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Ham Radio vs. CB Radio : Differences & How they Work?

When disaster strikes, cell phones are down, and the internet unreliable, it can be useful to have a Ham or CB radio on hand. While the two choices may seem equally viable, understanding their differences in advance can help save you time when you’re ready to make a purchase.

Ham radio is generally stronger than CB radios, with more range in its signal. They also work on FM frequencies for clear communication. In contrast, CB radios are intended for shorterrange communication. They work on AM frequencies, which can be prone to static or interference with more distance.

Whether you’re preparing for emergencies or plan on using your radio for your next outdoor adventure, knowing whether Ham or CB radio is best to use in different situations can ensure you choose the right one for your needs.

Ham Radio vs. CB Radio differences
Ham Radio vs. CB Radio

What is Ham Radio?

The landlines responsible for our cost-effective and efficient communication on a day-to-day basis can seem very reliable, but their effectiveness can plummet during a natural disaster. Our landlines are designed to support only a small percentage of calls at any given time, so during emergencies, when so many calls are being placed, these technologies can reach their limits. A Ham radio offers a convenient solution during times of uncertainty.

A Ham radio, often referred to as an “Amateur Radio,” is a device that enables people to communicate over vast distances. While Ham radios can seem like an unnecessary relic of the past in an age of rapid technological advancement, they are unique because they can function without the need for internet or cellular service. Ham radios can be set up anywhere, like a local field, inside your office, and even at home.

Ham radios have been acknowledged by the FCC (Federal Communications Commission) as devices that can be used as a hobby, but they require a license to operate. Ham radios are not for commercial use, so any interested individual would have to go through training to be legally allowed to use a Ham radio. The FCC has six types of licenses, with each class offering more privileges.

In most countries, including the United States, a radio frequency spectrum is allocated to citizens for non-commercial use; this attracts many people capable of using and advancing the technology involved. Some of the devices we enjoy today, such as our cell phones and television sets, were actually invented by early Ham radio enthusiasts.

What is a CB Radio?

A CB radio, otherwise known as a Citizens Bands radio, is a type of radio communication device that falls within the umbrella of Personal Radio Service (PRS) and is intended for commercial use.

Unlike Ham radios, using a CB radio doesn’t require a license. While Ham radios offer more private lines, CB radios have a maximum of 40 channels, which can be susceptible to interference.

CB radios are intended for short-range communication between individuals, homes, those in areas where cell phone service is scarce, and most commonly between truck drivers. It got its start in the United States when it was decided the country needed to regulate mobile radiotelephones at the time. By 1975, the FCC permitted its usage as a hobby, similar to other countries in the world.

Differences Between Ham Radio and CB Radio

Generally speaking, Ham radio can use more power than CB radio. Federally, CB radio is only allowed up to 4 watts of power. In comparison, a licensed Ham radio operator can use up to 1500 watts of power, meaning that Ham radios can potentially be up to 375-times more powerful than their counterpart.

Range

While the difference in power allocated to the radios plays a role in the maximum distance that they can reach, other various factors influence this:

  • Size and quality of the radio’s antenna
  • How high the radio’s antenna is off the ground
  • Terrain or structures that are in the way
  • Location, such as whether you’re in a rural or urban area
  • Wavelength and frequency
  • Weather and atmospheric environment

Because of all the different factors that need to be considered when deducing a radio’s range, it’s difficult and technically impossible to give 100% accurate numbers regarding this metric. However, in general, Ham radios are known to have a higher range than CB radios.

TypeCB RadiosHam Radios
Handheld Radio2-5 miles1-20 miles
Mobile Radio5-10 miles20-1200 miles
Station-Based Radio10-50 miles40-2500 miles

While it can be ill-advised to use radios in locations where your signal can be interrupted, Ham radios generally offer more range in this regard as well. In addition, on flat lands such as the desert, a Ham radio using the same power as a CB radio can get you significantly more miles of range. The same applies to when you’re floating across the ocean.

  • Note: Regardless of which radio you use, if you want to increase its coverage, it’s always recommended that you use the device at a higher location or elevation.

Frequency

CB radios and Ham radios offer different frequencies as well, with CB only giving access to AM, and Ham radios giving access to FM.

When it comes to these two frequencies, most people vaguely understand that in their car, the AM frequency is more prone to static and has more talk shows on it, while the FM frequency is generally clear and contains music stations.

The true difference between the two lies in how each frequency interprets sound. In other words:

AM deals with sound changes by varying its amplitude, hence why its full name stands for “Amplitude Magnification.” When you switch channels and flip through amplitudes, the result is static on AM.

On FM, or “Frequency Modulation,” while these amplitude changes exist, the result is different. Instead of changes in sound being presented to the listener through amplitude changes, FM instead changes its frequency, resulting in a significantly cleaner sound.

With Ham radios utilizing FM, the sound is much more reliable and consistent than CB radios.

Additionally, CB radios run on 27 MHz frequency, while Ham runs on either a 147 MHz or 440 MHz frequency. All this means is that the higher the frequency, the further the signal can go and the easier time it will have traveling through objects such as rocks, trees, cars, terrains, and buildings. This makes the Ham radio especially valuable during times of disaster.

Note: Technically, the lower frequency that CB radios offer allows them to more successfully “bend” around mountains, but the low watts cap prevents the device from doing that very well.

In Summary

Ham radios and CB radios are similar because they are both used for distanced communication, but their similarities end there:

Despite being called “Amateur Radios,” only people with a license can operate Ham radios. CB radios are available for commercial use but don’t have the same potency as their counterpart.

Ham radios also offer significantly more range than CB radios because of the higher option of frequencies available.

Ham radios have access to much more power, legally reaching 1500 watts of energy, while CB radios are only able to use a maximum of 4 watts.

CB radios are great for short distance occasions such as keeping in contact with friends while running in the mountains. Ham radios make great tools for communicating over long distances during local or national emergencies.

In conclusion, although Ham radios are generally stronger, each radio is capable of fulfilling your communication needs; it just depends on what you’re looking for in your device.

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