Best Ham Radios of 2018 – Buying Guide and Reviews

If you are in search of a hobby which can unite you with people from all around the world while teaching you more about communication technology, you may want to take up amateur radio, better known as “ham radio.” Ham radio is popular among enthusiasts of all ages, and has resulted in a unique global community. While ham radio is fun and educational, it can also be vitally important in an emergency. You can set up a ham radio at home, at work, or out in the field. Wherever you go, you can stay in touch with the world.

If you are thinking about getting started with ham radio but do not know what to purchase, you can compare some popular models in the table below.

Yaesu FT-7900RCheck Price on Amazon
Yaesu FT-450DCheck Price on Amazon
ICOM 2300HCheck Price on Amazon
Kenwood TS-480Check Price on Amazon

If you still have questions about ham radio and want to learn more about different features before you shop, read on to explore ham radio in-depth in our full guide.

What is Ham Radio?

Ham radio is another name for amateur radio. With ham radio, you can call other users on designated “amateur band” frequencies. By definition, “amateur” radio use is always private and non-commercial. Ham radio may involve voice communication, Morse code, packet, radio teletype, PSK, or image transmission. In order to get started, you do need to take a test and get a license from the FCC.

Who Uses Ham Radio?

There really is no “typical” ham radio operator, which is one of the great things about it. Hams can be anyone living anywhere. One day you might find yourself talking to a 10-year-old boy in the next town over. The next, you could be talking to an 89-year-old woman from halfway across the world. Hams are found in all countries, at all income level, and at all ages. That makes ham radio a great hobby to connect yourself to people from all walks of life.

Handheld vs. Mobile vs. Base Units

Before you can shop for a ham radio, you must first decide on what type you want. Handheld models are designed to be carried around. They can usually be clipped to your belt it needed. Mobile ham radios are designed to be installed in your vehicle. Base ham radios, also called “fixed” units, are designed for permanent installation in a structure (like your home or workplace). See question #1 after the section below.

You Need a License to Operate Ham Radio

You may be surprised to learn that you need a license from the FCC before you can legally operate a ham radio. After all, it is amateur radio. But it is necessary to realize that the FCC considers ham radio operators important from a practical standpoint. Because ham radio enthusiasts may come to the aid of others during emergencies, the FCC feels they should be licensed and prepared for such situations. That way they can help instead of cluttering up communication channels.

There are three different types of ham radio licenses you can apply for

The Technician License

If you are aiming to get an entry-level license, this is the one you need. To qualify, you just need to pass a test with 35 questions. If you pass, you will be able to use the bands above 30 megahertz. This should be sufficient to connect with users in your local area, and most likely throughout North America. You can send some international communications, but they are highly restricted at this level.

The General License

If you are ready to get an international license, apply for the General License. This will allow you to send and receive transmissions around the world. The test involves just 35 questions. Note that the Technician License exam is a prerequisite, so you have to pass that one before taking the General License exam.

The Amateur Extra License

This is a more rigorous exam involving 50 questions. If you pass it, you will be able to use all modes and bands. This is the top level of ham radio licensing. Obtaining the General License is required before you can take the Amateur Extra License test.

Questions to Ask when Shopping for a Ham Radio

Where will you use your radio, and what will you use it for?

As mentioned previously, there are three different types of ham radio: handheld, mobile, and base. In order to pick the right type, you will need to think both about where you will install the radio and how you plan to use it. While handheld models have the benefit of portability, base units are more powerful. So you may decide to sacrifice portability for performance, or vice versa. Keep in mind that some radios can actually be used as base or mobile units.

What bands do you need?

Next, you will need to think about the types of communications you are interested in. This will help you figure out what bands to look for in a radio. You may need a combination of VHF, UHF, and/or HF bands depending on if you want to communicate locally, regionally, nationwide, or globally. Here are some basic guidelines:

  • For short-range emergency communication: Look for a VHF/UHF radio. A portable radio with around 3-5 watts of power is fine for this use.
  • Home HF communication: For this of course you need an HF transceiver. If you want, you can look for one which also includes UHF and VHF coverage.
  • Local or regional communication: You should get a radio which has at least 25 watts of power and offers UHF and VHF coverage.
  • Portable operating: Look for VHF and HF bands for a portable ham radio.

Features and Add-Ons to Look For When Shopping for a Ham Radio

Power Output

The higher the power output of a ham radio, the better the range will be. Some portable models have as few as 5 watts of power, while other more powerful radios have 50+ watts.

Frequency Coverage

As previously discussed, different ham radios cover different bands. Look for the bands you need for the types of communications you want to participate in. Also check for features like dual band (monitor two frequencies at once) and general coverage (this adds AM, FM and TV frequencies alongside standard ham radio bands).

LCD Display

A high-quality alphanumeric LCD display and an illuminated keypad keep your radio visible and easy to use even in the dark. This can be vital during an emergency.

Memory Channels

You can use these channels to store frequencies. Some ham radios include hundreds of memory channels.

Weather Alert

This feature will enable you to receive alerts from NOAA and local authorities. That way you will always know if inclement weather is on its way. It is particularly handy in portable ham radios, but is worth considering in a fixed unit as well if you live in a location which is subject to harsh weather.

Scan Functions

Find the frequencies you need quickly and easily with multiple scan functions. Some types to look for include full scan, memory scan, programmed scan, ban scan, priority scan, skip scan and others.

CTCSS & DCS Encoder/Decoder

Continuous Tone-Coded Squelch System (CTCSS) and Digital-Coded Squelch (DCS) help to keep conversations on the same frequency separate from one another.

Quality Build

If you drop your radio or it is subjected to shock in your vehicle, you don’t want it to stop working. Low quality radios may not hold up great to use, but those with a rugged build can withstand harsh conditions.

Squelch

With the squelch feature, channel noise is suppressed in order to keep communications clear and reduce general annoyance.

Programmable

Many ham radios can be programmed manually. Don’t just buy any programmable model of ham radio though without investigating how it works. Some models only allow you to use the radio itself to do the programming (through the keypad). Others give you the option of programming the radio through a computer. For ease-of-use, pick the latter.

Now you are familiar with the most important features to look for when shopping for a ham radio. To compare popular and highly-rated models for sale, scroll back up to the chart at the top of this page. Otherwise, you may read on for detailed reviews.

Yaesu FT-7900R: A Solid Dual-Band Ham Radio with Easy Programming

If you are looking for value in a dual-band ham radio which is easy to program and provides you with plenty in the way of power and features, the Yaesu FT-7900R is a good choice. Its affordability and ease-of-use makes it an excellent option for beginning ham radio operators.

Good

  • High power output. This radio provides you with 50 watts of power to use on 144 MHz and 40 watts to use on 430 MHz.
  • Conserve power when you need to. Don’t want to chew through power? There are three lower power settings you can use when you do not need 40-50 watts.
  • Wide coverage. You can receive coverage from 108-520 MHz as well as 700-999.99 MHz.
  • Backlit LCD display. Use your radio effectively even at nighttime or in dark locations.
  • Easy configuration. There are five keys on the front panel which you can use to store the configuration status at any time. That way you can access that same configuration again in the future with just one touch.
  • NOAA weather alerts. Always know when inclement weather is on the way with NOAA alerts.
  • WIRES™. This is an internet linking capability which allows you to use VoIP with your ham radio.
  • Easy to program. You can use software to program this radio, which is a big help especially for novice users.
  • Rugged build. This is a sturdy radio which should stand the test of time.

Bad

  • The user manual is not all that great. The documentation is confusing and is lacking with respect to some important information, which can cause issues during the initial setup.
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Yaesu FT-450D: A Powerful Radio With Balanced Features

Another high-quality Yaesu ham radio worth thinking about is the FT-450D. While this radio is more expensive than the FT-7900R, it also transmits with more power and offers you more great capabilities for the price.

Good

  • Ample power. With the FT-450D, you can transmit on 100 watts.
  • Wide frequency band. This includes 30Khz-54Mhz along with all AM and shortwave.
  • Keep your conversations free of interruptions. CTCSS helps to filter out unwanted conversations on the same frequency.
  • Illuminated keypad. The buttons on the keypad light up so that you can use this radio easily in the dark.
  • Rugged design. This is a radio which is well-built out of sturdy materials. As such, it should hold together well in a variety of environments.
  • Surprisingly compact size. Normally a radio which has all of these great features would be a lot larger. Nonetheless, this one is reasonably contained. This is accomplished by having various controls fulfill multiple functions.
  • Excellent ease-of-use. Even with some of the controls pulling double-duty, it is relatively easy to learn how to use them. Setting up the radio is also fairly simple, even for a beginner.

Bad

  • Soft touch rubber buttons. While these are pleasant to the touch, the lettering on them wears off over time.
  • The main tuning knob is small. This does help keep the overall size of the unit down however.
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ICOM 2300H: A Great Value on a Radio with Fast Setup and Excellent Ease-of-Use

If you are on a budget and are looking to save on a ham radio which is good for beginners, you might want to think about the ICOM 2300H. Despite being less expensive than some of the other radios on this list, this one has an abundance of nice features including some unexpected bells and whistles.

Good

  • Plenty of power. With 65 watts of power, this radio should provide you with what you need for most communications.
  • Tested for durability. This radio has been tested to MIL-STD-810 G specifications. So you know that it will provide you with strong performance even with some wear and tear.
  • Lots of memory channels. In total, there are 207 alpha-numeric memory channels included with the ICOM 2300H.
  • Excellent audio quality. This radio produces crisp, clear, loud sound.
  • Fast and easy to set up. One of the best things about this radio is that programming is a breeze. Even if you are a newbie, you should be able to get it set up within minutes, so you can start talking right away.

Bad

  • 144 Mhz only. While this should be sufficient for a lot of new ham radio operators, some may be looking for other frequencies not covered by this unit.
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Kenwood TS-480: A Premium Base Transceiver for All Bands

If you have more money to spend on a ham radio, the Kenwood TS-480 is one possibility which you should think strongly about. This high-powered radio provides you with excellent range an flawless performance under a wide range of conditions.

Good

  • High power. With 200 watts of power, you can transmit and receive across a much longer range than you would be able to with a less powerful transceiver.
  • All amateur radio bands. Talk on all bands from 1.8MHz-50MHz.
  • Flexible design for portable or base use. Even with its rich features and high power, this is a small enough radio that you can take it with you on the go. Thanks to the inclusion of a separate control panel however, it functions great as a base station.
  • Crystal clear audio. You should have no problem hearing communications through this transceiver, even across fairly long distances.
  • Built-in antenna tuner. This handy feature prevents you from having to purchase an external tuner (unless you prefer to get one).

Bad

  • Some setup is required. While this is true with any ham radio, it is a bit more complex with this radio than some other models which are geared more at beginners. Expect a learning curve to get started.
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