Ham radios have come a long way since they got their name from the pejorative for hamfisted. The amateur radio now borders on the professional with skilled people and hobbyists giving it new dimensions. From being a radio for survival and emergency to socializing, the ham radio has grown in its uses. So which one should you buy? Let’s look at the best handheld ham radios available to find the right match.
Top 7 Handheld Ham Radios
- BaoFeng BF-F8HP Dual Band Two-Way Radio
- Yaesu VX-6R Tri-Band Submersible Amateur Ham Radio
- Retevis RT5 High Power Dual Band Two Way Radio
- BaoFeng UV-5R Dual Band Two Way Radio
- Yaesu FT-60R Dual Band Handheld 5W VHF / UHF Amateur Radio Transceiver
- TYT MD-380 DMR Digital Radio
- TYT UV8000E 10W High Power Dual Band VHF UHF Two-Way Radio Ham Walkie Talkie
You Need A License To Use Ham Radios
Ham radios are different than conventional communication devices that you can buy and begin to use. Using a ham radio requires a license. It is an additional step, but thankfully, the process of getting a license is streamlined and quite painless. The types of licenses available are:
- The Technician License: This is the basic, entry-level license. It is the minimum requirement to use a ham radio. People with this license have access to frequencies over 30 MHz and some HF band privileges. It is meant for local and domestic use only. Applicants must clear an exam to be awarded this license.
- The General License: Having a Technician License is a prerequisite for the General License. Applicants must clear an exam. This license opens up all amateur radio bands and operating modes, enhancing the available options of communication.
- The Amateur Extra License: Only people with the General License can take the exam for the Amateur Extra License. Those with this license have access to all operating privileges on all modes and bands available to amateur radio.
Now that we’ve talked about licenses, here’s a clip of Tim Allen ranting about it in an episode of Last Man Standing.
Buying Guide To The Best Portable Ham Radio
Most handheld ham radios are rated for 5 Watts of power. For most users, that is plenty. Higher-powered options are available, though it can be unnecessary unless you absolutely need it. Many radios include a manual switch for shifting between high-power and regular mode.
A Backlit Display
In the modern world, it only makes sense for devices to have a backlit display. It is especially useful in a radio for beginners. I think a simple and useful feature like this applies to all users alike. Grappling with controls and options in the dark is no fun when a simple feature can make things easier.
You’ll want a radio that matches the frequencies available on your license. Not all radios work across frequencies. Make it a point to pick one that can access and handle all frequencies your license makes available.
Bands For The Ham Radio
Ham radios available in the market today can pick up AM, FM, and TV frequencies in addition to ham radio frequencies. If you need access to those additional radio frequency bands, make sure your ham radio can access them. I enjoy access to AM and FM bands, especially while camping outdoors for access to radio channels and programs.
A dual-band radio will let you monitor two frequencies/bands at the same time. Looking for general coverage is also useful.
Memory Slots And Programmability
For conventional use, a radio with a few dozen memory slots will work just fine. However, if you intend to use it for more advanced things like international communication and weather, consider 100-200 memory slots.
Similarly, ease of programming the radio comes in handy. Many radios use advanced features and can be easily programmed through custom software on your computer. With handheld radios, there’s a good chance that they’re going to be used outdoors. In such a scenario, ease of manual programming on the radio itself should be a priority.
Handheld Ham Radio Reviews — Top 7 Put To Test
1. BaoFeng BF-F8HP Dual Band Two-Way Radio
Well-built, well-priced, and feature-rich. Those are the things to look for in a gadget, and the BaoFeng BF-F8HP has them all. This model goes a step above its predecessors and offers the users plenty of choices and options to pick from.
Features of note include power options at 1W, 4W, and 8W, accompanied by easy switching between these modes. At 8W, you could consider this as one of the most powerful handheld radios for beginners. Although practically speaking, that doesn’t make much of a difference.
Battery backup is provided by an improved 2000 mAh battery, while a V-85 High Gain Antenna manages communications. Accessible frequency ranges include commercial FM radio (65-108 MHz), VHF: 136-174 MHz, UHF: 400-520 MHz(Rx/Tx). Users can also pick between broad and narrow bands.
The box includes a PC03 FTDI cable for easy PC programming. And that is the first thing you should put to use when you receive this radio. Be sure to program it to work with the correct frequencies on your license. It does seem to be overly reliant on PC-based programmability, which can be a bit tiring. Even routine things like skipping a channel while scanning needs to go through a PC.
The well-documented and detailed manual should make things easier, and make this radio accessible even to beginners.
- Sturdy and durable construction
- Excellent value
- Easy to program
- Good battery life
- Concierge support for one year
- Some options can only be changed through computer programming
- The receiving antenna is problematic
2. Yaesu VX-6R Tri-Band Submersible Amateur Ham Radio
Well regarded for its quality and features, Yaesu VX-6R is a radio that doesn’t fail to impress. Built to be used outdoors, this radio has a rugged body and design. It will take a few knocks and bruises in its stride, and even shake off being submerged in water. The JIS7 waterproof rating it flaunts is proof of the VX-6R being adept at handling water.
This tri-band radio works on 144, 220 and 430Mhz bands for transmitting. Receiving frequencies cover a wider range, going from 0.5 to 999MHz. It has power modes at 5W and 1.5W and effortlessly switches between the two. An interesting feature is the Emergency Automatic Identification (EAI) that automatically broadcasts your callsign and keeps the microphone open. A simple feature like this can be pretty useful in tough situations for survival. Its use is evident in emergency instances, especially for the outdoors and hiking.
Yaesu VX-6R is compatible with several other accessories from the company, though none of them make it to the box. Even the programming cable has to be bought separately! For a product this expensive, at least the cable should be an in-box accessory. I appreciate the full manual programming controls, but the extra legwork for a cable is just tiresome.
- Rugged and durable
- Easy to use
- Tri-band radio with great frequency receive range
- 900 channels
- Easy access to memory recall
- Battery capacity of 1400 mAh leaves much to be desired
3. Retevis RT5 High Power Dual Band Two Way Radio
Retevis RT5 is the budget option to choose for beginners, or simply for occasions where you don’t want to spend much money. It includes several features like easy car charging, private calls, and keypad settings to bring a whole group into one network.
An included earpiece adds to convenience in conversation. In feel as well as function, this feels more like a walkie talkie, with the ham radio aspect thrown in as an afterthought. The radio range is acceptable, though nowhere near being impressive.
A computer cable and software CD are included in the box. The software seems buggy and makes the process annoying rather than easy. Other interesting features include a four-color LCD and a built-in flashlight.
- Excellent value for money
- Great for voice communication among groups
- Software for programmability is glitchy
- Questionable longevity
- The manual isn’t very useful or detailed
- The included charger may pose some problems
4. BaoFeng UV-5R Dual Band Two Way Radio
BaoFeng UV-5R has been the company’s workhorse and trusted radio for several years now. Sure it seems a little basic, but this transceiver has all its bases covered. It sits slightly lower than the BaoFeng BF-F8HP on the scale of pricing and features.
This device is targeted at beginners who are just starting to dip their toes in the ham radio pool. However, some complicated settings and setup might be difficult for beginners. Now that’s a paradox perhaps unavoidable with budget devices.
The dual-band radio covers VHF 136-174 MHz (Tx) and the UHF 400-520 MHz (Rx/Tx) frequencies. You can also listen to commercial FM radio. You can use the dual-band to independently monitor two channels. If one of the monitored channels becomes active, the radio will automatically switch off the other one.
The large, backlit LCD display keeps users apprised of things going on. Power comes from a powerful 1800 mAh battery that can work for several hours. A built-in flashlight is prominent in other miscellaneous but useful features included in this radio.
- Great value for an entry-level radio
- Good battery life and sound quality
- Can feel complicated for new users
- Build quality could be better
5. Yaesu FT-60R Dual Band Handheld 5W VHF / UHF Amateur Radio Transceiver
Yaesu FT-60R is the radio beginners should buy if the budget allows it. This is a high-quality radio that is both simple and easy to use. While expensive compared to several entry-level radios, the features and good construction actually make it great value for money. Frequencies it receives are 108-520Mhz and 700-999.99Mhz (minus cellular). Transmission is done at 144-148Mhz & 430-470Mhz.
Scan mode on the FT-60R can be used to work with vox mode, frequencies saved in the memory, NOAA Weather Alert, or in a range of frequencies you select. It will, however, not access channels/frequencies carrying trunked communications used by government agencies.
Other features include one thousand memory channels and a 1400 mAh battery The maximum power output from this ham radio is 5W.
- Simple and convenient to use
- Solid and rugged construction
- Good battery life
- Water resistant (not waterproof – it should not be submerged in water)
- The antenna is weak. It’s better to replace it with another radio
- The manual isn’t well detailed
6. TYT MD-380 DMR Digital Radio
TYT MD-380 DMR effortlessly switches between digital and analog modes. It can work with frequencies between 400 and 480MHz. This is a great starter for enthusiasts looking into DMR/Moto TRBO Ham Radio.
Once in digital mode, the radio can handle text messages as well. Other features include private call, group call, and all call for digital mode. Once you move to analog, there is a smaller range of functions available. That is to be expected, the magic here is all about digital. As such, many features of this device are best used, or only available with digital mode. It’s not just features, the voice clarity works beautifully as well.
There are a stunning 1000 channels to access, you can scan via channel or priority, and even use the DTMF keyboard. Power for the device is 5W and the battery is 2000mAh.
- Excellent features
- Easy to setup and use
- Big and clear LED screen
- Works in digital as well as analog mode
- Good value
- Questionable longevity
- Though simple, it does need a learning curve
7. TYT UV8000E 10W High Power Dual Band VHF UHF Two-Way Radio Ham Walkie Talkie
Unlike its sibling TYT MD-380 DMR, the TYT UV8000E stays firmly rooted in the conventional domain of ham radios. And it does so with gumption. It works in the frequency range of 144-148/420-450 MHz to better comply with regulations. However, the manual includes instructions for unlocking other bands and VFO. It’s better to always stick to the frequencies on your license.
Antenna and cross band repeater on TYT UV8000E can draw a power of 10W, though the manufacturer recommends not staying on this mode for more than a few minutes. The battery employed is an impressive 3600 mAh. That works well for the powerful operation of this radio, as well as its standby time.
Manual programmability is limited, and to access and use full features, you will have to attach this radio to a computer.
- Good battery backup
- Fairly good range
- Very well priced
- Can be difficult to use
- Must have access to a computer for programming
- Questionable durability
Handheld Ham Radio FAQs
How far can you communicate with a ham radio?
The distance can vary from a few kilometers to the entire world. Range depends on several factors including the power of the antenna, height of the antenna, frequency in use, and even the weather! A simple ham radio covers a few kilometers, a high frequency radio (including hf handheld radio) can go across the world. Repeater stations can remarkably increase the range of your radio.
Can anyone buy a ham radio?
Anyone can buy a ham radio, but only those with a license can legally transmit over the radio. If you want to use a ham radio, get a license – the process is not that difficult. It should be noted, anyone can transmit using a ham radio in emergency and life or death situations.
How much is a ham radio license?
The license is free, but you pay for the test. For 2019, the fee for the first attempt at each test is $15. You might have to spend some extra to buy the study guide/manual, and on other things to prepare for your test.
What is the best ham radio for a beginner?
Yaesu FT-60R is an excellent radio for beginners. Those on a tight budget can consider the BaoFeng BF-F8HP and similar models.
How many questions is the ham radio test?
Technician Class and General Class license tests have 35 questions each. The Extra Class License test includes 50 questions.
Can a felon get a ham radio license?
Yes, but there are some requirements to fulfill. Felons applying for a ham radio license will have to disclose any felony convictions. They will also have to provide an explanation regarding the conviction. There’s no checklist, but the explanation should include the penalty imposed, and whether the penalty has been satisfied completely.
The Road To The Best Handheld Ham Radio
Once you have a license, it’s time to take the ham radio out for a spin. Those who spend time outdoors, or have a need for a portable radio certainly will find the handheld option great. It may not be as powerful as the conventional radio setup, but the best handheld ham radio will meet most requirements of enthusiasts and beginners alike.