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Phraseology and Communications Standards Differences Explained (ICAO vs FAA)

Phraseology and Communications Standards Differences Explained (ICAO vs FAA)

Jun 23, 2020

Learning radio communications is one thing, but as you prepare to make your first international flight, it is time to expand your dedicated comms training to include the phraseology and communications standards used outside of the United States.

The good news is that if you have been flying for a while, you already have a general understanding of aviation communication. You know how to speak the language, now you just need to learn a few new words, phrases, and procedures to make your international radio communication smooth and successful.

If you are just getting started on your pilot journey, you can learn both domestic and international communications simultaneously so you soon will be confident on the air and ready to venture to global destinations.

What is Aviation Communication and Why is it Needed?

An airplane comes in for a landing and the pilot has practiced aviation communication.

As a recap, aviation communication is a means of passing messages and relaying information between pilots and the ground as well as directly from pilot to pilot. Successful aviation communication is essential for aircraft and passenger safety as well as for overall efficiency. The primary means of aviation communication is radio.

Like many other specialized forms of communication, aviation radio communication has its own phraseology. Understanding and being able to speak using the pre-established phraseology is important for several reasons. First, if a pilot does not understand the phraseology, he or she is at risk of not understanding the message that Air Traffic Control (ATC) is trying to convey. Second, an unfamiliarity with or inability to speak using the proper phraseology means that a pilot will naturally be less clear and concise when communicating with ATC. Aviation phraseology is designed to be specific and brief. Since both parties speak the same language, they are able to communicate much more efficiently. As the FAA puts it, “good phraseology enhances safety and is the mark of a professional pilot.”

English is the officially designated international language of aviation by the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO). In countries where English is not the primary language, aviation communications can be conducted in the country’s native language, but English language controllers must be available upon request at all ground stations used by international air services.

Who Regulates the Proper Aviation Phraseology and Radio Procedures?

Airplane on the runway. NAAs regulate air travel operations.

Each country that is involved in aviation has a national aviation authority (NAA). NAAs oversee, regulate, and coordinate airports, airspace, and aircraft airworthiness and air travel operations within the bounds of their country. In the United States, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) is the governing body of civil aviation.

There are more than one hundred and sixty nation NAAs around the globe. Some of the largest include the Civil Aviation Safety Authority of Australia, the Transport Canada Civil Aviation Directorate, the Civil Aviation Administration of China, the Directorate General for Civil Aviation in France, Germany’s Federal Aviation Office, and the United Kingdom’s Civil Aviation Authority. The European Aviation Safety Agency regulates aviation within all European Union member countries.

This means that standards and procedures can vary across the globe. What constitutes proper aviation phraseology and radio procedure in one country may be different in the next. This is where the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) comes into play.

The ICAO is a specialized United Nations agency which was established in 1944 to coordinate and reach global consensus on international civil aviation standards and recommended practices (SARPs). The ICAO works to liaise between member states and facilitate continuity and uniformity where possible. The internal aviation agencies of each country interact with each other and participate in global policy and procedure creation through the ICAO.

How do the Standards in Aviation Phraseology and Procedures Differ Between ICAO and FAA?

Since the phraseology and procedures within individual countries can differ from the ICAO standards, each country should publish an Aeronautical Information Publication (AIP) outlining these differences. The differences may involve elements of phraseology and/or procedures. The FAA’s AIP gives U.S. pilots a detailed breakdown of how the FAA standards that pilots are accustomed to following within the United States differ from ICAO standards. A non-comprehensive list illustrating examples of where the FAA and ICAO differ includes:


Air Route Traffic Control CenterFlight Information Region (FIR)
Hold ShortHolding Point
Traffic PatternCircuit
No speed restrictionSpeed is Yours
Taxi BackBacktrack

Units of Measure

AirspeedMiles per hourKilometers per hour
Runway lengthFeetMeters


Lost IFR CommunicatinsIf out of contact, continue to fly last assigned route and at assigned altitude or minimum altitude.

If being radar vectored, fly the direct route to the fix or airway.
Maintain last assigned speed and level or minimum flight altitude if higher for 20 minutes (if not in radar contact) or 7 minutes (if in radar contact) following aircraft’s failure to report its position. After that time, adjust level and speed in accordance with filed flight plan.
Destination Weather at Time of DepartureNo Part 91 ban on departure if destination weather is below approach minimums at time of departureApproach ban on departure if destination weather is below minimums
Aircraft Speed Limitations250 knots below 10,000 feetNo limitations

Are Pilots Expected to Know All of These Differences when Flying Across Country Borders?

Airport with arrival in multiple languages. You need to be familiar with the phraseology for each country you fly into.

As a pilot you need to be familiar with the different phraseology, communications standards, and procedures for each country whose airspace you will be flying into. To help with this, all ICAO countries are required to publish an Aeronautical Information Publication (AIP) or Aeronautical Information Manual (AIM) containing this information. One of the easiest ways of locating the relevant AIP/AIM for the country into which you will be traveling is by using Euro Control’s aeronautical information services online search tool.

Two of the most frequent countries that American pilots fly into are of course Canada and Mexico. Nav Canada, the private corporation that owns and operates Canada’s civil air navigation service has worked with Transport Canada and other Canadian aviation companies and agencies to create a VFR Phraseology guide which can be downloaded to go along with your digital version of the official Canadian AIM. Mexico’s AIP manual is also available for download for a fee.

The good news is that many countries are converting to the ICAO phraseology for ease of use from country to country. The ICAO’s radio telephony procedures guide gives the details on ICAO communications standards. When traveling between European Union countries, the EASA’s EGAST Radiotelephony Guide for VFR Pilots will prove helpful, and in the United Kingdom, pilots can reference the Civil Aviation Authority’s Radiotelephony Manual. By investing time learning and practicing the phraseology, procedure, and communications standards for your international destination country, you will be prepared to skillfully bridge the communications differences once you are in the air.