Here are 8 apps to display the real-time location of ships

Every single day, thousands upon thousands of large and small ships cross the world's oceans. Ship tracking systems are one way to keep them all from hitting each other.
Christopher McFadden
Transport ships at the ocean.
Transport ships at the ocean.


  • Most large ships are required to carry special equipment that transmits their position.
  • This data is primarily designed to inform authorities and other ships of a ship's location, heading, speed, identity, etc.
  • But it can also be used by the general public for fun.

Every day, tens, if not hundreds, of thousands of large ships carry people and goods worldwide. While the oceans of the world are enormous compared to a single ship, the sheer quantity of vessels at sea increases the chances of two or more crossing paths.

While ships have technology like radar to help them see all around them, it would be helpful for a ship's crew to get an idea of the "bigger picture" when plotting their courses. That's where ship-to-ship tracking systems are worth their weight in gold.

But what are they, and how do they work? Let's find out.

Is there a way to track ships at sea?

You may or may not be surprised to learn there are ways to track ships at sea. In fact, with thousands of huge ships traversing the world's oceans every day, this kind of information is essential to preventing collisions and for law enforcement, among other issues. But how is this done?

Each of these vessels utilizes a tracking system known as an "Automatic Identification System," or AIS for short. This ship tracker tool aids in avoiding collisions and enables ships to be quickly located in the case of emergencies. A few organizations also specialize in offering precise online real-time ship tracking (we'll briefly cover a few later in the article).

Here are 8 apps to display the real-time location of ships
Everday, thousands of ships traverse the world. In this screenshot you can see just how busy our oceans really are. Each arrow represents a single vessel.

These organizations use ship-tracking data from vessel monitoring systems (VMS) and AIS tracking to generate real-time online maps representing ships and boats. The AIS is a remarkable piece of technology that saves lives, makes marine transportation simpler, and provides vital information about the global maritime economy.

We'll cover this in more detail below, but messages generated and sent by the AIS provide great data. For example, every single communication has the GPS location of the sender.

Here are 8 apps to display the real-time location of ships
All large ships can be tracked at sea.

Additionally, it contains the Speed Over Ground ("SOG"), which is roughly equivalent to the ship's actual speed. In addition, the AIS supplies the Course Over Ground (COG), so receivers are also aware of the course the ship is taking.

As long as you have the ship's unique identification number, you may typically get additional information on the vessel you're interested in. This is why free ship tracking websites can provide users with lots of information on a ship and are not restricted to live tracking or the ship's current location.

Some of the major players, MarineTraffic, for example, can provide a great deal of information about each vessel, including but not limited to the following:

  • The draught of the vessel
  • Its length and breadth
  • The "nationality" of the ship – i.e., the country where the ship's license issued
  • The ship's destination
  • Its average velocity in knots
  • Its maximum velocity in knots
  • The ship's current course (angular)
  • Its anticipated arrival time (ETA)
  • The ship's actual time of departure ("ATD")

What's more, you get all that for free. If you want more comprehensive information on ships, you must pay for access to more comprehensive information.

Here are 8 apps to display the real-time location of ships
Everday, thousands of ships traverse the world. In this screenshot you can se just how busy our seas really are.

Other websites, like VesselFinder, are an ideal alternative if you want more information on a ship without paying "top dollar." While both services provide a live map of all commercial vessels worldwide, there are a few distinctions between them. With paid services, you receive substantially more information on every ship currently traveling.

For instance, you can determine where individual ships of your choice stayed most recently.

How does a ship's Automatic Identification System (AIS) work?

Ships currently employ the AIS as a short-range coastal tracking system. The system was created to deliver identification and location data to vessels and shore stations.

AIS is widely considered to be the most significant advancement in navigational safety for mariners since the advent of radar. The system uses a Very High Frequency (VHF) marine band-operating digital positional awareness system.

It aims to aid in ship identification, target tracking, search-and-rescue operations, information exchange, and situational awareness as required by the International Maritime Organization. The IMO Convention for the Safety Of Life At Sea (SOLAS) Regulation V/19.2.4 mandates that all vessels of 300 GT or more engaging in international voyages and all passenger ships, regardless of size, carry AIS.

For reference, AIS is only required under international regulations on the following vessels:

  • Cargo ships greater than 300 GRT engaged in international cruises
  • Cargo ships more than 500 GRT on every cruise
  • Every passenger ship of any size

Created initially as a collision avoidance tool to enable commercial vessels to "see" each other more clearly in all situations and to enhance the helms' awareness of the surroundings. AIS does this by continuously communicating a vessel's identity, position, speed, course, and other pertinent data to all other AIS-equipped ships within range.

Along with a shore station, this technology enables port authorities and maritime safety organizations to regulate naval traffic and mitigate the risks associated with marine navigation.

Variables such as the AIS signal propagation circumstances, sea state, the height of the transmitting and receiving antennas, and the intensity of the vessel transmitter might affect the reception range. Under favorable atmospheric conditions, the reception might be as close as 20 nautical miles (about 37 km) or as far as 350 nautical miles (about 648 km) for powerful transmissions.

AIS determines a ship's position and movement through the vessel's GPS or an internal sensor incorporated into the AIS unit. This information is then compiled with programmable information from the AIS unit (e.g., Maritime Mobile Service Identity (MMSI) number, vessel name, destination, and cargo type) and transmitted in the background at regular intervals while simultaneously receiving AIS information from other vessels.

The AIS unit can have a separate antenna, or a splitter can be used with the antenna from the VHF radio. If an antenna splitter is utilized, it must be an active antenna splitter compatible with VHF radios and AIS transponders.

Here are 8 apps to display the real-time location of ships
Example of simple text-only AIS.

AIS comes in two primary forms:

  • Class A: Required for all ships 300 GT and more involved in international voyages and all passenger ships.
  • Class B: Offers limited capabilities and is designed for non-SOLAS vessels. Primarily utilized for vessels like pleasure craft.

AIS mainly operates on two specific frequencies or VHF channels:

  • AIS 1: Channel 87B (161.975 MHz) is operational (Simplex, for the ship to ship)
  • AIS 2: 162.025 MHz- Channel 88B (Duplex for the ship to shore)

AIS can typically transmit the following information about a ship:

  • MMSI number
  • IMO quantity
  • Name and Call Sign
  • Length and Beam
  • Type of vessel
  • Type of cargo
  • Destination
  • Location of position fixing antenna
  • Navigational status
  • Rate of turn
  • Safety-related information
  • Position timestamp (in UTC)
  • Course Over Terrain (COG)
  • Route plan
  • Estimated Time of Arrival (ETA)

AIS allows authorities to identify specific vessels and their activity within or near a nation's exclusive economic zone (EEZ). When AIS data is integrated with existing radar systems, authorities are better able to distinguish between vessels. AIS data can be automatically analyzed to generate normalized activity patterns of specific ships, which, when breached, trigger an alert, thereby identifying possible dangers for more effective deployment of security assets.

Here are 8 apps to display the real-time location of ships
A U.S. Coast Guard Operations Specialist using AIS and radar to manage vessel traffic.

Resolution A. 917(22) of the International Maritime Organization (IMO) states that AIS must always be operational when ships are underway or at anchor. In exceptional circumstances, a ship's crew may cut off its AIS broadcast for various valid reasons; nonetheless, this conduct may signal that a vessel is concealing its location and identity to cover illicit operations. However, it is essential to note that warships tend to be exempt from specific requirements of SOLAS.

Can I track a boat with AIS?

As we previously mentioned, you most certainly can. But, a more interesting question might be why you want to do that.

Well, first and foremost, pure fascination.

The maritime business has fascinated people for centuries, and this attraction continues to this day. As a result, many individuals use ship trackers as a hobby and interest, the naval version of plane spotting, as they provide a wealth of information on ships.

However, you can also utilize a shipping tracker as a practical means of obtaining additional knowledge to better understand the tos and fros of our modern interconnected world. For instance, you may trace the route of Chinese commerce ships traveling to Europe. You can track their routes and determine how far they travel.

If you are waiting for a parcel to come from America or are sending something valuable overseas (and you know the ID of the ship it is on), you can also keep track of it until it arrives.

Ship tracking websites such as VesselFinder and MarineTraffic are not designed solely for individuals interested in ships on the ocean. These ship-tracking websites are helpful to a large number of businesses globally.

For instance, vessel tracks and positions can be helpful in monitoring protected areas, issuing alerts for breaches to geo-fenced areas, and identifying ships that breach these areas. AIS data can provide information important to coordinating marine search and rescue operations and can aid in accident investigation, among many other uses.

It is incredible to think that you can locate any vessel and commercial ship with a unique vessel ID with just a few mouse clicks and a shipping tracker. Browsing this information will help you significantly broaden your understanding of world commerce and numerous other topics.

Is there an app to track Navy ships?

Believe it or not, many of the resources already mentioned also enable you to track Naval vessels worldwide. Much of the same information can be found on commercial vessels, but other information will be classified.

One example is HMS Queen Elizabeth, the Royal Navy's most advanced aircraft carrier. You can view her past and current locations using sites like VesselFinder. At the time of writing, we can see that she is on the English Channel, but information on her destination, speed, and ETA is not available (reassuringly).

Here are 8 apps to display the real-time location of ships
The current location of HMS Queen Elizabeth at the time of writing.

If you have a favorite ship you'd like to track from time to time, you might want to check out some of these great resources on the internet. They generally offer some free resources and some paid-for.

1. Marine Traffic is a great ship-tracking site

Marine Traffic, one of the most well-known and commonly utilized online ship monitoring systems, provides real-time ship data and advanced search capabilities. Numerous services, including satellite AIS coverage, enhanced satellite tracking, advanced density maps, nautical charts, etc., are provided to vessel owners.

In addition to tracking ships, Marine Traffic enables the tracking of ports throughout the globe. Moreover, the website's AIS system contains a vast database of ships.

Monthly, at least 800 million vessel positions and 18 million vessel and port-related events are recorded by Marine Traffic. In addition, it provides data on 650,000 marine assets, such as ships, ports, and lighthouses.

This open, community-based initiative provides several free services but charges for more advanced features.

The website manages over 2000 AIS stations in over 165 countries, has over 600,000 registered users, and receives around 20 million monthly views.

2. Shipfinder is a handy little site to find ships on demand

Here are 8 apps to display the real-time location of ships
Screenshot of Ship Finder's ship tracking website.

Shipfinder is another popular online ship tracking service that enables vessel searches by ship number, tonnage, capacity, ownership, construction, etc.

This web service aggregates AIS ship feeds used by vessels over 300 tonnes, passenger vessels, and small vessels such as yachts to give its customers real-time information.

It also keeps track of the user's search history to enhance the user experience and offers advanced users a paid premium membership.

3. FleetMon is another great ship-tracking site

FleetMon, is another open database of ships and ports from around the globe, providing real-time AIS position and technical data on over 500,000 vessels daily. Based on a user's search, it offers the vessel's particulars, schedules, port arrivals, trading patterns, and photographs.

Using its interactive FleetMon Explorer application, you can examine marine traffic in real-time and get information on operations monitoring, logistics scheduling, fleet tracking, and traffic analysis, among other things.

FleetMon was founded in 2007 and currently serves customers in 164 countries. Fleet Mon is one of the best ship tracking services that provides iPhone and iPad applications.

4. VesselFinder is one of the best out there

Here are 8 apps to display the real-time location of ships
Vessel Finder is another great ship-tracking resource.

With a vast network of terrestrial AIS sensors, VesselFinder, founded in 2011, provides real-time data on more than 100,000 vessels daily.

VesselFinder provides effective monitoring services, port calls, master data, and each ship's trip history via digital, social, and mobile platforms. In addition, it offers historical AIS Data services that include, among other things, customized ship movement reports, analysis of traffic density, and visual simulation of vessel movement.

5. VT Explorer comes on both desktop and mobile

Every day, VT Explorer provides its users with real-time AIS position data and technical information on more than one hundred thousand ships. In addition to the needed information, the website gives photos of all tracked vessels.

VT Explorer, accessible from both a desktop computer and a mobile device, assists in monitoring ship schedules and arrivals to assess trading patterns.

6. Cruisemapper is great if you want to track cruise ships

CruiseMapper, unlike other online vessel tracking sites, primarily provides information on the locations and schedules of cruise ships serving tourists throughout the globe.

With its database of information about trips, cruise ships, and ports, the website provides details about each cruise's itineraries, ship technical specifications, and information about the major ports where the cruise ships dock.

7. Vesseltracker offers personalized searches

With a database of over one million vessels, Vesseltracker provides personalized real-time and historical data on vessels traversing the globe. It allows users to track vessels using map views and layers, such as Google Earth, Google Satellite, and nautical charts.

The website contains a massive database containing up-to-date vessel specifications, characteristics, ownership and management data, etc. Moreover, Vesseltracker provides analytics and statistics on vessel movements and port activities.

8. Myshiptracking can provide near real-time updates on certain ships

The innovative website myshiptracking gives the real-time whereabouts of ships around the globe. With its extensive database, myshiptracking enables users to efficiently evaluate global marine traffic by monitoring ships and ports. The website also allows you to save surfing data and provides mobile apps for iPhone and Android users.

Can live ship tracking be turned off?

As we previously mentioned, under SOLAS regulations, ship tracking systems must be kept on at all times except under exceptional circumstances. Naval ships are one of the few exemptions to this, however.

It is also important to note that AIS can be deactivated when in port but must be active when underway.

Small boats can typically disable their AIS at any time. The only exception is if local regulations require them to have a functional AIS.

Small vessels do not generally come within the mandatory categories. Hence they are not required by law to carry AIS. Consequently, they are typically equipped with Class B AIS, which provides the majority of capabilities but does not entirely meet SOLAS carrying standards. These units can be turned on and off at the owner's discretion.

Here are 8 apps to display the real-time location of ships
Being in port is one of the few times a large ship can turn of its AIS.

That being said, according to sites like Casual Navigation, there are valid reasons to deactivate AIS.

1. A ship's AIS can be turned off if the captain believes it is safer to do so

One of the main reasons, albeit a bit of a grey area, is that a ship's AIS can be turned off if the action aims to increase the ship's safety and the safety of other vessels in the area. When this is done, the ship's crew must be conscious that you are decreasing overall safety.

With the AIS off, the ship becomes less readily visible. The only justifiable reason to disable it is that it is safer if your location is unknown, for example, when traveling in heavily pirated waters.

2. Securing the ship's safety is another legitimate reason

Security concerns are the most typical justification for disabling AIS. For instance, if you pass through an area notorious for pirate raids.

When AIS is enabled, anyone can view your current position, course, and speed. By projecting the ship's expected location in a few hours, it is relatively simple to devise an intercept strategy. In a region where pirates are known to operate, you should avoid giving them this edge.

Here are 8 apps to display the real-time location of ships
Keeping a ship safe from pirates is another reason to turn off a ship's AIS.

Instead, if the first indication of a ship is visual, the window for pirates to prepare and board is much shorter. The International Maritime Organization (IMO) grants any ship's captain the authority to deactivate their AIS in such circumstances:

"If the master considers that the continued functioning of AIS could threaten the ship's safety or security, or if security issues are imminent, the AIS may be turned off."

As with most safety and security problems, the captain of a ship can take measures deemed necessary to protect life and property.

The Gulf of Aden offers a unique take on this theme. Typically, the captain would deactivate AIS to make the ship more difficult to track. However, due to the large number of military vessels in the Gulf of Aden, it is generally advised that ships keep their AIS operating and just collect the essential data.

The navy forces in the Gulf of Aden would rather be able to monitor vessels so they can assist when necessary. The captain always retains ultimate authority over the vessel regardless of naval advice and can disable the AIS if deemed appropriate for safety and security.

3. Law enforcement ships are, of course, allowed to also turn theirs off at times

Here are 8 apps to display the real-time location of ships
Law enforcement vessels are also allowed to deactivate their AIS in times of need.

AIS can also usually be deactivated by law enforcement vessels for law enforcement-related purposes. This includes both military and civilian vessels.

Using the Gulf of Aden as an example, the military ships operating there often wish to conceal their whereabouts. They are far more effective as a deterrent if their location is unknown. If their AIS were active, it would be too easy for pirate vessels to disguise themselves as fishing boats when near law enforcement vessels.

There have even been allegations of attempted hijackings of military boats misidentified as cargo ships. Considering the skiffs used by the pirates, it is unlikely that anyone on board utilized AIS, yet military vessels still have the advantage of disabling it.

In addition to piracy, other law enforcement agencies can also profit from operating without AIS. Typical instances include when tracking smugglers and engaging in fisheries protection. In both cases, the action is more effective when the location of the enforcing vessel is unknown. In addition to increasing the likelihood of stopping illicit conduct, the element of surprise functions as a more effective deterrent.

How would live shipping tracking work during a war?

The ability to track ships at sea is beneficial for various reasons, as we explained above, but would this service be available during wartime? Imagine the consequences if enemy nations could track each other's warships and merchant ships in near real-time using a simple website!

Here are 8 apps to display the real-time location of ships
Can warship be tracked during wartime using websites?

The "Battle of the Atlantic" events during WW2 would have been a different story if such a service had existed then.

Well, if you've read up this far, you'd know that warships are typically exempt from requiring to report their position via systems like AIS.

During times of war, this is even more likely to be the case when on deployment.

However, as you may have noticed from some of the sites listed above, you can get satellite data on the whereabouts of some ships, including warships. During a conflict, it is highly likely that such information will be blocked from being reported on sites like Vessel Finder, etc., listed above, just as Google Maps have blacked out satellite imagery of Ukraine during the ongoing war with Russia.

During peacetime, however, there have been calls for navy vessels to report their position in high-traffic areas.

As reported by USNI news in 2017, following two fatal collisions between U.S. guided missile destroyers and merchant vessels that year, the U.S. Navy has declared that it was evaluating whether its surface force is frequently too stealthy.

Here are 8 apps to display the real-time location of ships
Warships tend to be exempt from using systems like AIS.

According to USNI News, Navy officials, when interrogated by the U.S. Senate, were asked how they might prevent such accidents from occurring in the future. They suggested that one of the immediate modifications that could be made to fleet operations was for Navy surface fleet ships to declare their presence in heavily used trade routes.

Even with most large and small vessels equipped with radar, navy vessels can easily be missed as they are designed to be as "stealthy" as possible at sea. On the radar screens of other ships, navy vessels are intended to appear far smaller than they are.

Navy ships are also generally painted Haze Grey, so crews from other ships can have difficulty making visual contact even during the day. Following the meeting, it was decided that the surface fleet should employ its automated identification system (AIS) in high-traffic zones.

But, again, this is only the case during peacetime or in home waters. If surface navies, like the U.S. Navy, were to ever engage in combat, it is likely their AIS would never be turned on, for obvious reasons.

This wouldn't matter much for the enemy, as most modern navies have other sophisticated means to search and track other ships. But that is a story for another time.

Here are 8 apps to display the real-time location of ships
There are other ways to find warships, of course.

And that is your lot for today.

With tens to hundreds of thousands of ships of all sizes traveling the seas of the world every day, they must have a means of seeing other ships in or near their path. Without such tracking systems as AIS, fatal collisions would likely be considerably higher.

As a bonus, we "landlubbers" can have fun tracking vessels! Everyone's a winner.

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