When you first start flying, one of the most challenging concepts to pin down is the difference between IFR vs VFR.
VFR stands for Visual Flight Rules, and IFR stands for Instrument Flight Rules. VFR and IFR are the two different sets of rules for piloting an aircraft.
Pilots use these terms in all sorts of ways, from the type of airplane they’re operating to the weather at the airport.
Here’s a breakdown of exactly what these terms mean and why they’re such an important part of flying.
The Origins of VFR and IFR
Both terms come from the FARs (Federal Aviation Regulations).
VFR refers to the parts of the regulations that deal with flying visually. They are the “visual flight rules.”
And logically, IFR regulations are those dealing with “instrument flight rules.”
These sets of regulations, found in FAR Part 91, layout the basics for ways you can operate an aircraft.
You can do it visually by looking out the window and seeing and avoiding traffic. Or, with the right equipment and training, you can do it by reference to the instruments.
What do the Terms VFR & IFR Mean?
But understanding what these two terms mean goes beyond understanding these basic definitions or even the regulations behind them. Pilots use these words in daily conversation to mean a few different things.
First off, they use VFR and IFR to describe the sort of flying a pilot can do.
All students start out flying visual flight rules—that’s the only one private pilots can do. Later, your instrument rating gives you the ability to start operating under instrument flight rules.
Even an instrument-rated pilot might decide to go on a VFR flight. You see, being an instrument pilot doesn’t mean that you will always fly IFR—it just means you have the option if you want or need to.
These two terms encompass not only specific regulations but also styles of flying. VFR flying is more informal compared to IFR.
For example, if you operate at a non-towered airport and fly a plane without a radio, it’s possible to operate VFR without talking to anyone (though you may want to consider buying a handheld aviation radio to keep on you in flight).
Under visual flight rules, you can fly pretty much anywhere you like, so long as you avoid controlled airspace, stay out of the clouds, and abide by cloud clearance requirements depending on which airspace you are in. (If you need a refresher on airspace, check out our guide on airspace classes).
If you want to go sightseeing and fly in circles—go ahead. You don’t even have to file a VFR flight plan, although it’s a good idea to do so.
Instrument flying is the complete opposite—everything you do is planned in advance and approved by air traffic controllers.
You must file an IFR flight plan—and what’s more, you must receive permission to do absolutely everything. That permission is called a clearance.
Even aircraft can be described as VFR or IFR. Of course, instrument flying requires more equipment.
If all of the requirements are met, the aircraft is said to be “IFR-certified.” If it doesn’t meet those requirements, it might be called “VFR-only.”
Visual Flight Rules Operating Requirements
Any pilot with a private pilot’s license may use VFR to fly. It’s the base set of rules a pilot is taught to fly with.
However, this means there are many situations where a pilot can’t use VFR.
While it might sound more restrictive at first, IFR flying is actually the removal of restrictions.
In a careful review of the VFR and IFR regulations found in Part 91, you won’t find any limits to where or when an IFR pilot can operate. In contrast, limitations on VFR pilots abound.
VFR Pilot Restrictions
First and foremost, VFR pilots must maintain the ability to fly visually. They cannot operate in clouds or low visibility.
They cannot operate too closely to clouds, either, since there might be fast-moving IFR aircraft going in and out of those clouds.
The specific requirements vary depending on the class of airspace and the altitude at which a pilot is operating. But generally, VFR pilots must stay at least 500 feet below, 1,000 feet above, or 2,000 feet horizontally from all clouds. They also can seldom operate in visibilities less than three statute miles, although there are a few exceptions.
Likewise, if a VFR pilot wants to enter some classes of airspace, they will need to call for special permission.
This isn’t to say that permission is difficult to receive. It’s just a step in the process that an IFR pilot doesn’t need to worry about.
If an IFR pilot is flying on a clearance, they are already following the directions of an air traffic controller.
As a result, they don’t need specific permission to enter various airspaces along their flight route because they have it in advance.
One final note—only IFR flights are allowed in Class A airspace. Class A is everywhere at high altitudes, so anywhere over the United States above 18,000 feet MSL (FL180).
Weather and VFR/IFR
Of course, at their core, these terms are based on the weather. So it only makes sense that weather reports and forecasts for pilots would also use them.
On weather charts, the conditions can be categorized as either VFR, MVFR (marginal VFR), IFR, or LIFR (low IFR).
- VFR means that ceilings are more than 3,000 feet AGL and the visibility is more than 5 statute miles (SM)
- MVFR means that ceilings are between 1,000 and 3,000 feet AGL or the visibility is between 3 and 5 SM
- IFR means that the ceiling is less than 1,000 feet AGL or the visibility is less than 3 SM
- LIFR means that the ceiling is less than 500 feet AGL or the visibility is less than 1 SM
Need to fly through Class A airspace? Use IFR.
The area where you’re flying is dusty or foggy? Use IFR.
Flying through a cloud? Yes, you’d use IFR there too.
Which is Better, IFR vs VFR Flying?
The answer to this question depends on who you ask—and when!
Airline pilots spend their entire careers operating under IFR.
They don’t worry about minimum visibility requirements or how close they are to clouds. With few exceptions, they never think about asking permission to enter the airspace.
Once they’ve planned and been cleared for a route, it’s pretty cut and dry. They just do what they’re told to do.
On the other hand, plenty of pilots enjoy the freedom of old-world VFR flying.
You can take off, squawk 1200, and do your own thing. It’s a great way to travel, and when the weather’s good, it can feel more fun and laid-back than the officialness of an IFR flight plan.
There’s no permission to request and no one to tell you what to do. In some ways, it’s like hopping in the car and going for a scenic drive.
The truth is that they’re both pretty amazing, but at different times.
When the weather is good, and you’re flying in your own neighborhood, nothing beats a simple and fun VFR flight.
But when you’re traveling in new parts of the world, making long cross countries, or if the weather is a little low, the peace of mind and security that comes from being on an IFR clearance is hard to beat!