The Best Handheld Ham Radios for Beginners and Experts

The internet has changed nearly every aspect of our culture, but it isn’t the solution to every kind of problem. Censorship and government control is a serious issue, for example. According to Freedom House, global internet freedom is on the decline. The internet may not be as indestructible as we typically believe it to be, either. According to Harvard University scientist Avi Loeb, a solar superflare of the same intensity of the one that happened in 1859 could easily knock the internet offline and fry most of the world’s power grids and computers in the process.

Fortunately, not all communication technologies are as fragile or as easy to restrict as the web. Ham radio transmissions, for example, are in many ways more difficult for governments to stop. In addition, ham radios are more robust because they don’t require any type of infrastructure. In other words, individual ham radio devices can send signals without the aid of fiber optic cables, telephone lines and other similar hardware. Portable handheld ham radios are even more versatile because they can run on battery power. Keep reading to learn about five of the best handheld ham radios on the market today.

The best handheld ham radio that can send digital media files

Yaesu FT-3DR

Yaesu FT-3DR C4FM/FM 144/430MHz Dual Band 5W Digital Transceiver with Touch Screen Display

The Yaesu FT-3DR combines ham radio features with internet connectivity. You can use it to stay up-to-date with news, or send text messages, pictures and pre-recorded audio files. Another nice thing about the FT-3DR is that it is waterproof enough to withstand rain, spills and splashes.

Good

  • Internet integration. Yaesu’s brand new proprietary Wires-X feature offers extended range and internet connectivity.
  • Can send text messages, pictures and audio files. Not all of Yaesu’s Wirex-X ham radios can send media, but this one can.
  • IPX5 waterproof rating. The FT-3DR is waterproof enough to withstand not only splashes but also prolonged exposure to streams of water.
  • Up to five watts of transmission power. It meets the industry standard when it comes to transmission wattage.
  • microSD card slot. You can back up just about everything to memory, thanks to microSD card integration.
  • 2200 mAh battery. The FT-3DR user manual doesn’t specify exactly how much use time you can get from a charge. However, the consensus among ham radio enthusiasts seems to be that the FT-3DR has better than average battery life.
  • Optional rapid charger accessory. Recharging takes eight hours with the standard charger. The rapid charger accessory charges about twice as fast.

Bad

  • Pricey compared to other handheld ham radios. It’s about twice as expensive as a typical handheld ham radio.
  • Lacks GPS features. Given the relatively high cost of the FT-3DR, the fact that it doesn’t have native GPS functionality is a disappointment.

In a nutshell

Yaesu’s FT-3DR might represent the future of ham radio technology. Through the use of Wires-X, you’ll enjoy extended range as well as the ability to send and receive media files. The 2200 mAh battery holds more energy than most handheld ham radios and allows for extended talk time. The IPX5 waterproof rating is another strong benefit.

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The best Wires-X handheld ham radio for the money

Yaesu FT-70DR

FT-70DR FT-70 Original Yaesu 144/430 MHz Digital/Analog Handheld Transceiver - C4FM / FDMA - 3 Year Manufacturer Warranty

The Yaesu FT-70DR is a low-cost alternative to Yaesu’s premium Wirex-X enabled handheld ham radios. While the FT-70DR doesn’t let you send media files, it can still connect to internet-enabled repeater stations. This means that you’ll be able to pick up signals that ordinary handheld ham radios can’t access. It’s sturdier than most other handheld ham radios, too. The IPX54 rating means that it’s built to resist both dust and water splashes.

Good

  • Internet integration. Yaesu’s patented Wires-X feature extends the range of the FT-70DR by allowing it to connect to internet-enabled repeater stations.
  • IPX54 waterproof / dust resistance rating. The case is built to withstand splashes and dust.
  • Built-in recording feature. If you miss a transmission, you can replay it immediately or review it later.
  • Extensive memory features. The memory bank stores over 1000 channels. After a channel is saved, you can view its tone data, output power, memory tag and all kinds of other detailed information.
  • Up to five watts of transmission power. The FT-70DR meets the industry standard for transmission power.
  • 1800 mAh battery. Yaesu says that a charge will last for about eight hours.
  • Optional rapid charger accessory. If you buy the optional rapid charger, you can recharge the FT-70DR’s batteries in about three hours.

Bad

  • No digital media features. Yaesu’s premium Wires-X enabled handheld ham radios let you send text messages, pictures and audio files. The FT-70DR lacks this capability.

In a nutshell

The Yaesu FT-70DR is equipped with Yaesu’s cutting-edge Wires-X feature, but it can’t send or receive media files. But when it comes to classic ham radio features, the FT-70DR hits most of the marks. The fact that it’s built to withstand both water splashes and dust makes it a good choice for outdoor use.

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The most user-friendly handheld ham radio for beginners

TYT MD-380

TYT MD-380 - DMR/Moto TRBO Ham Radio

The TYT MD-380 seems to have been designed with ease of use in mind. The menu button on the top left part of the keypad is the key to the interface. It lets you pull up the main menu from any screen. Another attractive feature is the MD-380’s surprisingly powerful speaker. Fans of this handheld ham radio generally agree that the audio quality is quite good.

Good

  • Simple interface. The menu key on the top left part of the keypad gives you instant access to all the key features.
  • Reasonable price point. The TYT MD-380 is inexpensive and has enough capabilities to get you started if you’re new to ham radios.
  • Surprisingly good audio quality. The consensus among people who bought this ham radio seems to be that its speaker offers better performance than expected.
  • Good compatibility. The standard encryption algorithm is compatible with other radio brands and the two-pin connector accepts many kinds of hands-free headsets.
  • Up to five watts of transmission power. Even though the TYT MD-380 is inexpensive, it’s just as powerful as most advanced handheld ham radios.
  • 2000mAh battery. While the MD-380’s manual doesn’t specify how many hours the batteries typically last, fans of this handheld ham radio often praise its battery efficiency.
  • Comes with a programming cable. You can quickly program an entire fleet of MD-380s by using a PC to create clones.

Bad

  • Low quality stock antenna. The stock antenna places a limit on range.
  • No waterproof rating. If you drop the TYT MD-380 in water or expose it to a spill, it’ll probably break.

In a nutshell

The TYT MD-380’s simple and easy-to-use interface is one of its best features. This, combined with its reasonable price point, makes it a good starter ham radio for newbies. Since you can easily create clones through the use of the included programming cable, it’s also a good ham radio to use for group communications and business applications.

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The best low-cost handheld ham radio

BaoFeng UV-82HP

Baofeng UV-82 High Power Tri-Power 8/4/1-Watt Dual Band VHF 136-174MHz/UHF 400-520MHz Portable FRS Radio Two-Way Radio

Three words summarize the BaoFeng UV-82HP: inexpensive, yet powerful. While it lacks some of the cutting edge features found in premium handheld ham radios, it partially compensates for this with its eight-watt transmitter. Another thing to like about the UV-82HP is its slim form factor. Since it has a built-in LED flashlight, you can use it to find your way around when power outages occur. However, the lack of waterproofing limits is usefulness in outdoor situations.

Good

  • Affordable price point. The UV-82HP is one of the least expensive handheld ham radios you’ll find.
  • Up to eight watts of transmission power. Most handheld ham radios are equipped with five-watt transmitters, but this one can put out as much as eight watts of power.
  • Slimmer design compared to previous versions. The compact form factor is 2.28 inches thick, 4.3 inches tall and 1.2 inches deep.
  • 1800 mAh battery. The upgraded battery provides more talk time compared to previous versions.
  • Built-in LED flashlight. You can use the UV-82HP to get around in the dark in the event of a power outage.
  • Accessibility features for the visually impaired. You can switch to voice menu mode if you have trouble reading the display.
  • Five different case color options. Available colors include black, yellow, blue, black and camouflage.

Bad

  • Semi-duplex operation. You have to wait for a transmission to end before you can begin to talk.
  • No waterproof rating. The UV-82HP is not designed to withstand spills or water immersion.

In a nutshell

Rated at eight watts, BoaFeng’s UV-82HP handheld ham radio is one of the most powerful ones we’ve seen so far. Given the device’s impressive wattage specification, the low sticker price comes as a pleasant surprise. The main catch is that it only supports semi-duplex communications. In other words, conversations cannot take place simultaneously in two directions.

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The best GPS-equipped handheld ham radio

Icom 51A PLUS2

The Icom 51A PLUS2’s biggest attraction is its built-in GPS antenna, which lets you send your position to anyone in the world. You can even program the 51A PLUS2 to automatically send out your coordinates to anyone who calls you. The main downside to consider is the 51A PLUS2’s somewhat disappointing battery performance. If you need more than 4.5 hours of usage time, you may want to consider purchasing an extra battery pack.

Good

  • Built-in GPS functionality. The most unique thing about the 51A PLUS2 is that it has a built-in GPS antenna.
  • Automatic position reply mode. Useful for emergencies and tracking, this feature will automatically send out your location to whoever calls you when it’s activated.
  • IPX7 / IPX4 waterproof rating. The device itself is rated IPX7, while the batteries are rated at IPX4. In other words, if you drop it in water the batteries will short out but the 51A PLUS2 itself won’t.
  • Up to five watts of transmission power. Five watts seems to be the standard for handheld ham radios.
  • microSD card slot. You can save configuration information and other data to memory.
  • Dual independent receivers. This feature allows for more natural conversations.
  • Built-in rapid battery charging. Switching the device off activates the three-hour rapid charge mode.

Bad

  • Expensive compared to other handheld ham radios. The built-in GPS feature likely increased the 51A PLUS2’s production costs.
  • Limited battery performance. The 1200 mAh battery only lasts about 4.5 hours.

In a nutshell

If you’re looking for a handheld ham radio that can potentially save your life, Icom’s 51A PLUS2 is a good place to begin your search. It has a built-in GPS antenna, which you can use to send your location to anyone within range. This extra functionality adds to the sticker price, though.

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Buying guide for handheld ham radios

Key considerations

Internet integration

The most cutting edge handheld ham radios can use the internet to assist with communication. Each internet ham radio standard has different pros and cons. Some internet-capable ham radios can send and receive media files, while others can’t, for example.

Size and shape

Do you intend to use your handheld ham radio primarily at home or do you intend to use it while you’re on the go? Check your prospective ham radio’s dimensions before you buy to make sure that its form factor meets your needs.

Battery capacity

Generally speaking, the larger capacity a battery has, the more use time you’ll get. Battery capacity can range from 1200 mAh to 2200 mAh. However, there are some exceptions to this rule of thumb, so be sure to check the specification sheet before you finalize your purchase if battery capacity is a priority. The actual amount of use time you’ll get depends on power saving features and a variety of other important factors.

Waterproof rating

If you plan on using your handheld ham radio outdoors, you’ll definitely want to consider your prospective device’s waterproof rating before you buy. If your ham radio isn’t waterproof, you’ll be out of luck if it happens to rain and you have nowhere to go.

Storage capacity

Most handheld ham radios have expandable microSD storage slots. You usually get a microSD card in the box. However, you can use any standard microSD card to store your data. If you plan on making lots of recordings, you may want to invest in a large capacity microSD card. Otherwise, the microSD card that comes with the kit will probably suffice.

Full vs semi-duplex communications

Cheaper handheld ham radios are limited to semi-duplex communications. That means that only one person at a time can talk on a channel. Full duplex handheld ham radios allow for more fluid conversations.

GPS features

Premium handheld ham radios come equipped with built-in GPS antennas. If your handheld ham radio has a GPS feature, you’ll be able to send out your location data to anyone within range. GPS capability can potentially save your life if you find yourself in need of reducing while adventuring in off-the-grid locations.

Transmission power

Typically, handheld ham radios have five-watt transmitters. However, eight-watt handheld ham radios can also be found.

Case color and style options

Most handheld ham radio manufacturers only offer one color option, but there are some exceptions to this rule.

Price ranges

Budget

Inexpensive handheld ham radios tend to have smaller batteries, cheaper antennas and fewer features in comparison to mid-range and advanced handheld ham radios. Prices start at around $70.

Mid-range

If you’re willing to spend about $200, you’ll be able to get a handheld ham radio that has better reception and battery longevity.

High-end

Some premium handheld ham radios in the $400 price range are able to interface with the internet. Higher quality antennas, larger speakers and proprietary software provide for improved audio quality. High-end handheld ham radios are usually tougher and more water resistant relative to their mid-range and budget competitors, as well.

Frequently asked questions

Q: What do ham radios have in common with CB (Citizens Band) radios?
A: Ham radios and CB radios both rely on radio technologies. However, the similarity pretty much ends there. CB radio operators communicate over a single band, whereas ham radio operators have access to a wide variety of bands. Also, ham radios have much, much greater range capacities.

Q: What kinds of people use ham radios?
A: Ham radio users represent a wide variety of demographics. In addition to hobbyists, government agencies use ham radio frequencies to send out emergency messages. The fact that Reddit’s ham radio online community now consists of 73,000 members suggests that interest in ham radios may be increasing among young people.

Q: Do I need to get a license before I begin operating my handheld ham radio?
A: If you live in the United States, the answer is yes. The FCC’s entry-level ham radio operator license test consists of 35 short answer questions. The exam fee is typically around $15.

Tips

  • Don’t be afraid to dive into the details of how your equipment works. The added insights you’ll gain will help you become a more efficient ham radio operator.
  • You won’t become an expert level ham radio operator overnight. On the other hand, every minute you spend on the air will contribute to your overall knowledge. If you set aside a specific time of the day to use your ham radio and stay consistent with that schedule, you’ll make rapid progress.
  • Take some time to gain familiarity with ham radio etiquette before you take to the airwaves. Some of the community’s norms are not immediately obvious to newbies.

10 thoughts on “The Best Handheld Ham Radios for Beginners and Experts”

  1. So which radio is best for a disaster? I bought the BaoFeng F8HP and had to return it because it wouldn’t stay on!! Also it’s harder then you think to download the little CD that comes with it!!! Is there a radio that ALREADY HAS CHIRP PLUS THE INFO THATS ON THE BAOFENG CD ON IT WHEN YOU BUY IT????
    THANKS
    MIKE

    Reply
    • Hi Mike. I’m not sure about an alternative BaoFeng radio without the CD, but I did go ahead and update our review with your feedback so that others will know about the issue with the CD for the F8HP.

      Reply
  2. I recently purchased the BaoFeng F8HP and I’m a new Ham, but so far I’ve not had any problems however, I knew several things going into the purchase and adjusted with some accessories.
    I knew about needing to purchase an interface cable so that I could use “CHIRP” and got one. I had been told previous versions didn’t have the best antenna, so I purchased an upgraded dual band antenna that seems to be working so far.

    Reply
  3. I have all but one (the Yaesu VX-8DR) of these radios listed above. My most used one is the FT-60. It’s a solid radio that I use daily.

    The BaoFeng radios often have a fair amount of bugs in them. I had a UV-5R that transmitted when you touched the antenna. Not good if you are listening outside of the ham bands (such as NOAA weather). They are rather fragile too. The price is right, though. I own four different BaoFeng radios.

    The TYT radio… setting up the DMR was overwhelming at first but once I got it set, it was fantastic. Great radio. DMR is a lot of fun.

    Whatever you do, upgrade the antenna and order it from a reputable seller such as HRO or DX Engineering, etc. Cheap knock-offs can harm your radio with bad VSWR and there are plenty of fake Comet and Diamond antennas on ebay and other such sites. The rubber ducky antenna that comes with most radios just doesn’t cut it.

    Reply
    • Thanks for your information and advice. It’s great to hear from a site visitor who has experience with all of these radios and has had a chance to compare them and figure out how to get the best use out of them. Totally agreed on the aftermarket antenna. That goes a long way toward boosting performance!

      Reply
  4. Our Community Emergency Response Team (CERT) is hoping to find one rugged radio that legally gives us FRS/GMRS AND ham 2Meter and 70 cm. Any such a radio out their at a low-bid government price?

    I have a Wouxon that allegedly covers UHF Business Band, FRS/GMRS and type certified for ham 2 Meter and 70 cm.

    Thanks.

    Don Dodson

    Reply
    • There are a lot of handheld transceivers out there which you can get working on FRS/GMRS frequencies, but you should know that they are not type-accepted. That means that if you are caught using one on FRS, you are in violation of the law, and you could end up losing your licensing and paying fines. The same goes for GMRS. There the licensing requirements are different, but there are still penalties for unlicensed operation.

      You can view a list of recommended rugged and waterproof two-way radios (FRS/GMRS) here. For the ham bands, I’d recommend the Yaesu VX-6R.

      Reply
    • Your looking for a unicorn. It would break several laws to have a radio that did all that unless you made it with a fixed antenna and locked out wattages for differing bands. A fixed antenna would only work efficiently on one of those bands and not at all for TX on others btw.

      Reply

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