5. Choosing Your First Radio 

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.

Receive-Only Bands

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.

Special Features

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)

Selection Considerations

Some things to think about before deciding on your radio include:

* Size: does it need to fit in your pocket or in a pouch?

* Bands: which bands are you likely to use or need (see above)?

* Cost: what’s your budget? Don’t forget the “extras (see below)”.

* Controls: are they easy to understand and use?

  Do you need to sort through a bunch of menus to do anything?

* Features: is a backlight necessary? Must it be submersible?

* Programming: will it be easy to manually program or must a computer be used?

* Construction quality: is it rugged? Will it keep working if dropped?

Recommended Accessories

We said at the beginning of this page that handheld radios “can work pretty much out of the box, with no other accessories required (though some are recommended).” Unless you will be a very casual user, you’ll find a few accessories for your radio will make your use of it much better. You won’t need all of these right away; or perhaps at all. But some will certainly come in handy.


Extends the speaker and microphone away from the radio, so you can use it while the radio is secured to your belt, in a pouch, on a desk, etc. Note: In California and other states, this is required to legally use your handheld radio while driving.

* Ear plug

Plugs into the speaker-mic to allow you to hear better in noisy environments, to hear weak signals, or prevent disturbing those near you. Mutes the speaker when plugged in.

* Drop-in charger

Some radios come with a drop-in charger, but most come with a wall-wart type. A good drop-in charger charges the radio more quickly, is more convenient, and manages the charge rate to extend the battery life.

* Vehicle charger cord

Allows you to charge the radio by plugging it into (what used to be called) the cigarette lighter receptacle in the car.

* Carrying case/pouch

Essentially all handhelds come with a belt clip. But a good pouch adds protection and versatility.

* Extra battery

If you may be using your radio for an extended period, such as for public service events or emergency response, an extra charged battery will be invaluable.

* AA-Battery adapter

As an alternative to the extra battery, an adapter that fits into the battery space of the radio and holds AA size batteries is an excellent option. But check to make sure such an adapter for your radio will be able to provide full power (4-5 watts). Some radios will only transmit 2-3 watts while on a AA battery adapter.

* Mag-Mount antenna

An antenna with a magnetic base can be quickly placed on the roof of a car for a temporary mobile station, or easily adapted into a temporary base station.

* Other antennas

Mobile antennas, directional (beam) antennas and other types, mounted on a tripod, mast, vehicle or building, can be used to turn your handheld into a temporary base or mobile station.

* Antenna adapters

You’ll need coaxial adapters to convert those antennas above to a connector that fits your radio.

* Desktop mount stand

A desktop stand can hold your radio while you work stations at your desk or table using the speaker-mic.

* Vehicle mount

Mount a device onto your vehicle’s dashboard, center console, heater vent or cup-holder to turn your handheld into a mobile rig. Note: In California and other states, this is required to legally use your handheld radio while driving.

* Programming software
If you want to program a lot of channels into your radio, or will be changing them frequently, using programming software makes it easy and quick.