Complete Guide to Two Way Radios: Ham, CB, FRS, GMRS, and MURS

Living in the modern world, we take it for granted how easy it is to get in contact with our family and loved ones. In an emergency situation, communicating won’t be as easy as picking up your cell phone. The most reliable emergency communications are 2-way radios because they don’t rely on any grid and you can still communicate even when no cell signal is available. There are also other benefits to using 2-way radios, like the fact you can communicate with groups.

What is a 2-Way Radio?

A two way radio is simply any radio which can transmit and receive voice communications (unlike broadcast radios which transmit signals but don’t receive them). Two way radios can be stationary, portable, or a combination of stationary and portable. There are some examples of these.

  • Stationary 2-Way Radios: Such as when two military bases use radios to communicate.
  • Portable 2-Way Radios: Such as when two truck drivers use radios to communicate.
  • Portable and Stationary: Such as when a base station communicates to team members on the move, such as taxi dispatchers, airline control centers, and police stations.

Difference between 2-Way Radios and Walkie Talkies

There is a lot of confusion about the difference between 2-way radios and walkie talkies. The two terms are often used interchangeably. To make matters worse, we usually associate the term “walkie talkie” with children’s toys, so people will think that a walkie talkie must be inferior to a 2-way radio.

A walkie talkie is simply any portable 2-way radio. They were first used in WWII, but later became available as cheap kid’s toys (which is why the term has picked up a bad connotation). A walkie talkie doesn’t have to be bad quality. There are many walkie talkies which are capable of transmitting signals long distances.

A walkie talkie is a 2-way radio, but not all 2-way radios are walkie talkies (think squares and rectangles). This is because some 2-way radios are stationary. If either end of the 2-way radio has a “base,” then it isn’t a walkie talkie.

Types of 2-Way Radios

There are  many types of 2-way radios available. The core differences between the types of 2-way radios is their allowed watts, range, and number of channels. There are also legal restrictions for using some types of 2-way radios.

Ham Radio

Amateur Radio Service, more commonly referred to as Ham radio, allows users to talk to other operators across the globe. Because of its long range and the skills required to operate a ham radio without causing interference, the FCC requires Ham radio operators to be licensed. Note that it isn’t the ham radio which gets licensed. It is the operator which must be licensed. According to, there are 600,000 ham radio amateurs in the USA and over 2 million worldwide.

Many ham radio operators are hobbyists who simply enjoy the technology and communicating. A ham radio can be interfaced with a computer or tablet to send data, texts, images, or Morse code. There are ham radio contests where the object is to see how many hams in far-away locations can be contacted. You can even call an astronaut using ham radio. Cool!

Ham radios can be incredibly powerful, but the typical handheld ham radio is about 5 watts or less. Mobile ham radios are usually around 10 to 100 watts, and ham base stations usually have 100 to 200 watts. Amplifiers can be used to increase the watts to 1000+ watts. Antennas can be installed on rooftops or towers to increase range. Note that there are different ham radio license types, and some limit how many watts you can use. Here is a cheat sheet of allowed frequencies and modes.


  • Max Power: 5 watts (handheld); 50 watts (mobile); 1500 watts (base)
  • Band: HF, UHF, VHR
  • Assigned Channels? No
  • Range: 1-20 miles (handheld); 5-1200 miles (mobile); 50-2500 miles (base)
  • License required? Yes

CB Radio

CB stands for Citizens Band Radio Service. These are very powerful 2-way radios and are commonly used by truckers, and operate on 27 MHz HF (shortwave) band. There are almost no legal requirements for operating a CB radio. The FCC rules (95.403) only state that foreign governments cannot use CB radio, and people with an FCC cease and desist order cannot operate CB radio. You are not allowed to have overseas communications with CB radio.

There are 40 channels on CB radio. Each channel can be used in AM mode r single sideband mode (SSB). The SSB mode is further divided into upper sideband mode (USB) and lower sideband mode (LSB). This gives users eve more channels to choose from.  Note that SSB CB radios usually cost more than AM CB radios. However, SSB CB radios tend to have much longer range and are more reliable in bad weather conditions. *Channel 9 on the CB radio is dedicated to emergency communications.


  • Max Power: 12 watts in PEP SSB; 4W watts in AM
  • Band: AM and SBB
  • Assigned Channels? Yes
  • Range: 3-5 miles (handheld); 7-10 miles (mobile); 10-50 miles (base)
  • License required? No

FRS Radio

Family Radio Service (FRS) is becoming increasingly more popular because it doesn’t require any license, and it is easy to use. There are 14 total FRS channels, of which 7 are dedicated to FRS and the other 7 are shared with GMRS. Many walkie talkies are combos of FRS/GMRS. The range of FRS radios is limited, so these would be good for communicating with people around a base camp, such as when out in the wilderness.


  • Max Power: 5 watts
  • Band: UHF
  • Assigned Channels? Yes
  • Range: 1-2 miles (handheld)
  • License required? No

GMRS Radio

General Mobile Radio Service (GMRS) is a 2-way radio designed for short-distance communications. It was set aside by the FCC for family use, but can be used for business use as well. There are a total of 15 channels, of which 7 are shared by FRS. A license is required for GMRS, but only one license is needed for the entire family.


  • Max Power: 5 watts
  • Band: UHF
  • Assigned Channels? Yes
  • Range: 5-25 miles (mobile)
  • License required? Yes

MURS Radio

Multi-Use Radio Service (MURS) was first created in 2000 and doesn’t require a license. It has a max power of 2 watts, which is higher than a FRS. However, its popularity is being stifled by the fact that there really aren’t that many MURS radios to choose from. Because MURS isn’t as popular, channels won’t be as busy.


  • Max Power: 2 watts
  • Band: VFH
  • Assigned Channels? Yes
  • Range: 2-3 miles (handheld)
  • License required? No

What system do you plan on using for emergency communications?  Let us know in the comments below or join the conversation on Facebook.

I’m Jacob Hunter, founder of Primal Survivor.
I believe in empowering people with the knowledge to prepare and survive in the modern world.

More about Jacob here.

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  1. I need to know, if I am 50 miles away from my family and something happens that all phones no longer work,what cb or ham radio can I depend on to make sure I can contact my family.

  2. This was very helpful. I’m looking for a two way radio to reach Family roughly 5-6 miles away in a suburban area in the event of an emergency. From what I read here, a CB or GMRS would be idea. Of the two, is one more recommended?

  3. I’m looking for a good hand held , usb rechargeable. Or regular batteries. Will pick up all bands and weather …will transmit on ham or cb bands and water proof

  4. Mac,
    There is no legal radio that can do that. CB is about useless anymore due to wave reflection from sky layers. Truckers rarely use it. Get a Ham technician license and use FM 2 meter repeaters. Many have internet connections that can be used to talk around the world.

  5. I have a GMRS license. If I use a walkie talkie an the GMRS band, does the other person on the other end need to have a license to transmit back to me?

    If I am on my farm and go out with a friend, I may communicate with him and he will respond. I am licensed. Does my license apply to his use of the system?

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