International Code of Signals

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How to say "Communicate with me!" in nine languages.

The International Code of Signals (ICS) is an international system of signals and codes for use by vessels to communicate important messages regarding safety of navigation and related matters. Signals can be sent by flaghoist, signal lamp ("blinker"), flag semaphore, radiotelegraphy, and radiotelephony. The International Code is the most recent evolution of a wide variety of maritime flag signalling systems.


"The purpose of the International Code of Signals is to provide ways and means of communication in situations related essentially to safety of navigation and persons, especially when language difficulties arise."[1] It has done this by first establishing a standardized alphabet (the letters A to Z, and the ten digits), along with a spoken form of each letter (to avoiding confusing similar sounding letters, such as 'b', 'p', and 'v'), and associating this alphabet with standardized flags. (See chart to the right.)

Combinations of these alphanumeric characters are assigned as codes for various standardized messages. For instance, the master of a ship may wish to communicate with another ship, where his own radio may not be working, or the other ship's call sign is not known, or the other ship may not be maintaining a radio watch. One simply raises the Kilo flag (see diagram at the top), or sends the Morse Code equivalent (dash-dot-dash) by flashing light; this has the assigned message of "I wish to communicate with you."

One of the elegant aspects of the ICS is that all of the standardized messages come in nine languages (English, French, Italian, German, Japanese, Spanish, Norwegian, and, since 1969, Russian and Greek). That the sender and receiver(s) are using different languages is immaterial; each language has a book with equivalent messages keyed to the same code. This is also useful in radiotelephony, or even when ships are within hailing distance, if there is no common language: a crewman on a burning ship yells "yuliett alfa vour", and a vessel coming to their aid knows exactly what they need: "material for foam fire extinguishers" (that is, the foaming agent). (See de:Flaggenalphabet for the German version of single-letter signals.)

The code also covers procedural aspects (how to initiate a call, the format of a message, how to format date and time, etc.), how naval ships (which usually use their own codes) indicate they are using the ICS (by flying the code pennant), use in radiotelephony (use of the spoken word "Interco"), and various other matters (such as how an aircraft directs a vessel to another vessel in distress, and how to order unidentified submarines to surface).


Sample Single Letter Messages
Flag Hoist Code Meaning
50px A I have a diver down; keep well clear at slow speed.
50px B I am carrying, loading or discharging dangerous goods.
50px H I have a pilot on board.

Prior to 1969, the code was much more extensive, covering a wider range of messages and included a list of five-letter codes for every prominent maritime location in the world. Since 1969, it has been reduced to focus on navigation and safety, including a medical section. Signals can be sorted into three groups:

  • Single-letter signals which are very urgent, important, or common.
  • Two-letter signals for other messages, sometimes followed with a numeric "complement" that supplements or modifies the message.
  • Three-letter signals beginning with "M" – these are the Medical Signal Codes.

In some cases, additional characters are added to indicate quantities, bearing, course, distance, date, time, latitude, or longitude. There is also provision for spelling words and for indicating use of other codes. Several of the more common single-letter signals are shown at the right. Two-letter signals cover a broad gamut of situations; the interested reader is urged to download a copy of the Code from the link below.

Repeated characters can be a problem in flaghoist. To avoid having to carry multiple sets of signal flags, the Code uses three "substitute" (or "repeater") flags. These repeat the flag at the indicated position. For instance, to signal MAA ("I request urgent medical advice", see diagram below) the Mike, Alfa, and 2nd substitute flags would be flown, the substitute indicating a repeat of the second character.

Medical Signal Code[edit]

A hoist of three flags
Flag Hoist Code Meaning
MAA I request urgent medical advice.
The pennant at the bottom indicates a repeat of the second letter.

The Medical Signal Code[2] (incorporated in the International Code of Signals since 1930) is a means of providing assistance when medical personnel are not present. While plain language is preferred in such cases (presumably via radiotelephone), where there are language or communication difficulties the various codes provide a succinct method of communicating to a doctor the nature of the problem, and in return the recommended treatment. Even where there are no language problems the Medical Signal Code is useful in providing a standard method of case description and treatment. There is also a standard list of medicaments (medicines), keyed to a standard ships medicine chest carried by all merchant ships. The Medical signals all begin with the letter "M" (Mike) followed by two more letters, and sometimes with additional numerals or letters.


The International Code of Signals was preceded by a variety of naval signals and private signals, most notably Marryat's Code, the most widely used code flags prior to 1857. What is now the International Code of Signals was drafted in 1855 by the British Board of Trade and published in 1857 as the Commercial Code. It came in two parts: the first containing universal and international signals, and the second British signals only. Eighteen separate signal flags (see chart) were used to make over 70,000 possible messages. Vowels were omitted from the set to avoid spelling out any word that might be objectionable in any language, and some little-used letters were also omitted. It was revised by the Board of Trade in 1887, and was modified at the International Conference of 1889 in Washington, D.C.[3]

During World War I the code was severely tested, and it was found that "when coding signals, word by word, the occasions upon which signaling failed were more numerous than those when the result was successful."[4] The International Radiotelegraph Conference at Washington in 1927 considered proposals for a new revision of the Code, including preparation in seven languages: English, French, Italian, German, Japanese, Spanish and in Norwegian. This new edition was completed in 1930 and was adopted by the International Radiotelegraph Conference held in Madrid in 1932. The Madrid Conference also set up a standing committee for continual revision of the code. The new version introduced vocabulary for aviation and a complete medical section with the assistance and by the advice of the Office International d'Hygiène Publique. A certain number of signals were also inserted for communications between vessels and shipowners, agents, repair yards, and other maritime stakeholders.

After World War II, The Administrative Radio Conference of the International Telecommunication Union suggested in 1947 that the International Code of Signals should fall within the competence of the Inter-Governmental Maritime Consultative Organization (IMCO), which became the IMO. In January 1959, the First Assembly of IMCO decided that the organization should assume all the functions then being performed by the Standing Committee of the International Code of Signals.

The Second Assembly of IMCO 1961 endorsed plans for a comprehensive review of the International Code of Signals to meet the needs of mariners. The revisions were prepared in the previous seven languages, plus Russian and Greek.

The code was revised in 1964 taking into account recommendations from the 1960 Conference on Safety of Life at Sea (SOLAS) and the 1959 Administrative Radio Conference. Changes included a shift in focus from general communications to safety of navigation, abandonment of the "vocabulary" method of spelling out messages word by word, adaptation to all forms of communication, and elimination of the separate radiotelegraph and geographical sections; it was adopted in 1965. The 1969 English-language version of the code (United States edition, revised 2003) is available online through the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA, formerly the National Imagery and Mapping Agency) as Publication 102.

The International Code of Signals is currently maintained by the International Maritime Organization, which published a new print edition in 2005.[5]

Single-flag signals[edit]

Flag ICS Meaning as Single Flag Meaning when used with Numeric Complements
x50px "I have a diver down; keep well clear at slow speed." Azimuth or bearing
x50px "I am taking in or discharging or carrying dangerous goods." (Originally used by the Royal Navy specifically for military explosives.)
x50px "Affirmative."[lower-alpha 1][lower-alpha 2] Course in degrees magnetic
x50px "Keep clear of me; I am maneuvering with difficulty." Date
x50px "I am altering my course to starboard."[lower-alpha 2]
x50px "I am disabled; communicate with me."
x50px "I require a pilot."
By fishing vessels near fishing grounds: "I am hauling nets."
Longitude (The first 2 or 3 digits denote minutes; the last 2 denote degrees.)
x50px "I have a pilot on board."
x50px "I am altering my course to port."[lower-alpha 2]
x50px "I am on fire and have dangerous cargo on board: keep well clear of me."
"I am leaking dangerous cargo."
x50px "I wish to communicate with you." "I wish to communicate with you by...":
1) Morse signaling by hand-flags or arms;
2) Loud hailer (megaphone);
3) Morse signaling lamp;
4) Sound signals.
x50px In harbour: "The ship is quarantined."
At sea: "You should stop your vessel instantly."
Latitude (The first 2 digits denote minutes; the last 2 denote degrees.)
x50px "My vessel is stopped and making no way through the water."[lower-alpha 2]
x50px "Negative."[lower-alpha 1]
x50px "Man overboard."[lower-alpha 2] (often attached to the man overboard pole on boats).
With a sinister hoist, the semaphore flag.
x50px The Blue Peter.
In harbour: All persons should report on board as the vessel is about to proceed to sea.
At sea: It may be used by fishing vessels to mean: "My nets have come fast upon an obstruction."
x50px "My vessel is 'healthy' and I request free pratique."
x50px (No ICS meaning as a single flag) Distance (range) in nautical miles.
x50px "I am operating astern propulsion."[lower-alpha 2] Speed (velocity) in knots
x50px "Keep clear of me; I am engaged in pair trawling." Local time. (The first 2 digits denote hours; the last 2 denote minutes.)
x50px "You are running into danger."
x50px "I require assistance." Speed in kilometres per hour.
x50px "I require medical assistance."
x50px "Stop carrying out your intentions and watch for my signals."
x50px "I am dragging my anchor."
x50px "I require a tug."
By fishing vessels near fishing grounds: "I am shooting nets."[lower-alpha 3]
Time (UTC). (The first 2 digits denote hours; the last 2 denote minutes.)
  1. 1.0 1.1 N and C together (No and Yes) is used as a distress signal.
  2. 2.0 2.1 2.2 2.3 2.4 2.5 Also signallable on a ship's whistle using Morse code. See International Code of Signals.
  3. The Z flag was also famously hoisted by Adm. Heihachiro Togo at the 1905 Battle of Tsushima as the Japanese fleet prepared to engage the Russian fleet. In Japanese coding at the time, the flag meant, "The Empire's fate depends on the result of this battle, let every man do his utmost duty."

Examples of multiple-flag signals[edit]

Sample International Code of Signals Messages
Flag Hoist Code Meaning Flag Hoist Code Meaning Flag Hoist Code Meaning
AC I am abandoning my vessel. 50px
AD I am abandoning my vessel which has suffered a nuclear accident and is a possible source of radiation danger. 50px
AN I need a doctor.
AN 1 I need a doctor; I have severe burns. 50px
AN 2 I need a doctor; I have radiation casualties. 50px
EL Repeat the distress position.
EL 1 What is the position of vessel in distress? 50px
GM I cannot save my vessel. 50px
GN You should take off persons.
GN 1 I wish some persons taken off. Skeleton crew will remain on board. 50px
GN 2 I will take off persons. 50px
GN 3 Can you take off persons?
IT I am on fire. 50px
MAA I request urgent medical advice. 50px
MAB I request you to make rendezvous in position indicated.
MAC I request you to arrange hospital admission. 50px
MAD I am . . . (indicate number) hours from the nearest port. 50px
MS 1 My vessel is a dangerous source of radiation; you may approach from my starboard side.
VG The coverage of low clouds is… (number of octants or eighths of sky covered). 50px
US 4 Nothing can be done until weather moderates.
NC Distress signal

See also[edit]


  1. ICS 1969, p. 2. Unless otherwise noted all material is sourced from this document.
  2. The Medical Signal Code is described in Chapter 3 of ICS 1969.
  3. Historical information from the Preface of ICS 1969.
  4. ICS 1931. Preface.
  5. ICS 2005. See Foreword.


External links[edit]