There are as many opinions on the best radio to buy as there are radios, maybe more. More than anything, it depends on what you plan to do with it, and where you plan to do it.
A first-time ham radio operator is almost always best off getting a handheld radio initially. It provides the best balance among portability, capability and cost. And unlike mobile and base station radios, it can work pretty much out of the box, with no other accessories required (though some are recommended). Other radio types need additional antennas, power sources, etc. that complicate matters, so are best left for a second or third radio. For the rest of this discussion, we’ll focus on handheld radios.
Your first handheld should be capable of two frequency bands; the 2-meter band (144 – 148 MHz) and the 70 centimeter band (420 - 450 MHz). We also recommend that you talk with your ham radio friends, neighbors and/or club acquaintances, and lean toward getting the same radio they have. That way, they can better help you with your questions.
Also, we suggest that your first radio be fully analog. Save the various digital formats for later. See below.
A note on jargon. Handheld radios go by multiple terms. They’re also known as “portables” and “HTs” as well as “handhelds”. The term “HT” stands for “Handi-Talkie”, both terms of which are trademarked by Motorola, but are now in common usage. Handi-Talkie was the name of one of Motorola’s early radio series. All of these terms are now used interchangeably in the ham world.
* Basic Handheld Types
* Receive-Only Bands
* Special Features
* Selection Considerations
* Recommended Accessories
Basic Handheld Types
There are several general types of radios.
Single Band radios are capable of only one band; usually the 2 meter band (144-148 MHz) or the 70 centimeter band (440-448 MHz); but not both.
Dual Band radios are the most popular and allow two bands. The most common have the 2 meter band (144-148 MHz) and the 70 centimeter band (440-448 MHz) in them.
Multi-Band radios are capable of three bands (tri-band) or four bands (quad-band). The most common tri-band radios have the 2 meter band (144-148 MHz), 1.25 meter band (219-225 MHz) and the 70 centimeter band (440-448 MHz); while common quad-band radios have the above three, plus the 6 meter band (50-54 MHz). There are other variations. These radios definitely have their value and are perfect for some applications. But we don’t recommend them as a first radio. They are more expensive; add complexity & potential confusion; and require some compromises in the design to get all those bands into a tiny radio.
Digital radios are capable of transmitting in one or more digital formats as well as analog. The primary digital ham formats are known as Digital Mobile Radio (DMR); D-Star and P-25; although Yaesu's Fusion system is gaining some ground. The first two are by far the more popular in ham radio. We don’t recommend a digital radio as your first one because they are usually more expensive; must be programmed (via a computer) before they can be used; are more complicated to use; and generally can’t use any channels unless they’re been pre‑programmed into the radio, even analog channels.
If you’re not yet familiar with the concepts of analog and digital radios, don’t worry. You’ll learn about them while you study for your license. You can also read this How Stuff Works page, or if you’re a bit more ambitious, see this Wikipedia page.
The discussions of available bands above refer the ability of the radio to transmit on those frequencies. Virtually all radios that are from reputable, established firms also have numerous other bands included in them, but in receive-only mode.
For example, my favorite handheld can receive on the following frequencies: 108-137 MHz (Air Band), 137-520 MHz (both AM and FM), and 700-999.990 MHz (FM only). Any cellular phone frequencies in these bands are programmed out of this list, as required by law. Note that the 137-520 band includes the 2-meter and 70 centimeter amateur bands discussed previously. In addition all this, all NOAA weather channels are pre‑programmed and quickly accessible with a few easy key strokes. See our Weather Channels page. Some other radios even have the ability to receive FM broadcast radio stations (88-108 MHz).
If listening to any of these frequencies on your ham radio is important to you, check the specifications of any radio you’re considering before you purchase.
Some of the radios outlined above have special features, such as APRS, GPS or IRLP, but are not needed in your first radio. They will just add cost and complexity, so we suggest you avoid them for now.
* APRS = Automatic Packet Reporting System (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Automatic_Packet_Reporting_System)
* GPS = Global Positioning System (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Global_Positioning_System)
* IRLP = Internet Radio Linking Project (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Internet_Radio_Linking_Project)