How to Listen to ATC Online (Step-by-Step Guide)

By Pilot Institute
Posted on December 8, 2023 - 9 minute read

One of the best ways to peek behind the curtain of aviation is by listening to conversations between pilots and Air Traffic Control (ATC).

The best part?

Anyone can join in with nothing more than an internet connection. If you’re reading this, you’ve got everything you need already!

But finding ATC transmissions is only part of the challenge. Making sense of what’s being said is even more intimidating. 

In this article, we’ll explain, step-by-step, how to find, listen to, and understand ATC transmissions – all without spending a penny.

Key Takeaways

  • Accessing ATC transmissions is easy and free with LiveATC. All it requires is a phone or laptop with internet.
  • LiveATC is available worldwide, but coverage is limited in some areas.
  • Alternatively, use a radio receiver. You will only have access to local ATC transmissions.
  • Radio receivers have a learning curve and an upfront financial cost.
  • LiveATC offers access to past ATC recordings and has a dedicated mobile app.

Listening to ATC Using a Computer or Phone

The LiveATC website on a laptop and phone.

Streaming services and apps are second to none when it comes to convenience and ease of use. There’s no fiddling with antennas or manually looking up frequencies – all you need is your device and an internet connection. 

Just open the app or website, and you’re there.

The biggest drawback of using an online service is that it leaves you dependent on an internet connection. 

You’re also entirely at the mercy of the ATC audio service provider. Apps and websites prioritize airports and regions that have lots of demand from listeners. Smaller and less popular airports are often not included in their coverage.

LiveATC, in particular, relies primarily on volunteers using spare radio equipment, so areas short of hobbyists are out of luck.

A screenshot of the LiveATC coverage map.

As you can see from the map, LiveATC’s coverage across Africa and Asia is somewhat sparse. 

There’s also a notable coverage hole over the United Kingdom. UK law currently prohibits listening to all transmissions that aren’t expressly intended for broadcast to the general public. 

As of this writing in November 2023, local laws also restrict streams in Belgium, Germany, Iceland, India, Italy, New Zealand, and Spain.

There aren’t any restrictions on using your own radio scanner, though, and ATC transmissions are not encrypted. They’re open and free for anyone to receive. You may even receive frequencies that LiveATC isn’t streaming for your location.

The downside is that you’d need to spend money to buy a scanner and then learn how to operate it. Radio scanners are also heavily limited by range, only allowing access to ATC communications local to you.

You’ll also need to carry the physical device with you wherever you go, whereas the website is available from any place with an internet connection.


Using the LiveATC service is very easy. You don’t need to make an account or subscribe, and you can access the website on any smartphone or computer.

Here’s how.

Step 1

Go to and look for the search box labeled “Airport / ARTCC Code” on the top left.

You’ll need to know the code for the airport you want to listen to.

A screenshot of the LiveATC website with the Airport/ARTCC Code section highlighted.

So, what are airport codes?

Most airports have an identifier code given to them by the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) and the International Air Transport Association (IATA).

IATA codes consist of three letters, such as ORD for O’Hare airport in Chicago. 

ICAO codes have four characters and are usually (but not always!) the same as the corresponding IATA codes, with an extra letter in the beginning for the country. In the US, this letter is (almost) always “K”. O’Hare’s ICAO code is KORD, for example.

Okay, back to business.

Enter the ICAO or IATA code for the airport you’re looking for and press the search button. If you don’t know the code for your airport, you can look it up at the FAA’s airport database.

A screenshot of the LiveATC website with the Airport/ARTCC Code section highlighted. KORD is in the input box.

Alternatively, just use the box labeled “Site-wide search” on LiveATC.

During cruise flight, aircraft are in contact with ATC centers that cover large areas. These are known as Air Route Traffic Control Centers (ARTCCs) in the US. 

If you want to listen to these frequencies, you need an ARTCC code instead. The FAA lists them here.

Step 2

Select the channel that’s streaming the frequency you’re looking for.

This is what the search result for O’Hare looks like. The gray box has the airport information and current weather data. Available frequencies are listed below.

A screenshot of the LiveATC website with the airport frequencies section highlighted.

For some stations, the website groups a bunch of frequencies together into one audio stream. You’ll see this in cases where there are either a lot of frequencies at a major airport or LiveATC doesn’t have enough sources available in the area to assign separate frequencies to each one.

Step 3

Press the green ‘Listen’ button to start the audio stream in a new window.

A screenshot of the LiveATC website with the Airport/ARTCC Code section highlighted. An arrow points to the listen button.
A screenshot of the LiveATC website listening interface.

Pressing the play button starts the stream. The sound graph shows if there’s an active transmission.

The frequency is kept clear unless someone needs to talk, so don’t worry if you don’t hear anything for a while. Wait for a bit, or switch to a more active frequency.

Also, consider the current time at the airport you’re listening to. Many airports shut down operations at night.

Channels with engaging content typically draw in more listeners. Go to this page for a list of the current Top 50 most popular feeds on LiveATC.

A screenshot of the LiveATC website with the top 50 frequencies listed.

Mobile Apps

LiveATC also offers an app for your iOS or Android device for listening on the go. They don’t require a subscription, just a one-time fee of $4 to purchase the app.

The app is even more straightforward than the website.

A screenshot of the LiveATC app.

There’s no difference in content between the app and the website. You’re free to use the website even on your phone, but it’s a bit harder to navigate through the website on a small screen.

The app offers large buttons and a simplified interface that provides a better experience on mobile devices. 

Using the app also allows you to leave the audio running in the background, so you can use other apps or turn the screen off while listening.

Listening to ATC Using a Radio

A photo of a handheld and fixed radio.

If you’re only interested in listening to local traffic, a handheld receiver is a viable option. It frees you from being tied down to a reliable internet connection and allows you to operate in areas outside of LiveATC’s coverage. 

Expect the range to be limited to roughly 30 miles. You will also need to be within line-of-sight of the ATC tower. This means that buildings, terrain, and weather will block signals, so consider your environment before going this route. 

If you live in a mountain range, a radio receiver likely won’t work.

Most handheld scanners operate similarly to a standard AM/FM radio. They are designed to receive, but not transmit, signals. 

If you are familiar with using traditional radios, you’ll find many similarities in operating a scanner.

In contrast, a full aviation radio set is called an aviation transceiver since it can transmit and receive signals. 

They’re significantly more expensive than simple scanners and require a Restricted Radiotelephone Operator Permit to use legally.

The learning curve for handheld receivers is not as steep as you might expect, but even basic receivers have a hefty upfront cost. Decent handheld receivers start at around $100 to $150.

How to Listen to Past ATC Recordings

Heard something interesting or missed a significant incident?

LiveATC records nearly all frequencies and lets you play them back. You can access recordings by clicking the ATC Audio Archives link in the sidebar on the left side of the home page.

A screenshot of the LiveATC website with the ATC Audio Archives button highlighted.

Here’s how you can find a past recording.

Step 1

Set the calendar to the date you want to listen to and pick the time from the dropdown menu.

A screenshot of the LiveATC website on the ATC Audio Archives page.

Keep in mind that the website uses Coordinated Universal Time (UTC), so you’ll have to convert the local time at the station to UTC.

A simple Google search is the easiest way to find UTC time. 

Search for “[Local time] [City] time to UTC”.

For example, to convert 2 pm Phoenix time to UTC, search “2 pm Phoenix time to UTC.”

A screenshot of a google search converting 2 pm Phoenix time to UTC.

Step 2

Select the feed you’re looking for from the dropdown menu. It’s ordered by ICAO code, so you’ll need to know the designator for your airport.

A screenshot of the LiveATC website on the ATC Audio Archives page.

An alternate way to do this is to search for the airport using the website’s normal search function and open up the airport page.

Every feed listed on the page has its own Archive Access link just above it. Clicking that link brings you to the archive page with the feed already preselected.

A screenshot of the LiveATC website with the Archive Access section highlighted.

LiveATC offers playback for conversations up to a year old for a fee.

How to Find ATC Frequencies

While LiveATC has a list of channels, you’ll need to find the right frequency if you’re using a radio.

You can use the FAA’s own database or other free websites like SkyVector.

First, let’s look at how to use the FAA’s database.

  1. First, find the ICAO designator for the airport. You can use the FAA’s Airport Facility Directory for this step.
A screenshot of the FAA Airport/Facility Directory page.
  1. Next, find the frequency. The FAA’s Aeronautical Information Service (AIS) offers free and comprehensive airport data with a search tool that you can access here.
  1. Open the search tool, enter the airport designator into the box, and press “Lookup.”
A screenshot of the FAA Airport Data page.
  1. Scroll down to the communications section to get a list of frequencies available for the airport.

Here’s an example for Prescott Regional Airport (KPRC).

A screenshot of a list of frequencies on the FAA Airport Facility Directory page.

Alternatively, you can use the SkyVector website.

  1. Look for the search box on the top left of the home page and enter the ICAO designator for your airport. Hit enter.
A screenshot of the SkyVector website.
  1. The map view will center on the airport. Right-click on the airport and click on the airport’s name.
A screenshot of the SkyVector website.
  1. Scroll to the Airport Communications section to find the frequencies.
A screenshot of the SkyVector website.

How to Understand ATC Communications

Now that you know how to listen to live ATC conversations, your next challenge is understanding what they’re saying.

Choose an Easier Frequency

Transmissions between controllers and pilots in busy sectors are fast-paced and complex. LiveATC channels with multiple frequencies sometimes have overlapping transmissions. Quieter channels make it easier to keep up with individual aircraft.

If your local airport is small, it might be uncontrolled. At uncontrolled airports, pilots talk to each other on a Common Traffic Advisory Frequency (CTAF). The conversation here tends to be slightly more informal and less complex.

As a beginner, try listening to controlled airports that have relatively low traffic, such as Boeing Field or San Antonio International.

Find Terminology

When you come across an unfamiliar term, look it up on Google. Be careful, though, since the FAA sometimes uses different phraseology and definitions compared to their international counterparts.

For conversations in the US, have a look at the FAA’s Pilot/Controller Glossary to help figure out what they’re saying.

The FAA’s Aeronautical Information Manual (AIM) has a chapter dedicated to Radio Phraseology. It offers guidance on phraseology and standard aviation language. It also explains the phonetic alphabet that pilots and Air Traffic Controllers use.

Use these resources to create a “cheat sheet” of some of the difficult terms until you get used to them.

Using Charts

You can also use charts and maps to add a visual dimension to what you’re hearing. 

ATC transmissions frequently reference navigational aids (NAVAIDs), airways, and waypoints that aren’t found in conventional maps.

Use Enroute Charts to look at airways and airspace structures between airports. Terminal Area Charts (TACs) and Instrument Approach Procedure (IAP) Charts can also help you understand approach and departure routes. Airport Diagrams make taxi instructions and airport ground operations understandable.

SkyVector is the easiest way to access this information in the US.

A screenshot of the SkyVector website.

You can also use the FAA’s Information Gateway.

Using Flight Trackers

Live flight trackers such as Flightradar24 or FlightAware show the current position of aircraft on a map. They also label each flight with its callsign. That’s the same callsign you hear on the frequency.

Most flight trackers feature a search box on the home page. Search for an airport, flight number, or aircraft you’re interested in.

A screenshot of the FlightRadar24 website.

Match the aircraft on the map with the instructions ATC gives to each callsign and observe how the aircraft’s flight path reacts to them.

Flight trackers also list aircraft speed, heading, and altitude information. This lets you see altitude adjustments or speed changes.

A screenshot of the FlightRadar24 website.

Like LiveATC, some flight trackers feature historical data, too. You can use this while listening to the audio archive to understand an incident or follow an unusual flight pattern.


Whether you’re a student pilot or simply curious about aircraft, tuning into ATC frequencies provides real-time insights into the operational side of aviation.

One of the most common ATC instructions you’ll hear is related to a “Squawk Code.” If you’d like to learn more, look at our article on Squawk Codes.

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