We here at The Prepared are big proponents of getting your ham radio license so you can communicate effectively without the grid. But not everyone has the time or inclination to study for the requisite licenses. And even if you have a ham license, your loved ones may not. The General Mobile Radio Service (GMRS) can potentially fill that gap.
GMRS bridges the gap between the low-power Family Radio Service (FRS) and the steeper barriers to entry of ham radio. GMRS offers some of the benefits of ham radio, like higher transmit power and the use of repeaters, but the equipment is simpler and cheaper. You need a license to use GMRS, but it only requires a small fee, not a test, and the license covers your entire immediate family. The license currently costs $70 for ten years, though the fee is supposed to drop to $35 in the future.
Unfortunately, the FCC doesn’t make obtaining a GMRS license obvious. And due to poor communication on the part of radio manufacturers, you could already be using GMRS illegally without realizing it.
Even if you have a ham radio license, GMRS is helpful for staying in contact with your family members that don’t have ham licenses.
- GMRS is more limited than ham radio but is also simpler and easier to understand.
- GMRS radios use pre-programmed frequencies stored in channels, so you never have to mess with punching in frequencies.
- A realistic maximum range for most GMRS handhelds is one mile.
- GMRS is more casual than ham radio, but you are still issued a callsign that you’re supposed to use on air for identification.
- Like ham radio, GMRS can use repeaters to extend their communication range and take advantage of tone squelch to mute unwanted transmissions.
- FCC licenses are public records, so it’s a good practice to register a PO box or private mailbox with the FCC to protect your home address.
- Before doing any business with the FCC, you need to register to receive an FCC Registration Number (FRN).
- You can use a ham radio like a BaoFeng for GMRS, but it’s not legal and you’re better off with a dedicated GMRS radio.
GMRS and ham radio have many similarities but just as many differences. Some similarities:
- GMRS and ham support both direct communications between radios (simplex) and communication through centralized repeaters.
- GMRS and ham can be used with handheld radios and more-powerful mobile radios, which can be installed in a vehicle or used from home.
- Both can take advantage of tone squelch to filter out unwanted transmissions.
- Both can use data signals in addition to voice. (Though GMRS can’t do advanced stuff like JS8Call and Winlink.)
- Both require a license from the FCC. Note that GMRS and ham require separate licenses.
And here is how they’re different:
- While ham radios can be dialed into any available frequency, GMRS radios are restricted to 22 pre-programmed channels, with 8 additional channels for repeaters.
- Ham operators can transmit at up to 1,500 watts while GMRS is limited to 50 watts.
- Hams have access to many radio bands while GMRS is limited to one.
- Hams can transmit on the HF bands, which can travel around the world, while GMRS is limited to line-of-sight communications.
- Ham licenses are split into three tiers, each requiring an increasingly difficult test. There is one GMRS license tier and no test is required.
- A ham license only covers an individual while a GMRS license covers a family.
- Hams are free to build their own experimental equipment. GMRS equipment must be type 95 certified by the FCC.
- GMRS radios are widely available. You can even buy them at Walmart. Ham radios tend to be sold either online or in specialty shops.
In short, GMRS is more restricted than ham but simpler. This makes it ideal for family communications. A GMRS radio is less intimidating to technophobic family members than a ham radio because it has fewer buttons and doesn’t require a number pad (some GMRS radios have number pads, but many have simple up and down arrows to change channels).
There is some animosity between hams and GMRS fans. Many hams see GMRS as “ham for dummies,” while GMRS folks see hams as a bunch of snooty nerds who want to be the radio police. As preppers first and radio enthusiasts second, we want to be versed in any relevant communication method, whether that’s ham, GMRS, MURS, or CB radio. We don’t care about these disputes other than knowing that they exist and how to handle them gracefully.
Hams have a lot of unwritten rules and conventions while GMRS operators tend to be much more freewheeling. GMRS operators don’t tend to use things like Q codes and push back on using set channels for specific activities like hams do (though channel 16 seems to be the standard calling channel). However, there is one FCC-mandated similarity: you must identify with your FCC-issued callsign every few minutes.
Overlap between GMRS and FRS
Like GMRS, FRS uses pre-programmed channels. FRS does not require a license, but is limited to walkie-talkies with fixed antennas and low transmit power. For instance, most walkie-talkie children’s toys use FRS.
Where things get a little confusing is in how they overlap. GMRS and FRS share frequencies, with the difference being that GMRS is allowed to transmit with more power. FRS is limited to 2 watts on all frequencies:
- Channels 1-7: FRS is limited to 2 watts, GMRS can transmit at 5 watts.
- Channels 8-14: Both FRS and GMRS are limited to 0.5 watts.
- Channels 15-22: FRS is limited to 2 watts, while GMRS can transmit up to 50 watts.
Note that the FCC made many changes to FRS and GMRS rules in 2017 that brought these two services closer together, so if you see conflicting information online, it’s likely outdated.
These channels are standard between radios regardless of manufacturer. So if you set both a Midland radio and a Wouxun radio to channel 2, they can talk to each other. And because they share channels, GMRS and FRS radios can talk to each other. Repeater-capable GMRS radios will have eight extra channels labeled something like REPEATER 1, REPEATER 2, etc.
The nice thing about the FCC merging these frequencies is that it gives FRS and GMRS a powerful network effect. In case of emergency, you can grab pretty much any walkie-talkie and call for help, since it can be heard on both FRS and GMRS radios.
How can you tell if a radio requires a license? A radio labeled FRS does not require a license, while one labeled GMRS probably does.
Do I really need a GMRS license?
Since GMRS shares unlicensed frequencies with FRS, you may wonder if you can get away with using GMRS without a license. As a licensed ham radio operator, it is my duty to tell you to strictly follow the applicable laws and FCC regulations.
However, will you get away with it? Yeah, probably, especially if:
- You’re far from civilization…
- …and/or are using a GMRS radio on an FRS channel with the power turned down to legal FRS levels
- Aren’t operating on a repeater
- Aren’t operating a repeater of your own
A lot of people have this idea of the FCC being men in black who’ll show up to your doorstep to whisk you away in an unmarked black van. That might have been true in the 1950s, but the FCC of today is more concerned with mobile broadband than they are with interpersonal conflicts.
If you look at the FCC’s public list of enforcement actions, it’s pretty light. They haven’t even issued one since 2017. That said, you don’t want to be on that list.
In general, you’re probably fine as long as you’re not being a nuisance, like interfering with someone else’s legal transmission or doing something egregious. However, I encourage you to get a GMRS license for the following reasons:
- It shields you from potentially stiff FCC fines if they decide to make an example out of you.
- It also protects you from self-appointed “radio police” if they start demanding your callsign.
- You get a callsign and callsigns are cool.
A GMRS license is cheap insurance. Even at the current rate of $70, that’s $7 per year for your entire family. You probably spend more than that on coffee, even if you make your own.
You may wonder if you need a GMRS license if you already have a ham radio license. The answer is yes, they are separate licenses with separate callsigns. If you get a GMRS license and a ham license you will have two separate callsigns for each service. On amateur radio I’m KO4EMJ while I’m WROJ823 on GMRS.
How to buy a GMRS license
Since the FCC wants your license money, you’d think they would make that easy. You would be wrong! It doesn’t take long to buy and receive a license, but figuring out where to do it can be devilishly complicated.
First I recommend paying for a post office box or a private mailbox (like from the UPS Store). Every FCC license is public record, including the address it is tied to. That’s true for both ham and GMRS licenses. You also have to be reachable at the address on file, so you can’t just slap down any address. However, a PO box or other type of mailbox is completely legal to use with the FCC and protects your privacy.
Many people use radio services and reject getting a license because they’re afraid they’ll end up in a government database. That’s total nonsense. If you file taxes you’re already in a government database. If you use a cellphone, the government can easily track your every movement. Having radio licenses doesn’t make you any more exposed if you use a PO box.
Before you do any sort of business with the FCC, you need an FCC Registration Number (FRN). To obtain an FRN, go to the FCC’s registration page, click “ Register and receive your FRN,” and follow the instructions. You should receive your FRN immediately. Record it and your password in a secure place.
You need an FRN to buy a GMRS license, apply for a ham radio license, register for a ham radio exam, or apply to become a ham radio Volunteer Examiner. You may not plan to do all that, but having an FRN is handy if you decide to later on.
Once you have your FRN and your FCC account:
- Log in to the FCC License Manager.
- Click “Apply for a New License” in the sidebar.
- Under Select Service, choose ZA – General Mobile Radio Service (GMRS). It’s the very last entry in the list.
- Click Continue.
- On the next screen, your likely answer for all three questions is the default, “No.” Click Continue.
- Continue following the prompts, filling in your personal and payment information.
You should receive your license the following morning, since the FCC tends to batch process applications in the middle of the night. But I’ve heard reports of it taking a couple of weeks. You should receive an email when your license is approved which contains a link to a PDF copy of your license. Print a copy and keep it on your wall. Make sure to note your callsign, which you need to identify yourself on air.
NotaRubicon maintains a complete step-by-step guide to buying a GMRS license if you need more help or if the FCC changes something in the future.
Here’s one last tip: use a label maker to print out your callsign and put it on your GMRS radios. That helps:
- Identify your radios and prevent them from getting mixed up with someone else’s.
- Non-techie family members know the family callsign in case they’re asked for it but don’t have it memorized.
- Keeps you from getting your ham and GMRS callsigns confused.
Can I use a BaoFeng radio with GMRS or do I need a GMRS radio?
One of the big attractions of the BaoFeng UV-5R and its many offshoots, other than its bargain-basement price, is that it can transmit on any frequency you can set it to. “Respectable” ham radios like the Yaesu FT-60R won’t transmit on FRS/GMRS frequencies without modification. You can listen in, but if you try to transmit you’ll receive an error message.
Why will the UV-5R transmit on GMRS frequencies but the Yaesu won’t? That’s because, according to FCC regulations, only devices that are Part 95 certified are allowed to transmit on FRS and GMRS frequencies. If you have a ham radio license, you can build a ham radio out of spare parts and an Altoids tin and it’s legal to transmit on the ham bands, but the FCC only wants tested and approved equipment on FRS/GMRS.
The BaoFeng UV-5R isn’t supposed to transmit on those frequencies, because it’s Part 90 certified and not Part 95 certified, but it happily will anyway. That flexibility makes it beloved with preppers, milita types, and airsofters, but despised by amateur radio operators, who are often sticklers for the rules. (BaoFeng does make Part 95 certified radios that are legal for FRS/GMRS.)
That said, a lot of hams use ham radios on FRS/GMRS anyway. It’s so common that ham retailers like Ham Radio Outlet offer a MARS Cap mod as an extra feature when you buy a radio, which simply means that they modify the radio to transmit on any frequency. And in fact, most ham radio manufacturers make it fairly easy to perform such a modification — you usually only have to remove a single component or snip a wire to transmit on any frequency. Nudge, nudge, wink, wink, say no more.
Personally, I like the flexibility of having a single radio that can call for help on any available frequency, whether that’s ham, FRS/GMRS, or MURS (another unlicensed service), and that is legal to do under FCC guidelines if it’s a true emergency. (Like if you’re lost in the woods with a broken leg. Toilet paper shortages and COVID lockdowns aren’t emergencies.)
Again, the FCC largely doesn’t care unless you’re being a real nuisance, but if you’re planning to use GMRS with any sort of regularity, I encourage you to invest in dedicated, type-approved GMRS radios for a few reasons:
- It’s the lawful thing to do, and if you’re using your radios in public it eliminates the chance of being harassed by a crotchety ham operator.
- GMRS radios are simpler and reduce the risk of operator error, like transmitting on a ham frequency when you meant to transmit on a GMRS frequency or transmitting with too much power.
- Since GMRS radios are simpler, they’re less intimidating for family members who might have to operate one in an emergency.
- GMRS radios aren’t expensive. You can buy a pair of Midland radios for $70, $35 per radio, which isn’t much more expensive than a BaoFeng, and the Midland radios are much more rugged.
- If you have both ham and GMRS licenses, having a dedicated GMRS radio with a callsign label on the side helps keep you from getting callsigns confused.
Guidelines for choosing a GMRS radio
GMRS are much simpler than ham radios, so the choices aren’t as bewildering. However, there are a few things to look out for:
- Make sure you’re buying a GMRS radio and not an FRS radio.
- Decide if you want a handheld radio, which is more portable, or a mobile, which is more powerful.
- Handheld radios tend to put out 5 watts while mobile radios put out 50 watts.
- Many handheld radios will advertise something like 36 miles of range. That might be true if everyone is on a mountaintop. Otherwise, a mile is about the best you can expect, and much less than that if there are buildings or trees in the way.
- Not every GMRS radio can be used with repeaters. Check the product description carefully.
- Most handheld GMRS radios have some sort of water resistance.
- Some radios can send text messages and GPS coordinates, often when the radio is paired with a smartphone.
- Midland radios advertise more than the basic 22+8 channels. In reality, these aren’t actually extra channels, but regular GMRS channels with CTCSS tones programmed in.
CTCSS and its sibling DCS are often erroneously referred to as “privacy tones” by radio manufacturers. There is no such thing as privacy on civilian radio. The more correct name for these technologies is tone squelch. (CTCSS is short for Continuous Tone-Coded Squelch System and DCS is short for Digital-Coded Squelch.) They’re also called PL tones.
What tone squelch does is make it so your radio ignores transmissions unless it hears a specific tone. Let’s say you and a friend are talking on channel 16 with the CTCSS tone set to 2. If a third party tunes into channel 16, they can hear your conversation, but you won’t hear them.
The purpose of these tones isn’t privacy, but to make the most of limited channels. Going back to our example, let’s say you and a friend are chatting on channel 16 and the third party and their friend are also talking on channel 16. If they set their own CTCSS tone, they can talk on that channel and they won’t hear you and you won’t hear them.
Tone squelch is key if you decide to transmit to a GMRS repeater, since most repeaters use a tone to block stray transmissions. Still, GMRS repeaters are easier to program than ham repeaters, since you only have to tune to the appropriate channel and program in the tone. myGMRS.com maintains a directory of GMRS repeaters.
For regular communications, I don’t bother with tone squelch because it frustrates my family members. When you press the push-to-talk button, you have to wait a second for your radio to send the tone and “open up” the other radio. It does this silently, so what often ends up happening is a family member will press the button and start talking before the tone is sent, so I only receive the tail end of their transmission. So I usually just leave it off.
Our family radios are Midland, and I have noticed that the pre-programmed “extra” channels open up much faster than manually programmed tones for some reason, so if I did need to use PL tones with my family, I would use those channels.