GMRS vs. Ham: What’s the Difference Between Both?

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Ham radio and GMRS are both heavily used means of communication that some people have no clue about. They provide families with direct communication and could even provide the power to contact someone around the globe. So what are the differences between GMRS and Ham radio?

General Mobile Radio Service and Ham radio are often confused because they share many things. They have several differences that are only evident to those who have spent time working with radio bands. Don’t sweat it! Read on and learn all you need to know about the differences between GMRS and Ham radio.

The Differences Between GMRS and Ham Radio

Ham radio seems like an activity that most preppers would enjoy. It teaches self-efficacy while allowing you to communicate without using the grid. GMRS radios are often sold at big chain stores and are also pivotal in keeping comms between you and other family members. No matter which you choose, you should know the differences and how they work.

General Mobile Radio Service is for Short Distance Comms

GMRS communications are often person-to-person, walkie-style comms that allow you to concentrate at shorter distances and with fewer people than Ham. You could probably have a set of GMRS walkies you don’t know about. Operating GMRS requires a license but is much less severe than the Ham testing and requirements.

A few key differences between Ham and GMRS radio are:

  • Distance – The distance you can communicate with a GMRS radio is much shorter than that of Ham. Because of their power, they are only good for a mile radius or could be a line of sight operating. You can also expect any obstructions, like trees or buildings, to cut that range down.
  • Channels – GMRS radios are often prefilled with only 22 stations available. This means that you must have a contact on one of these stations, or you will not be able to communicate with them. Be sure your walkies are available on the same channels, or you could be in for a search party.
  • 50 Watts – The strongest GMRS radios on the market will only broadcast at 50 watts. Their lack of power is a huge reason the signal is easily disrupted, and their range is short. Fifty watts is for a strong radio. Others on the market are much weaker, and you can often discern them by their low price.
  • Testing – GMRS requires no testing to get a license, but they do have a barrier to entry. For $70, you can purchase the GMRS license, and it doesn’t have to be renewed for a decade. Always check the statistics of the radio you use, as it could be GMRS, and you might be operating on the wrong side of the law.
  • Coverage – Another big difference between the radios is the license coverage. With GMRS, the license is suitable for you and your nuclear family. Though the FCC isn’t out searching for people using the GMRS band, you should always play it safe.
  • Type 95 Certified – When you have a GMRS radio, it is required by the FCC to be Type 95 Certified. Type 95 means that it meets all the requirements set forth by the FCC and has the critical components needed to make communications possible.

GMRS radio is so typical that you frequently see them at Walmart and other big box stores. However, remember that they must meet the requirements of your positioning. That means you have to think about the terrain you will use the walkie and its impact on the comms. If you feel GMRS isn’t strong enough, it is time to step into the world of Ham radio.

Ham Radio is Powerful and Requires a License

Ham radio isn’t just for people who are into electronics or prepping. There are applications in the real world that people simply don’t know about. You don’t have to worry about range or obstructions using a Ham. The signal is powerful and must be trained and tested before broadcasting.

A few critical differences between Ham and GMRS are:

  • Distance – Ham radios can establish contact with the International Space Station. Their range is limited to their power. Some radios have immense power and interfere with standard radio transmissions. GMRS radio is for short-range communications and Ham for long distances.
  • 1500 Watts – The power that Ham radio can operate is 1500 watts. That is serious power if you are only used to the 50 watts that GMRS has. It is the reason that Ham can make transmissions with countries around the globe. It takes serious power to keep these size radios going. You will need a constant power source like a generator.
  • Bands – With a Ham radio, you can connect to several different types of radio bands. It allows you to send transmissions on different wavelengths because there will be people on all bands calling for help in an emergency. You never know who might need your assistance in a disaster.
  • Licensing – When it comes to getting a Ham radio license, there’s a bit of testing and even some stewardship involved. Ham radio requires that you take at least one level of testing and give you the option of taking the other levels if you seek to master the art.
  • Radio Building – One of the things that Ham radio operators geek out about is building radios. With GMRS, you are confined to what you can find at the store. Operators can build towers with steady states of power and locate them in places that favor Ham radio communication.
  • Handle – One of the coolest differences between the types is the handle. You must always signify with your handle when you get licensed to transmit Ham radio. This shows your authority to operate and will allow the FCC to contact you offline if they need something.

Ham radio is a niche that is tons of fun to learn about. They have people who will come and help you pass the testing so that they can get more people on the air. In the end, Ham radio is about broadcasting from a safe location, and GMRS is about being able to move. Either is a great way to broadcast for help or give others information during an emergency.

GMRS and Ham Radios are Very Different

General Mobile Radio Service is a good place for people to get their feet wet in outdoor communications. The radios are easy to use and can be found in any sporting goods store or on Amazon. They lack a few things that Ham can do, but they are handy for the prepper and the outdoorsman.

Working with a GMRS Radio is Much Easier than a Ham

One of the reasons that GMRS is so popular and easy to get into is because the radios are easier to use. People with no training can pick them up and use them with little instruction, and with a bit of work, they can master broadcasting. It is a fantastic place to start, as Ham is about building a robust, stationary radio.

We also have an article comparing GMRS to FRS here.

Some things to take care of before operating your GMRS radio are:

  • Check the Specs – You should check the specifications of your radios to see if they are transmitting in GMRS frequency ranges. You can find out the range of your radio by checking the model on Google. Click on a few different places, but they should all have the same answer.
  • Get a License – If you are operating on GMRS bands, you need to make sure that you have a license. The licensing process is straightforward and is more of a formality than an actual test. It covers the operation of your radios by you and your family and gives you a bit of insight into how to broadcast.
  • Power Packs – Depending on what kind of radio you have, you should check the battery packs. An easy way to test them is to use them for a few days until they run dead and charge them to full strength. Keep them on only when you need them from this point forward. Batteries work better after they run a complete cycle on the inside.
  • Parts – There are parts on store-bought radios that could be faulty or not as effective as others. You should take the time to research the radio and see if any parts could be bought to improve performance. Antennas are always the first to check as some companies skimp on the metal used to make the device more affordable.
  • Range Testing – Probably the most fun way to find out what your GMRS radio can do is to take it out to your camping area or hiking spot and find out what they can do. Range testing requires that you push the boundaries of the radios and see how they respond in different terrains at varying distances.

Testing your radios before you head out is imperative for safety. They could be worthless if there isn’t enough charge or you have a bad antenna. By doing a few simple tasks, you could find a flaw that is easily fixed at home. But, unfortunately, things aren’t so simple out in the wilderness.

Ham Radio is Fun and Addictive

One of the most common ways that people know Ham radio is from conventions. Once a year, a group of hobbyists would descend on the local recreation center and begin setting up elaborate antennas and generators. They spent the weekend discussing their rigs and capabilities while showing the local kids how to bounce a signal off the moon.

Check out our article with 5 must-know HAM frequencies.

Some critical parts of the Ham radio setup are:

  • Transceiver – A Transceiver is one of the essential parts of the rig. It allows you to send and receive messages. They are large pieces of hardware that look like stereo equipment from the 70s or 80s. Do your research when buying this piece because it will dictate how the rest of the radio is built.
  • Antennas – The antenna is the wildest area of radio creation for a Ham. There can be fifty food towers with top-of-the-line electronics inside or small table-top antennas that look like small satellite dishes.
  • Scanners – Another excellent resource for your Ham radio is the ability to scan for other transmissions. The scanner is a perfect way to keep your head on a swivel in an emergency because it hops around the dial until it finds a strong signal and listens in. You can stop the scan and address the channel or pass on.
  • Computers – One of the newest innovations in Ham radio is the ability to use Voice Over Internet Provider, or VOIP. VOIP allows Ham enthusiasts to submit signals through the web instead of airwaves.
  • Power Cables – You might not think they are essential but having high-quality power cables is a fantastic way to improve your Ham signal. They are often made of more expensive metals, which efficiently conduct electricity.

Ham Radios are lots of fun to operate and fun to put together. They are comprised of towers and computer equipment that will take time and effort to assemble. Learning to use them will take some time, but once you are ready for your first test, you should know the ins and outs well enough to broadcast and troubleshoot any radio problems.

Final Thoughts

The differences between GMRS and Ham are not that hard to miss if you know what you are looking for. One of the most significant issues is licensing. For Ham radios, you must be tested and pass the test, which comes in varying levels from hobbyist to radio technology. GMRS radios are often found in big box stores and are much simpler to operate.

GMRS radios are usually handheld and only have access to a few channels, while Ham can reach any frequency on the dial. GMRS radios are usually walkie-talkie style and can be single button operation. Be careful to test them before taking them out into the wild, as they could fail when you need them most.