A ferry is a vessel used to transport passengers and/or vehicles across a body of water on a regular, frequent basis. Ferries can range from small boats carrying passengers across a harbour, lake or river, to large sea-going ships carrying passengers, cars, trucks and other heavy cargo across longer distances where overnight sleeping accommodations are required.

Generally, the following are not included in the definition of “Ferries”:

  • Vessels that do not operate on a regular schedule
  • Vessels that normally carry only unaccompanied freight vehicles, e.g. RoRo freight vessels
  • Vessels that operate on routes greater than 48 hours in duration, e.g. cruise ships
  • Vessels whose main purpose is not the transport of passengers/vehicles from point A to point B, e.g. cruise ships


The global ferry industry is similar in size to the commercial airline industry, transporting approximately 4.27 billion passengers per year, plus 373 million vehicles (including cars, buses and trailers).


The ferry industry, like the shipping industry in general, is heavily regulated in terms of safety, environmental impact and security. The International Maritime Organization (IMO) is the United Nations body responsible for establishing regulations for international shipping. Ships that operate solely within the confines of one nation are regulated by that nation. However, many countries base their domestic regulations on the IMO standards. Some nations adopt the IMO rules completely for their domestic ships.

Shipping regulations generally cover vessel design, construction, repair, operations, staffing, training, environmental impact, security and regular inspections throughout a vessel’s life. Inspections include stability, hulls, propulsion and other machinery, electrical systems, lifesaving appliances and arrangements, fire prevention and firefighting systems, navigation systems and communications systems.


A system of comprehensive and practical regulations, together with effective enforcement, has resulted in ferry transport being one of the safest modes of transport in most parts of the world. However, accidents do happen and a critical part of a safety system is to ensure that the lessons of accidents are well documented and disseminated. This requires thorough procedures for accident investigation. The lessons need to be communicated to both operators and regulators so prevention and response can be continuously improved.

There are parts of the world, particularly Asia and Africa, where ferry safety requires improvement. There are countries like Bangladesh, Indonesia and the Philippines that have large populations that depend on ferries as one of their primary modes of transport. Interferry has created a Domestic Safety Committee whose mandate is to focus on assisting developing nations to improve their safety practices.