CB vs Ham Radio – Their Differences & How to Use Them

CB and ham radios are the most popular two-way radios among survivalists due to their simplicity and efficiency. Ham radios are relatively new to the game while CB radios go way back into the 60s and 70s.

CB radios are better for if you’re on a budget and you’re only communicating with people nearby. Ham radios require licenses so they’re more professional and more expensive. However, they’re easier to set up and their signals can travel further.

The main differences between the two are:

  • How they work
  • Power source
  • Antenna length
  • FM vs AM
  • Distance
  • Modifications
  • Licensing

Both of the radios are reliable communication devices during emergencies when phones and other digital platforms may fail. It’s important to take a look at their differences so that you can get the type of radio that best suits your survival needs.

Differences Between CB And Ham Radios

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How They Work

A CB radio stands for citizens band radio. You may think of it as a landline radio because it’s used to communicate between two parties across a short distance. It typically uses amplitude modulation (AM) systems and is largely for personal uses only. A CB radio setup is quite affordable, too.

Ham radio is also known as amateur radio. This is a private, two-way communications device and you may see it being used in official businesses and formal settings. This is wireless so it’s easy to set up and use. The main downside is that it’s expensive and it requires a license for you to be able to legally operate it. While the licensing is fairly easy to attain, that also means that the people you plan to communicate with should also get the licenses. The ham radio license is made up of three certifications that you need to accomplish.

Power

CB radios are capped at 4 watts while ham radios are capped at 1500 watts by the FCC. By the power capacity alone, ham radio is about 375 times more efficient and capable than a CB radio. The only downside is that you’ll need more batteries and a higher output alternator just to run ham radios. If you are unable to accomplish that, you can just opt for hard-wired and mobile ham radios that only need 50 watts to operate.

Other handheld ham radios run on 8 to 10 watts of power. These radios are usually cheap and only cost around 25 dollars. Conversely, CB radios with the same wattage or less are usually more expensive.

Antenna

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The minimum length of CB antennas to make the radio functional is 102 inches or 8.5 feet. A shorter antenna means that you need a standing wave ratio (SWR) meter and a lot of tuning just to get access to 10 to 20 channels. The most popular antenna for CB radios is the Firestick, which measures 48 to 60 inches long. Since they’re shorter than the recommended minimum length, they’re attached to a fiberglass center through wire wrapping or coiling. The more coils there are on an antenna, the fewer the number of channels they can tune into. That’s why it’s more convenient to use an SWR meter but that tends to cost a lot of money just to tune the radio. When using the SWR meter, aim to make the reading turn 1:1.

When the antenna length is only 48 inches, that means that you’ll only get access to half of the channels. You’ll usually get access to channels 1 to 40. It’s important to be selective about the channel you want to tune your radio to. If you tune the radio to channel one, you’ll get a very poor signal to channel 40, but the channel 1 signal will be clear. When you tune the radio to channel 20, you’ll get access to both channels 1 and 40 but the signal is very weak. It’s highly recommended to tune the radio to channel 10 to give you clear access to the channels that most off-roaders utilize.

Ham radios only need a minimum of 19.5 inches to be functional. With such a short length compared to CB radios, you can already get access to the full spectrum of channels used by off-roaders. There’s no need to constantly tune the radio because most ham models are released from the factory with no tuning necessary and already ready to be used.

Some off-roaders go beyond the minimum length and get an antenna that’s 37 to 39 inches long. This amplifies their signal, increases their coverage, and strengthens transmission. This length is also shorter than the minimum length required for CB radios. That means you’ll take up less space yet have a better performance. A shorter antenna is easier to mount and travel with. However, a CB radio will give you access to up to 40 channels while a ham radio will give you access to user-specific channels. Ham radio does give you a broader range of applications such as CW, FM, AM, SSB, and other digital transmissions which make it possible for you to communicate over longer distances. Ham radio can even be used to communicate with an astronaut by sending signals to outer space.

FM vs AM

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Ham radios run on FM while CB radios use AM (amplitude modulation). You’ll notice that AM has more white noise and background static compared to FM. A lot of survivalists prefer ham radios because of the clearer and crispier transmission.

CB radios that run on AM are more for personal use only. They can’t be moved around too much because of the amplitude modulation system. Once tuned, it’s advisable to leave them in the same location because moving them around can cause interference issues such as weak frequencies and background noises. Conversely, ham radios that run on FM can be moved around because the movement won’t affect the clarity and strength of the signal. That’s also the reason why ham radios are typically used among cars because you can still attain a signal while driving around or despite high wind pressure.

Distance

The general rule among radio frequencies is that the higher the frequency, the easier it is for the signal to go through walls, cars, and other surfaces. CB radios work through 27 MHz frequencies while ham radios run on 147 to 440 MHz. While the frequency of CB radios is too low to puncture barriers, it makes it easy for the signal to move across mountains. Ham UHF works well over deserts, water, or any other flat surfaces.

A CB radio that is properly tuned and operating only up to the legal 4 watts limit can reach a quarter of a mile. It can go up to 0.5 miles if there aren’t too many trees, posts, or other obstacles in the way. You’ll need more power than the legal limit of 4 watts as well as a longer antenna just to go beyond that distance. That’s why this is only typically used for group outings with no cellular signal. It makes it easy and convenient to communicate with your mates.

A ham radio that only uses 4 watts can reach up to 2 to 5 miles. Since ham radios are allowed to operate with up to 1500 watts, you can expect their performance to be significantly more powerful.

Another main difference is the presence of repeaters. CB radios can’t work with repeaters while ham radios have repeaters everywhere. Once the signal heats a repeater, it increases the range which boosts your coverage. A repeater is advisable if you need to contact someone from a faraway location. It’s inadvisable if you only need to contact a friend who is only a mile away. Its application shines in the field of emergency response because it keeps a record of a call and it’s perfect for urgent scenarios.

Licensing

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This is one of the main differences between the two. You need a license to operate a ham radio while there’s none required for CB radios. The ham radio license is issued by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC). This is the same agency that regulates the airwaves, monitors the power usage, and more.

Ham radio operators are licensed with three certifications. These certifications can be obtained through tests that determine their depth of understanding regarding radio regulations, radio theory, and how to operate the radio correctly. Operators need to be fully knowledgeable about these topics so that they can properly use the radio without interfering with private channels and other signals.

The certifications can be obtained by completing the Technician Class, General Class, and Amateur Extra Class. These classes increase in difficulty but that also means gaining access to a wider range of frequencies and the ability to make long-distance calls.

The CB radio doesn’t require a license to operate. That’s because each CB radio unit is created to be readily usable. CB radios are intended for general public use. Anyone can pick up a CB radio set and use it during emergencies or learn to use it as a hobby. The lines aren’t very secure so they can be intercepted. Its usage is also loosely regulated by the government and the FCC. The only strict regulation is the limitation of its power to only 4 watts.

Modifications

CB radios are strictly not allowed to be modified. That means that a CB radio unit must be operated in the way it is constructed. Its power uptake is low but it should stay that way. These regulations exist to protect the airwaves from getting hacked into. Product modifications are not allowed because anyone can have access to a CB radio.

On the other hand, ham radios are strongly encouraged to get modified so that they’ll become tailor-fit to serve the needs of the user. There are even conventions and events that award the best ham radio modifications. You can find assembly kits sold everywhere so that you can dive into building your station.

Ham radios are still encouraged to be used during emergencies and natural disasters. These radios are used for speedy responses during calamities which is often the main difference between life and death.

If you want a fixed unit that is mostly functional over short-range communication lines, go for a CB radio. If you want something you can tinker with and is more effective across longer distances, try a ham radio.

Equipment Setup

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CB radios require a ton of external equipment just to set up. It runs with the help of a radio antenna which must be at the recommended length. It’s tricky to use because your antenna and tuning must be perfect for it to work. On the other side of the fence, the antenna of the user you want to communicate with must also be set up perfectly. Otherwise, you might be unable to communicate at all.

Ham radios are more efficient because the equipment setup is simple. All you need is the radio unit. There’s no need for excessive tuning or mounting a very long antenna just to get a signal. Simply power up the unit, extend the antenna, and you’re good to go. The only thing you need to ensure is that you and your friend are on the same frequency so that you can talk to each other.