CB vs Ham Radio – What’s the difference?

Most of us who grew up with smartphones and tablets – especially in urban areas – are not aware that there are a vast number of other options that are used worldwide for wireless communications. 

In this post we are going to discuss two such options that are extremely popular worldwide: CB radio and HAM radio. 

We’ll highlight the main features of each communication technology and explain similarities and differences.

CB Radio

What is CB Radio?

CB radio is an acronym for Citizens Band radio. It is used for person-to-person or person-to-group voice communication. The users that want to communication share a single channel. The radios are normally in receive-only mode. A user wanting to talk has to press a push-to-talk (PTT) button. Only one person on a shared channel can talk at a time. 

CB radios are easy to setup and do not require a lot of technical know-how.

CB Users

CB radio can be used for short-range radio communication by the general public. CB is frequently used by radio hobbyists such as truckers, family members on a hiking trip, motorcyclists, RV-owners and those needing to communicate over relatively short distances ranging from 1 to 20 miles. The maximum range will vary with terrain. In mountains the range may be limited to just half a mile.

Truckers often use CB for obtaining traffic information and for help with finding directions.

CB Frequencies

CB systems can use 40 channels in the 27 MHz band.

Principles of physics dictate that the frequency used is inversely proportional to the size of the antenna required for efficient propagation. 

For this reason, relative longer antennas are required for the low frequencies that are used by CB radios. For comparison, antennas for CB radio are larger than those required for FM radio.

Regulations restrict maximum transmit power to 4 Watts on the Amplitude Modulation (AM) band and 12 Watts on the Single Side-band (SSB) band. 

CB Equipment

A CB radio setup is comprised of a radio, antenna, a microphone and a speaker. 

CB radios are available in handheld and mobile versions. 

The handheld units come with an integrated antenna. The antenna for a mobile or fixed radio has to be purchased separately. 

The antennas for CB systems are relatively long with a minimum length of 8.5 feet (102 inches). People who prefer not to use 9 foot antennas on their vehicles can use smaller ones, but the drawback is that the range is reduced. 

Many CB antennas have coils as in the picture above. This is done to reduce the physical length while maintaining the electrical length.

Licensing Requirements

CB is a service that is available for the general public and does not require a license. However, to ensure that CB systems don’t interfere with other systems and frequencies, an upper limit has been applied on the maximum power that a CB radio is allowed to transmit.

CB Radio Pros

  • Easy to use
  • No license required
  • Fixed or mobile communication

CB Radio Cons

  • Limited range
  • International communication not permitted
  • Large antenna
  • Antenna may require tuning

Ham Radio

What is Ham Radio?

Ham radio is also known as amateur radio. The term “amateur” refers to the fact that use of Ham is only allowed for non-commercial or non-for-profit purposes.

Unlike the Internet or cellular networks, Ham does not rely on millions of miles of buried cables or vast data centers that can get damaged by man-made or natural disasters. The modern telecommunication network infrastructure is not only vulnerable to power outages and disasters; it is also vulnerable to hacking. And sometimes human error causes massive communications outages, as happened recently with Facebook.

Ham is attractive for many users because it gives them independence and self-reliance. These radios can be used for country-wide and worldwide communication. 

As in the case of CB, a HAM radio channel is shared between multiple users: one user can transmit at a time by pressing the PTT button on the radio.

Use of HAM requires more technical knowledge than CB radio.

Ham Radio Users

Ham radio allows uses to communicate over long distances without having to use or rely on the Internet or other network infrastructure such as the PSTN or cellular networks. 

Ham can be used for individual to individual (or groups) communication, round table on-air discussions and communication during emergencies. 

Ham radios are used by:

  • Amateur radio hobbyists
  • Pilots 
  • Outdoor enthusiasts
  • Off-roaders

Ham Frequencies

Table 1 shows a summary of frequencies that are allocated to Ham radio. Please note that allocations shown are those made by the FCC for the USA. Allocations in other countries may vary. 

BandFrequencyUseMax Range
HF 1.2-2 MHz
3.5-4 MHz
7-7.3 MHz
14.1-14.35 MHz
28-29.7 MHz
International communication3000 miles
VHF144-148 MHz
219-220 MHz
222-225 MHz
Local communications1000 miles 
UHF420-450 MHz
1240-1300 MHz
2300-2310 MHz
2390-2450 MHz

Local communications
18 miles
Ham Radio Frequencies

The maximum allowed transmit power for Ham radio systems is 1.5 kW. Most radios are however limited to 50 W. Mobile Ham units typically allow 10 to 100 W of power output. 

Handheld HAM units are usually limited to 5 W of output. the power output for handheld units is limited for two reasons: improved battery life and human safety.

HAM radio uses frequency modulation or FM. An FM receiver is not affected by static-type electrical noise.  Therefore FM provides better sound quality compared to amplitude modulation (AM) used by CB.

The range of HAM radio systems depends on three major factors

  • Frequency used
  • Transmit Power
  • Antenna height

One of the major advantages of HAM is that thousands of HAM repeaters are deployed all over the world. Through repeaters, communication can be established with users located hundreds of miles away. 

Ham Radio Equipment

A Ham radio setup is comprised of a radio, antenna, a microphone and a speaker

Ham radios are also available in handheld, mobile and fixed versions. 

The handheld units come with an integrated antenna. The antenna for a mobile or fixed radio has to be purchased separately. 

HAM antennas for UHF/VHF bands requires a minimum length of 19.5 inches. The smaller antenna size makes it easier for vehicle mounting. Antennas longer than 19.5 inches can be used for increased gain and range.

Ham Radio Licensing Requirements

Ham radios are not allowed to transmit without a valid license. 

As an analogy, consider the road-based traffic network. It there were no rules, and everyone did as they liked, then the network would become unusable. Therefore, drivers have to learn the rules, get a license and then follow the rules while driving. 

Similarly, Ham users are required to obtain a license before they can transmit. The basic Ham license applies to lower power and frequencies with limited range i.e. UHF/VHF. The advanced HAM license is required for HF and designated frequencies. 

A Ham license is required for many reasons:

  • To ensure that Ham users don’t cause interference with military networks and cellular networks.
  • To prevent Ham users from transmitting at higher power levels than what is required for communication.
  • To ensure that equipment that is modified by HAM users doesn’t perform in ways that could cause issues for other operators.

Ham Radio Pros

  • High power
  • Long range
  • Fixed and mobile communication
  • Smaller antennae suited to vehicle mounting
  • Can be used for international communication
  • Large network of repeaters 

Ham Radio Cons

  • License required
  • Commercial use not allowed

Similarities between CB and Ham Radio

Both CB and Ham Radio:

  • Are wireless communication systems
  • Can be used for fixed or mobile communication
  • Will work in areas with no cellphone service
  • Will work if man-made or other natural disasters disturb or disrupt other communication networks 

Differences between CB and Ham Radio

Ham RadioCB Radio
LicenseRequiredNot Required
UsabilityTechnical knowledge requiredEasy
Output power1500 Watt4W
Range70 miles – 100’s of miles with repeaters20 miles
FrequenciesHF/VHF/UHFHF only
ModulationFMAM
Commercial applicationsNoYes

FAQ

What’s better – HAM Radio or CB radio?

CB and HAM are designed for different use case cases. CB doesn’t require a license and can be used for communication over shorter distances. HAM use requires a license and supports communication over relatively longer distances. The frequency bands allocated for both services are also different.

Can you use a HAM Radio as a CB?

Frequency bands that are allocated to the two services are different. Therefore, a Ham radio cannot be used as a CB radio or vice versa.

Are CB and HAM Radio antennas the same?

Different frequency bands are allocated to the two services. CB antennae are designed for CB frequencies and Ham antenna are designed for Ham frequencies.

Can a radio perform as both HAM and CB radio?

The FCC has decided that a CB/Ham combo radio is not legal.  Therefore you have to buy different equipment (radio + antenna) for CB and for Ham. 

Is HAM Radio the same as CB Radio?

They are different. Ham radio works over HF/VHF/UHF bands, uses FM and the maximum transmit power is 1500 Watt, while CB works over HF band, uses AM/SSB and the maximum transmit power is 4 Watt.

Conclusion

There is no apples-to-apples comparison between CB radio and HAM radio just as there isn’t between cellular phones and satellite phones. 

And CB is not better than Ham just as a knife is not better than a fork.

Both technologies were developed for different use cases. Even though both use wireless technology, there are differences in the technology implementations and in the regulatory requirements.

At the end of the day you can pick either Ham radio or CB radio depending on your use case and requirements.