CB vs Ham Radio – What Are the Key Differences?


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CB radio and ham radio both have strong, passionate communities centered around two-way communication using radio equipment. 

CB radio is commonly associated with truckies thanks to movies like “Convoy” and “Smokey and the Bandit” and ham radio is often associated with nerdy technical experimentation around the radio spectrum. But what are the key differences between CB VS ham radio and why do we even distinguish between the two?

Key Takeaways

You don’t need to limit yourself to CB or ham radio. You can do both depending on the equipment and budget you have access to. CB radio is a quick, easy way to get started and if you enjoy it, get your license and expand into ham radio. Otherwise, go straight for ham radio if the technical side appeals to you. Just remember:

  • You need a license for ham radio.
  • CB is about communication. Ham radio is too, but with lots of options for experimentation.
  • CB’s power output is limited to 4W, and range is generally limited to your local vicinity. Ham radio power output can go much higher and range a lot further.
  • Buy according to your budget. CB and ham radio both have plenty of price options.
  • Have fun

CB radio is a quick, easy way to get started with two-way voice communications, especially as you don’t need a license. In the US, using the 40 channels on the 11-meter band you can hear and transmit in your local vicinity as far as your maximum power output of 4 watts can reach. 

Ham radio requires a license to operate which then permits you to transmit across a broader range of radio frequencies on the radio spectrum. 

While ham radio is limited to personal use only, you can send voice, data, and even video, using a wide variety of techniques and technology to achieve further range and good sound quality.  

Deciding whether to use CB radios or get licensed to use ham radios depends on what you want from your radio communication as both have their pros and cons. Here we compare their purpose, range, licensing, pricing, equipment, and power requirements so you can make the best decision for your needs. Over time you might even use and enjoy both.

What are CB and Ham Radio typically used for?

Citizens Band radio (CB radio) can be used for local voice communication for personal or business purposes. The power output from CB equipment is capped at 4 watts which limits the maximum geographical range to your local vicinity. 

If you’re part of a small group within close range of each other, normally one to two miles, CB radios can be a simple way to stay connected without going through all the technical training to become a licensed ham radio operator or the need for cellular network reception. 

In addition to staying connected with friends or colleagues, CB radio users can keep up to date with local information like traffic updates. 

Ham radio operators, otherwise known as amateur radio operators, also use radio services for personal communication, though use for business or commercial broadcasts is not permitted. 

Amateur radio is associated with experimentation, and it’s not unusual for amateur radio operators to build some of their own equipment. Amateur radio operators can communicate using voice, data, or even Morse code. 

Ham radios enable operators to communicate with each other within the amateur radio community and receive other broadcasts including emergency notifications, weather updates, and commercial radio services. 

Due to the experimental nature of amateur radio, testing the limits of range and equipment has spawned many global, national, and local amateur radio clubs and ham radio competitions, resulting in a connected and thriving community across the globe. 

In crisis situations, when other emergency communications methods have failed and phone lines are down, amateur radio operators have been known to become critical communication points within affected regions to support emergency services. 

By knowing how to adapt their equipment to the conditions and available power sources, they can successfully establish radio communication channels in adverse situations.

Both CB radio and ham radio are also good for communicating when cellular networks are not available such as when you’re camping, road-tripping, or otherwise out of range in remote or rural areas.

What equipment do you need for CB vs Ham Radio?

CB equipment tends to comprise of a radio set, microphone, and antenna, with handheld versions available too. While a CB radio license is not required, CB radio users operate under a class license that prohibits the modification of CB radio equipment which must be FCC compliant.

The most basic ham radios are single handsets with a small inbuilt antenna and microphone but don’t be surprised if you find yourself adding piece by piece to a growing collection of amateur radio equipment over time. 

You may choose to test out different antennas, utilizing specialist software, get a Morse key, buy a second-hand transceiver, or invest in a base station as you get familiar with the constraints and range of your equipment. Ham radio is a hobby with a strong component of experimentation. 

It is important to learn the training and have the required license, not just for your safety and others, but so you know how to get the most out of your gear.

How does Ham Radio vs CB Radio operate and over what range?

In the US, CB radio operates on 27 MHz, in the 11m band within HF, across 40 channels defined by the FCC. CB radio primarily uses amplitude modulation* to transmit signals. In simple terms, when you speak into the microphone your voice is converted into radio waves which carry your message by varying the height (or amplitude) of the radio waves created. 

Communication over CB channels can come with a customary and constant background static. You may find it challenging to get consistently good reception, even when you’ve set up your equipment perfectly.

Depending on the design and quality of the CB radio equipment you use, you can reduce interference and improve sound quality

Theoretically, in ideal conditions, CB radios could reach beyond the horizon, and in very rare atmospheric conditions can travel 1000s of miles. However, you should normally expect a range of around one to two miles, and up to five miles maximum. CB radios do not generally use repeaters and tend to be limited to their immediate vicinity.

The amateur radio service mostly comprises defined parts of the HF, VHF, and UHF portions of the radio spectrum. 40m, 2m, and 70cm bands are most popular, although other common bands include 80m, 30m, 20m, 15m, and 10m. The key point being amateur radio has a wider choice of frequency bands than CB radio.

Ham radios also have greater options for encoding and transmitting messages, and more modes of operation including voice, data, or even video. These different amateur radio frequencies and their appropriate modulation methods*, give you greater choice for achieving a cleaner, clearer signals because you can adjust for the conditions and your environment. 

For instance, transmitting over UHF’s 70cm band using FM, is better suited to urban-based communications, while transmitting over HF’s 80m bands using SSB, is better for long-distance communication. In fact, amateur radio operators can achieve worldwide long-range transmissions in the right conditions. 

In VHF, UHF, and SHF (super-high frequency) communications, repeaters, or even satellites, are used to extend range beyond local line-of-sight.


What is the power output of CB Radio vs Ham Radio?

CB radio equipment has limited power output and is capped at 4W in the US, or 12W if transmitting on SSB. 

Licensed ham radio operators are permitted to utilize power as high as 1500W. 

What antenna options do I have with Ham Radio vs CB?

Antennas are a critical piece of radio equipment for CB and ham radio. Setting them upright determines the quality of communications.

You need to set your antenna up carefully with CB radio to get maximum clarity and it takes a bit of effort to get it just right. If you’re planning to use CB radio to keep in touch with a friend, both of you must set up your antennas correctly for them to function well.

The reality is CB radio antennas are compromised from the start because they’ve been designed to be portable, meaning they are smaller than they need to be to achieve a greater range. CB antennas must be big enough to maximize their reach but small enough to attach to vehicles. 

CB reception quality deteriorates once the outer limits of their range is reached, even if the antenna is set up properly and the radio is connected correctly. Larger antennas for CB radios improve reception but must be compliant with regulations. Larger antennas are portable if designed to be mounted on a vehicle but check how sturdy they are as they’ll need to endure changeable and extreme external conditions.

Ham radio antennas can be all shapes and sizes. They can be portable or fixed, large or small, and importantly, by holding a license you can customize them to make the most efficient use of the radio services available.

What is the difference in price between CB and Ham Radio?

It is difficult to compare the CB and ham radio on price alone. You can get started cheaply and quickly on amateur radio with a couple of handhelds. You can keep the hobby inexpensive by learning how to build your own radios and antennas, or by buying or repairing secondhand equipment. 

Plenty of online communities and markets exchange information, knowledge, and equipment. Part of the fun of amateur radio as a hobby is in the technical aspects of how radios and antenna work and how to get the most from what you have to hand.

Ham radio doesn’t have to be expensive. It can start off cheaper compared to CB but can quickly mount up depending on how your hobby evolves.

CB radio equipment is generally ready to plug and play, straight out of the box. Very little modification is permitted (without breaking the license conditions). It might seem more expensive to get set up with CB in the short term, but you can also get started with a relatively inexpensive kit.

In a nutshell, don’t decide on whether CB or ham radio is right for you based on price alone. Choose based on what you want to achieve from CB or amateur radio, and you will find a budget, mid-range, and premium options in both. The most expensive kit is the equipment you never use.

Do I need a license to operate CB Radio vs Ham Radio?

You need a license to be an amateur radio (Ham) operator, but not for CB radio. Many aspects of amateur radio involve technical knowledge and understanding radio theory. Obtaining the proper license ensures you have passed the examination, understand the FCC rules, and know-how to operate safely across the amateur radio service. 

Without proper training, playing around with sometimes powerful radio equipment and antennas can be dangerous, or interfere with commercial stations and frequencies dedicated to emergency, military, or other specific uses. For these reasons, amateur radio operators must be licensed. 

CB radios are covered by a class license, so individuals don’t need to obtain one personally. One of the conditions of the class license is that CB radio operates on low power, a maximum of 4 watts. Modifying CB radio equipment to achieve higher power output is not permitted under the conditions of the CB radio class license.

How do I decide Between CB Radio and Ham Radio?

Plenty of amateur radio operators talk about how they got started with CB radio and many radio enthusiasts are familiar with both CB and ham radios. Each has its pros and cons and it really comes down to what your situation is and what outcome you are looking for. You can always do both!

When deciding whether to pursue ham radio or CB radio, key areas of consideration include:

  1. Who do you plan to talk or listen to and what equipment do they have? What kind of radios do your friends all have, or are you interested in engaging in the broader radio community?
  1. What do you want to use the radio for? Is it mainly for keeping in touch with friends during a road trip or are you interested in experimenting with radio equipment?
  1. Is your location mobile or fixed? E.g., are you operating from your shed or using your radios while camping? How portable does your equipment have to be? CB tends to be designed for vehicles. Ham radios come in many forms and can be fixed, mobile and handheld, meaning they can range from heavy and immovable to light and portable.
  1. What kind of power supply would you like to use? Options include car battery, mains, solar, and battery-powered.
  1. How many hours of use do you need the radio equipment for each time? Check out the battery life of different models or consider the availability of a continuous or alternative power source.
  1. How technically savvy are you? Would you like something that works straight out of the box with minimal setup, or would you like something you can tinker with and tailor to your circumstances?
  1. What range do you want to operate in or reach? CB is great for your local vicinity while ham radio opens up an entire world of possibilities with many frequency bands to choose from.

Things to check before you buy:

  • Accessibility requirements:  e.g., visibility of displays, ease of use of controls, and portability
  • Quality of equipment: e.g., brand reputation, warranties, and ease of repair 
  • Do you have, or plan, to get an Amateur Radio license?
  • Is the equipment easy to set up, install, and get started?
  • What other functionality do you want? E.g., access to NOAA stations and other radio services, a clock, siren, inbuilt torch, solar panels, etc.
  • What is your budget?
  • September 12, 2021
Paul Dudley

Paul is the owner and founder of WhollyOutdoor.com . His passion for ham radios and fishing lead him to create this site. He loves playing with his radios and doing many other outdoor activities