How Far Can I Talk With My Ham Radio? Here’s the Max Range

Ham radios are fantastic communication devices in SHTF situations where the internet, phone lines, a CB radio, and other forms of communication won’t work. But, just how far can you talk with your radio, and what’s the typical ham radio range?

Baofeng UV 5R5 HAM radio
a Baofeng UV 5R5 HAM radio

You can realistically get about 2-18 miles (3-29 kilometers) of range with a handheld Ham radio, and hundreds or up to 4,000 miles if you have a particularly powerful base station.

However, the actual range you can get from your Ham radio in the real world can vary substantially from this estimate.

Like anything Ham radio-related, the answer to how far you can communicate with your radio isn’t as simple as it might seem. The world of Ham radio is notorious for being a bit confusing to newcomers, so learning the basics, like how far you can talk with your radio, can easily seem like an insurmountable task.

In fact, there are a whole lot of “ifs, ands, or buts” involved with giving estimates for the range of any radio and Ham is no exception.

To demystify the concept of Ham radio ranges, up next, I’ll walk you through everything you need to know about what affects your transmitting distance so you can better understand what to expect from your own radio.

What Affects Ham Radio Range?

As I’ve mentioned, Ham radios have an average range between 2 miles and 18 miles.

But, if you’ve recently purchased a Ham radio (especially a handheld unit), the manufacturer might claim that you can get substantially more range than 2-18 miles. In fact, many 2-way radio units claim as much as 36 miles of range.

So, what gives? How far can you talk with a Ham radio?

The fact of the matter is that the range stated on a radio unit is the “theoretical range.” But, we rarely, if ever, experience conditions on Earth that are as perfect for radio transmission as what’s used to calculate “theoretical range.”

This means that the question of maximum Ham radio range isn’t easy to answer because there are a whole lot of different factors that affect how far you can communicate with a radio.

Therefore, instead of telling you that you can simply expect a range of 2-18 miles with your Ham radio and leaving the conversation at that, here are 4 key factors that affect your transmitting and receiving range.

Signal Type & Frequency

Within the United States, Ham radio operators can use 26 different “bands” or groups of frequencies with their radios.

According to the National Association for Amateur Radio, this includes everything above 1.8 Megahertz to 275 Gigahertz. This is a pretty wide range that technically covers HF, VHF, UHF, SHF, and EHF frequencies.

In fact, depending on the band that you use, you can talk with your friends on the other side of town or communicate with people across the world.

So, choosing the right frequency for your communications will have a major impact on your range. That being said, the majority of Ham radio operators stick to VHF and UHF frequencies.

Here’s what you need to know about how choosing to use either VHF or UHF affects your range:


VHF, or “very high frequency” radio bands are between 30-300MHz. These bands are frequently used by maritime, military, emergency, and air traffic control systems. It’s also used for FM radio broadcasting (AM radio actually uses HF or “high frequency,” which is 3-30 Mhz).

The main benefit of VHF is that it has longer wavelengths than UHF. This means that they can generally travel further and with less interference.

If your main goal for your radio is to transmit as far as possible, you might be saying, great, sign me up for VHF!

However, the disadvantage of VHF is that it’s not as effective in areas with buildings or other tall obstacles. Therefore, VHF is best for use in long-distance communications in outdoor areas where the receiving radio is more or less within the line of sight of the transmitting radio.


UHF, or “ultra high frequency” radio bands are between 300MHz and 3GHz, so they’re one step up in the frequency ladder from VHF. This means that they have shorter wavelengths and more energy than their VHF siblings. UHF is more commonly used for cell phones, GPS, Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, and walkie-talkies.

When compared to VHF, UHF has the added benefit of being more reliable in areas with lots of buildings or tree cover. Conversely, UHF is less effective over long distances, especially in mountainous areas.

UHF vs VHF: Which To Choose?

What this means for you, when it comes to Ham radio range, is not that you should definitely choose VHF over UHF because VHF is better over longer distances. In fact, to maximize the range of your radio, you need to operate on a frequency that’s appropriate for your location.

So, if you live in a rural area with lots of open space, you’ll likely get a better range with VHF. In an urban area, however, your range will generally be better if you opt for UHF instead.


The height of an antenna has a major impact on the amount of range that you can get with your Ham radio. This is especially true at frequencies above 2MHz, as anything above this frequency, works on line-of-sight transmission and can’t bend around the curvature of the Earth.

Therefore, your maximum communication range with a Ham radio is the distance to the horizon line based on your antenna height.

With that in mind, your distance to the horizon (in miles) is calculated at:

D = √H x 1.415

… where D is the distance in miles and H is the height of your antenna in feet.

So, someone using a handheld radio that’s positioned at 5’ off the ground would have a theoretical horizon of 3.16 miles. Meanwhile, a fixed station antenna that’s 20’ high would have a theoretical horizon of 6.33 miles.

Increasing the height of your antenna is one of the easiest ways to extend your range. However, your communication range is limited not only by the height of your antenna, but by that of the antenna receiving your transmission.

This means that two radio stations that are transmitting to each other will be able to communicate over a longer range than two handheld radios. As we’ll see, however, this “theoretical horizon” distance is just that: theoretical.

Therefore, you can think of this calculation as an indication of the maximum possible communication distance rather than what you should expect every time you use your Ham radio.

Ham radios can also have different power modes that affect the maximum distance they can transmit. To get the maximum range you should change the device to a mode with the most power output.


Radio signals aren’t very good at traveling through solid objects, such as mountains and buildings. Indeed, trying to talk through obstacles is a surefire way to reduce the range of your radio communications.

This is why we almost never communicate as far as our maximum theoretical range says we should be able to. Every time a radio wave has to pass through an object, the strength of the signal decreases, thereby shortening your overall range.

As I’ve mentioned, UHF frequencies are better at traveling through buildings and other objects in urban environments because of their higher energy wavelengths.

What this means for you, as a Ham radio operator, is that to maximize your range, you need to choose the appropriate frequency bands for your location. Additionally, it’s important to understand the limitations that your surrounding terrain has on your potential communication range.

Signal Strength

The final factor I’ll touch on when it comes to Ham radio range is the “strength” or “power” of your radio. Signal strength is measured in watts, and there’s a big difference in strength between a handheld unit and a typical commercial radio station.

While commercial stations will broadcast between 50,000 – 100,000 watts, handheld radios usually have just 0.5-5 watts of power. There are also laws about the signal strength of amateur radios, and Ham radios can generally have up to just 5 watts of power.

Simply put, the higher the signal strength (or watts) of a radio, the further it can travel. So, a 5 watt Ham radio is going to be able to transmit further than a 2 watt Ham radio with the same antenna height and in the same terrain.

How Does a Ham Radio Compare To Others?

A ham radio is just one type of radio that is able to transmit over long distances. However, it has the longest range amongst those you can use. Ham radio is often compared to other systems such as CB, GMRS, and CB radios. These systems have their pros and cons when compared to a Ham radio, with each being effective in their own ways.

ServiceMax PowerLicensingMax Range
HamUp to 1500 WattsGeneral, Technician, Amateur ExtraWorldwide
FRS0.5 WattsNone2 Miles
GMRS50 WattsFamily LicenseUp to 30 Miles
CB4 WattsNone4 Miles

Family Radio Service (FRS)

Using a minimal amount of power at about a half watt, the range of these units will only extend around two miles.

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) regulations require no extra license to use these radios (unlike HAM radios) since they’re low power, even though they use some of the same frequencies as a GMRS radio. The best examples of these are the two-way radios that you find in plastic packaging at your local hardware store.

General Mobile Radio Service (GMRS)

GMRS is the runner-up to Ham radio in terms of traveling distance. It is a UHF band service and requires a license in order to use it. Fortunately, it is a family license as opposed to the Ham radio individual licensing. You also won’t have to apply for multiple license levels as you would with a Ham radio.

GMRS allows for voice transmission and even simple messaging, although it falls short of a Ham radio by maxing out at 50 watts. To compare, a Ham radio can reach upwards of 1500 watts.

GMRS is also limited by range, which is typically upwards of 30 miles depending on terrain.

Citizens Band Radio (CB)

You won’t need a general license or technician license with a CB radio because it’s limited to only 4 watts of power. This means at full power a CB radio will only have a transmission range of about 4 miles. The main problem with these radios is that if there is a hill or some trees blocking the signal then it would effectively get distorted or lost.

For easy reference here is a chart outlining the main differences between each type of radio service.

Just How Far Can My Ham Radio Reach?

While you can typically get between 2 and 18 miles of range, it should be clear by now that the answer to this question isn’t as simple as it may seem.

In reality, the range of your Ham radio depends on the frequency you’re using, the height of your antenna, the obstacles and terrain around you, and the wattage of your radio, among other factors.

So, when you buy a radio unit and it claims to have a range of 36 miles, remember that this is a theoretical range in ideal conditions and not the norm. What’s more important is that you understand what affects the range of your Ham radio and what you can do to improve your range for better performance when SHTF.


Want more information on Ham radios and how far their frequency range is? Here are some of the most common questions people ask…

Do radio waves (RF) travel through water?

Yes, RF signals can travel through water, however, the frequency range is affected by how conductive the water is.

Can a Ham radio transmit to the International Space Station?

Yes, there is a repeater attached to the ISS that helps boost Ham signals.

Do CB radios, GMRS radios, or FRS radios transmit further than Ham?

No, CB radios only work up to 4 watts, FRS (Family Radio Service) up to half a watt, and GMRS is limited to 50 watts of power.

54 thoughts on “How Far Can I Talk With My Ham Radio? Here’s the Max Range”

      1. My Yaesu FT817ND is small and highly portable and using 2 1/2 watts I’ve talked from Oregon to Florida on 20 and 40 meters using a Silver Bullet 102 inch vertical whip antenna.

  1. You said, “It’s also used for FM radio broadcasting (AM radio actually uses HF or “high frequency,” which is 3-30 Mhz).”

    The US AM radio band is roughly 0.5 Mhz to 1.7 Mhz. So it is well below 3 Mhz, not HF. The AM band is sometimes referred to as MW or medium wave.

  2. I find this article somewhat misleading. A person with a handheld radio and zero knowledge could expect 2-18 miles distance transmission and receive. With knowledge a handheld could get up to a hundred miles and a DMR radio with a hotspot could be worldwide. I am a licensed operator and have made contacts to every part of the world

    1. But in a survival scenario, DMR will most likely be completely useless, since it requires significant intact infrastructure.

      For this type of situation, a good HF rig will be a better option

        1. Check out shortwave radio and read up on propagation issues based on solar conditions. Basically shortwave radio bounces radio waves off layers of the atmosphere, but conditions can vary wildly and what works during daylight hours might not work at night – that and conditions will vary from day to day. I am not a HAM operator, but my father is and has gear that lets him talk long distances when conditions are right.

        2. I talk to a friend in Ireland on the 20 meter band (HF) from my mobile ham radio rig form Texas almost every morning on the way to work so yes you can. I have made contacts in New Zealand, Europe and South America from the mobile also and many more throughout the world from my base station. HF signals do not pass through the ionosphere, they bounce of and return to ground to bounce again and again. each bounce or hop can be 1200 to 2500 miles. mulitiple hops it what makes it possible to tall over great distances with HF. A standard radio will have about 100 watts of power but can be legally amplified to 1500 watts. I have made all my worldwide contacts on only 100 watts.

          1. I am interested in learning how to do this. Would you please tell me more and how much your mobile rig cost ?

          2. Would love to hear more about your setup! I need ability to talk to Daughter and grandchildren in SC, I’m in KY, if SHTF!!

          3. That’s what is referred to as the “skip” and we are in a bad time for it. The sun has an 11 year cycle were this becomes more prevalent and we are currently at the low end. You can find more information better explaing this on YouTube.

    2. Stephanie StGeorge

      I live is utah and my family is back east..(NY,wv). If I was licenced would I be able to get a cheaper unit that could reach out that far? Does that make sense?

  3. Ernest Richardson

    My first time for ham radios studying for my license technician that is used to be a disc jockey about 50 years ago or close to it and found that radio waves are very interesting! But didn’t realize that it takes a lot more power to run am going to does FM! Had to have a license there too in order to read meters on the transmitter every 3 hours I believe at that time my license was known as a third phone. I just don’t know for my final comment how deep I really want to get into this it is very complicated but one thing I’m 71 now, see if you can answer that question for me thank you ever so much! Ernie.

  4. “Signal strength is measured in watts . . .” signal strength is measured in microvolts. “There are also laws about the signal strength of amateur radios . . .” no laws about signal but there is about transmit power (watts). “Simply put, the higher the signal strength (or watts) of a radio . . .” simply put, the higher the power output of a radio.

  5. This is a great forum!
    I’m just getting started in the ham radio field and need to prepare for the exam before I can do anything serious but I shall be in touch.

  6. How difficult is the HAM license test? How do you apply for one? What is the source information it is based on? How long does it take to get the test and then the license? Is it an FCC test?
    Thanks, Chery and Dave

    1. Get the Technicians manual from and study it. The whole question pool is in the back of the manual with the correct answers. Then take practice tests online. You will do fine. Its pretty easy with a little study. A 9 year old girl got her license in our area a couple of years ago.

    2. Start here:

      I studied for two weeks and got my Technicians license, you can get the exam question pool through this site. If you go through all the questions twice you will pass, then go for the Generals license the same way.

  7. My wife is currently studying for her license. (It’s for her 68th birthday) My oldest brother has had a HAM lic since he was 14. He will be 79 this year and he still talks on his setup daily. This forum is very interesting and everyone seems to have a sense of courtesy. Two thumbs up for the HAM operators, nationwide. Steve

  8. I am limiting myself to a small antenna. About to take my extra test and would live more info. My yard belongs to my wife and I respect that so help me out please. Curtis

  9. Hi Folks!

    I have what I thought were simple questions, but am having trouble tracking down answers. I have just started studying for my Technician License, and then will also study for the General and take both tests together.
    I would like to be able to use radio to communicate with my family all the way across the country in a SHTF scenario, which presumes repeaters would be down. I understand that the Ham frequencies include some but not all shortwave bands. So, is a technician license sufficient to use the ham SW bands and bounce the transmissions off the ionosphere at correct time of day and span the US or even reach foreign countries? Do I need a general license for that or the Extra license also? Presuming appropriate licensing, from other messages I have read here, it might take a 100W transmitter to do that with some reliability. Will it work with lower powered transmitter? Can I rig my Handy Talkie to communicate with a more powerful base station acting as a personal repeater to accomplish the above as well as use it for local communications? It seems like all the ham radio aficionados have about a dozen radios to do different things and it is hard to sort out a core set of radios for both local (up to 30 miles, say) and distant (trans continental or world-wide) communication. I somehow don’t think this will be covered during my study for the licenses, and want to start looking at equipment as I study so I can get on the air sooner and start enjoying the hobby. Thanks to anyone who can offer some help! ATB!

    1. Yes all of the questions you asked are covered in the testing material. I use several different rigs but when broken down I use VHF, UHF dual band for 2 meters and 70 centimeters for local out to around 140 miles. This is usually VHF and through repeaters that are 50 to 60 miles away with a dual band antenna at 60 feet. Power wise I use between 25 to 150 watts.
      For long distance from 500 to 8500 miles I use a small HF radio that was made in the 70’s. A Kenwood TS-520S. I also have a new modern HF mobil rig I also use as a base station. Yaesu FT-891. I use two different HF antennas. A 6 band vertical and an end fed long wire which is exactly as it sounds like. A 136 foot piece of #14 wire with one end about 15 feet above ground level and the other end going towards a large oak tree with the end about 90 feet above ground level, so it’s on a slope. Frequencies I use are 10, 20, 40, 80 meters as well as 6 meters using a magnetic loop sitting on a picnic table when the band is open. Power wise I use between 100 to 800 watts of power. High power is not required if the solar conditions are good.

    2. I will also add that while I can routinely talk 150 miles using vhf repeaters I am able to get out 75 to 100 miles using simplex as well. I’m in Florida so the only height I have is what I can put up.
      The equipment is a fairly inexpensive Icom 2730 dual band transceiver and a very large high gain vertical antenna made by Diamond. Cost wise I have more money in antenna, coax, push up pole, ground rods, and lightning arrested than I do in radio. Spend the money on the antenna. You can have the biggest baddest radio made with 1500w of power but if you have a cheap crappy antenna you will get nowhere.

    3. I’m seeing this late John, maybe you’ve gotten it worked out by now… but here’s my two cents worth:

      For 200mile range and more you’ll need an HF radio. Of course this needs to be SSB capable at a minimum and should ideally output up to100w

      The zero to 200 mile range can also be covered by the HF radio on its lower bands 3.5 and 7 Mhz. However this would require very long antennas ( in the order of 60 to 120 ft length). A less cumbersome way to get coverage over this range is using VHF or UHF frequencies. Again SSB will be your best bet, but FM will get you out to around 100 miles when using small yagi antennas. The biggest snag with VHF/UHF is that it will experience a good deal transmission shadows behind hills and mountains, whereas HF will pretty much overcome this.

  10. I have no problem getting my signal from Wyoming to Western Australia, 10100 miles, on “HF” bands (typically, 7 or 14 MHZ).

    This is with a home-made antenna on a small lot, using 100 watts, and digital modes.


    1. Wow that amazing – USA to Western Australia is very impressive. What equipment do you use and how much was the setup?

    2. I worked ZL on five watts 10m SSB from SoCal at the height of the last sunspot cycle, then never worked it again even with substantially more power. That’s radio propagation for you.



    1. I’m always thinking the same thing. I’m getting my license for the enjoyment of it but having a rig will also be helpful to SHTF. However most of what I read from other’s doing the same is no where near practical. I have no intentions of bugging out but have plans in place to do so only if absolutely necessary and as a last resort. Small mobile rig in the house instead of a “base station” rig so it is easy to get rid of if necessary so if military is kicking down door’s, you won’t be pegged as “one of those guys”. Although your name is in the database, they won’t be checking this initially. A decent handheld, external antenna and a solar mat in the go bag (get home bag as well since I drive a truck) not to transmit but merely just to listen. If the government, third world military, line of looters or whatever in general are moving out of the big cities kicking in doors then I want as much lead time as possible in order to keep as much distance from them as possible. This is when it’ll be time to get out of dodge.

      A lot of these other folks I suppose are going to power their rigs on unicorn poo and fairy dust because I don’t see many running on solar. And those who just want to keep in contact with family in other states, while I do understand why but they don’t seem to grasp the concept of how important it will be to keep the air open for important information to be passed instead of jamming it up and having to cut in with an emergency or priority message. When I read a lot of these comments, I realize just how misinformed a lot of people are as to what HAM radio is and what it is used for then people back out of getting their license because they come to find out HAM radio is not what they thought it was and can’t do what they thought they could do with it so they don’t bother to waste the money on it.

  11. I JUST got finished talking from Wyoming to Queensland Australia with my Galaxy 959 and a half wave inverted V antenna on battery power. LOL You people are making it way to complicated.

    1. I’ve been a ham since ’62. It’s simpler and yet more complicated than what’s presented here. After a while it becomes intuitive BUT it takes a while. One must stick with it. It doesn’t come all at once.

      Renee KC3NG

  12. Just a question.. ive been interested in getting a ham radio set up for quite some time.. I want a setup that is capable to talk from Southern California to Washington and Idaho …of course money is an issue so I’d like to find recommendations on the least expensive way to do what I’m trying to do

  13. Lots of mis info here. No, the max wattage for HAMs is not 5 watts, it’s 1500. The “average”distance” is not 2-18 miles. For vhf and uhf it is line of sight, this depends on antenna height. For hf it is hundreds and/or thousands of miles, all the time, depending on what hf band, and this includes low power

  14. For the ones talking about using radios for when SHTF, you may want to consider if you really want to be transmitting at that time. If so make each transmission very short.

    As mentioned by “The Great C”, he just answered a lot your questions for VHF and UHF.
    There again it depends on if WSHTF the repeaters are still up and running for going beyond the line of sight. There is an exception to that with the “sporadic E” layer height and distance.

    HF base, For those of you wanting to know the base distance without sky wave propagation, here’s your formula : distance in kilometres = 3.569 * sqr(antenna height in meters). That formula is off by some amount depending on your latitude.

    Using sky wave propagation, just about any amount of wattage can transmit a distance of 3500Km and can go as far as 6000-6500Km.

    For more info use search engine for WSPR.

  15. I talk to people on designated nets every morning(7.185.5). Im in Washington state and I can reach out to Colorado, Vegas, Cali, Oregon with ease. At the moment I’m taking a break, but I’ll be back on the bands in a bit. Ham radio is not CB, and alot of people think its the same. CB is more for around town, while ham radio is meant for World wide communications. Been hamming it up since I was 13, and Im now 56… Never lost interest. Its a clean addiction. Try it You’ll like it! 🙂

  16. Depending on whether it is a handheld radio or base station, ham radios can often transmit up to 18 miles away. The greatest range, meanwhile, is up to 5,000 miles, enabling the facilitation of international conversations.

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