There are many types of radios available to consumers, each has different capabilities, ranges, and restrictions. I’ve put together a brief listing and comparison of the most common classes of radios. All of the information presented here is based on my past use or knowledge of each time of radio, but I’m not a lawyer. This information is presented for your convenience, but I do not take any legal responsibly for what is presented here.
All of these radios are covered by a rule of “common courtesy”. If you use one a transmitter (even if you are entitled to do so) to intentionally interfere with another valid user, you are breaking the law and potentially opening yourself up to large fines or jail time from the FCC.
FRS (Family Radio Service)
FRS radios are easily purchased at your local electronics or department stores. These radios are often marketed as having a range of 10s of miles. These ranges are unrealistic in almost every single real world use scenario. A much more realistic range is a couple of miles in an open area, and up to a mile in an urban environment. In buildings, you can expect even less. These radios use set frequencies, and are easily monitored. The privacy codes that are built into many of these radios are not encryption and provide no privacy. FRS radios are channelized, limiting the frequencies you can use. Many FRS radios also contain GMRS channels, but you can’t legally use these without obtaining a license from the FCC. Like GMRS and CBs, it’s illegal to modify these radios to increase their transmitting power or frequencies.
- Cheap (often $50 or less)
- No license is required to operate these radios
- May be used to business use, but shouldn’t be used where sensitive information may be transmitted like doctor offices and security guards
- Some radios can be hand crank operated during an emergency
- Very limited range
- Crowded frequencies in high density environments, such as malls, fairs, urban environments, etc
Trisquare radios are a bit of an anomaly. Based on the unlicensed 900mhz band (think 900mhz cell phones and other electronics), they use a combination of digital technology and fast frequency hopping to permit mostly secure two way communication. They also can send text messages, much like a 0-9 key interface like a cell phone. They have the same range limitations of FRS. They can also be monitored at close range using an expensive near field monitor. As of 2011, the manufacturer went out of business.
- Cost (about $100 for a pair)
- Difficult to monitor
- Unlicensed, anyone can use them for any purpose
- Certain models can send text messages
- Proprietary standard, currently only works with other Trisquare radios
- Low power, limited range (marketed as having the same range as FRS radios)
- Currently not being manufactured
- Because each radio must start on the same channel for the frequency hopping to work, it’s possible (though unlikely) that something could cause the radios to get out of sync. This would be bad if you are relying on them in an emergency.
CB (Citizen’s Band)
CBs have been around for ages. They are very low power, can’t be used to conduct business, and have lots of “unsavory” “radio traffic” on them. They are primarily used by hunters and truck drivers who want cheap communication. They have a range of a few miles for the mobile units mounted in vehicles with larger antennas, and up to a mile for a handheld or portable unit. Anyone who advertises these radios reaching more than 10-15 miles is almost certainly using a modified or amplified CB radio. Either of these scenarios are illegal and could land you in hot water with the FCC if you operate your CB this way. To qualify as a certified (and legal) CB, it must not be modified and use the stock transmitter power. CBs are not toys, and not suitable for your early teen to communicate with their buddy down the street. You can often hear things over CB radio that you wouldn’t want your child to be part of, let alone listen to. This goes double if you are close to a truck stop. CBs are channelized, limiting the frequencies you can use.
- Availabe for most legal non-business use
- Base stations (desktop type) are available
- Mobile (vehicle mounted) radios are available
- Very low power, very limited range
- Often you can hear all manners of radio
- Crowded frequencies
- Lots of intentional and unintentional interference, CB radio is often considered to be a free for all wasteland
MURS (Multiple Use Radio Service)
MURS radios are primary used for business, but anyone can use MURS. MURS radio are slighly higher powered than the other handhelds and offer a range of 5-7 miles in open environments. These radios have 5 available channels, often designated by a color (red dot, blue dot, etc). Most Wal-Marts, Targets, construction sites and other retail businesses use MURS. You do not need a license to use MURS, but often businesses are already using most of the available frequencies in crowded environments. MURS radios are generally more expensive than the previous options, ranging from $75-$350 per radio. There many anecdotal reports of private users being accused of using frequencies that business users claim they are entitled to, but MURS is covered by the “common cutesy” rule, no one user is entitled to any particular MURS frequency. However, I wouldn’t use MURS as a private user in an urban environment simply because there are better options available.
- Higher power, slightly longer range
- These radios are usually more durable, they are usually built for business environments
- Base stations (desktop type) are available
- Crowded and limited frequencies
- Radios are generally more expensive
GMRS (General Mobile Radio Service)
GMRS radio is licensed. You must obtain a GMRS license from the FCC, a 5 year license is $85 and covers your entire household. You must be 18 years of age to obtain a GMRS license, but once one person in your household over 18 is licensed, younger users may operate under the GMRS license. There is no exam required to obtain a GMRS radio license. Once licensed, you receive a GMRS call sign. Many FRS radios sold in retail stores have GMRS built in, but you are not able to legally use these channels without a license. GMRS radios are slightly higher powered radios than the FRS frequencies. GMRS repeaters (which increase) are available in some areas, but they are privately owned and often closed to outside users. GMRS has a realistic range of 3-5 miles in an open environment. Like FRS and CBs, it’s illegal to modify these radios to increase their power or frequencies.
- More channels
- Slightly longer range
- Prices range form $50-$500 a pair
- Repeaters may be available, or build/buy your own
- Desktop base stations are available
- Mobile (vehicle mounted) radios are available
- Requires a license (5 year license is $85 and covers your entire household)
- GMRS radios are channelized, limiting the frequencies you can use.
- Many people who buy the FRS radios use the GMRS radio frequencies. This means that the even though there are more channels than FRS, the channels may be in use.
Amateur Radio (HAM)
HAM radio is the sweet spot of individual two way radio communication. Although it has restrictions of use, such non-business use only and requires a license, it also has the widest range of options for range and ease of use. To obtain a HAM license from the FCC, you must take an exam that generally runs $15. Most people can obtain their first HAM license (Technician Class) with 2-4 weeks of studying, and less if you have any electronics eperience. There are three levels of HAM licenses, each with increasing privileges on more frequencies. You can read more about the HAM radio frequencies at the FCC. HAM radio for the most part (except 60 meters) is not channelized. You are given privileges on a certain band (frequency range) and can use any frequency in that band , as long as you do not cause harmful interference. There are two basic types of HAM radio, VHF/UHF and HF. VHF/UHF is primarily used for short range (less than 100 miles), while HF can be used to talk to other users around the world. Many HAMs build their own radios and/or antennas, and HAM radio is a great place to test new equipment as long as you follow the proper procedures. HAM radio operators often are members of HAM radio clubs, and you often get to meet the people you get to know over HAM radio. You do not need to learn or know morse code to use HAM radio.
- Short and long range communication is possible
- Local club members are eager to mentor new HAMs
- Repeaters (with backup power) are available in lots of areas, it’s possible for two hand-held radios to converse over a 20-30 mile range with the help of a repeater.
- Handlend (HT), mobile and base radios are available
- Lots of niches, ranging from people who just want to have somone to talk to driving to work to users who use HAM radio satellites (OSCARs) and digital communication
- A great way to communicate during a disaster
- Radio’s range from $50 for a short range handheld to $200 for a short range mobile rig to $850+ for a long range HF rig
- You can use short range handhelds to connect to local repeaters in some areas that are connected over the internet. It is possible in those areas to use a hand-held radio to have a conversation with someone on the other side of the world.
- Requires an exam & license
- Can not be used to conduct or promote business
- Must follow FCC standards of use
- Insecure, un-encrypted
I hope this helps to answer your initial questions about what types of radio you may be interested in or suits you best. If you have questions, please feel free to email me or post them in the comments section of this post. I may not have the answer, but I’ll do my best to point you in the right direction.