CB vs Ham Radio: Their Differences and How to Use Them

The CB and Ham radios are both two-way communication devices that enable an operator to transmit and receive audio over long distances. Both operate in different frequencies and are regulated to stay that way to prevent interference with each other.

The main differences between a CB and Ham radio boils to the following characteristics:

CB Radio

  • Legal Power Output: 4 watts
  • Effective Range: maximum of 50 miles (base station)
  • Modulation: AM
  • Clarity: more static and white noise
  • Ease of Use and Setup: requires tuning
  • Licensing: No license
  • Operating Frequency: 26.965 to 27.405 MHz

Ham Radio

  • Legal Power Output: 8 watts up to 1,500 watts
  • Effective Range: minimum of 2 miles up to global range (via repeaters)
  • Modulation: FM
  • Clarity: clearer, less static and background noise
  • Ease of Use and Setup: easier with minimal tuning
  • Licensing: License required
  • Operating Frequencies: 1.6 MHz up to 1,240 MHz

Currently, the ham radio is the preferred communication device due to its range and the clarity of transmitted messages. Despite the dwindling users of CB radio, it is still used by truckers and other hobbyists, and preppers.

Both devices, the CB and the Ham are available in different forms:

  • Base station – connected to a dedicated power source and fixed antennae.
  • Vehicle mounted – installed in vehicles, their power is limited.
  • Handheld – portable devices powered by rechargeable batteries.

Comparison of Features

Legal Power Output

  • CB: 4 watts
  • Ham radio: 8 watts up to 1,500 watts

cb radio mic

The CB radio, which stands for Citizen’s Band, only has a maximum allowed power output of 4 watts. It is heavily regulated by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to prevent cross talk and interference with higher frequency radio waves. However, it can be modified to output at a higher power, but is illegal to do so in the US.

The ham radio on the other hand operates from 8 watts up to 1,500 watts. It allows the ham radio to have a farther reach, but will also drain the power of handheld devices much faster.

Effective Range

tower signal

The range of these radios is limited by their power output, which is why the ham radio in general has a farther range. Their range is also affected by their setup. Base stations will have the farthest reach, while handheld devices are limited by their batteries and have the least range.

In addition to a power source, the length of the antenna will also limit their effective range and especially true for CB radio. A base station with a dedicated antenna or satellite dish will have a farther reach as compared to the shorter antenna of a vehicle mounted and handheld radios.

Furthermore, the range can be extended by using repeaters. These are towers or orbital and ground satellites that bounce off the radio signal and make it possible to communicate throughout the globe. Only the Ham radio is allowed to utilize repeaters, which is why its range is global.

CB Radio Range

  • Base Station: 14 to 50 miles (22.5 to 80.4 kilometers)
  • Vehicle Mounted: 1 mile (1.6 kilometers)
  • Handheld: 100 yards (91 meters)

Ham Radio Range

  • Base Station: 18 miles (29 kilometers) and more
  • Vehicle Mounted: less than 5 to 8 miles (8 to 12.8 km)
  • Handheld: 2 miles (3.2 kilometers)

Modulation and Clarity of Audio Output

adjusting radio volume

Radio devices work by taking in information in the form of a voice, turning it into an electrical signal, combining it with a carrier wave which is generated by a transmitter, and then passing it through a modulator before getting transmitted through the air. CB and Ham radio differ on the type of modulation applied on the resulting wave, which greatly affects quality and range.

The CB uses Amplitude Modulation or AM. This wave has a low frequency and is easily affected during its transmission through the air. The interference picked up during air travel results in background noise and static. A benefit of a lower frequency signal is that its radio waves easily bends over and around mountains, and into valleys.

The Ham radio on the other hand uses Frequency Modulation or FM. It is a higher, faster frequency and is not easily affected by interference. That is why the sound transmitted and produced by FM radios is much clearer with little to no background noise.

Ease of Use and Setup

setup radios

Both devices are fairly easy to set up. For a base station, both devices need a dedicated power supply that can output the required amount of power. Most CB radios will need an AC to DC converter. In addition to this, both need an external antenna.

Another thing that needs to be done is tuning the antenna using an SWR tuner. It’s not required, however, tuning with an SWR reduces energy loss and heating of essential radio components. Ideally, radios should have an SWR reading of 1 to 2.

Any higher results to the radio waves you are trying to send out (transmit) to flow back from the antenna to the radio and cause heating of elements which may potentially damage components.

To better learn how to use an SWR check out this short video below.

Licensing

Operating a CB radio doesn’t require a license as long as you stay well within the legal limit of using 4 watts of power output. Using any illegal modification such as a linear amplifier to boost the transmission power of a CB radio will result in a fine for operating without a license.

On the other hand, the operation of a ham radio requires an amateur operator license grant from the FCC. Before receiving this grant, you must pass an examination administered by a team of volunteer examiners. To learn more about how to get an amateur radio license, check out the official FCC website.

Another restriction in place is that licensed ham radio operators are not allowed to talk/communicate with unlicensed operators. One exception is in the case of emergencies, where no restrictions are applied.

Allowed Frequencies

frequencies radio

The CB radio uses frequencies from 26.965 up to 27.405 MHz. Each channel is generally spaced at .010MHz apart which means that there are 40 available channels to use. It is illegal to access frequencies that are higher than 27.405 MHz since they belong to ether a business group, the government, or the military.

All of the 40 available channels are open to everyone. However, there are channels such as channel 9 and the trucker channels that are reserved for a specific group or use.

  • Channel 9 (27.065 MHz): Reserved for emergency communications
  • Channels 10 (27.075 MHz), 17 (27.165 MHz), 19 (27.185 MHz), and 21 (27.215 MHz) are open to everyone but are mostly used by truckers.

Restricted CB Frequencies

  • 430, 27.450, 27.470, 27.490, 27.510, and 27.530 MHz are used by business radio services.
  • 540 up to 28.000 MHz is controlled by the Federal Government.
  • 480 to 26.960 MHz belongs to the US Military.
  • 620 MHz is used by the Civil Air Patrol, a part of the USAF.

As for the Ham radio. Their operating frequency is so vast and varied. It’s best to look at the different frequency allocations by the National Association for AMATEUR RADIO.

Final Thoughts

A base station Ham radio has a better range than a base station CB radio. Moreover, there’s a dwindling number of base station CB radio users, and these radios are more commonly seen installed in vehicles such as cars and trucks. However, in an SHTF scenario, preppers should have multiple ways of communication and there’s no real downside in keeping both a Ham radio and a CB radio.