Merchant and naval vessels are assigned call signs by their national licensing authorities. In the case of states such as Liberia or Panama, which are flags of convenience for ship registration, call signs for larger vessels consist of the national prefix plus three letters (for example, 3LXY, and sometimes followed by a number, i.e. 3LXY2). United States merchant vessels are given call signs beginning with the letters "W" or "K" while US naval ships are assigned call signs beginning with "N". Originally, both ships and broadcast stations were assigned call signs in this series consisting of three or four letters. Ships equipped with Morse code radiotelegraphy, or life boat radio sets, Aviation ground stations, broadcast stations were given four letter call signs. Maritime coast stations on high frequency (both radiotelegraphy and radiotelephony) were assigned three letter call signs. As demand for both marine radio and broadcast call signs grew, gradually American-flagged vessels with radiotelephony only were given longer call signs with mixed letters and numbers.
Leisure craft with VHF radios may not be assigned call signs, in which case the name of the vessel is used instead. Ships in the US still wishing to have a radio license are under FCC class SA: "Ship recreational or voluntarily equipped." Those calls follow the land mobile format of the initial letter K or W followed by 1 or 2 letters followed by 3 or 4 numbers (such as KX0983 or WXX0029). U.S. Coast Guard small boats have a number that is shown on both bows (i.e. port and starboard) in which the first two digits indicate the nominal length of the boat in feet. For example, Coast Guard 47021 refers to the 21st in the series of 47-foot motor lifeboats. The call sign might be abbreviated to the final two or three numbers during operations, for example: Coast Guard zero two one.
Originally Aviation mobile (aircraft) stations equipped with radiotelegraphy were assigned five letter call signs. (e.g. KHAAQ). Land Stations in Aviation were assigned four letter call signs. (e.g. WEAL - Eastern Air Lines, NYC.) These call signs were phased out in the 1960s when flight radio officers (FRO) were no longer required on international flights. USSR kept FRO's for the Moscow-Havana run until around 2000.
Currently all signs in aviation are derived from several different policies, depending upon the type of flight operation and whether or not the caller is in an aircraft or at a ground facility. In most countries, unscheduled general aviation flights identify themselves using the call sign corresponding to the aircraft's registration number (also called N-number in the U.S., or tail number). In this case, the call sign is spoken using the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) phonetic alphabet. Aircraft registration numbers internationally follow the pattern of a country prefix, followed by a unique identifier made up of letters and numbers. For example, an aircraft registered as N978CP conducting a general aviation flight would use the call sign November-niner-seven-eight-Charlie-Papa. However, in the United States a pilot of an aircraft would normally omit saying November, and instead use the name of the aircraft manufacturer or the specific model. At times, general aviation pilots might omit additional preceding numbers and use only the last three numbers and letters. This is especially true at uncontrolled fields (those without control towers) when reporting traffic pattern positions or at towered airports after establishing two-way communication with the tower controller. For example, Skyhawk eight-Charlie-Papa, left base.
In most countries, the aircraft call sign or "tail number"/"tail letters" (also known as registration marks) are linked to the international radio call sign allocation table and follow a convention that aircraft radio stations (and, by extension, the aircraft itself) receive call signs consisting of five letters. For example, all British civil aircraft have a five-letter call sign beginning with the letter G. Canadian aircraft have a call sign beginning with C–F or C–G, such as C–FABC. Wing In Ground-effect vehicles (hovercraft) in Canada are eligible to receive C–Hxxx call signs, and ultralight aircraft receive C-Ixxx call signs. In days gone by, even American aircraft used five letter call signs, such as KH–ABC, but they were replaced prior to World War II by the current American system of civilian aircraft call signs (see below).
Radio call signs used for communication in manned spaceflight is not formalized or regulated to the same degree as for aircraft. The three nations currently launching manned space missions use different methods to identify the ground and space radio stations; the United States uses either the names given to the space vehicles, or else the project name and mission number. Russia traditionally assigns code names as call signs to individual cosmonauts, more in the manner of aviator call signs, rather than to the spacecraft.
The only continuity in call signs for spacecraft have been the issuance of "ISS"-suffixed call signs by various countries in the Amateur Radio service as a citizen of their country has been assigned there. The first Amateur Radio call sign assigned to the International Space Station was NA1SS by the United States. OR4ISS (Belgium), DP0ISS (Germany), and RS0ISS (Russia) are examples of others, but are not all-inclusive of others also issued.