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New flyer here. When you’re requesting departure clearance for a cross-country VFR, do you have to specify the destination airport to the controller, or can you just specify a direction (eg. “VFR to the south”)?

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Just say direction of flight.

If they need more info, they'll ask:

N12345: Say destination.

I've almost never heard that, except if they think you might be headed towards weather or a TFR.

Examples:

Understand you're headed to the south. Be aware of Stadium TFR in effect.

or

Understand you're headed to the south; have had reports of severe weather in that direction.

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If you request flight following when you call Clearance, they will generally want to know which direction you're heading. Furthermore, filing a flight plan is always a smart and safe thing to do -- these certainly require destinations, among other details.

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For VFR flight at least in the US, you don't need departure clearance. You can choose to get flight following though for safer flight, and in that case you're supposed to give ATC basic information including your callsign, altitude, and destination.

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  • $\begingroup$ At the Class C airports I fly out of (and some larger Class D, like Van Nuys) you need to call Clearance Delivery for a departure clearance. It’s usually a simple clearance, something like ”fly runway heading, remain below 2,500'’ but it is different than departing smaller Class D airports. $\endgroup$ – JScarry Oct 6 '17 at 14:50
  • $\begingroup$ @abelenky a departure clearance is different than a takeoff clearance. One is for the airspace (Class B) the other for the runway. $\endgroup$ – Steve Kuo Oct 6 '17 at 16:07

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