Be prepared for distress calls

There are special calls that are strictly for communicating distress, urgency and safety; these must be understood and used properly:

  • The distress signal MAYDAY is used to indicate that a vessel, aircraft or person is in grave and imminent danger and requires immediate assistance.
  • The urgency signal PAN PAN is used to indicate that a vessel has a very urgent message to transmit about its safety (such as loss of steering).
  • The safety signal SÉCURITÉ (pronounced say-cure-ee-tay) is used to indicate that the calling station has an important navigational or meteorological warning to transmit.

There are penalties for improper use of a VHF radio.

Distress calls take priority over all other radio transmissions. If you hear a MAYDAY call, cease any transmissions that could interfere with the distress communication.

  • Listen
  • Write it down (if possible)
  • Determine if you’re in a position to help

If you are not in a position to help, maintain radio silence. If no other station acknowledges the MAYDAY call, acknowledge it with your radio and do as much as you can to assist the vessel and communications.

Distress and urgency calls and messages must be cancelled if assistance is no longer required or when the incident is over.

How to radio a MAYDAY

Related information:
Get a quick visual guide for your vessel.

VHF channels

This sticker lists the major VHF channels.

[PDF: 110KB, 1 page]

Get a quick guide for MAYDAY calling.

Radio distress calling

This sticker outlines the radio procedure for distress calls.

[PDF: 30KB, 1 page]