Best Ham Radio for Beginners – Radios That Get You on the Air
A ham radio is hands down, a surefire way to remain connected to the world when all other forms of communication fail.
Besides being used for prepping and emergency communication, ham radios can also be used for private recreation, wireless experimentation, and self-training among other uses.
Unfortunately, buying the best ham for amateurs isn’t any easy especially for first-time buyers.
But that’s where we come in.
In this article, we’ll try to make your shopping lots easier by explaining all the jargons and considerations involved. We’ve also highlighted several top-notch amateur radios worth considering today.
We’ve analyzed 1328 reviews of ham radios for beginners, and compared them side-by-side.
Below you will find comparison chart.
TYT UV8000E Dual Band
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A few things to keep in mind
The market is flooded with hundreds of amateur radios that target different buyers. If you are buying a ham for the first time, the major challenge that you are bound to encounter is determining the right model with the right features and add-ons for your needs.
We’ll discuss all the necessary considerations that you need to make before hitting the market later in the buying guide section.
But before that, here are a few vital thoughts that should guide you when shopping for a ham radio;
- Do you need a new or used radio?
- What type of radio are you looking for?
- What do you intend to do with it?
- Where do you intend to use it? Are you looking for something portable?
- Do you have a specific power output preference?
- How far do the radio’s frequencies reach?
- Which bands does it cover?
- Does it have a weather alert?
BaoFeng UV-5R Dual Band Two Way Radio- Best For Affordability and Effectiveness
I bet there’s no better way to start off this list than with the leader of the best amateur ham radios- the Baofeng UV-5R. This is among several other radios from this US-based distributor that are trending right now.
One reason why you might want to consider this radio is the affordability factor despite the plethora of features that it brings.
At its price, this radio might be a good bet for first-time buyers who want to learn the ropes before upgrading to complex rigs. It also makes an economical yet highly reliable option for experienced hams who want to add another radio for local use to their rig.
This radio puts you on the UHF and VHF bands that are notably the most popular with most hams around you and globally.
The Baofeng UV-5R utilizes a 1500-mAh battery that could last you up to 3 days. But what’s even more interesting is that it allows high and low power settings (4w/1w). This allows you to save on power when covering shorter distances and offers more power for distant communications.
On this note, we really appreciate that this ham radio supports dual watch and dual reception functionalities.
This means that it can monitor two different frequencies and give way to any frequency that receives a call first. No need to mention, this is a great way of ensuring that no important info evades you.
Designed to let you make contact during an emergency, the Baofeng UV-5R covers 7-8 miles without an antenna and double this distant with the recommended Nagoya NA-771 antenna (bought separately).
Among other interesting features, this radio has a backlit display, 128 programmable memory channels, and a flashlight.
The major complaint that novice hams report is that it’s a little bit confusing to use at first. Most radios seem tricky to use at first but there is a load of helpful videos on Youtube to get you going in no time. This radio also comes with a detailed guide that you’ll really find helpful.
BaoFeng UV-82HP – Best Radio For Flexibility and Versatility
The Baofeng UV-82HP radio is among the latest releases by this manufacturer although I wouldn’t call it a whole new model per se. Rather, it is a mash-up of the Baofeng UV82 and the UV5R above.
The main reason why I really recommend this ham is its excellent flexibility on several fronts. To begin with, this is a dual-band handheld device.
What this means is that you can make communications on both the UHF and VHF spectrums. Well, UHF will work just fine for most people and it’s very likely that you’ll find a multitude of hams using these frequencies within your area.
The key advantage of getting a dual band rig, however, is that you get access to a much wider coverage system.
On this note, a dual band radio like the UV-82HP means that you’ll still be able to make efficient communications even when in areas that are predominantly UHF or VHF zones.
Interestingly, this is a dual-watch receiver. This means that it monitors 2 frequencies simultaneously (even on different bands).
Another great feature of the UV-82HP is its dual PTT ability. This is a huge leap in radio technology and it allows you to transmit on two frequencies simply by pushing a rock switch.
You can also use this switch to scan for channels, frequencies, DTS tones, and CTCSS.
We also like that this radio offers you 3 power output options depending on how far you want to transmit; 1w, 4w, and 7w.
Even better, you get 128 programmable memory channels plus a free software that allows you to program the radio just how you want it. You could also use the keypads to do this, but using a computer is way easier.
Lastly, this radio has a more solid and seemingly sturdy case for the outdoors. Its backlit display, large buttons, and 1w speaker (largest so far) all make it quite hard to beat, in my opinion.
TYT UV8000E Dual Band – Best For Ease of Use and Portability
The TYT UV8000E seems a little bit pricey at first glance. But the good news is that this model could be just what you need as you upgrade from the Technician license through Extra.
One thing that will grab any enthusiast ham is the build quality of this radio. Previous buyers report that it does not feel cheap at all. Moreover, amateurs who have owned it for over a year affirm that its components hold up quite well even with rough use (I’m not advising you to rough it up though!).
Another aspect that we did like about the UV8000E is that it comes fully packed with all the necessary accessories that you need to kick-start your hobby or to prep.
Unlike the Baofeng UV-5R, the UV-8000E comes with 2 antennas, a programming cable and disc, computer charger, car charger, and an adapter.
This means that, other than applying for the license, you won’t need to purchase anything else for you to transmit and receive information on this radio’s dual band (UHF and VHF) ranges.
It’s a really good thing that this radio supports cross-band repeater function. Simply put, this means that the UV-8000E is capable of transmitting a signal received from one band (let’s say UHF) through another band, VHF, for instance.
The benefit here is that you can hit a distant repeater with ease and, therefore, ensure clarity and effective communication.
Other notable function worth of mention here includes the reverse frequency function that swaps transmit and receive frequencies. This enables you to maintain a conversation with another ham who can no longer hit the repeater for one reason or another.
We also appreciate its tri-color backlit display and keys that promote ease of use even in darkness. On the same note, this radio uses a more powerful battery (3600mAh) that could take you close to a week on a single charge.
The multiple options for charging this battery (wall socket, car cigarette, and desktop charger) plus the low battery alarm boost this radios versatility.
There are 2 major issues that we have against this amateur ham radio though. First, the user’s manual has been poorly translated although it’s still understandable. Second, this radio gives 5w output at maximum, contrary to the manufacturer’s 10w claim.
Yaesu FT-60R Handheld 5W Amateur Radio – Best For Ease of Use and Durability
The Yaesu FT-60R isn’t yours if you are not ready to cough close to two hundos for an amateur radio. On the other hand, it makes a really good bet for serious preppers who are looking for the best ham radio that has been purposely designed for survivalists.
One thing that you’ll certainly like about this radio is its well-built aluminum case. Most of these devices are crafted from hard plastics that are prone to cracking if dropped. That’s why the F-60R’s hard-to-crack housing demands a standing ovation here.
Besides being able to withstand a few drops and bang, this model has also been designed to withstand light showers and accidental spills.
About performance, this radio allows you to transmit and receive info through the 2 meter and 70cm bands.
An incredible aspect here is that it has been designed to offer an easy time to everyone including first-time user. Most buyers attest to this.
We also like that it is easily portable and has a locking mode that prevents accidental change of frequency.
Designed to keep you off danger, the Yaesu FT-60R connects to NOAA to keep you alert in case of adverse weather changes and also receives emergency alerts in 800-900 MHz.
Without forgetting, this radio offers you the most programmable memory channels at 1000. I guess this is more than enough space for all your favorite and emergency channels.
Its 1400mAh battery isn’t the best in class but it’ll still allow you close to 48 hours of continuous use at its 5w maximum output.
Yaesu FT-857D Amateur Radio Transceiver – Best For Widest Coverage
Looking for the most versatile amateur radio that will connect you to other hams around the globe? Or have you just graduated to the Extra license?
The Yaesu FT-857D might be your ideal entry-level option to these top-of-the-class models.
Although a little bit bulkier than other models in this list, the FT-857D is still compact enough for you to carry around, for instance, in camps and upcountry.
The first thing that you’ll note with this radio is the ultra-tough premium grade polycarbonate that has been used to craft its casing. This promotes durability and also enhances portability.
This radio caters to hams who have interest in transmitting and receiving across broad spectrums. As such, it puts you on all the 3 types of bands HF, UHF, and VHF so you can enjoy the excitement of public monitoring legally and without limitations.
The FT-857D also allows you to listen in to AM and FM broadcasts, weather broadcasts, and aviation communications.
To enhance the audio’s clarity when transmitting and receiving, this amateur radio is fitted with a 24-bit high-tech D/A chip. Mind you, this is the same bit that audio entertainment companies like Kenwood use to ensure clear and detailed audios from their drivers.
Other important tools that enhance audio fidelity in this radio include Noise Reduction filters, microphone equalizer, bandpass filter, and an Auto-Notch filter.
Is it easy to use?
Well, most people say so. Among other highlights, most hams appreciate its large tuning dial and easy navigation around the bands. They also seem to like that all the control buttons and keys are on the front panel for easy accessibility.
Several old folks, however, say that the backlit display can be a little bit hard to read.
Ham Radio Buying Guide
I bet you already know what a ham radio is by now, right?
For those who might be totally green on this topic, a ham radio (also known as an amateur radio) is a 2-way device that allows radio communications.
Worth mentioning, the term amateur here means that this radio should only be used for non-commercial uses.
Not to be confused with CB radios, amateur radios offer a much wider range of frequency option usually between 1.8 and 1300 MHz but with gaps in between depending on the type of radio.
Who Can Buy a Ham Radio?
The good news is that virtually anyone can buy and use a ham radio. There are basically no restrictions on age. That’s what makes these gadgets a superb way of connecting to other people within your locality and around the globe.
Why should you own a Ham Radio?
The recent disasters have proved that cell phones and the internet cannot be solely relied upon. This is because these 2 heavily rely on infrastructure vulnerable to the wrath of floods and strong winds.
As a point of reference, it’s hams that saved the day in Puerto Rico when Hurricane Maria knocked out all other forms of wireless communications in October 2017.
These gadgets form a good choice for prepping since they allow you to listen to emergency alerts and also talk back to emergency service providers (fire, police, ambulance etc).
You could also buy one just for hobby and for casual communications with other family members. Some even have a built-in function that allows you to listen to your local AM/FM stations- a great way of staying connected and entertained.
Factors to Consider When Buying a Ham Radio
Type of Radio
One way of narrowing down the available options is by deciding the type of radio that you want depending on what you want to use it for.
There are 3 types of ham radios
This is a lightweight model that you can take with you just like a cell phone albeit a little bit heavier and bulkier.
Most of them feature a belt clip and will also fit in your pockets easily so you can take it around with you with much ease.
Handheld units are way easier to operate and pretty much more affordable than other models. The major limitation, however, is that they are limited to line-of-sight and will basically allow communication within 1-2 mile radius.
As the name suggests, a mobile ham radio is what you need if you want something that you can install and use in your vehicle.
Unlike handheld amateur radios, mobile gadgets have more power than handheld units since they have an antenna and are powered by your vehicle’s battery.
In addition, these radios are not limited to line-of-horizon since they rely on ham radio repeaters (the equivalent of cell phone towers).
A repeater receives signals from a nearby radio and rebroadcasts it farther with better clarity and more power.
If you intend to set up a powerful station at home or workplace, then a base ham radio is what you need.
These rigs are more powerful than the handheld and mobile options especially when complemented with a General license which allows you to access the HF bands (more about this later).
These bands allow you to communicate with other hams thousands of miles away without the need for a repeater.
The only catch with base/fixed radio stations is that they can be quite expensive to set up. Some shacks go for upwards of $1000.
Each of the above types of radios requires juice to perform. Usually, radios with a higher output offer better range.
A handheld ham offers as few as 5w and uses a rechargeable multi-cell battery pack.
If you are buying this device for prepping, it’s highly advisable to purchase an extra pack to ensure that you’ll be on air till help arrives.
It’s also advisable to have a pack that uses alkaline batteries (AAA or AA) to ensure connectivity even when the electric grid is dead. Other must-have accessories include a cigarette charger and a desktop-quick charger.
Mobile and base station radios require more power than their handheld alternatives. These units require an external power source, for instance, a vehicle’s battery, a deep-cycle battery, or in-wall ac power.
Of importance, ensure that the source of power has enough juice to operate the mobile or fixed amateur radio.
What bands do you want to communicate in?
The intended purpose of the radio helps in determining the bands that the radio should be able to access. This will also determine the type of license that you need to go for.
Bands are blocks of frequencies and are divided into 3 categories depending on coverage;
VHF (Very High Frequency) and UHF (Ultra High Frequency)
These 2 ranges are used for short-range emergency communications. This is what most handheld ham radios with a power output of 3-5 watts utilize.
These types of radios will suffice if you just want to maintain contact with other hams in your immediate area.
VHF is the most popular and will connect you to most hams around you. This is because most people use the Technician’s license which doesn’t get them on HF band.
Another definite advantage of these 2 bands is that they don’t require specialized equipment or antenna to operate.
I would also like to mention here that some high-end portable radios that use at least 25 watts of power will offer you a wider coverage.
HF (High Frequency)
An amateur radio that puts you on the HF band will allow you to contact other hams around the world and even on the moon.
These bands call for a complex rig consisting of a transceiver, antennae, and a reliable source of power.
You might consider these models if you plan to be a long-term ham with connections around the universe.
A simple 5-8w radio is just enough if you want to maintain contact with friends, family, and local emergency services.
On the same note, you might want to check out for radios that alternate between 2 bands. They might be a little bit pricey but they are hands down, the most reliable.
Licensing and Types of Licenses
One question that we receive often from our readers is whether a license is required to have a ham radio.
Now, you DON’T require a license to purchase an amateur radio or listen (monitor) to communications between other hams.
But YES, you need an FCC license to talk to other hams via the amateur radio. Although you can transmit freely during an emergency and get away with it, there are substantial fines if you are caught transmitting outside an emergency situation willfully and repeatedly.
The Federal Communications Commission offers 3 types of licenses to ham operators;
The Technician License
This is the most basic class that will allow you to operate the radio lawfully. It offers an entry level for novice hams. It allows you to access bands above 30 MHz.
This coverage includes the 2 meter and 70cm bands which are the most popular bands and connects you to other hams in your area.
To pass for the Technician license, you’ll need to score at least 26 marks in a 35-question (multiple choice) test.
The General License
The General license is what you need if you want to transmit to longer distances. This class lets you access lower frequency ranges that connect you with distant hams.
The Extra License
This is the highest you can go in terms of amateur radio licensing. This class allows you to use all bands and modes that are available for civilian use. You’ll need to sit for a 50-question test to pass for this license.
Note that these licenses are offered in the sequence above and you’ll need to pass the previous test before qualifying for an upgrade.
Important features to look for when buying a ham radio
Virtually any radio on the market switches from frequency to frequency in search for signals. Radios that do this automatically prove to be more reliable than models that require manual scanning.
Speaking of automatic scanning, you might want to consider a radio that allows you to control scan control and scan resume.
This determines how long the radio scans the available signals before jumping to the next signal. Being able to make the scan control will allow you to listen to a certain signal a little bit longer before switching to the next signal.
Type of scanning
It’s also important to note the type of scanning that the radio uses. There are 4 types of scanning; basic, channel, bank, and programmable.
Basic scanning- it comes in handy in the weak signals and segments of the UHF and VHF bands
Channel scanning- as the name suggests, a radio with this type of scanning jumps from one channel to the other but in a sequence. Radios with this function are the best when monitoring many repeater and simplex channels.
Bank scanning- a radio with this function allows you to group the channels in major categories called banks. You could designate each bank to channels that offer a common function for instance fire or police.
Programmed scanning- these radios allow you to come up with a list of channels that you’d like the radio to scan through each time. This makes the process faster.
In most radios, programming is done through the keypads on the front panel. The latest models, however, can be programmed using a computer. Of course, using a computer is much easier, quicker, and efficient.
Ease of Use
Since you are looking for the first radio for your ham station, you’ll definitely want to begin with an easy-to-use model.
Well, all amateur radios have a learning curve but there are some that are generally easier to use than others.
Most ham radios ship with a detailed user’s manual to help you learn the ropes easily. You could also rely on YouTube videos to learn how to scan, program, and even transmit.
Squelch works by muting unwanted audio output until a strong signal is detected
Whether you are buying a handheld or base station amateur radio, it’s important to go for a model that alerts you on adverse weather changes.
It’s also important to note the number of programmable memory channels that the radio offers. The more memory channels there are, the more frequencies you can store.
Backlit LCD Screen
Needless to mention, a radio with a backlit LCD will offer you an easier time than the one without. Such a screen offers lots of key information at a glance including channel setting, clock, timer, battery level, weather, and signal strength.
Backlit screens and keys also allow you to use the radio with less hassle even in the dark.
Considering how tricky these units can get especially for first-timers, I wouldn’t buy one without this feature.
Before paying for a radio, inquire about the necessary accessories that the radio requires to function, for instance, battery charger, headsets, and antenna. On this note, find out whether these accessories are included in the package or if you’ll need to order them separately.
So, which radio best fits your amateur radio station? If you are looking for a large, full-featured station that puts you on all the 3 bands which are allowed for civilian use, then I bet the Yaesu FT-857D will suffice.
Unfortunately, this radio is quite pricey and might have a learning curve to it before you can confidently scan, program, and transmit through it.
That’s where the BaoFeng UV-82HP Dual Band Radio takes the lead. This is a dual-band, handheld amateur radio that offers a good blend between affordability and functionality.
It connects you to lots of other hams that utilize the UHF and VHF spectrums and it’s way easier to program using CHIRP and to use.