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What are the consequences of — illegally — using a 446 MHz PMR in the North American wilderness?


I've recently bought a pair of PMR446 walkie-talkies with some 5–10 km range, operating at 446 MHz. We've happily used them in Sareks Nationalpark in Sweden. Now I'm moving to Canada, where this frequency requires a license.

My options are to:

  1. Buy another pair for use in Canada
  2. Get a license
  3. Use them anyway without a license

Suppose that we're hiking in a remote mountain region of British Columbia, Yukon, or Alaska. In all likelihood, nobody is going to be nearby. What are the likely consequences if we use it anyway — for us, and for others? Wikipedia notes:

PMR446 radios use frequencies that in the U.S. and Canada are allocated to amateur radio operators. PMR446 radios can only be used in North America by licensed amateur radio operators. The conflicting allocations have been something of a nuisance to North American amateur operators due to use of the equipment by European tourists in the U.S. and Canada.[citation needed]

Instead, the U.S. and Canada uses the FRS system, which provides a similar service on slightly different frequencies. FRS frequencies are allocated to the emergency services in Europe, notably the fire brigade in the UK, police in Russia.[2] Interference with licenced radio services may result in prosecution.

Will PMR446 usage in North America likely lead to prosecution, and/or endanger anybody?

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I am an amateur radio operator (Extra Class) active in Skywarn. Yes, PMR radios transmit in the amateur radio spectrum in Canada and the U.S. Yes, it is not legal. In the wilderness, far away from civilization, and with handheld radios that emit a few hundred milliwatts, you will absolutely, positively not interfere with anyone. If by the smallest of chances someone might actually hear you, it would be in the background noise, it would be for a very short period of time, and no one is going to "hunt you down" and slam you up against the wall.

You are more likely to be struck by lightning than to be confronted by some kind of vigilante ham radio operator. But if you are, you have a legal loophole through which you can escape without any problem: the FCC allows anyone to use any means of communications at all (legal or illegal) if it is an emergency. Just tell them you had these radios, brought them with you from Europe, and used them to prevent one of your hiking party from getting lost, and it was an emergency. End of story.

In the United States, even in large metropolitan areas, you can go for years before you ever hear anyone on these frequencies. They are simply not used. So, no one is going to feel you are trespassing on their frequencies.

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In both the U.S. and Canada, amateur radio operators serve an important role in providing emergency radio communications during war, disaster, terrorist attack, or whatever other emergency. So amateur radio operators take an extremely dim view of unlicensed operators using frequencies allocated to amateur (or sometimes commercial) radio. Many will even hunt down unlicensed transmitters and report them to authorities. Radio Amateurs of Canada says that fines can "run to hundreds of dollars," but in the U.S., fines start at $10,000 and go up dramatically from there.

In the U.S., 446 MHz is used nationwide as a simplex calling frequency, so if you are transmitting on PMR 446 channel 1 at 446.00625 MHz, you almost certainly will be noticed, and you probably will be noticed on any other channel. This frequency is also in the band plan in Canada for the same purpose.

If you can avoid doing so, it's a good idea to not use amateur radio frequencies without being licensed. It's not terribly difficult or expensive to become licensed, so it's an option worth looking into. Even so, in this band in both the U.S. and Canada amateur radio operators are secondary users of the band and must yield to primary users, such as...the U.S. military.

If you are close enough to a PAVE PAWS military radar, your PMR446 transmission also may interfere with it, since it uses the same frequency band. In your proposed travel, the nearest such installation is at the Clear Air Force Station in Denali, Alaska. You do not want to mess with the US Department of Defense's ability to detect intercontinental ballistic missiles.

My recommendation would be to replace the radios with FRS/GMRS radios and to keep the PMR446 radios, in case you ever return to Europe. (Note that GMRS does not require a license in Canada, but it does in the United States.)

MURS, which has been available in the U.S. for several years, was supposed to be introduced in Canada in 2014, but this has been deferred indefinitely. It has higher transmitter power limits (2 watts) and, interestingly, far fewer users, at least in the U.S. When these radios eventually do become available in Canada, this may make a good alternative to FRS/GMRS if you need longer range or signal quality.

Interestingly, while searching the Internet in relation to this question, I learned that some radio baseband processors can handle FRS, GMRS, MURS and PMR446 on the same chip, so in principle a switchable radio could be built that would operate on FRS/GMRS or MURS in North America and PMR446 in Europe, but I was not able to find any such radio on the market. Such radios might appear on the market in the next few years, or I might need to search more thoroughly. It may also be illegal to market such a radio in some countries.

Along the same lines, many mass-market PMR446 radios have a nearly identical version with the same model number which is programmed for FRS/GMRS instead, so if you are happy with your existing radios, you can buy (nearly) identical ones that use FRS/GMRS.

Another option is to purchase a programmable radio, and program in the correct frequencies corresponding to FRS, GMRS, MURS or PMR446, depending on where you will use it. The two main problems with this approach are also legal: Such radios are usually certified as business radios and thus may not be entirely legal to operate unlicensed, and their power output may also be higher than is allowed for unlicensed operation on these frequencies. One popular example of such a radio is the Baofeng UV-5R. In its low power mode it still transmits at 1 watt, higher than the maximum 500 mW allowed for FRS. It's less likely that you will be caught for this, but it is still possible.

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Excluding the legality question, as to be honest, that's likely to depend on who detects you, and how much it interferes with licensed traffic, the safety angle has a couple of aspects:

  • It doesn't look like you will clash with emergency services, however there is a risk that you will clash with local amateur radio operators who may be handling emergency traffic (low likelihood, but possible)
  • If you get in trouble, you may have difficulty contacting emergency services (I don't know whether you will be able to contact local amateur radio operators - not sure on interoperability of your devices with their kit)
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Alternately you may be able to change the frequency your current device uses.

In the US you will usually find a "CB Shop" near large truck stops, they should have the skills & parts required to modify the units.

Practically, it maybe more efficient to just get new devices.

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