Skip to main content

What is the difference between CB Radio and Ham Radio?

  • Author:
  • Updated date:

Many people think CB Radio and Ham Radio (that's licensed, trained Amateur Radio operators) are one and the same thing. There are some similarities, yes, but the differences are like chalk and cheese.


Citizens Band Radio Service

Affordable 27 MHz CB Radio Transceivers

CB or the Citizens Band Radio Service is where the FCC allows untrained and unlicensed individuals to use low-powered two-way radios radios for personal or business use.

CB radios are limited to a power output of 5 Watts AM or 12 Watts PEP (in single sideband/SSB mode). These 2 way radios operate in the 27 MHz HF (shortwave) band, and people using them are only permitted to talk to others within the United States. No overseas (DX) contacts are allowed. The CB radio service has 40 channels assigned to it. Since each channel can be used in AM mode or as USB (upper sideband) or LSB (lower sideband) in single-sideband mode, some folks like to imagine they have 80 or 120 channels. But that's not quite right.

Single sideband transceivers (SSB two-way radios) cost more than AM transceivers because they use more complex circuitry, and they take a little more skill to operate properly. In return, the SSB radio signals will almost always 'get through' over longer distances, and in poorer atmospheric conditions than an AM signal can manage.

Ham Radio (officially called the Amateur Radio Service) is where people who have studied two-way radios, antennas and US and international regulations - and who have passed an examination (and paid a fee) are allowed to communicate with other radio hams in their own country and with other licensed radio hams around the world.

Ham Radios (Amateur Radio equipment) can range in power from less than 1 Watt to 1000 Watts, and it isn't the equipment that gets licensed... It is the person operating it. Most handheld ham radios would be 5 Watts or less, but mobiles are usually between 10 and 100 Watts, most HF amateur radio base stations are 100 or 200 Watts, and hams are allowed to use linear amplifiers that give them up to 1000 or 2000 Watts of power.

On top of this, Amateur Radio Operators (Hams) are permitted to use large antennas on towers that may be 30 feet, 50 feet or higher in the air, plus all kinds of fancy sophisticated antenna systems to send out a highly directional transmitter beam. Like yagi or quad antennas.

Why do radio Hams have all these privileges that CBers do not? It comes back to the licensing and the expertise that Hams/Amateur Radio Operators study for. They are supposed to have the skills to set up and operate their two-way radio hobby, and to do it without causing any radio interference to their neighbors or to other radio users.

Amateur Radio operators also have to know how to handle emergency radio traffic, which is admittedly quite rare. (It seems to happen much more in the movies.) Licensed Hams are taught not to interfere if distress traffic is taking place. One takes control, and the others know to shut up and just listen. But that is another subject.

Do You Use 2-Way Radio? Tell us all about it! - CB vs Amateur Radio

Dawn Fifer from USA on May 29, 2016:

great explination

anonymous on June 08, 2013:

@Cynthia Haltom: Anybody with a big tall radio tower is very fortunate. They are much harder to get approved by local councils than they were a few decades ago. And a lot of hams are not allowed to put up any obvious outside antennas at all. Lots of height really helps you reach long distances.

Cynthia Haltom from Diamondhead on June 08, 2013:

My dad was a ham operator. We used to talk to people all over the world. He had a 75 foot windmill tower.

anonymous on August 10, 2012:

I used to have an amateur certification. Still have my equipment. One thing to remember is that although certified radio operators should be more knowledgeable than CB operators it is not always the case. Dimwits abound in both certified and uncertified radio users.

Secondly, due to lax FCC enforcement, many CB operators have just as much power as certified amateur operators although there are many dimwitted CB operators with expensive, high power rigs compared to certifified operators of the same power output. They just operate on different frequencies.

Scroll to Continue

In the end, it all comes down to skill level, rig setup, and a belief or disbelief in having to pay for the right to transmit an rf signal. There are rogues that operate on Amateur frequencies just as there are CB operators that do the same. Their only difference is choice of bandwidth.

If one looks at it in a SHTF scenario, you can own any ham equipment you wish without certification as long as you don't transmit from it in a non-emergency situation and draw attention to yourself. In essence, you just have an expensive scanner. In reality, the FCC won't bother with you unless you cause critical interference and/or certified operators want to cry about you. You also haven't provided your private information and intent to transmit to a government that may some day not want you to transmit information and will come and get you just in case you think otherwise. In the event of an EMP strike, a cb radio would be nice to have since they are usually in a metal vehicle, not hooked to a long antenna or power lines, and rugged simplicity make them less vulnerable to EMP. There is also better likelyhood that you would have someone else to talk to on CB since there are better odds of more CBs surviving due to the previous reasons and the fact that there are a lot more of them out there. CB radio is in the shortwave range and a 11 meter CB with SSB capability of 12 watts can shoot skip just as well as a 12 watt amateur radio on 10 or 12 meter ham frequencies with a simmilar antenna setup. IT all comes down to knowing how to do it.

All that being said, if you're not a prepper that thinks the government will haul you away someday for your radio capability, I would advise anyone interested to get certified. There is a lot you can learn from an Amateur Radio Operator that isn't just as dimwitted as some Citizen Band Operators.

anonymous on July 11, 2012:

Most of the 27 MHz band was filled with kiddies and many reprobates back in the 70's.

Smokey and the Bandit was cashing in on that craze , not the other way around.

Hams of the times treated C.B. operators like crap because of a few morons who would be operating illegal power and some of them were operating far above the 27 MHz band interfering with Amateur operators.

Back then you had 24 channels , later increased to 40 channels.

Amateur radio is a big hobby for many people and some folks are heavy in to it .Much of the equipment is not cheap to be sure but I can see the attraction, being able to talk pretty well any were with the right antenna.

I used to be in to all that years ago , the C.B. and also got to know some Amateurs who would go slumming on 27 MHz as they called it .

i used to enjoy those days when there were a lot of people on the airwaves.

But the novelty wore off and I moved on to other things.

vk2dmh (author) on June 07, 2012:

@anonymous: Hi Bonar, Yes I own a couple of QRP rigs, including the FT-817ND. And it takes more skill to make contacts with low power. The reason licensed hams are allowed higher power than CBers is because the Amateur Radio ops are supposed to have learned enough technical skill to be able to set up a station that doesn't cause interference to others. It does take some understanding of harmonics, high pass filters and low pass filters etc... Now, what did I say that you thought was rude?

vk2dmh (author) on June 07, 2012:

@anonymous: Ten Four, good buddy! ;-)

vk2dmh (author) on June 07, 2012:

@dave-sutton: Hi Dave, Yes I started off with a CB set as well. But in those days 27 MHz was also shared by licensed Australian hams and CB was illegal. Technically they were not allowed to talk to "pirates" but they would listen, and if they figured you showed any promise, they might come on air anonymously, not using their name or callsign, and suggest where the ham clubhouse was and what days and times the meetings were!

dave-sutton on June 07, 2012:

I started off on CB and loved it. I made many friends and a couple of us decided to study for our amateur radio licence as CB was so restricted and open to abuse.

CB still comes in handy to talk to my friends who are not amateurs but I have made so many friends world wide and even visit a ham in Cyprus.

It's a great hobby

Dave G0 IPH

anonymous on March 20, 2012:

@vk2dmh: hello vk2dmh..

please do not post a rude statement.. all cb/amateur are within the same hobby.. it does not matter you were licensed or not.. also no matter how big your power output are.. have you aver seen a qrp set like ft-817? only 5 watt..

anonymous on January 08, 2012:

@vk2dmh: guys, i have an icom mobile transceiver, it has a power of 65watts, what is the effect of using a mobile antenna with a rating of 50watts maximum?

anonymous on September 20, 2011:

Used mostly by long-haul 18-wheel truckers to get road conditions and to provide company on lonely roads, the CB radio was made popular for "civilian" use by the movie "Smokey And The Bandit" in 1977. Starring Burt Reynolds, Sally Fields, Jerry Reed and Jackie Gleason, it's about a trucker and his friend transporting illegal beer cross country to a high-paying customer. These radios, and a black Pontiac Trans Am, played an important part in that movie, and the public bought them (and Trans Ams) in droves.

cb radio

vk2dmh (author) on August 12, 2011:

@anonymous: Hi Ann Marie, The best thing you can do is to find where your local Amateur Radio club is and actually go to a meeting and introduce yourself. There is a whole range of equipment, from second-hand (pre-loved) transceivers to big, new and expensive rigs from Yaesu, Kenwood and Icom. What you need depends on what facet of ham radio turns you on. The same applies to the level of ham license you get. Nobody can advise you on all the possibilities, because they don't know what you are looking for.

vk2dmh (author) on August 12, 2011:

@kb6cla: So, what is your point, Clinton? Didn't you read my page?

I'm in Australia. We are not regulated by the FCC since we aren't in the USA. We are not allowed to use the same power as you guys. Most of us do fine with 100 watts.

anonymous on September 14, 2010:

@vk2dmh: I am trying to get started with ham radio and don't know where to begin. Could you give me some clear ideas about equipment and licensing

Thanks Anne Marie

vk2dmh (author) on February 16, 2010:

And we have 400 Watts max here in Australia, where I hold an Advanced class of license. What's your point, and does it really matter? My point is licensed hams are allowed to use a lot more power than a 5 watt cb set!

kb6cla on February 09, 2010:

Not true. FCC Part 97.313 (b) No station may transmit with power exceeding 1.5kW PEP.

That's 1500 watts.


Related Articles