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There’s plenty of fun to be had with ham radio even if you don’t have a license. You can get a handheld radio to listen in on what’s going on while you are out and about or get a base station/desktop radio. You can listen to activities on local repeaters. Repeaters allow ham radio operators to talk locally, they send a signal to a repeater and it transmits the signal to other radios in the area. You can listen in to their conversations or to Nets, regular ham meet us on repeaters that discuss a certain topic. A larger desktop radio with a longer antenna will also be able to receive amateur HF communications sent directly from ham radios around the world, you can listen to conversations from places like Germany, Kazakhstan, or Japan.

1. Local repeaters can be found by location at this website, tune the frequency of your radio to the output. Even though the repeater is on, it might not be in use meaning that you might not hear anything. You can program several frequencies into your radio, then tune the radio to the different frequencies until you catch a conversation.

2. You can find a schedule of nets and their frequencies on the ARRL website which lists all nets registered with the ARRL. If you have a handheld, select “local nets” and select 2m or 70 cm for the frequency. You will find nets discussing topics ranging from emergency safety (ARES, RACES) to women in ham radio (YL).

3. If your radio can receive HF (high frequency) communications, you can tune around to different stations to listen in. Or you can check DX clusters online which spot operators from rare locations and post their frequency. The call signs of operators from rare locations are listed under “dx”. You can mouse-over the call sign to see where the operator is located.

When you are listening in on ham radio, chances are you will hear a lot codes such as 73, cq, qsl, these are abbreviations that were originally used in Morse code and are now used when speaking. You can find a list of them here.

Most ham radios can tune in to frequencies that aren’t on the ham bands. At the airport you can listen to air traffic control. In the subway, you can listen to the local transit station and hear what is going on behind the scenes. A lot of handheld radios are waterproof so at the beach you can listen to lifeguard stations or the coast guard. You can listen to Nascar raceways and speedways, zoos, police stations, fire stations, short wave radio, subway and public transportation radios, space shuttle reentry, weather, etc.. All you need is a radio and a guide to the frequencies to tune in to.

1. Local fire department, police department, transit, school safety, sanitation, hospitals, zoos, parks and lifeguards. When you listen to the police stations, you will notice that they use a lot of codes, “we have a 11-24 on Greene and Fort St.”. You can learn what those codes mean here.

2. Airport frequencies
Type in the airport code (i.e. JFK) and learn the frequencies for control tower, approaching flights, departing flights, pre-taxi clearance, etc.

3. Nascar raceways and speedways
Free list of frequencies
List of frequencies that you must pay for

4. Local weather

5. Space shuttle frequencies are only transmitted locally. But you can find retransmissions on your local frequencies toward the bottom on the page.

A handheld radio is a really fun thing to bring out with friends to a bar or party. There’s always something interesting happening on the radio sure to spur conversation and help you meet new friends. Just program some frequencies into your radio and you will be all set to go. I’ve found that the police and fire station radios are most exciting to listen to. You can bring earphones and a splitter if you are going to a quieter place like a coffee shop where you might disturb the other patrons.


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Diana was a contestant on Project Runway season 2, graduated from RISD, and currently lives in New York City.



  1. 101 says:

    for something titled “Ham Radio 101: Getting Started Without a Licesnse” it seems to leave out a LOT of useful info for people who may be interested….

    specifically what kind of radios are you talking about?
    do they have specific frequency ranges?
    where can you get them?
    how much are they?

    can they be made??? if so how?

    1. Mike Yancey says:

      I can answer some of these:’

      > specifically what kind of radios are you talking about?
      For local repeaters, 2-meter (144mhz to 148mhz); there are also higher (222mhz, 432mhz and up) bands.
      For HF or shortwave, there are 10 amateur bands below 30mhz.
      Color chart of amateur bands here:

      > do they have specific frequency ranges?

      > where can you get them?
      > how much are they?

      You can usually find a nice, used 2-meter hand-held radio for under $100 on craigslist. You can also find general use scanners (receivers) as well for hearing ham as well as some police or fire traffic, aircraft traffic and NOAA Weather

      > can they be made??? if so how?
      Above 50mhz, it’s harder to get nice, stable VFOs. Manufactured stuff is better. Below 30mhz, it’s VERY easy to make your own and there are hundreds of projects out there.
      Here’s just one (warning: PDF):

      Mike Y
      Dallas, Texas

      1. Mike Yancey says:

        Be advised against transmitting without a license.

        The ham bands are somewhat self-policed, but there are some local clubs that are quite expert at tracking via Direction Finding (DF) errant signals. And, of course, the FCC looks dimly on such activity:

        In fact that DFing or Fox-Hunting is an entire specialty in the ham hobby. It’s quite amazing to listen to them find either a leaky cable TV coax or a very low-power “Fox”, and quickly.

        The best use for ham receivers, in my opinion, would be bad weather or situations like you can see now in Southern California where TV and FM broadcast towers are threatened. It’s an alternate way of obtaining emergency info.

        That said: if you’re in a true emergency situation – life or property threatening – you’re legally allowed to transmit on amateur frequencies specifically to request emergency help. It’s written sort-a backwards, but:

        FCC Part 97.403 reads:
        “No provision of these rules PREVENTS the use by an amateur station of any means of radiocommunication at its disposal to provide essential communication needs in connection with the immediate safety of human LIFE and immediate protection of PROPERTY when normal communication systems are not available.”

        Mike Y
        Dallas, Texas

        1. Gideon Miller says:

          I recently purchased 2 VHF handheld 4watt radios. The only reason I got them is so that I and another person can communicate. We have a very larg ranch with many places not receiving cell phone service. We have a lot of problems with trespassers and hunters. So if I can talk to someone else on the ranch that could contact a sheriff. I do not have a license. I am such in the mountains that I don’t receive transmission from any outside sorce, nor do I intend to interfear with any. Is it ok to use this setup without going through the process of getting a license?

          1. It is only OK to use the emergency exemption in very rare circumstances. Because you see someone in the distance walking across your property is probably not one (IANAL). Given how easy it is to get your Technicians license you and your friend should probably just go get one. That way, if you just want to chit chat you can also do that. The tech license is just some very basic radio safety stuff, and some basic FCC rules. The local radio club in my home town runs lessons to teach people it over 2 Saturdays, or a couple of hours every Monday for about 6 weeks, or you can just teach yourself from the books, that is what I did and it wasn’t very bad at all.

  2. RDM says:

    And we can get ham radios for how many dollars from where?

  3. Chris says:

    If you’re interested in just listening, I would suggest purchasing a working VHF & UHF (usually combined in the same) scanner. It could be something handheld or something that would go on your desk. A VHF or UHF scanner with a basic rubber-duck antenna should give you reception to most local repeaters.

    If you’re interested in buying a ham radio transceiver (transmits & receives) and want something hand-held that can also be used on the same repeaters you’re listening to with a scanner, I would recommend something like a Yaesu FT-60R (that’s what I own) or an Icom T7H Sport. Icom and Yaesu are the more popular brands, though you’ll also see Kenwood and Alinco. I don’t see too many people using Kenwood or Alinco radios, so I can’t recommend them one way or the other…

    I good place to purchase used scanners or hand-held amateur radios online is eBay. New scanners or amateur radios can be found online at (click on “Online Catalog”, then “Amateur VHF-UHF Handhelds”). A good traditional store would be Ham Radio Outlet (online at as their employees use all the products they sell (unlike Radio Shack). :-)

  4. Charles Salsman says:

    Unless you live in Westminster, SC

  5. Anonymous says:

    Here is a link to another cool site to help you find local repeaters in your area.

  6. Chris Lyon says:

    Right on. I am going for my Technician ticket next week

  7. Chris Lyon says:

         I am going for my Technician ticket next week. So many radios…so little money lol but shortwave is owesome and so is !

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  9. ..........................................? says:

    is it legal to use a receiver without a license?

    1. Yes, assuming that you aren’t picking up some frequency that is illegal in your local area, anyone can receive.

  10. paul archer says:

    paul archer says scanners are illegal in some areas so watch out

  11. dan says:

    is it legal to use a scanner to listen to my local fire department

    1. Geoff says:

      Dan, you CAN legally listen to public safety transmissions. Some states, like mine, prohibit the use of a scanner in a vehicle: they don’t want you to use what you might hear to evade the police. But for the most part, listening to public safety at home is 100% legal and does not require a license in the USA. You need a license to transmit — and that license would not grant you permission to transmit on public safety frequencies. Hope this helps. –Geoff

  12. Slappy says:

    Not only is it against the law, it is against the poopoo.

  13. dan says:

    so i cannot listen to it either way thanks

  14. mr. parr says:

    i live in new jersey and i want to listen to my local fire department using a scanner i found on amazon do i need a licence to do it or what do i need and is it legal? Thanks

  15. dan says:

    i live in new jersey and i want to listen to my local fire department using a scanner i found on amazon do i need a licence to do it or what do i need and is it legal? Thanks Please reply fast.

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  18. Greg R says:

    The US Supreme court has ruled through decisions related to the news media have ruled by extension that it is the legal for citizens to monitor all non-encrypted communications of police, fire & public safety agencies. I know of no area that requires a “license or permit” to do so, if you do please post it here. Some locations have restrictions on the operation of scanners in vehicles, these restrictions are apparently ok. Additionally the FCC has ruled they preempt all local and state laws with respect to the mobile operations conducted by FCC Licensed Hams and their gear, which includes scanner radios. So, while some locations have restrictions on use of cellphones in vehicles, the FCC rules have been unclear to those states making such laws restricting use of radio gear in vehicles. Some police have ticketed Ham’s using their gear, that is not proper, although if the driver was ticketed for “distracted driving” it’s doubtful the FCC rulings would aid them in avoiding a ticket. But some state have amended their laws to exempt locensed Ham Radio operators using their comm gear. I hope this clarifies and does not confuse. Let me make one last comment, takign the 35 question test and having a Ham Radio Tech license helps offer a legal defense in having ham radios & related comms gear (scanners) in your vehicle.

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