10 Best Handheld Ham Radios in 2023 | (Ranked by a Marine)

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Whether you’re relaying coordinates for an airstrike, prepping for a potential emergency situation, or slipstreaming down the highway with other truckers to save fuel, ham radios are useful communication devices.

Ham radios, otherwise known as the amateur radios or two-way radios, have been used since the 1890s and all the way up until now, were an absolute necessity of millions of people around the world.

The Best Ham Radios on the Market

Tools we use to communicate today were essentially pioneered on the back of ham radio technology so I think it’s pretty safe to say that although its old tech, it’s still incredibly interesting!

“The secret of war lies in the communications” – Napolean Bonaparte

Alright, so the quote may be a bit extreme for most of my readers and how they’ll use ham radios and I highly doubt Napolean used a ham radio but you get the point, reliable communication is important! So important that I’ve created this basic informational guide for all of you to learn and interact with the ham world!

In this guide, we’ll be going over the basics behind ham radios, explaining what they are and how they work, discussing what makes a good handheld ham radio standout from one of shotty engineering, and finally, I’ll show you where to tune in for the best deals on the best handheld ham radios.

It would be pretty cool if I could broadcast my guide via ham radio, wouldn’t it? Unfortunately, the pesky world wide web will have to do for now so let’s get to it and get you into a new ham radio!

Quick Summary: Our Top Picks For Handheld Ham Radios in 2022
Kenwood Original TH-D74A
  • The TH-D74A is a digital D-STAR equipped 5 watt capable tri-band 144-148, 222-225, and 430-450mHz handheld ham radio and transceiver
  • Built-in GPS, voice recording, Weather alert, RX, AM/FM receiver, IF filter, DSP voice processing, and IPX7 waterproof with a belt clip and charger package included
  • A TFT full-color display with 1000 memory channels onboard and a 1500 repeater list
Icom ID-51A Plus2 D-STAR
  • D-STAR RS-MS1A android application that allows for communication with D-STAR stations despite signal strength or distance
  • A dual-band 5.5W max VHF/UHF radio transmitting at 136-174 and 380-479MHz respectively
  • Built-in GPS, AM/FM receiver, and IPX7 waterproof with a belt clip
Yaesu VX-6R
  • Tri-Band Micro form factor Mil-Spec radio form factor that is fully sealed, waterproof, and has password protection
  • 5/1.5W power modes with variable low power modes
  • Includes the YHA-67 antenna, a belt clip, and a SAD-11B wall quick charger
Yaesu FT-60R
  • A dual-band 144-146Mhz and 430-470Mhz VHF/UHF radio with 5/1W power output modes
  • A thousand onboard memory channels with access to emergency channels in the 800-900 range, including NOAA weather services​
  • Out of the box, you’ll get the 1400mAh battery pack, the charger, antenna, and a belt clip
Radioddity GD-77
  • Dual-band FM capable digital/analog radio operating in the 136-174 or 400-470 MHz ranges Extremely easy software and keypad
  • 2200 mAh battery pack with 1 or 5-watt power output modes

Handheld Ham Radio Reviews

In this section, I’ll be doing my best to weed out the low-quality radios and present to you the best money can buy at all levels of affordability. Basic handheld ham radios can be had for as little as $30 while radio enthusiasts can really break the bank on units that cost hundreds of dollars for top-quality features and capabilities.

Really, determining which radio is right for you will come down to your budget and expectations. Remember, as with anything in life, you pay for what you get, so spending more will likely result in a much better radio but there are still some very usable and very good offerings for less than a case of beer. I’d recommend purchasing something relatively cheap if you’re new to using ham radios and then possibly upgrading once you’re licensed, experienced, and looking to increase your broadcasting capabilities!

I cannot possibly review every handheld ham radio ever made, but I have concocted a list of the top ten devices I’d recommend. If I miss a good one or something new and great comes out after I post this, let me know in the comments and I’ll do my best to throw it up on the page with my two cents!

Here Are the Best Ham Radios (Handheld)

Best Handheld Ham RadiosUSPAmazon
TYT UV8000EBest OverallClick here
Kenwood Original TH-D74A Best for OutdoorClick here
Yaesu VX-6R Best in Mil-specClick here
Yaesu FT-60R Best in Dual BandClick here
Radioddity GD-77 Best for Long RangeClick here

1. Kenwood Original TH-D74A

Kenwood Original TH-D74A 144/220/430 MHz Triband with Ultimate in APRS and D-Star Performance (Digital) Handheld Transceiver - 5W

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My review: The Kenwood Original TH-D74A is the ultimate enthusiast-grade handheld radio and is by far one of the most technologically advanced and feature-rich radios I’ve ever witnessed.

The Tri-Band capability gives us access to the standard 144/220/430 frequency ranges and includes APRS support, which essentially means it has accurate real-time two-way data transmission capabilities that can share a plethora of non-voice related data, such as GPS location, station positional data, weather information, and more.

I have to go ahead and point out the elephant in the room so to speak. Kenwood is largely known for the manufacturing of high-quality audio equipment and as such, they’ve graced us with some very incredible audio experiences in this device, arguably the best available.

The radio can utilize either 5 watts, 2 watts, or 0.5 watts with a battery life of roughly between 8 and 20 hours, which isn’t great compared to some of the other units on this list but it’s pretty fair considering the amount of work being done inside this little monster of a radio. This radio utilizes a rather small 1800mAh battery pack, which would really be my only con as some of the cheaper radios are now utilizing 2000mAh+ capacities.

Now, I know it’s expensive and probably not what most people are looking for, but this is one of the most iconic radios on the market. Every ham radio operator seems to know quite a bit about the reputation Kenwood has amassed with this tech leading amateur handheld. They really left no stone unturned and if you’re like me and you’re worried about risking the life of a $500 piece of equipment when you’re out in the sticks, don’t. It’s IP55 water-resistant and built to handle quite a beating, although I’d still recommend safeguarding it as much as you can.

Key Features

  • The TH-D74A is a digital D-STAR equipped 5 watt capable tri-band 144-148, 222-225, and 430-450mHz handheld ham radio and transceiver
  • Built-in GPS, voice recording, Weather alert, RX, AM/FM receiver, IF filter, DSP voice processing, and IPX7 waterproof with a belt clip and charger package included
  • A TFT full-color display with 1000 memory channels onboard and a 1500 repeater list
  • Three power modes available at 5W, 2W, and 0.5W with a 1800mAh Li-Ion battery pack

2. Icom ID-51A Plus2 D-STAR

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My review: If you’re willing to pony up for some D-STAR action, the Icom ID-51A Plus2 is an excellent choice for both starters and experienced enthusiasts alike.

With a 5.5W max, you can expect roughly 10KM of range with this unit and of course, you’ll be capable of using RX frequencies as follows: 136-174MHz and 380-479MHz.

The big thing here is the D-STAR terminal mode.

This mode basically allows you to connect to the web to make D-STAR calls even when completely out of range from D-STAR repeaters. Terminal mode grants access to the radio via your computer or Android device and can even use those devices as a direct access point to communicate with basically any D-STAR station anywhere in the world despite your radios capabilities and range to a station.

There’s quite a list of features here that I’ll probably butcher but I’ll give it a go, just for you! This radio is equipped with integrated GPS, independent AM/FM receiver, V/V, U/U DualWatch mode, voice digital enhancement, data packet DV transfer to enable 3.5x faster transfer rates than conventional DV at 3480bps and many more goodies for radio lovers to indulge upon.

Key Features

  • D-STAR RS-MS1A android application that allows for communication with D-STAR stations despite signal strength or distance
  • A dual-band 5.5W max VHF/UHF radio transmitting at 136-174 and 380-479MHz respectively
  • Built-in GPS, AM/FM receiver, and IPX7 waterproof with a belt clip

3. Yaesu VX-6R

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My review: The Mil-Spec beast of Yaesu, which was already widely well known for its incredible durability and longevity of its hardware is here and ready to rock and roll, even after being submerged, punched, kicked, perhaps even minorly blown up.

I don’t know, I’m making that up and I probably wouldn’t want to punch or blow up the VX-6R as it is over two Benjamins to replace, but hey, if any of those happen by accident, your radio has a good chance of surviving!

The VX-6R is a Tri-band capable amateur radio capable of transmitting across the 144, 222, and 440 frequency ranges. If you need to receive everything from .5 to 999Mhz, this is your radio! Furthermore, the power has been really dialed on since the small form factor doesn’t allow for a large battery. The power modes will change depending on how you’re using the radio, consisting of 5 watts on 2m and 70cm, 1.5w on 222Mhz, and variable wattage on low power settings.

This little thing is, well, little, but don’t let that fool you, its full of features radios twice the size only wish they had! It has a transmit time-out function and automatic shut off features to help alleviate the drain on the already small battery pack (1250mAh) and it comes with an access key for Vertex Standard’s WIRES. Furthermore, you’ll get the exclusive Yaesu auto-range transponder system (ARTS) which basically just gives you a handy little audio notification when moving out of range from another ARTS system.

Key Features

  • Tri-Band Micro form factor Mil-Spec radio form factor that is fully sealed, waterproof, and has password protection
  • 5/1.5W power modes with variable low power modes
  • Includes the YHA-67 antenna, a belt clip, and a SAD-11B wall quick charger

4. Yaesu FT-60R

Yaesu FT-60R Handheld Radio Bundle with Diamond SRH77CA High Gain Antenna, Yaesu SDD-13 12V DC Adapter, and HAM Guides Quick Reference Card

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My review: The cheaper model I’d recommend by Yaesu (still not cheap) is the FT-60R.

This radio is dual-band equipped and follows the Yaesu reputation of jamming tons of tech into an incredibly small form factor and then managing to make them nearly indestructible.

People still have Yaesu radios that work just fine and still look great from before there was even the internet!

If you want a product that will last and you’re looking into handheld hams, Yaesu is a go-to brand. Sure, you can get radios with similar features and power at lower price points but they just aren’t made as well.

That handy dual-band capability gets us transmitting access to the 144-148Mhz and 430-470Mhz bands and it does this by utilizing a 5/2W power output with a rather tiny 1400mAh battery pack. Now, that is pretty small for radios of this stature, but surprisingly enough, you can still expect over 12 hours of usage, which was actually quite surprising to me.

Key Features

  • A dual-band 144-146Mhz and 430-470Mhz VHF/UHF radio with 5/1W power output modes
  • A thousand onboard memory channels with access to emergency channels in the 800-900 range, including NOAA weather services​
  • Out of the box, you’ll get the 1400mAh battery pack, the charger, antenna, and a belt clip

5. Radioddity GD-77

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My review: The GD-77 is a digital and analog DMR equipped dual-band capable radio operating with 1024 channels at 136-174 and 400-470 MHz.

This radio is by far one of the most intuitive and user-friendly designs and honestly, I really appreciate the keypad as it’s far superior to most radios I’ve given a review with.

The radio boasts a 5KM range, which truthfully isn’t amazing but honestly, I think you can squeeze a bit more out of it with a better antenna. Speaking of that, out of the box you get two different length antennas and a 2200 mAh battery pack, which seems to be rather okay, giving you about 12-15 hours of battery life. The radio operates at either its low 1-watt mode or its high 5-watt mode.

This is an excellent DMR radio for a very great price. Sure TYT has DMR capable radios at similar price points but they aren’t dual-band and they aren’t as user-friendly as this particular radio.

Key Features

  • Dual-band FM capable digital/analog radio operating in the 136-174 or 400-470 MHz ranges Extremely easy software and keypad
  • 2200 mAh battery pack with 1 or 5-watt power output modes

6. TYT MD-380 Radio

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My review: What can you get for a single Benjamin in the handheld hams world? The TYT MD-380-DMR! Battery life sucks, let’s get that out of the way in a jiffy so we can talk about the awesomeness this radio contains.

It’s just a 2000 mAh Li-Ion battery that’s fairly standard, but for some reason, this radio seems to eat it up relentlessly.

Expect less than 12 hours of usage time on a single charge. Maybe “sucks” was the wrong term, but there is certainly better out there.

The power output modes are 5W and 1W.

This radio has both digital and analog modes and encompasses the nifty digital mode, DMR by Motorola.

Unfortunately, since these were originally designed to be used as commercial devices, they are not dual-band, so you need to choose either UHF or VHF.

Since the majority of repeaters nowadays are UHF, I’ve chosen to review the UHF model and not the VHF model, so we’re dealing with a range of 400-480MHz.

This actually sounds like a lot of bad news thus far, but don’t worry, good news to come! You can utilize FM transceiving when not in DMR and you can expect a pretty good range of roughly 7KM.

This is one of the best audio experiences I’ve found in a handset, probably because they were designed to be operated in industrial commercialized environments. Loud and crisp with extremely incredible frequency response, so absolutely no complaints on the usability and audio! Furthermore, since this radio receives and then digitally reconstructs the signal, you may be thinking that it’ll sound sort of robotic, like many other radios that do this. With that said, you don’t notice that at all with this radio which really makes it stand out.

Key Features

  • 5 watt and 1-watt power modes with a 2000 mAh Li-Ion battery pack
  • DMR digital capabilities as well as FM transceiving
  • In the box, you’ll get two antennas of differing lengths for UHF bands (or VHF if you choose that model), a charger, power adapter, spare screws, belt clip, and programming cable

7. TYT UV8000E

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My review: TYT has really pushed the boundaries of what handheld ham radios are capable of with this 10-watt cross repeater monstrosity. I didn’t mention 10 watts in my guide as a normal power output probably because it’s not, and there’s a good reason for that.

10 watts takes up a lot of power to implement and to offset this, TYT has jammed a 3600 mAh battery pack inside this little beast hoping to make that 10W repeater function actually work, and it does, kind of.

You can flip it on and you can use it, sort of, but as I mentioned in my guide, small portable electronics with large power capabilities have an Achillies Heel, heat. With 10 watts of power, you get about 10 minutes of usage before it becomes so hot that it starts killing itself. Awesome.

Obviously, using the radio to its fullest potential wouldn’t be ideal for having a conversation but more so for gathering quick and vital intelligence or calling for help. Aside from that, and surprisingly with how much it has to protect, this little radio is extremely tough and durable so long as you keep its internal temperatures down. The 5W power mode also works great and overall, experience with the TYT UV8000E is excellent. You have reliable transmitting power when you need it and that’s what really counts here.

TYT has gone on to throw in not one but two antennas of various lengths to ensure its portable but also powerful when needed. One is a high gain and one is a stub antenna.

Key Features

  • Both 10W and 5W power functionality
  • A 360mm high gain antenna and a 172mm stub antenna are included along with a car charger, desktop charger, belt clip, power adapter, programming cable, and that massive 3600 mAh battery
  • Dual-band capable across VHF 144-148 and UHF 420-450 MHz

8. BaoFeng BF-F8HP (Best Value)

BAOFENG BF-F8HP (UV-5R 3rd Gen) 8-Watt Dual Band Two-Way Radio (136-174MHz VHF & 400-520MHz UHF) Includes Full Kit with Large Battery

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My review: I was going to say this is one of the more expensive BaoFeng radios and although that may be true, let’s be honest, each of their radios is priced to sell and provide excellent value.

As a matter of fact, I and many ham lovers highly recommend BaoFeng products and the company has a long good standing reputation in this niche.

This particular radio was actually designed in the US specifically for people residing in the US.

They wanted to make an extremely easy to use radio that is both powerful and feature-packed for their North American fan base.

The BF-F8HP two-way radio operates on dual bands consisting of 136-174 MHz and 400-520 MHz. Like most of the newer BaoFeng radios, you’ll have the option to ramp up your power output for VHF applications up to 8 watts and of course, you still get the traditional option of 4 and 1 watts too.

Battery life? Wow! This radio has one of the best levels of battery life of any handheld ham radio today. You can expect 20 hours of life out of the 2000 mAh battery pack even in the highest 8-watt setting. They pride themselves on providing excellent battery life, even with the LED flashlight on and constantly using the FM radio function, which I kind of thought was funny since I’d likely never turn on either of those, but it’s still nice to have I suppose!

Included in the deal are the amazing 7” V-85 antenna, a power adapter, a rather nice ear-piece (usually the included ear-pieces are junk), belt clip, hand strap, and the charger with a nice little dock. These can be difficult to use so BaoFeng offers you a year of concierge service. Have a question? Call them up and they’ll getcha fixed up.

Just be careful with these radios as some of the preprogrammed channels are actually no-go zones in the US. Yes, I know I said they were designed for the North American market and they are, but… Yeah, I don’t have an explanation for it, just make sure you program everything correctly once you get it and you’ll be fine!

Key Features

  • Designed for use on 136-174 Mhz and 400-520 Mhz and is dual-band capable
  • Power output options at 8, 7, 4, and 1 watts
  • A massive 2000 mAh battery pack makes this one of the longest-lasting radios on the market

9. BaoFeng UV-82HP

BaoFeng UV-82HP (RED) High Power Dual Band Radio: 136-174mhz (VHF) 400-520mhz (UHF) Amateur (Ham) Portable Two-Way

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My review: You’ll notice BaoFeng on this list a lot and many other enthusiasts can probably agree with me, BaoFeng is one of those odd Chinese manufacturers that, to a new to the market kind of person, may seem a bit sketchy or odd.

After all, a lot of their marketing is in broken English and a lot of their product photos look really cheap.

Don’t be fooled, though, BaoFeng has several units on this list because they simply deliver.

The UV-82HP, the successor to the UV-82, is a favorite among many handheld ham radio operators due to its dual-band capabilities and implicit simplicity. This radio is excellent for advanced users and new users alike and offers more than enough range to exceed expectations when it comes to a little handheld device.

The power output modes are 8 watts for VHF bands, 7 watts for UHF bands, and of course, you get your standard 4 and 1 watt operating outputs as well for short-range direct line of sight communications.

They have several versions of this radio, even in other color schemes and such but as to my knowledge, I don’t believe any of them come with a backlit screen which to me is kind of a drag but hey, the radio is super cheap and ultra-reliable so I suppose trading backlighting for low cost is a sacrifice worth making if you’re tight on money! Speaking of money, you get a very nice high gain V-85 antenna which is absolutely phenomenal when it comes to handheld capabilities so I really can’t complain!

Key Features

  • Dual-band capable on 136-174 Mhz and 400-520 Mhz
  • Power output consists of 8, 7, 4, and 1-watt modes
  • Dual or single push-to-talk selectors built-in to the talk switch rocker makes communicating across multiple frequencies extremely easy

10. BaoFeng Pofung GT-3TP Mark 3

BaoFeng Pofung GT-3TP Mark-III+Speaker Tri-Power 8/4/1W Two-Way Radio with Speaker Mic Included

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My review: BaoFeng does a seriously excellent job at building and engineering products that provide exactly what people want at the price they are willing to pay.

Although this is the cheapest radio on my list of recommended ham radios, it’s still quite powerful and full of useful features! It’s important to note that previous generations of this device are well regarded and well respected so I expected a lot out of this device and my expectations were well received!

The GT3-3TP Mark III is an 8-watt capable handheld radio that transmits on dual-band 136-174 and 400-520 MHz. BaoFeng indicates it has 11KM of range which I have not personally tested but considering its an 8-watt capable unit and looking at the range of other units I have tried, I’d say it’s pretty likely you could get that with the right environmental conditions and possibly a bit more.

I rather like the design, it’s a nice shift away from the black rectangular box that has seemingly been the only way to design a radio like this for many years. The yellow accents are nice, making the unit easy to find if you drop it in dense grass or something like that. The included antenna isn’t bad, however many people end up ditching it for something else. The design also encompasses a little LED flashlight which I thought was cute, it wasn’t bad but it’s basically what you get from a modern-day cell phone.

I mentioned earlier that this device is 8-watt capable and although that sounds great, you’ll also have options to use 1 and 4-watt modes as well.

Key Features

  • 8, 4, and 1-watt modes operating in dual-band 136-174 and 400-520 MHz
  • A very rugged and ergonomic design that’s dust and waterproof with a built-in LED flashlight
  • A maximum range of 11km with an average of 5km in urban area

Ham Radio Buying Guide

What is a Ham Radio?

So I think what most people want to hear when first seeing the words “ham Radio” together is what the acronym ham stands for. What was surprising to me was to learn that, despite thinking ham stood for some technological terms, ham actually signifies the names of the communication engineers that first developed the ham radio and used it for communication purposes. Yep, no fancy tech jargon, just some old guys names that changed the way all of humanity communicated and forever changed the landscape of technology, pretty lame, right?

Ham radios, also known as amateur radios, are actually surprisingly simple little gadgets that, although have been upgraded over the years, they have remained fundamentally the same as when our good friend Albert S. Hyman first switched it on and had a chat with Bob Almy and Poogie Murray. Look at the last names, that’s where ham came from. Surprise!

Ham radios operate on a wide spectrum of frequencies and how you plan to use your ham radio will dictate what frequencies you’ll be using. These nifty little gadgets can communicate with a range of a few miles, which actually sounds pretty awful, right? I mean you can go to Bass Pro today and pick up some cheap walkie-talkies with that kind of range, so what gives?

Well, a ham radio can actually communicate with a repeater using Very High Frequencies (VHF) which are located all over the world. These repeaters eat up the signal you’re sending and blast them back out into the universe with much greater range capabilities, giving you true worldwide communication!

Ham radios operate on frequencies outside of AM/FM radio bands and outside of privately owned and restricted bands. Ham radios utilize a wide band of frequencies which are specifically designated for licensed ham technicians to communicate, broadcast, and even send GPS related information to other pieces of technology, like weather balloons and even drones!

A Ham Radio Should Be a Priority In Your Gear Arsenal

The “need” aspect of ham radios in everyday life is diminishing due to recent technological advancements, like the internet and everyone having access to mobile phones, but there is still a plethora of reasons you should have your hands on a ham radio and, of course, cell phones rely on a massive infrastructure that could become easily compromised if only one cog in the wheel is disrupted.

Firstly, they’re simply just a great little gadget to have around. Handheld ham radios are powered by batteries that are usually both replaceable and changeable, thus creating dependence from the power grid. This makes ham radios a great asset for search and rescue, hikers, campers, truckers, and even servicemen.

Second, ham radios serve as a primary source of communication if and/or when SHTF. During a natural disaster, war, power outage, etc, a ham radio may be your last and only resort when it comes to receiving crucial information and even perhaps calling for help. We live our lives incredibly effortlessly now in terms of communication, but one small blip in the system, one little sun flare, EMP detonation, or system hack, could render our daily lines of communication damaged, compromised or unusable. Ham radios are extremely reliable, much more so than the cell phone. Without a cell tower nearby, your cell phone is essentially useless compared to a ham radio.

Third, there are still tons of people using ham radios to communicate and having one essentially buys you a ticket to the conversations taking place all over the world. You may learn something new, talk to someone new, or simply use it to call for help or cooperation when needed. Ham radios are like a world of their own in a sense because the people that use them still to this day are enthusiastic about the art behind radio communication and truly adore using them and teaching others about the science and usage of ham radios.

Many people may think that ham radios are no longer relevant and that no one uses them. In fact, over three million people engage in using ham radios to this day and ham technology is responsible for saving hundreds of thousands of people’s lives in disasters. If you’re going to be a true prepper or someone whos simply conscience of the value in reliable communication, you’ll want to have a ham on hand anyways and the time to learn how to use one is before disaster strikes, not after!

Just check out what the Administrator of the US Department of Homeland Security has to say about ham radios:

“When everything else fails, Amateur radio oftentimes is our last line of defense… when you need amateur radios, you REALLY need them” – Craig Fugate

During the 9/11 attacks, cell phone towers were actually overloaded with signals and ham operators swooped in to continually provide information to the public, first responders, and people tuning in to find out what’s happening. I don’t like to use a tragedy to try and convince you to buy something, but it is a good modern-day example of how a ham radio is still very much so relevant and helpful in a dangerous emergency situation.

If having a vital piece of technology that allows you to communicate effectively even in disastrous events doesn’t sell you on the idea of getting one, you can always use these radios to satisfy your inner competitive nature. Yeah, that’s right, ham radio operators host challenges and competitions all around the world and some of the rewards are very prestigious. The ham radio community is very serious about what they do and it seems to be a hobby that many people, no matter your background or stature, can enjoy. If you want to learn more about this and set yourself as the best Hammy on the planet, you can check out the Wiki page here on contesting.

Lastly, if you plan on becoming an astronaut, you’ll need to include becoming a ham operator in your plans. That’s right, even the international space station utilizes ham radios to communicate with other spacecraft and even people on Earth!

Holding a Ham Versus Building a Radio Shack

This guide I’ve built is all focused on the handheld ham radio. They’re cheap, easily available, and super easy for someone to pick up and learn how to use. Most of them have a keypad and maybe just 5-10 other buttons that all have basically one function. Easy!

If you want to go ham at ham radios, though, you can build a stationary unit with state of the art technology with large antennas that enable you to communicate to a wider range of people over incredible distances.

Handheld ham radios typically have less overall broadcasting power and capabilities than a full radio station set up. Think about a laptop versus a desktop PC with the same hardware. Even though they have the same specifications, the laptop suffers from limited power output and storage, limited cooling, etc. A handheld ham radio just isn’t capable of providing the quality and performance that a stationary unit can, however, you’re trading those off for ultimate portability, which may suit your needs. Furthermore, if just communicating with people outside of the capabilities of voice but still relatively close, a handheld radio will do just fine, like talking to your neighbors or tuning in to hear what the local fire and EMS are up to.

Power Levels Explained

Most hobbyist ham operators are using what is called QRP, which essentially means that their equipment is operating and broadcasting at low power levels. You can learn a whole lot more about this by visiting the Radio Hobbyist website here.

For the purposes of this guide, I’ll just be quickly briefing you on what to get when buying a handheld ham radio. Most radios on the market come packed with 5 Watts of usable power which is enough to communicate between two-way radios within line of sight and a bit further using an antenna.

Many radios on the market, especially newer and more expensive models, contain the ability to change the wattage. This variable wattage setting makes it easy to communicate clearly to your specified target without overdoing it, essentially broadcasting your communications further than you need and eating up your battery life quickly. Using the lowest power possible that gets the job done is what we’re looking for when using a handheld battery-operated radio.

If you need a tad more juice than a 5-watt output, there are some radios that offer 6 watts and perhaps even 8 watts, which is marginally better and if you want even more than that, you’ll need to pony up some serious cash. For our purposes, we’ll be discussing only handheld radios with power output levels of 6 watts or less.

Getting Licensed and Befriending The FCC

Not a fan of the feds showing up at your house? Me either, so let’s make sure everyone buying and planning on using a ham radio gets the proper licensing and registrations before broadcasting.

Of course, if you simply need to use the radio just to listen, you’re fine with no governmental intervention. To this date, you do not need any special licensing to purchase a handheld ham radio and simply owning a ham radio is not a crime.

If you do want to broadcast, you will seriously need to read up on what you need specifically to get licensed and this information should come from the source, not me or any blogger. The FCC takes broadcasting very seriously and they do possess the tools to track you down so please, do us a favor and don’t waste our tax dollars on some broadcasting foolishness. Furthermore, you may actually impede someone else’s ability to communicate by erroneously using a ham radio.

Your location, environment, local government, etc may impact how and if you need licensing and sometimes the requirements or process changes, which is why I can’t just simply guide you through the process as I don’t want my information to get old or misunderstood and accidentally mislead someone!

To make things slightly more complicated, there are three tiers of FCC ham licenses you should be aware of.

Technicians’ license is the one you’ll want go grab first and is essentially the first tier. After that, you can expand your operating capabilities with a General license and, if that doesn’t unlock what you need, you can get the Extra license.

I can’t tell you which license you need but I can tell you that you cannot use a ham radio without at least the lowest tier, Technicians license.

The exam for the Technicians license is 35 randomized and pooled questions of which you must answer correctly 26. To get the license, you have to pass the test, but don’t worry because there are many test prep aids all over the web including the ARRL Ham Radio test prep manual. I do recommend studying and doing your own research, but the test overall is fairly easy and wouldn’t take more than just a few hours to get the basics down in order to pass the test.

The ARRL is the administrator and management of the testing services and as such, you’ll need to check out their website for more instructions on how to register and take the test.

I believe the overall cost for this process is around $15 but that price may change. At the testing center, there should be volunteer examiners (VE) and remember, these are volunteers who do this because they love the ham life. Ask them questions about their experience and talk to them, you might learn something new! Remember, don’t forget your photo identification!

The link provided here is to the basic FCC page where you’ll find guidance on the legalities and usage of ham radios and begin your process of becoming a licensed ham operator. I know this sounds daunting and maybe even complicated, but the FCC and ARRL are rather easy organizations to deal with and getting licensed really are made simple and intuitive. The site you’ll need for testing is this one from the National Association for Amateur Radio.

Some of you may disagree with requiring a license to broadcast over certain bands, but just sit back and imagine all the things people have ruined with their craziness and then think to yourself, do you want all of these frequencies full of people misusing radio equipment to broadcast a bunch of nonsense, so much so that you can’t even get through yourself? Let us know in the comments what you think!

Analog Versus Digital

Many of the newest models of handheld ham radios you can find today will have the option to switch between analog and digital modes, making this section kind of pointless if you’re looking for me to tell you which to get. Just get one that has both, right? Maybe, as it depends on how you plan to use your radio.

Both an analog and digital radio will send its information via electromagnetic waves through open space but they do differ on usability, range, clarity, and overall quality of communication. Analog is the older, more traditional option and digital is a result of newer technology.

I won’t go into the science of it all, but on average, digital radio will have a significantly higher range, better sound quality, better reliability, more efficient power consumption, and more advanced features that may not be possible with analog. Long story short, I’d recommend buying a radio that has both, or just digital, as technology is progressing towards entirely digital suits of tech gadgets and analog seems to be a bit of a dying breed so to speak.

Choosing a Display

Get with the times and buy a radio that has a backlit digital display. Easy as that.

Any radio without a backlit display is going to be incredibly difficult to use, especially if an emergency arises at night and the power grid is down, which is typically when you’d use a ham radio anyways, so why not be prepared by ensuring you can actually read the display on your radio?

Some displays are nicer than others, though, and you need to decide whether a nice display fits your budget or not. Also, the larger the display, the more surface area prone to major damage there is, so keep in mind how you’ll be using your radio and if it really needs to be visually pleasing or rugged and durable.

Frequently Asked Questions

Is there a handheld ham radio?

There are numerous handheld ham radios in the market and we have listed the best ones here with reviews. They can do all sorts of things and many of them can also have a long-range of up to 5KM and up.

What’s a good handheld ham radio to buy?

A good handheld ham radio has a bunch of features such as a good range, multiple bands it can work on, good battery life, ease of charging, or replaceable batteries.

Can ham radios be tracked?

Yes, ham radios are trackable and with the use of directional antennas, the origin of the signal can easily be triangulated.

What is the range of a handheld ham radio?

A good handheld ham radio can have a range of up to 2miles and upwards. Many handheld radios also come with dual bands which helps them work with different frequencies.

Utilizing NOAA Weather Programming

Most ham radios nowadays come with a feature that allows them to specifically tune in to a National Oceanic Atmosphere Administration (NOAA) weather station. Obviously, having your radio on an NOAA station will provide invaluable weather reports and if for some reason cell networks and the internet are down, your radio may be the only source of weather reports you have.

To do this, visit the NOAA site here, find your state and the area closest to you, and then simply use the frequency chart provided to program your radio so that it’s always ready to report on the weather when you need it.

If you’re going to go out in true prepper style, you would download or screenshot the frequencies you need ahead of time and have them printed out in case you ever can’t access that website.

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