Best Handheld Ham Radio Reviews

Updated June 1, 2020

When phone lines are down, handheld ham radios offer an effective means to communicate. Also known as amateur radios, ham radios are a reliable means of communication compared to CB radios or walkie-talkies.

Using a handheld ham radio doesn’t have to be the complicated technical process that some people think it is, either. The ham radio community has been exceptional at making things easy for beginners looking to purchase one for emergencies and outdoor adventures.

While you do need a license to communicate via ham radio, recent changes to the requirements made the test easier. You can find numerous resources online and only need a few days to familiarize yourself with the terminology and rules.

Once you’ve gotten your license, you’re ready to buy your own handheld ham radio. We take a look at the best ones to help you decide which is best for you.

Best Handheld Ham Radios

#PREVIEWProduct
1 WS1040 Handheld Digital Scanner Radio Whistler WS1040 Handheld Ham Radio
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2 BaoFeng UV-82HP High Power Dual Band Radio
Best Overall
BaoFeng UV-82HP Handheld Ham Radio
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3
Best For Low Budgets
3TYT MD-380 Handheld Ham Radio
TYT MD-380 - DMR_Moto TRBO ham Radio
Best For Low Budgets
TYT MD-380 Handheld Ham Radio
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4
Best For Higher Budgets
4Icom ID-51A Handheld Ham Radio
Icom ID-51A Portable Digital D-Star Transceiver (1)
Best For Higher Budgets
Icom ID-51A Handheld Ham Radio
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5 Yaesu VX-6R Submersible Amateur Ham Radio Transceiver (1) Yaesu VX-6R Handheld Ham Radio
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1. Whistler WS1040 Handheld Ham Radio

Highlights
  • Larger handheld unit with good audio
  • Skywarn Storm Spotter provides early storm reports 
  • Automatic Adaptive Digital Tracking helps adjust transmission so radio receives signals clearly
  • Free-form memory

The Whistler WS1040 is a handheld ham radio with Object Oriented programming that makes it easy to use. Packed with various features, this is a good choice for users who want more versatility at an affordable price. The WS1040 is mobile and convenient, with the ability to tap into almost any frequency. The radio also comes with detailed programming instructions and several resources available online.

Specifications

Range:
Up to 50 miles
Channels:
Up to 1,800 scannable objects
Battery Type:
AA batteries with holders for regular alkaline and rechargeable batteries, AC power supply, DC power supply
Battery Life:
Usually 2-3 days, depending on batteries used and unit usage. Yellow recharging shell allows user to use rechargeable batteries
Warranty:
1 year from date of purchase

Pros

  • A large keypad gives easier access to various functions
  • More efficient battery usage and life
  • Multi-functional radio at affordable cost
  • Backlit LCD allows radio to be used in the dark

Cons

  • Only compatible with PC
  • Storage case is quite bulky

2. BaoFeng UV-82HP Handheld Ham Radio

Highlights
  • 3 selectable power levels (1 watt, 5 watts, 7-8 watts)
  • Fully customizable to suit your preferences
  • Excellent speaker quality makes the radio loud and clear
  • Dual or single push-to-talk (PTT) available
Best Overall
BaoFeng UV-82HP High Power Dual Band Radio

The BaoFeng UV-82HP is an upgrade to the classic UV-82 series with several new features. This stylized two-way radio offers a high output of up to 8 watts and excellent speakers, ensuring loud and clear quality. The device is also highly customizable: users may add or remove channels to the scanning list and give channels alphanumeric names via free computer software. The device comes in several colours with a tri-colour display and a sturdy build making it perfect for on-the-road and outdoor use.

Specifications

Range:
Up to 50 miles
Channels:
128 programmable channels
Battery Type:
1800 mAh
Battery Life:
2-3 days with roughly 5 hours of usage per day
Warranty:
1-year limited warranty. Accessories (earpieces, chargers, etc.) 90-day limited warranty

Pros

  • CHIRP program compatible
  • High power level at 7-8 watts
  • Comprehensive instruction manual and excellent customer service
  • Rugged and well-built

Cons

  • No clock
  • Alphanumeric programming only available via software programming

3. TYT MD-380 Handheld Ham Radio

Highlights
  • Operates in both digital and analog mode
  • Features Time Division Multiple Access (TDMA) technology
  • Comes with all necessary accessories
  • Three call settings available
Best For Low Budgets
TYT MD-380 - DMR_Moto TRBO ham Radio

The TYT MD-380 is one of the newest value-priced radios to emerge from the Chinese market. It’s versatile and can be used in DMR mode or FM mode, offering users both digital features and analog reliability. A full keyboard allows users to make changes to the radio’s programming without the need for a computer on the multi-coloured LCD display. Although you can’t make audio adjustments, the speakers provide loud and clear audio even while in a noisy environment. The radio also has a sturdy, portable build, making it easily mobile.

Specifications

Range:
Depends on which mode is being used
Channels:
1000
IP Rating:
IP54
Battery Type:
Rechargeable 2000 mAh Li-ion battery pack
Battery Life:
Up to one week depending on usage
Warranty:
1-year warranty

Pros

  • Large and easy to navigate LED screen
  • Gives you the benefit of digital programming with analog backup
  • Upgradable firmware
  • Easy to use DTMF keyboard

Cons

  • Radio doesn’t offer audio adjustment
  • Radio is not Bluetooth compatible

4. Icom ID-51A Handheld Ham Radio

Highlights
  • Durable and waterproof
  • Integrated GPS receiver and GPS logging function
  • Dual band and dual watch operation
  • Compatible with RS-MS1A free Android application
Best For Higher Budgets
Icom ID-51A Portable Digital D-Star Transceiver (1)

The latest Icom ID-51A radio is full of useful functions in a sturdy and waterproof package. It utilizes D-STAR DV mode, which brings together several popular features including GPS, AM/FM radio, enhanced digital operation, and compatibility with the RS-MS1A Android app, which may be downloaded for free. With the app, users can send and receive text messages, photos, and GPS information. With the help of an SD card, the device can even store an extensive log that allows you to record incoming and outgoing voice calls and voice commands.

Specifications

Range:
Depends on usage. Indoors range extends up to 4 floors
Channels:
1304
IP Rating:
IPX7
Battery Type:
Lithium-Ion
Battery Life:
Depending on use. For continuous use with GPS active, the battery can last up to 2 days
Warranty:
1 or 2-year warranty available

Pros

  • Callsign, repeater list, and GPS memory can all be imported and exported in CSV format
  • Latest D-STAR DV Mode
  • Digital and analog compatible
  • NOAA Weather Frequencies and AM/FM broadcast band

Cons

  • Expensive but fair considering its wide range of useful features
  • Shorter battery life when in use because of extensive features requiring power

5. Yaesu VX-6R Handheld Ham Radio

Highlights
  • Durable and submersible, great for field use
  • Emergency Automatic ID can send callsign and engage microphone automatically if you are unable to press the PTT switch
  • Security features allow for password implementation
  • “Wake Up” battery saver system preserves battery life

This compact, submersible, and sturdy handheld ham radio is great for those who are on the go and need a reliable and mobile radio while outdoors. It’s a perfect choice for hikers, climbers, and outdoor adventurers who need wide-band coverage and decent power output (up to 5 watts) for radio communication. This handheld ham radio’s memory capacity is good at 900 channels, which may be given specific alphanumeric labels for easy identification and direct memory recall capabilities. In addition, the VX-6R has been proven to retain function even after 30 minutes in 3-feet of water, making sure that it will work even in more extreme conditions.

Specifications

Range:
Depends on mode and usage
Channels:
900 channels
IP Rating:
IPX7
Battery Type:
1400 mAh Lithium-ion battery pack
Battery Life:
2-3 days depending on usage
Warranty:
1-year warranty

Pros

  • Compact and mobile
  • DTMF keyboard
  • Offers wide receiver coverage
  • Direct memory recall function

Cons

  • Stock antennae quality is sufficient, but not anything spectacular
  • Small keypad and LCD screen

Handheld Ham Radio Buying Guide

Handheld Ham Radio Range

The range of your ham radio can mean the difference between life and death in an emergency. People often bring ham radios for the ability to communicate even when all other means of communication are unavailable. Some ham radios work to up to 50 miles, but the range will depend on your frequency. For that reason, it’s best to choose a frequency that has a wide reach and allows you to switch between different bands.

Equipment

You can buy a wide range of accessories for your handheld ham radio. Some of them are already equipped with essential accessories, but there are others you can purchase to boost your radio’s capabilities. 

Portable Ham Radio Antenna

Most handheld ham radios have a decent antenna. The more expensive radios tend to have more durable ones, and the range provided by built-in antennas is usually sufficient for ham radio needs. However, for explorers and climbers who know they will be traveling great distances, an external antenna might be an accessory worth buying. This boosts the reach of your radio and ensures good coverage and quality communication.

External Handheld Ham Radio Microphone

Some ham radio users opt for a good quality external microphone when they know that they will be using their ham radio around a lot of people. There are several microphones designed to pick up voices above the chatter and provide clear communication. 

Portable Ham Radio Box

Portable ham radio boxes house ham radios and make them easier to transport. You won’t be needing this for handheld devices though as they are already small and mobile.

Applications

Different handheld ham radio models are compatible with different devices and applications. Most also work well with PC and Android.

Handheld Ham Radio For Survival

Handheld ham radios can be used for exploring, traveling, and survival. They are made to last and designed to communicate at long range in case of emergencies, especially loss of phone signal and internet.

Knowledge Level 

If you want to use ham radios, there are many resources online and the community is very helpful; you can start with very little to no knowledge and work your way up. Studying for the entry-level license can usually be done in as short as 3-5 days.

Handheld Ham Radio For Beginners

There are several handheld ham radios made for beginners with minimal but reliable features. Depending on your needs, you may not even need to go beyond beginner models.

Features

Waterproof

Your radio may fall into water when you’re out and about or in the middle of a storm, making a waterproof ham radio a good investment. Some models are water-resistant while others are fully waterproof.

Power

Many handheld ham radios are limited to five watts of power, while some are lower or higher. It’s up to you to decide if you need several power options or if the basic five watts are sufficient for your needs. The most powerful handheld ham radios go up to 7-8 watts.

Size

Size is another important consideration. You want your handheld ham radio to be portable. Some of the smallest ham radios can be as compact as 3.5 inches.

Bands

When considering bands and handheld ham radios be sure to understand what you are going to use it for. For emergency communications and events, the two-meter ham band is most used. Consider a dual-band machine so that you can monitor two frequencies at the same time. 

Frequency

You still need a license to operate a ham radio and the ham radio frequencies you can use are dependent on the type of license you have. Not all radios work with all frequencies, so when choosing, be sure to select a machine that gives you access to the frequencies you are permitted to use.

Batteries

Several handheld ham radios have different battery setups. Consider selecting one that has long battery life and can be recharged right away through an external DC connection. 

Programming

When it comes to programming, consider if the radio can be manually programmed or if it must be done via software. If you choose a machine that requires programming via software be sure the cable is included in your purchase and with you when you travel. For manual programming, make sure the radio keyboard is functional. 

User Manual

Handheld ham radios can be tricky to use— especially in the beginning when you need to program them to your specifications. Because of this, you’ll want a unit that comes with easy-to-understand instructions, online resources and adequate customer service assistance.

Our Verdict

Buying a handheld ham radio can be tricky because each one is unique and useful in its own way. The best way to decide which radio to buy is to honestly assess how you will be using it. Is it just for occasional, recreational broadcasting? Is it more for hiking and traveling? Will it be for emergency response situations?

Knowing this will let you know what features are important and non-negotiable versus which features are just nice to have. Once you have a strong understanding of what you need, selecting the radio for you will be that much easier.