When I took my Technician test some 20 years or so ago, we had to memorize the phonetic alphabet, which I think is the same one used in the military. I was taught that it was international, similar to morse code. It used words such as "Mike" for the letter "M" and "Juliet" for the letter "J" and "Zulu" for the letter "Z".

On VHF, I hear these used almost exclusively, but I recently passed my General class exam and started getting on HF and listening to both local and DX stations use words like "Mary" for "M" and "Japan" for "J" and "Zed" for "Z".

Is there really a standard or do people just make up their own? It has caused me quite a bit of confusion since I hear stations use words like "Japan" and I am not sure if they are using phonetics or whether they are actually in Japan.

  • $\begingroup$ With DX, use whatever phonetics allow you to communicate efficiently. Some locales may prefer "Japan" to "Juliet", or local pronunciations may make it easier to say "Guatemala" instead of "Golf". Listen, and use whatever phonetics will be received by the other station efficiently. I usually repeat my call sign with two phonetic alphabets - they'll catch either or both on the first transmission and save time. $\endgroup$ – Ron J. KD2EQS Apr 26 '14 at 14:22
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    $\begingroup$ "Zed" isn't phonetic. It's just what Z is called everywhere that isn't the US. $\endgroup$ – Phil Frost - W8II Apr 29 '14 at 11:09

There are two standard phonetic alphabets, the NATO/ICAO alphabet, and the Western Union alphabet. A table can be found here of them. The one that should be used is the NATO/ICAO alphabet, it's what is desired for emergency communications, traffic passing, etc, but occasionally the Western Union can be good to give your call sign if desired. The military phonetic alphabet is also commonly used, and in fact is probably more common than the Western Union, although there are multiple military versions. Here's yet another commonly used list.

For reference, NATO is the Alpha-Bravo-Charlie, and that is the one that you should learn if anything. Learn to recognize the other ones at least, as you will hear plenty of them. And remember how multiple standards are created.

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    $\begingroup$ So xkcd could be x-ray kilo charlie delta or x-ray king chicago denver? $\endgroup$ – ghendricks Apr 26 '14 at 17:01
  • $\begingroup$ I feel this answer would be better if it incorporated the phonetic alphabets from the linked resources. Don't forget we have MathJax which can be used to make tables. $\endgroup$ – a CVn Apr 26 '14 at 20:18

The FAA and ICAO document a standard phonetic alphabet to be used for all aviation radio communication. See: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/NATO_phonetic_alphabet


Check Ethic and Operating Procedures for the Radio Amateur (http://www.ham-operating-ethics.org/files/1-Eth-operating-EN-IARU-R1-V3-CORR-2011.pdf). Page 65 shows international spelling and phonetic alphabet.

That one you should use when making contacts World wide. However, no one will object if you use some other spelling standard as long as it is doing it's job - making other side better understand. For example, it is not good to use "Canada" instead of "Charlie", as "Canada" sounds like having "K" as the first letter. For people who do not speak English natively that is confusing.

Sometimes, when other operator has hard time to get your spelling it is good to use different spelling, as different sounding might better get through noise. I noticed that sometimes people have problems recognizing "Tango" in my call as it sounds soft, so if I have to repeat I try using "Tokio" which sounds more harsh and seems to help.

Also, if you know spelling in mother language of operator you are in QSO with, that could really help, not just in making better understanding, but people generally like to find out that others are speaking their language. That is a good way to make people remember you and to start friendship.


If you're looking for a printable phonetic alphabet, you can download a nice PDF at http://www.outsideopen.com/alphabet/ The poster includes morse code, semaphores and shipping flags.


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