A Guide to Radio Communication for Overlanders and Off-roaders in the United States of America
I am not a lawyer. Do not take anything here as legal advice. Read the laws yourself (I have provided links), get real legal counsel if you need it.
The United States seems to have an infinite number of laws. Many international overlanders have expressed their frustration with things like fishing licenses and the lack of free and legal camping. In fact, it seems very easy to break laws that you may not even realize exist. As Brad Van Orden lamented in 927 Days of Summer, “It occurred to me that I had forgotten just how rule-driven life in America was, not that there is anything wrong with a strict adherence to law and order. We just hadn’t been exposed to it for a while.” This post is about staying on the right side of federal laws regarding radio communications. The USA is far from the only country that is uptight about radios. In fact, a quick search will tell you that each county has its own rules and crossing borders with radio transceivers can make things complicated at best.
In the following sections, I will cover the different radio services made available to the public in the United States along with the requirements for use, legal equipment, penalties for misuse, and each service’s use on the trail. The radio services I will cover will include the Personal Radio Services which include: Citizens Band (CB), Family Radio Service (FRS), General Mobile Radio Service (GMRS), Multi-use Radio Service (MURS). I will also cover Industrial/Business Radio and Amature Radio. Radio communications in the USA are governed by Title 47 of the Code of Federal Regulations. All regulations cited in this article can be found in Title 47.
Personal Radio Services:
In 2017 the FCC updated the rules concerning Personal Radio Services. One of the purposes of updating the rules was to make them more readable for consumers. This is good news for us, as you will see when looking at the Personal Radio Services rules vs. the rules for other services.
Citizens Band (CB)
The FCC defines CB as: “A mobile and fixed two-way voice communication service for facilitating personal, business or voluntary public service activities, including communications to provide assistance to highway travelers.”
Who can use CB?
Citizens band is licensed by rule. This means anyone may use it unless specifically forbidden in the rule, and people of any age may use it. Unauthorized users of CB radio are foreign governments, representatives of a foreign government, federal government agencies, and anyone who has received an FCC a cease-and-desist order that is still in effect. Finally, part 95.905 tells us that your authority to use CB is voided if you are in violation of any of the rules.
What equipment is legal?
A CB radio must have an FCC Part 95D certification to be legal for use. CB radios will have a label with their FCC ID number. To view a radio’s certification grant search the
fcc id from the label HERE. Then click on the checkbox icon under the display grant column. This will show the part under which the equipment is certified. This is an example of a CB FCC id label:
The certification grant for this CB can be viewed HERE
Notice that under FCC Rule Parts it says 95D. That means this radio is certified as a CB.
Any internal modifications to a certified radio void its certification. 95.337
Maximum transmit power is limited to 4 watts for AM voice and 12 watts for SSB voice. 95.967
Use of an external amplifier is a violation of the rule. 95.939
What makes CB great?
Citizens band radio is the most widely used personal radio service. If you are anywhere near a highway, it is likely someone is listening on one of the 40 channels. Since CB sits in the 11m portion of the radio spectrum it has the advantage (when the correct conditions exist) of being capable of very long range communication. In fact, with the latest Personal Radio Service rule changes removed the 250 km communication limit for CB from the regulations. CB radios are available at any truck stop and can provide inexpensive usable trail communications. It is highly likely that others on the trail will have a CB installed in their vehicles.
What are the disadvantages of CB?
Due, in part, to the challenges of proper installation and antenna tuning, voice quality is rarely as good as one would like. These installation challenges result in many poorly installed and tuned radios in vehicles. The relative ubiquity of CB can be a problem too. Often channels are crowded with voices of people who have no interest in the type of communications we are trying to achieve. A whole industry exists supporting illegal CB modifications and amplification. Thus, your legal CB transmission may be obscured by an illegal operator cranking out 1000w of transmitting power. The FCC is working to police CB infractions and a search in the enforcement division of the FCC site will reveal people who have been fined thousands of dollars for repeat offenses.
Which CB radios may be a good choice for overlanders?
Cobra 19 DX IV
This radio is a great inexpensive option. I currently have one installed in my Xterra.
This radio has a huge following in the off-road community, due to its extremely compact size. It packs the full legal power limit of CB into a tiny package.
This is a great choice for any vehicle with a double din factory radio opening. If I ever replace the broken 6-disc changer with a single din radio in my Xterra, this will find a home underneath it. It also has a front-facing speaker. This will make it audible when tucked into a dash opening.
Uniden Bearcat 980SSB
This is the latest evolution of CB. With the feature-packed 980SSB one can do everything that is legal with a CB radio. It also has one really modern looking front panel.
Family Radio Service (FRS)
The FCC defines FRS as: “A short-distance two-way voice communication service, with limited data applications, between low power hand-held radios, for facilitating individual, family, group, recreational and business activities.”
Who can use FRS?
Just like CB, FRS is licensed by rule. The only people who are forbidden from using FRS are people who violate the other FRS rules.
What equipment is legal?
An FRS radio must have an FCC Part 95B certification to be legal for use. FRS radios will have a label with their FCC ID number. To view, a radio’s certification grant search the
FCC id from the label HERE. Then click on the checkbox icon under the display grant column. This will show the part under which the equipment is certified. This is an example of an FRS FCC id label:
A look at this radio’s certification will show Part 95A and Part 95B grants. You can see it HERE
This means that any radio that does not have a part 95B certification is not legal and using an uncertified radio voids your right to use FRS.
What makes FRS great?
With the most recent update to the rules, FRS is an amazingly good option for vehicle to vehicle communication. The FRS channels live in the UHF portion of the electromagnetic spectrum. This means their wavelengths are good for penetrating solid objects, like metal and glass. For several years the FCC has licensed dual purpose FRS/GMRS handheld transmitters. The latest rule change made all 22 channels on these radios FRS! That’s right, those cool FRS/GMRS radios that advertise crazy range due to 2-watt output on the GMRS channels no longer need a GMRS license. (If it transmits at more than 2-watts, you still need a GMRS license) This means that high-quality radio communication is now available without a license! These radios are available to buy in nearly every sporting goods store.
What are the disadvantages of FRS?
Even with 2 watts of power available on some of the channels, range is very limited. Even though some of the radio manufactures advertise 36-mile range, one to two miles is more realistic. It is unlikely that in the event of an emergency, in a remote location, you would be able to reach help with an FRS radio. Another big disadvantage is the wide use of FRS frequencies in large cities and at events. If you find yourself at a large amusement park it is likely that all 22 channels will be in use by other families. In order to use all the channels on a FRS/GMRS radio you need to check the grant to see the power output. FRS is limited to 2 watts.
Which FRS radios may be a good choice for overlanders?
I hesitate to make any recommendations right now. Early next year I expect to see a bunch of new 2-watt FRS options coming into the market. I think my recommendation on FRS is to use what you have or wait a few months. (November 2017)
General Mobile Radio Service (GMRS)
The FCC defines GMRS as: “A mobile two-way voice communication service, with limited data applications, for facilitating activities of individual licensees and their family members, including, but not limited to, voluntary provision of assistance to the public during emergencies and natural disasters.”
Who can use GMRS?
GMRS is a licensed service. A licensee and their family members may use GMRS radios. The licensee’s family is defined in the rule as spouse, children, grandchildren, stepchildren, parents, grandparents, stepparents, brothers, sisters, aunts, uncles, nieces, nephews, and in-laws. A license can be obtained by applying HERE. There is a $70 application fee. As of now, there is no regulatory fee. The license is good for 10 years. A person must be 18 years old to obtain a GMRS license.
What equipment is legal?
A GMRS radio must have an FCC Part 95A or 95E certification to be legal for use. GMRS radios will have a label with their FCC ID number. To view a radio’s certification grant search the FCC id from the label HERE. Then click on the checkbox icon under the display grant column. This will show the part under which the equipment is certified. This is an example of a GMRS FCC id label:
This awesome mobile GRMS radio’s certification can be viewed HERE
What makes GMRS great?
A GMRS license allows families to operate very capable radios. With the range of available handheld, mobile, and base radios currently available, a family has solid communication options. There are even GMRS repeater systems in many areas, allowing for communications over a much greater range. GMRS channels are also UHF, so they share the advantages discussed in the FRS section. Short of everyone in your family having an amateur radio license, this is as good as it gets.
What are the disadvantages of GMRS?
If you travel or wheel with anyone outside your family they will need their own GMRS license to communicate with you. Like FRS it is probable that you will not be able to reach anyone for help in an emergency.
Which GMRS radios may be a good choice for overlanders?
This is one sweet mobile GMRS radio. With 40 watts of output, it is comparable to many 70cm band ham radios. If I ever decide GMRS is for me, you will find one of these in my truck.
Why is an FRS/GMRS handheld in the GMRS section? This one has a whopping 5-watt output on the GMRS channels making it illegal to transmit on those channels without the GMRS license. This is the most powerful FRS/GMRS radio on the market.
This new offering from BTECH aka Baofeng is an FCC Licensed GMRS handheld. It is a highly capable GRMS radio. In fact, it is the only GMRS handheld I found capable of operating on repeaters.
Multi-Use Radio Service (MURS)
The FCC defines MURS as: “A two-way, short distance voice or data communication service for facilitating personal or business activities of the general public.”
Who can use MURS?
Anyone! MURS appears to be completely unlicensed.
What equipment is legal?
A MURS radio must have an FCC Part 95J certification to be legal for use. MURS radios will have a label with their FCC ID number. To view, a radio’s certification grant search the
FCC id from the label HERE. Then click on the checkbox icon under the display grant column. This will show the part under which the equipment is certified. This is an example of a MURS FCC id label:
This Dakota Alert radio’s grant can be viewed HERE.
What makes MURS great?
The MURS channels are VHF and work great in open spaces. MURS radios are available that do all sorts of cool things. If you want to place an alert system at the entrance to your campsite there is a MURS device just for that. At one point several of the MURS channels were shared with the Business/Industrial radio service. Many of those radios are still in service and may be reached with a MURS radio. New MURS radios are coming to market that are more affordable.
What are the disadvantages of MURS?
MURS radios are not widely available, and most of the existing MURS radios are somewhat expensive. MURS is unlicensed but still fairly obscure. Not many certified radios are in use. With only 2w of transmission power, they are no better than a good FRS radio.
Which MURS radios may be a good choice for overlanders?
Dakota Alert M538-HT
For a long time, Dakota Alert was the only maker of consumer-grade MURS radios. I would be doing them a huge disservice by not recommending the pioneers of MURS for regular people.
Dakota Alert MURS Wireless Motion Detector
Want to monitor the trail into your camp from half a mile away? This kit is for you and one of the reasons MURS is cool.
Want to see what a business/industrial class MURS radio look like and costs? This is a good example.
Baofeng has jumped into the FCC certified MURS market. This radio is a great deal at its price and appears that it will be a great performer. I will probably buy a pair of these in the very near future.
Private Land Mobile Radio Services:
The Industrial/Business Radio Pool covers the licensing of the radio communications of entities engaged in commercial activities, engaged in clergy activities, operating educational, philanthropic, or ecclesiastical institutions, or operating hospitals, clinics, or medical associations. Rules as to eligibility for licensing, frequencies available, permissible communications and classes and number of stations, and any special requirements are set forth in the following sections.
Who can use Industrial/Business Radio?
Eligibility. Persons primarily engaged in any of the following activities are eligible to hold authorizations in the Industrial/Business Pool to provide commercial mobile radio service as defined in part 20 of this chapter or to operate stations for transmission of communications necessary to such activities of the licensee:
- The operation of a commercial activity;
- The operation of educational, philanthropic, or ecclesiastical institutions;
- Clergy activities; or
- The operation of hospitals, clinics, or medical associations.
- Public Safety Pool eligibles are eligible for Industrial/Business Pool spectrum only to The extent that they are engaged in activities listed in paragraphs (a)(1) through (4) of this section. Industrial/Business Pool spectrum may not be utilized for the purposes set forth in §90.20(a).
Notice how this has switched from plain language to lawyer speak? All of the parts used to be this way. The update to Part 95 helped clear it up.
$70 Application fee $25 Regulatory fee 10-year duration.
How to one Boy Scout Council obtained a license: https://sites.google.com/a/mst.edu/robert_ruark/radio/licensing-a-business-band-frequency
If you are handed a radio by a part 90 licensee you are authorized to use it under their license.
What equipment is legal?
An Industrial/Business radio must have an FCC Part 90 certification to be legal for use. Industrial/Business radios will have a label with their FCC ID number. To view a radio’s certification grant search the FCC id from the label HERE. Then click on the checkbox icon under the display grant column. This will show the part under which the equipment is certified. This is an example of an Industrial/Business FCC id label:
You can view this Business/Industrial radio’s grant HERE.
What makes Business/Industrial Radio great?
If you qualify for a license and obtain one, you can hand out radios to everyone in your group. These radios can provide quality communications for those who are authorized to use them. A few of the US market Baofeng UV5R radios have an FCC id. These radios have a part 90 grant and can be programmed to operate on a licensee’s channels. This is the only legal use for a UV5R outside of Amature Radio.
What are the disadvantages of Business/Industrial Radio?
Obtaining a license can prove impossible for the average individual. Most business radios are expensive. Very specialized software and cables are required to program most part 90 radios.
Which Part 90 radios may be a good choice for overlanders?
Business band radios have been tightly controlled by the distributors for quite some time. Until recently, used radios on the secondary market were the only affordable options. Baofeng’s US market UV5R is Part 90 certified. But, finding one is becoming tough. Sure, there are plenty of UV5R’s around. But, very few have an FCC id. To be Part 90 certified they must have one.
Now BTEC has released the certified UV82C!
Amature Radio Service (Ham Radio)
The rules and regulations in this part are designed to provide an amateur radio service having a fundamental purpose as expressed in the following principles:
(a) Recognition and enhancement of the value of the amateur service to the public as a voluntary noncommercial communication service, particularly with respect to providing emergency communications.
(b) Continuation and extension of the amateur’s proven ability to contribute to the advancement of the radio art.
(c) Encouragement and improvement of the amateur service through rules which provide for advancing skills in both the communication and technical phases of the art.
(d) Expansion of the existing reservoir within the amateur radio service of trained operators, technicians, and electronics experts.
(e) Continuation and extension of the amateur’s unique ability to enhance international goodwill.
Who can use a ham radio?
Those who hold a license of the appropriate class for the band in use. A license is relatively easy to obtain. You must pass a test for the class of license you wish to obtain. To find a testing location and time click HERE. There is a $15 exam fee paid to administer a test. You can take practice tests HERE. The entire pool of possible questions is available HERE. Need a class to help you prepare? Find one HERE. Do you learn by listening? Free podcast class HERE. Your license will need to be renewed in 10 years.
What equipment is legal?
Almost anything! This is the world where radio experimentation is encouraged. Want to build a radio yourself and use it? Great! Like really inexpensive Chinese radios like the Baofeng 888 or UV5R? This is where they are legal. Want really great high-quality radio gear? It can be purchased by licensed amateur radio operators.
What makes ham radio great?
The privileges! Want to talk to your licensed buddy in the next car? A 70cm band radio is a great choice. How about your buddy in downtown Durango, CO while you are up on Ophir Pass? A 2m radio and the existing repeater network will get you there. Need to get a message to your mom in Chicago, while you are in Western Australia? The right HF gear will get it done. Like chatting with astronauts on the International Space Station? Yes, you can do that too!
What are the disadvantages of ham radio?
Well, you do have to pass that test. (It’s easier than it used to be. No Morse Code required!) In order to communicate with your buddies, they have to pass that test too.
Which ham radios may be a good choice for overlanders?
This is the entry level ham radio of today. With a $15 test fee and a $25 radio you will have more communication capability than almost any of the above options. Almost every ham has a couple of these around. At that price how could we resist?
Want the ultimate mobile ham radio? I do! This is a multi band 100-watt mobile radio. This radio will give you options for emergency communication anywhere on the globe.
Want your family and friends to be able to follow your journey in near real time, without a subscription cost? This radio is set up and ready to do just that.
There are litteraly hundreds of great ham radios to choose from. Once you are licensed decide what you want to do and buy a radio for that purpose.
Why have I not discussed Marine VHF?
Because there are no circumstances where anyone can legally use this for land vehicle to land vehicle communications. (Okay, there is one. Amateur radio operators may respond to an emergency call they here on the channel they hear it.)
In short, there are several legal options for radio communication on the trail. Most of them have their place. That is why I usually have an FRS radio, a CB, and a couple of amateur radios in my vehicle. In the near future, I will add a MURS radio and possibly a GMRS mobile unit, if I can’t get my family to take amateur radio tests. For general communication between vehicles within sight of each other, or between a driver and spotter FRS will serve you well.
If you have questions or comments, please post them here on the blog. This will allow everyone to benefit from them.