Many pilots who are not native English speakers have a hard time when they start flying in the U.S. because of the pace and sometimes elaborate instructions given to pilots by controllers.

The advice given by instructors is to tell the controller that you're a student pilot, even though you may be a fully licensed (private) pilot. The effect should be that the controller will be more lenient towards the pilot and speak slower.

I would first of all like to know if it is legal to tell a controller that you're a student pilot even if you're not (I know, all pilots should see themselves as students for the rest of their life, but that's another topic).

Also, isn't there a chance that you'd get refused entry in class B airspace because you're announcing that you're a student pilot?

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    $\begingroup$ My gut says "yes, it's legal; no, you won't be refused entry for that reason", but this is a weird one, and my gut also says "this is a weird solution to a language problem that should be solved in other ways, and you shouldn't do it". $\endgroup$
    – egid
    Commented Dec 22, 2013 at 20:20
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    $\begingroup$ One of the "Other Ways" I'd recommend: Put in some time as a VATSIM Air Traffic Controller. You'll be on the "wrong side of the mic", but you'll get to talk to a lot of pilots and practice both your English and standard ATC phraseology. I can also heartily recommend reading the AvWeb Say Again? column archives -just for the "inside look" at the ATC system. $\endgroup$
    – voretaq7
    Commented Dec 22, 2013 at 21:08
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    $\begingroup$ I would also fly (non-SIC) right seat with someone else, and handle the radios on every flight. That way you can get lots of radio time, but without the added burden of PIC/sole manipulator. $\endgroup$
    – rbp
    Commented Jan 24, 2015 at 14:25
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    $\begingroup$ @voretaq7 The URL you gave in your comment might be 404 and perhaps you should want to replace it with vatsim.net/air-traffic-control $\endgroup$
    – ChrisW
    Commented Jan 24, 2015 at 15:48
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    $\begingroup$ Not as good as @voretaq7 's suggestion, but still complementary: You may listen to live ATC feeds. $\endgroup$
    – mins
    Commented Jun 8, 2016 at 22:53

9 Answers 9


It's a bad idea to give false information to a controller as a matter of practice. Instead of calling yourself a student when you're not, it would be better to say you're unfamiliar with the area or that your English is not perfect.

Controllers are almost always accommodating to less-than-proficient pilots and will usually make allowances whenever time and traffic permits.

If your English is not good, be sure and use simple, direct phraseology. Read the AIM to become familiar with the common phrases used with ATC. Even something as simple as hearing "radar identified" in Canada instead of the usual U.S. phrase "radar contact" has caused many a native English speaker to reply "say again?"

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    $\begingroup$ Yes. This. This is the best answer possible, having taught students for whom English was not their primary language. Controllers want to help. Very, very rarely have I interacted with ATC in a way that did not make that clear. Tell them what you need from them, even if it's simpler or slower phraseology, and they will almost all do what they can. $\endgroup$
    – egid
    Commented Dec 22, 2013 at 22:56
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    $\begingroup$ Just repeat "Say again" or "Can you please spell that identifier?" until you have it. Don't be embarrassed about it if you don't understand -- your life may depend on it. They are as interested in getting you the message as you are in receiving it, so once they understand the they're not getting through, they'll slow down. $\endgroup$
    – xpda
    Commented Dec 23, 2013 at 1:23
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    $\begingroup$ Yeah, for some reason in Belgium VOR waypoints are not spelled out. They mostly use their "real" name like Gosly for "GSY" in Charleroi, Costa for "COA" near the coast or Nikki for "NIK" near Antwerp. I could go on. Very confusing because these waypoints are only depicted by their 3-letter identifier on charts. $\endgroup$ Commented Dec 23, 2013 at 2:06
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    $\begingroup$ @PhilippeLeybaert ATC in the US does basically the same thing, though at least our charts have both the name and the identifier on them. $\endgroup$
    – voretaq7
    Commented Dec 28, 2013 at 5:51
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    $\begingroup$ @PhilippeLeybaert when you can't keep up with the controller say, "SPEAK SLOWER". See my answer. $\endgroup$ Commented Jun 8, 2016 at 17:04

Is it legal? Sure. As others have pointed out it's also pretty darn honest!

I'm a private pilot. I'm also a student pilot, working on my instrument rating.

When I'm done with that I'll probably work on a complex endorsement and a commercial rating, maybe even a CFI if I get ambitious, and a tailwheel endorsement is on my list.

If I can find a rich benefactor to pay for it a multi-engine rating or even a seaplane rating would be fun to pursue. And I'll sell my soul for a DC-3 type rating.

Even if I collect all the ratings I want I would still go up every month or so with an instructor just to kick around and drill stuff that I wouldn't normally do, and I work through phases of the FAA WINGS program, which is certainly designed as a training/learning experience.

Might a controller deny you clearance into specific airspace if you tell them you're a student? Sure.
But they might deny you the clearance anyway - maybe they're busy, or maybe they're just in a bad mood.

Does it matter?
I don't think so. I identified myself as a student pilot maybe five times in my flight training, all while doing required "supervised solo" work at the local airport.
In my case I've always been comfortable with radio communication, so it wasn't an issue from that standpoint, and I've never felt that I needed any "extra patience" from ATC - they tend to be a very patient lot, even when I screw up (a few legendary local grouches aside).

On the ATC Frequency, no one knows you're a dog...er, student

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    $\begingroup$ I can't agree that a "student pilot" is one who has a private certificate but is working on another rating or commercial, based on law.cornell.edu/cfr/text/14/part-61/subpart-C . It is a misrepresentation of the responsibilities and privileges of your certificate. Imagine what would happen if g-forbid you had an emergency, and then said "three souls," when its illegal for you to carry pax?There is other phraseology which will convey the difficulty you are having without misrepresentation, and that would be "unfamiliar" and to do a radio check. $\endgroup$
    – rbp
    Commented Jan 24, 2015 at 14:31
  • $\begingroup$ @rbp Are you sure its legal to carry passengers on an IFR (training) flight plan while not an IFR rated pilot? I can't find a FAR on it right now but I'm guessing the answer is no... $\endgroup$
    – Ron Beyer
    Commented Jan 29, 2016 at 14:52
  • $\begingroup$ who said IFR??? $\endgroup$
    – rbp
    Commented Jan 29, 2016 at 14:55
  • $\begingroup$ @RonBeyer I'd say you can: The answer would be closely related to whether you can legally file IFR without an instrument rating: If you can't then either (a) you're operating a VFR flight and not a "student pilot" in the part 61 sense - you're a private pilot acting as PIC; or (b) In IMC your instructor is onboard, their name is on the flight plan, and they're legally PIC "final authority and responsibility for the operation and safety of the flight" even though the instrument student is likely "sole manipulator of the flight controls". $\endgroup$
    – voretaq7
    Commented Jan 29, 2016 at 19:20
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    $\begingroup$ @JScarry Try acting as PIC without having had a BFR in the past two years and claiming that it's okay because an instructor signed you off for solo flight. You cannot both hold a PPL and follow the regulations for student pilots. Really. The regulations say so and the FAA says so. If you choose to do so, you had better be able to find other regulations that allow everything you do. $\endgroup$ Commented Apr 24, 2017 at 17:05

An experienced ATC controller giving my flying club a presentation suggested that as you said, we're all students, since we are always learning.

His recommendation is to say 'student pilot' whenever we feel like we need extra patience and clarity regardless of how long we've had our PPL.

That said, I wouldn't over use it unless I really felt like I needed some extra patience, especially in a class B.

  • $\begingroup$ Nice answer based on real-world input-- $\endgroup$ Commented Aug 15, 2023 at 21:27

There is always more that can be added to a topic, I'm answering late here, but there is one thing that no one has pointed out to my unpleasant surprise.

The Pilot/Controller Glossary!

The asker's question says: (My emphasis)

The effect [of declaring that you are a student pilot] should be that the controller will be more lenient towards the pilot and speak slower.

Alright folks... pull out your FAR/AIM and flip on to the back where the pilot/controller glossary is and find the bolded terminology "SPEAK SLOWER."

The bottom of this page in this .pdf file of the pilot/controller glossary is the term.

SPEAK SLOWER. Used in verbal communications as a request to reduce speech rate.

The AIM 4-2-4 says:

c. Student Pilots Radio Identification -

  1. The FAA desires to help student pilots in acquiring sufficient practical experience in the environment in which they will be required to operate. To receive additional assistance while operating in areas of concentrated air traffic, student pilots need only identify themselves as a student pilot during their initial call to an FAA radio facility.



  1. This special identification will alert FAA ATC personnel and enable them to provide student pilots with such extra assistance and consideration as they may need. This procedure is not mandatory.

My answer here is, yes; it is legal to say you are a student pilot even if you aren't, but why do that when you can say, "English isn't my first language. Could you please SPEAK SLOWER for me?"

Also: no, ATC would not deny you entry into class B for saying you're a student. They may follow-up by asking if you have the required endorsements from your instructor to enter class B. Then, if you tell them you aren't actually a student, you may just get on their nerves.

Controllers are human, just tell them what your needs are and they will help you. Read the pilot/controller glossary.

Another bolded term in the pilot/controller glossary for those who may need extra assistance in communication is "WORDS TWICE."


a. As a request: “Communication is difficult. Please say every phrase twice.”

b. As information: “Since communications are difficult, every phrase in this message will be spoken twice.”

So to add to the above, "English isn't my first language. I request that you SPEAK SLOWER and say WORDS TWICE for me."

  • $\begingroup$ I would like to emphasize; technically legal since I am not aware of any explicit rule that says otherwise, but strongly not recommended. $\endgroup$ Commented Apr 25, 2017 at 0:02

The answer to your question can be found in 91.123:

§ 91.123 Compliance with ATC clearances and instructions.

(a) When an ATC clearance has been obtained, no pilot in command may deviate from that clearance unless an amended clearance is obtained, an emergency exists, or the deviation is in response to a traffic alert and collision avoidance system resolution advisory. However, except in Class A airspace, a pilot may cancel an IFR flight plan if the operation is being conducted in VFR weather conditions. When a pilot is uncertain of an ATC clearance, that pilot shall immediately request clarification from ATC.

Telling the controller you are a student pilot when you are not is not an acceptable way to "immediately request clarification" from ATC when you are uncertain of your clearance.

Imagine you're a JAL pilot flying a 777 into JFK and you have a problem understanding the controller from Queens. Would it be acceptable to say "Student Pilot?" Of course not, because its a lie, and its still a lie if you're banging around in a 152 under part 91 holding a private pilots license (or better).


I am guilty of suggesting to students that if they get into trouble while flying to say "student pilot" because that always gets them kid glove treatment. Controllers can be great. The problem is that over the years I have seen pilots investigated for a variety of things, and it doesn't look good when you misrepresent yourself to ATC. Review boards don't like pilots misstating facts.

So my opinion has changed.

Perhaps "unfamiliar with airport" or some similar phrase might be better.

Addendum #1

I have a new opinion on this matter. After discussing it informally with an FAA attorney, he suggested that a private pilot using the terms "student pilot" could be good cause for a 709 ride, since it is an admission that they lacked the skills to exercise the privileges of the certificate they held. FWIW, that FAA counsel is also a CFI-AI, and understand well practical issues of getting help at a strange airport.

So my current take is to never use the term "student pilot" except prior to holding a certificate higher than a student pilot certificate. In other words, don't misrepresent yourself.

  • $\begingroup$ How does saying that you are "unfamiliar with [the] airport" prompt the controller to speak more slowly, as OP wanted to begin with? $\endgroup$
    – user
    Commented Jun 9, 2017 at 12:39
  • $\begingroup$ "Speak slowly please" works in my circles. Saying "Student Pilot" misrepresents your status. Just landed at DCA, and I tell the controller, "Student Pilot" doesn't work well. $\endgroup$
    – mongo
    Commented Jun 9, 2017 at 13:06

This is probably technically a crime under 18 U.S. Code § 1001:

whoever, in any matter within the jurisdiction of the executive, legislative, or judicial branch of the Government of the United States, knowingly and willfully [...] makes any materially false, fictitious, or fraudulent statement or representation [...] shall be fined under this title, imprisoned not more than 5 years [...] or both

Air Traffic Control is a matter within the jurisdiction of the executive branch. People have been convicted under 18 U.S. Code § 1001 for lying to the FAA before. Are you likely to be sent to prison for claiming to be a student pilot when you are not? Probably not. But it's one more reason besides the common sense "lying is bad" and "why would you lie when you can just ask ATC to speak slower?" to avoid lying to ATC.

You certainly may be declined access to certain class B airspace if you identify yourself as a student pilot. While students can receive an endorsement to operate in class B airspace, certain airports are wholesale forbidden to solo student pilots regardless of endorsement. Currently these airports are KATL, KBOS, KADW, KORD, KDFW, KLAX, KMIA, KEWR, KJFK, KLGA, KSFO, and KDCA. Of course, if you are uncomfortable enough with ATC communications to consider identifying yourself as a student pilot, you probably should stay out of class B airspace to begin with.

Additionally, you will not be offered a LAHSO clearance. If you are carrying passengers and you have an emergency, it may create communications issues. Since you've lied and told them you were solo they may or may not ask how many people are aboard. You will need to retract your statement about being solo, and I don't think the FAA would be impressed if/when they investigate.

  • $\begingroup$ "Student pilot" and "student solo" are not synonyms, though. At least I don't think so...? $\endgroup$
    – randomhead
    Commented Aug 15, 2023 at 22:22
  • $\begingroup$ @randomhead Maybe? I don't think people normally identify themselves as a student pilot when they have a CFI on board. The LAHSO order says "When pilots identify themselves as a solo student pilot, that pilot must not be issued a LAHSO clearance." But the phraseology given in the AIM is just "student pilot," not "solo student pilot" or "student pilot with CFI." I assumed the solo was implied. $\endgroup$
    – Chris
    Commented Aug 16, 2023 at 0:10

If you have a private pilot's license, but you are inexperienced flying into busy airports, just ask the controller to speak slower or repeat the instructions (e.g., "say again, speak slower")

Don't be afraid to tell the controller that you are inexperienced and absolutely ask for clarification of any information or instructions you are given if you don't fully understand what is being said.

There is no need to falsely state that you are a "student" pilot. Remember, you're not the only inexperienced pilot who the controller has had to provide a bit more consideration to. It is far better that you fully understand what the controller is saying rather than operating contrary to what is expected of you just because you are hesitant to tell the controller you are a new or inexperienced pilot.

It is absolutely ok to ask for an instruction to be repeated or spoken more slowly.


There is a legitimate term for a novice pilot that is not a student, and the term is TYRO. You would use it as a prefix in the same way you would STUDENT.

I've encountered it in the UK, but it's not common even there. I don't know if ATC would recognize it. It has military origins.

For more info see: What is the origin of the term "Tyro" for inexperienced pilots?


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