A merchant ship, merchant vessel, trading vessel, or merchantman is a watercraft that transports cargo or carries passengers for hire. This is in contrast to pleasure craft, which are used for personal recreation, and naval ships, which are used for military purposes.
They come in a myriad of sizes and shapes, from twenty-foot inflatable dive boats in Hawaii, to 5,000 passenger casino vessels on the Mississippi River, to tugboats plying New York Harbor, to 1,000 foot oil tankers and container ships at major ports, to a passenger carrying submarine in the U.S. Virgin Islands.
Most countries of the world operate fleets of merchant ships. However, due to the high costs of operations, today these fleets are in many cases sailing under the flags of nations that specialize in providing manpower and services at favourable terms. Such flags are known as "flags of convenience". Currently, Liberia and Panama are particularly favoured. Ownership of the vessels can be by any country, however.
The Greek-owned fleet is the largest in the world. Today, the Greek fleet accounts for some 16 per cent of the world’s tonnage; this makes it currently the largest single international merchant fleet in the world, albeit not the largest in history.
During wars, merchant ships may be used as auxiliaries to the navies of their respective countries, and are called upon to deliver military personnel and materiel.