A principal aim of the IHO is to ensure that the world’s seas, oceans and navigable waters are properly surveyed and charted. It does this through the setting of international standards, the co-ordination of the endeavours of the world's national hydrographic offices, and through its capacity building programme.
The IHO enjoys observer status at the United Nations where it is the recognised competent authority on hydrographic surveying and nautical charting. When referring to hydrography and nautical charting in Conventions and similar Instruments, it is the IHO standards and specifications that are normally used.
The IHO was established in 1921 as the International Hydrographic Bureau (IHB). The present name was adopted in 1970 as part of a new international Convention on the IHO adopted by the then member nations. The former name International Hydrographic Bureau was retained to describe the IHO secretariat until 8 November 2016, when a revision to the Convention on the IHO entered into force. Thereafter the IHB became known as the "IHO Secretariat", comprising an elected Secretary-General and two supporting Directors, together with a small staff of 17, at the Organization's headquarters in Monaco.
During the 19th century, many maritime nations established hydrographic offices to provide means for improving the navigation of naval and merchant vessels by providing nautical publications, nautical charts, and other navigational services. There were substantial differences in hydrographic procedures charts, and publications. In 1889, an International Maritime Conference was held at Washington, D.C., and it was proposed to establish a "permanent international commission." Similar proposals were made at the sessions of the International Congress of Navigation held at Saint Petersburg in 1908 and the International Maritime Conference held at Saint Petersburg in 1912.
In 1919 the hydrographers of Great Britain and France cooperated in taking the necessary steps to convene an international conference of hydrographers. London was selected as the most suitable place for this conference, and on 24 July 1919, the First International Conference opened, attended by the hydrographers of 24 nations. The object of the conference was "To consider the advisability of all maritime nations adopting similar methods in preparation, construction, and production of their charts and all hydrographic publications; of rendering the results in the most convenient form to enable them to be readily used; of instituting a prompt system of mutual exchange of hydrographic information between all countries; and of providing an opportunity to consultations and discussions to be carried out on hydrographic subjects generally by the hydrographic experts of the world." This is still the major purpose of the IHO.