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Reviewed by our gears Geeks:

Guide to VHF Marine Radios: Fixed and Handheld

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Our experts at work

We gave our Gear lovers one job:

Test 34 VHF Marine Radios and write reviews of the best.

The result is 12 of the best VHF Marine Radios on the market today.

bradley axmith author

Bradley Axmith

Waterworld Fanatic
Vikingship building gear enthusiast and waterworld fanatic.
bradley axmith author

Torben Lonne

Editor at DIVEIN.com
Torben is a dive nut, with a passion for traveling and gear.

Every sailor and boater should have a VHF marine radio. There are fixed mounted units with more range and handheld ones with more versatility. VHF stands for very high frequency sending and receiving marine radio communication by line of sight. These nautical products are units that are reliable and modern enough to work in today’s recreational sailing and boating conditions, in the United States, Canada and international waters. 

VHF is not the same as GMRS radio or FRS two-ways. Read our guide to marine radios, which include explanations of how VHF works, as well as the different advantages and disadvantages of the handheld radios vs fixed mounted units. The Guide to VHF marine radios explains MMSI, DSC as well as other features that will make your boating experience safer and more enjoyable.

The quick answer, to what is the difference between fixed vs handheld VHF radios, is that fixed mounted units transmit longer distances, run on boat batteries and need an antenna. 

Still unsure as to what vhf marine radio to choose? Check out our buying guide to know what to look for when buying a vhf marine radio.

Best Handheld VHF Marine Radios

This sleek marine radio is maybe the prettiest VHF around. More than just good looks, ICOM has made a handheld that provides navigation and communication in a single unit. It’s currently the slankest DSC-enabled radio on the market. 

We like this one because it does safety well and the functionality is really well-thought out. The placement of the microphone above the display recognizes the way many boaters hold and talk through a VHF. It’s slank body fits incredibly well in your hands and the buttons have a satisfying and soft tactile quality. Great for one-handed operation, including switching channels and scrolling the menu, and the LCD screen clearly shows everything you need to know including exact coordinates and time and date. 

The battery in the charger unit that provides extra off-grid power continues ICOM’s well-thought out design of this unit. Between the programmable fast buttons, and the short-cut buttons just under the display, this is a unit I’d be happy to use.

Priced a little higher than the HX890 this could just as easily be the best VHF you can buy.

We’ve done all the research for you and found the best place to buy the ICOM IC-M93D Marine VHF Handheld Radio:
Where to buy:
  • Amazon with worldwide shipping
Specs & Features:
  • Weight: 1.2 lbs
  • Dimensions: 1.2″ x 4.9″ x 2.1″
  • Channels: ITU-R M493-13 Class D class VHF, separate channel 70 receiver, USA, international, Canada, weather channels
  • Power: 1570mAh lithium-ion battery giving around 65 hours of monitoring use with light communication
  • Transmitting 1W or 5W
  • Floating IPX7 waterproof
  • 3 year warranty
What we like:
  • Functionality combined with ergonomic feel is just amazing
  • Navigation function works pretty well and adds so much safety to a crew
  • A display that shows everything and the programmable shortcut buttons
  • Battery and extra power from charging unit
  • Aqua quake to shake water out of speaker and microphone
What we don’t like:
  • Price prevents some people from getting their hands on it (but it’s worth the money)

Whether you use it as a primary marine VHF or to compliment a fixed unit, this Standard Horizon will serve you well. “Nothing takes to water like Standard Horizon” so goes their mission cry. SH is a 50-year old company that delivers a feature-packed do-everything VHF.

Between its rugged construction and ease of use, including an easy-to-read LCD screen, and a programmable operating system, the HX890 might just replace your smartphone. Well, maybe not, but with FM radio receiver, navigation assists, standard DSC, man overboard feature (MOB)–to name just a few–you can quickly see why this VHF costs a wee bit more than other units. But it’s worth it and you’ll have this for several nautical years. And the battery operating time of about 11 hours ain’t too shabby.

We’ve done all the research for you and found the best place to buy the Standard Horizon HX890 Handheld Radio:
Where to buy:
  • Amazon with worldwide shipping
Specs & Features:
  • Weight: 2.2 lbs
  • Dimensions: 9.9’’ x 7.4’’ x 4’’
  • 6W output power (down to 2/1 W)
  • Battery: Lithium-Ion rechargeable
  • Floats
  • IPX8 submersible with water activated emergency strobe light
  • FM Broadcast Radio Receiver
What we like:
  • Strong as heck
  • Easy to use
  • Can use GPS to log position in concert with chartplotter
  • Loud & Clear audio
  • Takes normal alkaline batteries in a pinch
What we don’t like:
  • A little too bulky to use one-handed

This handheld marine radio comes as close as you can get to packing in everything a fixed unit can do into a portable device. Starting with the bluetooth capable functions that give you extra communication (using the smartphone app) and including GPS (waypoint capable), this portable VHF provides all your nautical needs in a sturdy construction. Add the flashlight, compass, wicked battery and the largest screen in its class (bigger event than the Atlantis 155) and you get a product that can do a lot more than other products. It also has NMEA 0183 output so it will communicate with other gadgets on board. Bigger than the M93D, it’s not as portable, but it can do just a little more.

We’ve done all the research for you and found the best place to buy the Uniden MHS335BT VHF Marine Radio:
Where to buy:
  • Amazon with worldwide shipping
Specs & Features:
  • Weight: 1.4 pounds
  • Dimensions: 10 x 6 x 2.5 inches
  • 1w/2.5w/6w transmitting power
  • IPX8 Submersible with strobe light
  • Built-in Bluetooth and integrated GPS receiver
  • DSC capable
What we like:
  • It has all the features you get with a fixed unit
  • Good battery life
  • Compass and GPS give you a backup chartplotter
  • Good, clear audio
What we don’t like:
  • The belt clip seems a little flimsy

Like its big VHF brother, Standard Horizon’s HX870 is a handheld radio many mariners swear by. It does a reliable job and is versatile enough to work like an extension with GPS chartplotters. For extended coastal boating this radio can almost replace the more powerful fixed VHF models on account of its transmitting power and option for AA batteries.

We’ve done all the research for you and found the best place to buy the Standard Horizon HX870 Handheld VHF Marine Radio:
Where to buy:
  • Amazon with worldwide shipping
Specs & Features:
  • Size &: 2.44″ x 5.43″ x 1.69″ (without antenna),
  • Weight: 2 pounds
  • It floats and is totally waterproof (JIS8/IPX8)
  • Built-in GPS so DSC can work without chartplotter
  • Channels: ITU-R M493-13 Class D VHF, separate channel 70 receiver, all USA,Canada & international channels, NOAA weather channels with alerts
  • Power: 1800mAh lithium-ion battery, with additional AA battery option
  • Transmitter 1W, 2W & 6W
What we like:
  • Great, clear audio
  • Easy to use, quick to use
  • Works as a redundant navigator with compass and gps
What we don’t like:
  • The white LCD light is too bright and unpleasant at night

This inexpensive, waterproof VHF radio is a great backup for a fixed unit or serves you well in a kayak, on a paddle board or when out fishing within 2 or 3 miles from the shore. Though it’s compact and easily tucked into a pocket or cargo tray, it has one of the largest screens for its class. It has what you need when in distress with a reliable build and transmission capability at a really affordable cost.

We’ve done all the research for you and found the best place to buy the Uniden Atlantis 155 Handheld:
Where to buy:
  • Amazon with worldwide shipping
Specs & Features:
  • Dimensions: 10.8 x 4.5 x 2 inches
  • Weight: 1.1 lb
  • IPX7 Submersible Waterproof
  • 1w/3w transmitting power
  • Up to 10 hours battery life
  • Channels: All USA, international & Canadian marine channels, all NOAA weather channels with alert
What we like:
  • Crazy affordable
  • An amazingly compact device, great for narrow waterway navigation and harbors
  • Good battery life
What we don’t like:
  • Only 3-watt transmitting power limits range, making it good for mainly coastal activity in short range of other vessels or traffic

This basic yet feature-filled VHF costs less than $100. It’s hard to imagine because the Uniden brand delivers reliability in a quality package. It’s pretty robust. Though not really compact, it’s small enough to be able to carry around in your pocket (though it comes with a clip) and the battery will give you 10 hours of combined stand-by/talk-time. Surprising that it also has the triple watch feature allows you to monitor channel 9 & 16 while using another switch-over channel making it both useful and safe.

We’ve done all the research for you and found the best place to buy the Uniden MHS75:
Where to buy:
  • Amazon with worldwide shipping
Specs & Features:
  • Dimensions: 6.4’’ x 6.2’’ x 3.4’’
  • Weight: 1.35 lb
  • JIS8 Waterproof
  • Transmits 1w/2.5w/5w strength
  • All USA, Canada, International Channels
  • Full NOAA weather stations
  • Triple Watch scanning
What we like:
  • Crazy price for quality
  • This two-way also has GMRS radio for land-based use (not requiring any license to operate)
What we don’t like:
  • It’s slaved to the one charging dock
  • No NMEA 0183 Interface
  • No DSC

Even though this budget model might be overshadowed by the 3 biggest players, Cobra has been making two-way radios for a long time. The MRHH350 demonstrates this experience by combining all the features you need with an affordable price-tag. 

It’s lightweight and compact enough to carry on you while you kayak or fish. The battery is also a winning component of this device, giving you days of standby usage. As long as you’re not planning to go diving with this VHF radio it’ll serve you well for half the price of other models.

We’ve done all the research for you and found the best place to buy the Cobra MRHH350FLT Floating VHF Radio:
Where to buy:
  • Amazon with worldwide shipping
Specs & Features:
  • Dimensions: 4.75″ x 2.66″ x 2.09″
  • Weight: 0.59 lbs
  • Channels: All USA, Canada & international channels, 10 NOAA weather channels with alerts
  • Power: 1000mAh lithium-ion battery giving you about 10 hours heavy-use
  • Transmits 1W, 3W & 6W
  • Display: 2’’ illuminated LCD
  • Triple watch and memory scan
What we like:
  • The battery is great
  • It has all the basic features you need
  • The price is almost unbeatable
What we don’t like:
  • Even though it floats it should probably be listed as water resistant rather than waterproof. It won’t survive submersion very well
  • No DSC

This small, lightweight unit has all the features you need, including tri-watch, float & flash, USB charging, aqua-quake to vibrate water out. There aren’t all the bells and whistles of higher end devices but the price of this VHF makes it a unit you should buy if in doubt.  ICOM makes great products and their support is great too. It includes weather information channels too. For the casual cruiser or as a redundancy VHF or ditch bag radio this is a good choice as it doesn’t take up much space but does a pretty good job when needed. 

We’ve done all the research for you and found the best place to buy the ICOM M25 21 Handheld VHF Radio:
Where to buy:
  • Amazon with worldwide shipping
Specs & Features:
  • Weight: 1 pound
  • Dimensions: 2.23 x 5.28 x 1.2 inches
  • 1w/5w output
  • Lithium-ion battery giving max 11 hours
  • IPX7 submersible
  • 3-year warranty
What we like:
  • Like the M93, this VHF radio feels great in the hand
  • Compact and lightweight
  • Very good programmable interface
  • Good display with easy-to-read details
  • Affordable and reliable
What we don’t like:
  • No DSC or GPS, but that’s expected for this price point

Best Fixed Mount VHF Marine Radios

Going cruising? If you need a VHF either to replace an aged model or to upgrade safety, this compact unit won’t do you wrong. It’s a powerful and basic radio that works in the US, Canada and international waters with tri watch channel monitoring and GPS positioning to make your boat safer for yourself, your family and others who might need your assistance.

We’ve done all the research for you and found the best place to buy the ICOM M330G 31 Compact Basic VHF:
Where to buy:
  • Amazon with worldwide shipping

 

Specs & Features:
  • Dimensions: 6.2 x 2.6 x 6 inches
  • 1w/25w output transmission
  • Internal GPS with puck antenna (needs to be point skyward)
  • DSC
What we like:
  • Great build and quality
  • Sound is superb
  • The integrated GPS simplifies setup
  • Very affordable for such a reliable, robust product
What we don’t like:
  • There are buttons where there were knobs before. For fixed mount VHF knobs are nice!
  • No NMEA input interfacing

Having a good fixed mount VHF on your boat when cruising is an established bit of wisdom by now. This marine two-way radio doesn’t disappoint. It has the features to get you out, around and home from ocean excursions (or Great Lakes adventures for that matter). With NMEA 2000 input this VHF interfaces beautifully with other devices like GPS giving you AIS mapping. ICOM makes some of the most dependable radios on the market and this one lives up to that reputation.

We’ve done all the research for you and found the best place to buy the ICOM IC-M506 21:
Where to buy:
  • Amazon with worldwide shipping

 

Specs & Features:
  • Dimensions: 13 x 9 x 7 inches
  • 1w/25w output transmission
  • AIS and GPS compatible (requires connection to chartplotter)
  • NOAA Weather information channels
  • Foghorn and hailer function
  • DSC
  • All USA, Canada and international channels
What we like:
  • User interface is simple
  • Works with a 2nd station microphone
  • Great audio
What we don’t like:
  • No integrated GPS
  • A little pricey

From a solid brand comes a solid product. This GPS-enabled marine two-way might last you 15-20 years at a price that won’t break the bank. You get a quality radio that’s easy to install, easy to use and programmable to make your type of boating safer. This is suitable for a little coastal fishing, longer cruising trips and navigating river systems both on smaller boats as well as bigger ones. Having a 2nd station microphone capability can be great to have in some situations.

We’ve done all the research for you and found the best place to buy the Standard Horizon GX1800GB VHF Radio:
Where to buy:
  • Amazon with worldwide shipping

 

Specs & Features:
  • Dimensions: 7.5 x 4 x 10 inches
  • GPS integrated
  • DSC
  • NOAA Weather information channels
What we like:
  • Good, clear sound
  • Always like the integrated GPS
  • Good user interface with easy to navigate menus, knobs and buttons
What we don’t like:
  • No NMEA interfacing

Lowrance is well-known in the fishfinding world. Their chartplotters are pretty good too. This VHF radio follows suit, giving you a simple form with all the necessities packed in. Using the microphone is very comfortable and the interface menu all makes a lot of sense. It’s a pretty smart two-way.

We’ve done all the research for you and found the best place to buy the Lowrance Link-6 VHF Marine Radio:
Where to buy:
  • Amazon with worldwide shipping
Specs & Features:
  • Dimensions: 6.29 x 3.47 x 6.53 inches
  • USA, Canada and internatinal channels
  • NMEA 2000 capable
  • 2-year warranty
  • DSC
What we like:
  • Simple interface without too many buttons for quicker use.
  • The mic unit fits nicely in the hand with ergonomic design
  • Easy to install with the gimbal bracket that comes with the VHF
What we don’t like:
  • Maybe missing the option to add a 2nd station

​Guide to How VHF Radios Work

Warning: This Guide does not replace a proper VHF course–even though it offers the gist of it.

What is VHF Marine Radio?

VHF radio is a line-of-sight two-way communications system between ship-to-ship and from ship-to-shore. A very high frequency (VHF) marine radio is an essential piece of equipment on a boat when cruising beyond the bay or for navigating tricky ports. As essential as it is for safety, only nautical vessels greater than 65 feet are required to have one. Since 1920 mariners have been using a dedicated marine radio to avoid dangerous situations and to answer a SOS distress call.

With established frequencies for specific uses boats can communicate distress or ask about tides, currents, reefs, port conditions (including guest slips) and receive weather alerts. For this reason the most important  channels to monitor or not for banter as two vessels cannot transmit at the same time. There are 4 channels dedicated to chatter not related to boat safety. 

Boaters sailing through canals can also call ahead to find out the heights of bridges to avoid starring in the latest viral video of ships hitting bridges. 

This compilation should serve as a warning.

In the video where the recreational boats lose a mast or get stuck inside the bridges it should serve as a reminder why skippers use marine radio to talk to bridge operators and nearby vessels.

Handheld VHF vs Fixed Mount VHF Marine Radios

There are two types of VHF units you can use, both having different characteristics and qualities.

handheld versus fixed mount

The wide availability of VHF marine radios and the increased number of recreational sailors means there are a dizzying amount of sets to choose from with vastly different pricing. To begin with, sailors need to figure out which type of VHF is needed.

Marine radios that are fixed or portable do the same thing, but fixed sets can use an antenna atop a mast and can get more range (both transmission and reception) and generally have a more reliable power source (the boat’s). 

In other words a fixed set can do much more than a handheld without fear of running low on power.

But the flipside to this last part is the batteries of a portable marine radio can get replaced or get recharged from solar panels, whereas a fixed VHF radio that runs on a boat’s power is useless if the marine battery gets pooched.

Some sailors will have both a fixed set and a cheaper portable VHF serving as backup, but others might rely on a cell phone. It’s always good to have redundancies especially considering cell coverage sucks on the water the further away from land you get.

What is a DCS?

Get a marine radio with a DCS. Most new handheld VHF radios and almost every fixed VHF set will have a digital selective calling (DSC) function. A DSC can send an automatic “mayday” call for help and can also request the position of a friend’s boat. 

When a DSC button is pressed, an automatic SOS will go out to multiple channels (2, 4, 6, 8, 12 and 16) at the same time, but only if an MMSI number has been registered to the boat. A DSC signal will make rescue easier by transmitting exact coordinates to the Coast Guard and other ships within range.

Additionally, a DSC-enabled device will constantly monitor for transmissions on channel 70, receiving and cutting through any channel to play a distress signal when activated by other vessels within range.

Check out this animated description of how emergency scenarios play out with a VHF radio.

Get an MMSI

Get an MMSI. Every VHF-DSC marine radio can get a unique identifier called a Maritime Mobile Service Identity number (MMSI), which is like a telephone number. The DSC function won’t send out a distress signal until an MMSI has been registered. 

MMSI makes it possible for group communication on certain marine radios equipped with this feature, like the Standard Horizon HX870.

Some VHF devices have built-in GPS receivers or connect with a ship’s chartplotter in order to embed exact coordinates in case of emergency so responding ships and the coast guard will know exactly where to go. It goes without saying that crying wolf will result in a hefty fine as well as shame so only activate the mayday button if your ship is on fire or need immediate medical attention. Use channel 16 if your motor is caput and you’re stranded.

In the U.S. you can get an MMSI free of charge if you’re a member of BoatUS, Sea Tow Service International, Inc.,  or  for $25  through Shine Micro, or possibly free of charge through the United States Power Squadrons.

An MMSI is assigned free-of-charge in Canada at Industry Canada online or at one of their offices.

An MMSI is registered to a specific vessel and once entered cannot easily be changed on each model. It’s necessary to have a vessel identification number and emergency contacts when signing up. Be warned!!! After you plug-in your MMSI number you can’t change it so easily, so make sure it’s the right code.

What is an Automatic Identification System (AIS)?

An AIS displays the activity of commercial vessels within a given vicinity. This includes heading and speed relative to one’s own position and will come in handy when cruising through narrow waterways or sailing into larger ports. 

Through major commercial shipping lanes an AIS is a reliable collision avoidance tool. An AIS-equipped VHF will beep a warning when another AIS-registered vessel is approaching your own position.

All ships over 300 tons are required to have AIS transmitting all sorts of info including ship speed (SOG), draft, name, course (COG), etc. These vessels fall under Class A category help prevent any mishap.

Class B AIS aren’t as expensive and are embedded in some VHF radios for recreational use. In foggy conditions these units provide an overview of every large vessel plus all vessels with AIS-equipment.

class b ais

VHF Marine Antennas

What is a dB rating on an antenna? All antennas have a dB rating, which indicates how focused an antenna’s signal transmission is and what emission shape it forms. With a higher dB rating an antenna’s signal form will get more focused in more narrow bursts getting more range if transmitted from a stable platform.

vhf marine antennas

Smaller boats that heel over with waves will have a higher dB signal transmission interrupted more. Even antennas atop a sailboat with increased height may be better off with lower dB ratings. 

The Radio, the Antenna & the Coaxial Cable: Keep this in Mind

Let’s assume you plan offshore cruising, where your vessel is steady and sturdy far out at sea, where land disappears for days on end. Getting a powerful fixed mount VHF radio makes sense, but without at least a 6db antenna with the thickest coaxial cable connecting it to your 25W transmitting unit, you won’t get the range you expect.

Important VHF Marine Radio Frequencies

Channel 9 and channel 16 are the most important VHF frequencies that sailors and boaters should monitor. While Channel 9 is used for important communication between vessels, Channel 16 is the SOS frequency (the international hailing and distress frequency) as well as the channel over which coast guard and weather alerts will be sent.

Don’t use Channel 16 for idle chatter. Even when calling the coast guard on 16, they’ll usually request switching over to another frequency.

When approaching a marina and you don’t know what radio frequency to use to “call them”, turn to channel 68 and you’ll get in touch with someone who can tell you about guest slips and water conditions for example.

Most Import Channels

channel and function

NOAA Weather Radio Frequencies

noaa weather radio frequencies

What Does SOS Stand For?

SOS is a backronym, a word that is the same backwards and forwards. In morse code 3 dots make an “S” and 3 dashes make an “O” and can be repeated quickly until someone hears the easily recognizable broadcast that everyone knows is the international call for help.

Tips for Better VHF Use

  • Always monitor Channel 16
  • Register a MMSI
  • Remember the antenna for fixed sets
  • Charge your handheld and have spare batteries
  • Don’t cuss over the air and use only the designated channels for chitchat
  • Connect unit to GPS when possible to make DSC work

Check Your Radio

Make a radio check to ensure its working. There are now a lot of automated radio check systems set up on different channels in the United States. Simply transmit “radio check, radio check, over” on one of the designated channels and listen to how clear you sound. 

In Canada you can call out on channel 9 to get a radio check then switch to one of the dedicated recreational frequencies.

Check out a demonstration

What do waterproof ratings mean?

JIS “0” No special protection

JIS “1” Vertically dripping water shall have no harmful effect (Drip resistant 1)

JIS “2” Dripping water at an angle up to 15 degrees from vertical shall have no harmful effect (Drip resistant 2)

JIS “3” Falling rain at an angle up to 60 degrees from vertical shall have no harmful effect (Rain resistant)

JIS “4” Splashing water from any direction shall have no harmful effect (Splash resistant)

JIS “5” Direct jetting water from any direction shall have no harmful effect (Jet resistant)

JIS “6” Direct jetting water from any direction shall not enter the enclosure (Water tight)

JIS “7” Water shall not enter the enclosure when it is immersed in water under defined conditions (Immersion resistant)

JIS “8” The equipment is usable for continuous submersion in water under specified pressure (Submersible)

Demonstration of a radiocheck:

Beyond radio checks there are also antenna/vhf testers that monitor signal strength of both outgoing and incoming signals.

They vary in price from $30-$250. As long as radio checks with actual people are done from time to time, the cheapest model will suffice. 

workman swr meter

Then again, if radio checks over the air with automated services or with other boaters are carried out, a tester might be an unnecessary cost.

Some Marine VHF Radio Lingo

  • “Can I get a radiocheck, over.” 

Ask the coast guard on channel 16 to confirm signal strength and clarity of your unit. They will likely request switching to another channel like 67 or 68.

  • 5-5

Second World War communications speech  indicating the strength of signal from a scale of 1-5; and the clarity of the transmission on a scale of 1-5

  • Over

Break. Used to indicate the end of sentence and opening up frequency for transmission, letting other unit operators know they can respond.

  • Roger

Indicates understanding. Roger that, often used to say, I get it.

  • What’s your position, over

Request location.

  • Over and out

End of conversation

  • Pan Pan

The equivalent of sending a distress call with DSC.  Use this only when in dire straits.

If you already have a vhf marine radio or you just bought one, leave a comment in the comment section below and share your experience with it.

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