Communication is essential in an emergency, especially when you’re separated from others in your family or survival group. When internet and phone communication might be out of the question, radios could be our best bet.
However, navigating the world of radio communication, with all its jargon and confusing acronyms isn’t easy. Indeed, simply figuring out the difference between the various radio services and frequencies is enough to make anyone’s head spin.
That being said, many people looking to get started with radio communication or that are looking for new radio-based solutions for their survival plan are drawn to the ease of use of the Family Radio Service (FRS).
To help you figure out if the Family Radio Service is right for your needs, here’s everything you need to know to get started.
What Is Family Radio Service (FRS)?
According to the FCC (which, by the way, is responsible for regulating radio communications in the US), Family Radio Service (FRS) is defined as:
Private, two-way, short-distance voice and data communications for facilitating family and group activities.
In plain English, that means that the FRS is basically designed to be used when small groups of people want to communicate with each other over short distances, such as on a hike, or when caravaning in multiple vehicles during a road trip.
People who communicate over FRS almost always do so via small handheld radios or “walkie talkies,” many of which are sold in two packs at your local electronics or sporting goods store.
The FRS was first authorized during the late 1990s after a push from Radio Shack to define specific radio frequencies for recreational walkie talkies.
The advent of FRS led to a drastic increase in the popularity of paired two packs of walkie talkies that allow people to communicate with each other quickly and easily without the need for much, if any, radio knowledge.
What Frequencies Does FRS Use?
The FCC defines FRS as operating within the frequencies between 462 MHz and 467 MHz. This might not seem like much, but it does offer 22 different channels for FRS users to communicate on. These include the following:
|Channel No.||Frequency||Power (Watts)|
As you can see, all these channels fall within FRS’s frequency range of 462 MHz and 467 MHz. For reference, here are some of the allocated frequencies that you’d find in popular amateur and private radio communications services in the United States:
- Citizens Band (CB): 26.956 MHz – 27.405 MHz
- Multi-Use Radio Service (MURS): 151 MHz – 154 MHz
- General Mobile Radio Service (GMRS): 462 MHz – 467 MHz*
- Family Radio Service (FRS): 462 MHz – 467 MHz*
* FRS and GMRS share the same frequencies – more on that in a bit! *
Interestingly, when FRS was created, it was purposefully defined as at a higher frequency than what was traditionally used for Citizens Band (CB/CBRS) radio, walkie talkies, and even baby monitors.
This is because the rising popularity of wireless devices started to clog up the frequencies that people wanted to use to communicate via walkie talkie or handheld radios.
In response, the FCC then created the FRS, which is technically exclusively for use by operators of short-distance two way radios.
What’s The Difference Between FRS And GMRS?
One of the most common points of confusion surrounding the use of FRS is how it differs from GMRS (General Mobile Radio Service). If you’ve been following along so far, this confusion makes sense as FRS and GMRS both operate on the same band (a range of frequencies).
As I’ve already mentioned, FRS has 22 channels, all of which are shared with GMRS. However, some channels available to GMRS radios are not available to FRS users. According to the FCC, these include:
So, GMRS radios have access to extra channels that FRS radios are not allowed to communicate on.
However, the real difference between FRS and GMRS isn’t the channels (though these extra channels are helpful in crowded areas with lots of radio traffic). There are 3 key ways in which FRS and GMRS radios differ: power output, communication range, and licensing requirements.
The power output of a radio refers, well, to how much power (measured in watts) that a radio produces when it transmits communications.
This is a fairly redundant definition, but you can think of the power output of a radio as its signal strength, or how much it umph it has in helping to propagate your radio waves and communication so that it reaches the person you’re trying to talk to.
Since FRS radios are designed to be used for short-distance communications, they have pretty low power outputs. In fact, the FCC regulates the power output of FRS radios to 2 watts on most frequencies and 0.5 watts on channels 8-14.
Meanwhile, GMRS radios are technically allowed to have a power output of up to 50 watts on some frequencies, though most handheld GMRS transmitters operate with less than 10 watts.
For comparison’s sake, most commercial radio stations will have a power output of 50,000 to 100,000 watts. That’s a lot of watts!
Needless to say, family radio service can get really complicated if you want to know more about radio waves, frequencies, wavelength etc., but for our purposes, we don’t really care. What we’re more interested in how to use technology to communicate with loved ones in an emergency, plus a few relevant concepts, such as that of rage, or how fare we can use these devices.
Now that we know that GMRS radios have higher power outputs than FRS radios, we can use that information to understand the communication range of these two radio services.
Before we get into that, however, it’s important to note that any discussion of communication range here is theoretical because the actual communication range you’ll get from your radio will vary greatly based on the landscape and conditions around you at any given moment.
Whatever a product manufacturer claims with regards to range on their products’ packaging is most definitely not something you will get in real-life.
With that in mind, due, in part to its lower power output, the typical communication range of an FRS radio is between 0.5 and 2 miles. However, like any radio communication range estimate, your actual range will be different in real life.
Alternatively, handheld GMRS radios generally have an advertised range of 5-36 miles, though the actual range can be as low as 0.5 miles and as high as the 30-40 mile range.
Additionally, GMRS, unlike FRS, radios are allowed to be used with repeater stations and external antennas. Doing so can allow you to communicate substantially further than these estimated ranges – upwards of hundreds of miles.
Oh – and one more thing to note: Many FRS radios are actually FRS/GMRS dual-service handheld radios. So, many companies will advertise an estimated range that’s well above the 0.5-2 miles you can normally expect from FRS.
That’s because they’re actually advertising the theoretical range of the radio when operating as a GMRS unit with a higher power output, without specifying that the range is substantially lower for FRS.
This can lead to a lot of frustration for FRS radio users, so it’s an important thing to know and understand before you buy.
Since FRS and GMRS have vastly different power outputs and communication ranges, they are regulated differently by the FCC. I’ll discuss FRS radio licensing in detail in just a bit, but it’s important to note that FRS radios do not require a license for operation while GMRS radios do.
The fact that anyone can operate an FRS radio without a license is one of the reasons why they’re so popular, even if they don’t allow you to communicate very far. This makes FRS the perfect option for walkie talkies that can be taken out of the box and used right away – all without the need to take a test or obtain a license.
Is Family Radio Service VHF Or UHF?
From FRS, GMRS, VHF, and UHF, the world of radios is full of acronyms which can get confusing very quickly.
However, one of the common questions people have about FRS when they’re first starting out is whether FRS is VHF or UHF.
The short answer? FRS frequencies are part of the UHF radio band.
If you’re looking to nerd out a bit on the ins and outs of radios, here’s what you need to know:
All of the different radio frequencies that we use for communication are organized into 13 different “frequency bands” on the radio spectrum as defined by the International Telecommunications Union (ITU).
These bands include everything from Tremendously Low Frequency (TLF), which is anything below 3 Hz and Tremendously High Frequency (THF), which is any frequency between 300 GHz and 3 THz.
In the middle of this spectrum, we have VHF and UHF. VHF (Very High Frequency) includes frequencies between 30MHz – 300 MHz and UHF (Ultra High Frequency) includes frequencies between 300 MHz – 3 GHz.
If you remember the frequency band that FRS uses (462 MHz – 467 MHz), then we can see that FRS is part of the UHF radio band.
What does this mean for you?
Well, in very simplified terms, VHF is generally better for communicating over longer distances, which is why it’s often used for ship to ship transmissions on the ocean (keep in mind, that range is also a factor of radio power and antenna height, not just frequency).
Meanwhile, UHF radio communications generally have less horizontal range, but are better at communicating through buildings and other physical barriers, which makes it perfect for FRS users.
Both UHF and VHF have trouble transmitting over large distances in highly mountainous areas because they rely on direct line-of-sight for communication.
Ultimately, since FRS radio users can’t operate outside of their designated range, whether FRS is UHF or VHF doesn’t make much of a practical difference. This is because an FRS user can’t just start communicating on VHF frequencies whenever they want.
However, if you think you’d like to communicate over longer distances using VHF frequencies, getting a ham radio license and having the right equipment to maximize your range is a good next step.
Do I Need A License For FRS?
According to the FCC, in the United States, FRS users do not need a license, so long as they follow the rules. People of any age can use FRS for any personal or business reasons without a license.
However, FRS radios that transmit (i.e. can be used for talking to another person) must be certified by the FCC. Additionally, things get a little tricky with licensing when it comes to radios that are dual-service FRS/GMRS units.
As of 2020, for radios that can operate on both FRS and GMRS, the FCC states that the device can be used solely as an FRS radio without a license if it does not include the following channels:
If a radio that’s labeled for both FRS and GMRS does have these channels or it exceeds the power limits for specific channels as listed by the FCC, then it’s considered a GMRS radio.
Should this be the case for your radio, you’d need to get a GMRS license – though, it’s important to note that you don’t have to take a test for GMRS, like you do for a Ham radio license.
Understandably, this is quite confusing, which is why the FCC changed the rules in 2017. With this rule change, the FCC will no longer certify equipment that operate under both FRS and GMRS and that exceeds the power limits listed for each channel in the FRS frequencies.
While you can still find and buy some of these dual-service radios on the market that exceed the stated power limits, the FCC isn’t going to allow any new ones to hit the shelves unless they follow certain rules.
Instead, radios will be certified as either FRS or GMRS or will be dual-serviced and will conform to the new regulations created in 2017.
That way, consumers won’t be confused about whether or not they need a license to operate their radio.
Can A Ham Radio Communicate With FRS?
Ham radio or “amateur radio service” is defined by the FCC as any radio transmissions between 1.8 MHz and 275 GHz that’s done for non-commercial purposes. But, anyone operating a Ham radio needs to have a license to do so.
As you can see, the frequency range for Ham radio overlaps with that of FRS, so it’s reasonable for people to wonder if they can use a Ham radio to communicate with their friends and family that have an FRS unit.
While you technically can do this, it may be illegal. This is because Ham radio users can operate at a maximum of 1500 watts (depending on their licensing level), which well exceeds the 0.5 watt and 2 watt limit placed on transmissions using FRS-designated frequencies.
So, yes, you can technically use a Ham radio to talk to an FRS radio, but be sure to follow the rules should you choose to do so.
While it’s unlikely that the FCC will come knocking on your door if you exceed the FRS power limits just once, the FCC does track down violators (check out these lists of people and organizations that have been caught breaking the rules).
There can be serious consequences for breaking these rules. So, if you do want to communicate with someone using an FRS radio, it’s generally best to just buy one for yourself to avoid any mishaps.
FRS Radio Pros & Cons
FRS radio, like all forms of communication, has its pros and cons. If you’re considering FRS radio as part of your survival plan, this is what you need to know about how FRS performs in the real world.
Ever since it was introduced in the 1990s, FRS has been a popular choice. Here’s why:
- No License Needed. Perhaps the biggest benefit of FRS is that it doesn’t require a license. This makes it particularly well suited for kids, and for anyone that’s just getting started with radio communications and isn’t quite sure what radio service is right for them. Plus, it means that you can use your FRS radio right out of the box.
- Easy To Use. FRS radios, especially those marketed as “walkie talkies” are purposefully designed to be easy to use so that anyone can pick one up and start talking. So, if you’re looking for a radio that you can pack in your kid’s bug out bag for intra-family communication, FRS is a solid choice.
- More Affordable. Generally speaking, FRS radios are more affordable than the alternatives, which is one of the reasons why they’re so popular amongst new radio enthusiasts.
Here are some of the key things to consider when deciding if FRS is right for you:
- Limited Range. As I’ve mentioned, FRS range is substantially limited when compared to GMRS due to its lower power output. However, many manufacturers deceptively claim longer theoretical ranges on their combined FRS/GMRS radios, which can lead to some frustration when communicating in real life.
- Fewer Channels. Although GMRS radios can access all FRS channels, the opposite is not true. FRS has 8 fewer channels than GMRS, which increases your risk of transmission interference if you’re trying to communicate in a busy area. That being said, many FRS radios now come with privacy codes, just like GMRS radios do, so you can communicate with your friends and family with less interference.
- Can’t Use Repeaters. Unlike GMRS, FRS radio users can’t use repeaters to increase their communication range, according to FCC regulations.
Getting Started With Family Radio Service
If you’ve gotten this far and you’re thinking to yourself that FRS is right for your needs, then it’s time to take your first steps toward communication preparedness. Here are some top things to keep in mind as you get started.
Choosing A FRS Radio
There are hundreds of different FRS-capable handheld radio units out there, so choosing just one might not be as simple as it may seem. These are some key factors to consider while shopping:
Size & Weight
For the most part, it’s best to have a lightweight and compact handheld radio, particularly if you’re looking to keep a set in your bug out bag or in your vehicle. As far as radios go, “lightweight” refers to anything that’s less than about 10oz (283.5g).
For the actual size of the unit, many companies try to make their radios more compact by creating smaller antennas.
However, keep in mind that shorter antennas mean shorter range, so if you have to choose between compactness and antenna length, a longer antenna should generally win out.
If you’re in a situation where you need to rely on your radio as your sole means of communication, you’ll want to be sure that you won’t run out of power. So, battery life is an essential consideration when buying a radio.
A battery life of at least 8 hours should be seen as a minimum, but anything more than that is certainly advantageous. Also, keep in mind that many radio companies sell extra batteries, which are good to have on hand, just in case.
These days, some handheld radios are designed to be fully waterproof (some models even float!), which is ideal if you live somewhere that gets a lot of precipitation.
Most manufacturing companies will use the IP rating system when discussing waterproofing, which is a standardized way to categorize how water-resistant an object actually is.
Most waterproof radios are rated to IPX-7, which means that they can be submerged in up to 3.2ft (1m) of water for up to 30 minutes. Meanwhile, IPX-6 radios are water-resistant and can withstand heavy rain.
Channels & Privacy Codes
Most FRS radios will be able to operate on all 22 FRS channels. However, some also come with “privacy codes,” which is a way to cut down on any potential interference in your conversation.
While a privacy code doesn’t stop anyone from listening to your conversation (FRS transmissions are public), it will stop your radio from receiving transmissions from anyone other than the person you’re trying to talk to.
The way this works is actually fairly simple. For example, if you and your friend set your radios to channel 3 and privacy code 4, your radios will only unmute their speakers (e.g., receive a transmission) if a transmission comes from a radio that’s also on channel 3 and privacy code 4.
That way, you can greatly reduce the amount of interference you get from people you’re not trying to communicate with and keep your radio traffic to a minimum.
Having more privacy codes is generally seen as helpful as it increases the total number of combinations of privacy codes and channels that you can transmit on.
All radio companies will list some sort of “maximum range” on their radios, but, to be honest, you should mostly disregard these advertised ranges when making a purchase.
Due to the low wattage of FRS radios, you’re not likely (though it’s not impossible) to get more than 0.5-2 miles of communication range except in particularly great conditions.
In reality, anything more than about 5 ranges is highly improbable (though, again, not impossible) with a handheld FRS radio.
So, I recommend mostly ignoring these somewhat deceptive marketing tactics and looking for a radio that has the features you need rather than getting swayed by an unrealistic theoretical range.
Popular Brands & Models
There are a lot of different FRS radios to choose from, so here are some popular models and brands to consider as you shop:
- Motorola T600 Talkabout. A 2 pack of dual-service FRS/GMRS radios that offers 22 FRS channels, 121 privacy codes, and up to 23 hours of battery life with alkaline batteries. It also provides access to NOAA weather alerts, is IPX7 rated for waterproofing, and has a built-in LED light.
- Motorola T100 Talkabout. This 2 pack of dual-service FRS/GMRS radios is budget-friendly and easy to use with 22 different FRS channels and up to 18 hours of battery life. While these radios don’t offer privacy codes or waterproofing, they are highly affordable and are perfect for younger children or first-time radio users.
- Midland LXT500VP3. This 2 pack of radios is FRS-only for ease of use and it features 22 channels for communication. They have a channel scanning feature and come with a charging station for added convenience.
Tips For Preparedness With FRS Radios
Simply having an FRS radio is just the first step in being prepared. With your FRS radios in hand, here are some things to keep in mind when creating your emergency plan:
- Have enough radios for everyone. In general, it’s best to have one radio set aside for each person in your family that could realistically be able to use one just in case you get split up in an emergency. You’d be surprised at how well a young child can communicate with a radio if they need to, so nearly any child that’s school-aged or older should probably have a radio in their emergency kit.
- Practice your radio skills. While this is especially important for younger children, you should take the time to practice your radio communication skills as a family or survival group. Ensure that everyone knows how to use the various functions of their radio to prevent any mishaps in an emergency.
- Keep radios in strategic locations. Having a set of radios in each bug out bag that your family has is a good idea as you may need to communicate while you’re away from home. It’s also worth having one in each vehicle that your family owns so that you have a way to communicate if you’re driving separate vehicles in a bug out situation.
- Have spare batteries. I really can’t stress this point enough. Spare batteries are essential whenever dealing with electronics, and radios are no exception. Ensure that you have at least one spare battery per radio, if not more.
FRS Radio: To Use Or Not To Use?
At this point, hopefully you have a pretty good idea of what FRS, what it’s used for, and its various advantages and disadvantages.
Ultimately, FRS is a great choice for people that want an affordable, easy-to-use, and license-free radio for occasional use.
Due to FRS’ limited range, it’s not great if you’re looking to chat with your buddies that live in the next town over, but it’s an awesome option for camping trips or in any other situation where you need a quick, reliable tool for communication.
Have you ever used FRS? let us know your experience and tips in the comments below, and be sure to pin this article for later on Pinterest.
updated 10/31/2020 by Dan F. Sullivan
Gaby is a professional outdoor educator, mountain guide, and survival expert with a passion for helping others be prepared for whatever might come their way. She is an expert rifle and firearms handler, thanks to her work in polar bear territory in the Arctic region and is an experienced wilderness medicine instructor/EMT.