Two-way radios are a useful alternative to cell phones. There's no monthly contract or service fee, you don't have to worry about overage charges, and the radios keep working even when you're outside the cellular service area. These characteristics make two-way radios a popular method of keeping in touch for hunters, campers, skiers and other outdoor enthusiasts.
Two-way radios also come in handy for families. Sending your kids out to play with a two-way radio makes it easy to check up on them or call them back in, and carrying radios is a good way to keep in touch when traveling in separate cars or wandering the mall. Some business owners use two-way radios to keep in touch in warehouses, at job sites, etc.
Every two-way radio in this report is capable of operating on two sets of frequencies: Family Radio Service (FRS) and General Mobile Radio Service (GMRS). Using the FRS frequency does not require a Federal Communication Commission (FCC) license, but transmitting power (and therefore range) is fairly limited. The GMRS frequency can cover a much larger area (depending on terrain and obstructions such as buildings and trees), but using it requires an FCC license that costs $85 for five years. See our Buyer's Guide for more information.
Although they're not covered in this report, two-way radios that operate on UHF or VHF frequencies -- reserved exclusively for commercial use -- are also available. Users are required to purchase an FCC license to operate on these frequencies. Commercial-grade two-way radios are typically more durable, have longer battery life and a better selection of accessories than personal-use models. They also have longer range under real-world conditions. As you might expect, they're also more expensive.
Using any two-way radio is easy. Most consumer models have 22 channels, with channels 8 through 14 allocated to the FRS frequencies, while channels 1 through 7 and 15 through 22 are dedicated to GMRS. Regardless of the bandwidth used, operation is basically the same: You choose a channel, push the transmit button to talk, then release the transmit button to listen. When you transmit with your two-way radio, anyone listening in on the same channel can hear you. Every model in this report also has privacy codes -- a way of setting up a subchannel within any given channel -- that make it less likely others will listen in. Only people using the same channel and privacy code will be able to hear you.
Some two-way radios also have a voice-scrambling feature that renders transmissions unintelligible to potential eavesdroppers. Every two-way radio uses rechargeable battery packs, alkaline batteries or both.
Reviewers note that not all two-way radios are compatible with one another; some functions -- particularly privacy features -- may not work if you're communicating with friends or family members who own different brands or models than you do. Your radio's documentation is the ultimate authority on manufacturer/model compatibility.
We look at lots of factors when evaluating two-way radios for this report, focusing on each model's real-world range, features and durability as reported both by expert reviewers and owners.
The manufacturer-specified range for a two-way radio is based on a set of conditions that rarely, if ever, are met: You'd have to be on top of a mountain with a clear line of sight to the other radio on another mountain top to come close to the 30-plus miles some of these radios promise. Hills, trees, buildings and other landmarks all conspire to cut that range severely -- by just how much is what often sets a so-so two-way radio apart from a great one.
Some two-way radios offer few extras, while others are loaded with features like National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) channel reception, weather/emergency alerts, voice activation, vibration alert, texting and GPS functionality. The best two-way radios also have intuitive controls; more advanced features usually require some time with the owner's manual, but the learning curve should not be unreasonable. Because there's a good chance most two-way radios will be either outdoors, they should also be built to withstand harsh treatment.