How To Talk When Cell Phones Don’t Work

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How To Talk When Cell Phones Don't Work

In today’s society, we take for granted how easy it is to talk to one another. Popular social media sites like Facebook offer a convenient messaging service and cell phones are owned by nearly everyone. However, in an emergency, these modes of communication are neither guaranteed nor secure. In this article, we’ll discuss a few ways to establish communication when traditional telephone and internet doesn’t work.

Private Radio Communication

The use of privately owned radio sets is a great way to connect in an emergency. Hand-held devices are usually battery operated — great when electricity is out. However, any battery operated device will need to be recharged to be effective. There are also factors which may hamper communication. These include:

  • Overcast weather
  • Obstructions such as mountains, hills, or building
  • Power output
  • Reception of the device
  • Antenna length

Before we get into what would be ideal in an emergency situation, we have to break down who talks on what channel.

Initial considerations:

  • In the United States, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) regulates who uses which band of radio transmission.
  • Inside each band, there are channels.
  • Some channels may be occupied in an emergency.
  • Amateur Radio Band (VHF) requires an amateur radio license to operate.
    • 144-148 MHz
  • Citizens Band (CB) is what any person can use to communicate.
    • There are approximately 40 channels to choose from.
    • 26.965 to 27.405 MHz (VHF)
  • Business Band requires an FCC license
  • Family Radio Service (FRS) is any frequency designated for regular Push-to-Talk hand radios.
    • 462.5625 to 462.7125, General Mobile Radio Service and FRS
    • 467.5625 to 467.7125, Family Radio Only
  • Marine VHF operates at 156.0 and 162.025 MHz
    • This is also known as “Ship-to-Shore”
    • 156.8 MHz is the international distress station.
    • 156.3 MHz is “Ship to Air” (ships to airplanes)
  • Police and emergency radio operates in the following ranges in the United States:
    • 39 to 45 MHz (VHF)
    • 150 to 160 MHz (VHF)

Checklist of Considerations

Whichever mode of communication you choose to pursue in an emergency, purchase your handsets with the following in mind:

  • Frequencies that it can transmit and receive in (transceive)
  • Frequencies that it can monitor (NOAA, Marine, etc.)
  • Programmable options
  • Limited waterproofing
  • Battery life
  • Replacement batteries
  • Charging stations

The more you transmit, the more your battery will be drained. Receiving takes very little battery power but transmitting uses an incredible amount.

Push-to-Talk UHF Radio (PTT Radio)

Most Push-to-Talk radio handsets commercially available in the United States are severely limited in their capabilities. With no detachable antenna and a fair amount of obstruction, you may only get about a mile away before losing communication.

The PTT radio bands are usually Ultra High Frequency (UHF). An easy rule to remember is UHF works best with line-of-sight (LOS). If your radio’s antenna has a clear unobstructed view of the other handset’s antenna, you can talk for a good long distance. If there’s anything obstructing that LOS, the range goes down significantly.

If you get separated by a long distance, find the tallest structure or highest elevation to extend range out.

Your best bang for the buck with emergency radio communication is VHF. It requires a longer antenna but it can achieve far greater distances than most UHF options on the market.


The best mobile communication available is through the ARB (Amateur Radio Band). It will require you to pursue a license but the equipment available for this band will give you the best distance and capability should you be separated from your group.

Citizen Band radio requires a significantly long antenna (ideally 11 meters) and sucks up a lot of electricity.

Outside of using radio handsets, it’s always a good idea to establish places to meet up if you get separated from your family as part of your family emergency plan. Simply saying “meet back at home” may not work well if the other person is traveling 50 miles away. Figure out a good place to meet up if communication is down and then practice that plan. Taking a radio handset with you can also be an effective tool.


  • ImOffendedTreatMeSpecial

    Most amature UHF and VHF radios rely on repeaters, which probably won’t be available in an emergency.

  • timothyf7

    For a situation to arise where cellphones AND landlines are lost, it would probably be due to an EMP. If this is the case, all of the above options would be taken off the table too – unless the equipment was stored in a Faraday box, and hope it worked. Then you would only be able to communicate with someone else that had taken the same measures. And as mentioned above, any boosters, repeaters, etc, would be effected too. I think a better way to have presented this article would have been for alternatives to cellphones and landlines instead of hinting to a survival situation.

  • Steve Bragg

    “Citizen Band radio requires a significantly long antenna (ideally 11 metethat. It’s 202″ long. and sucks up a lot of electricity.” The author obviously knows nothing about the subject. CB transmits a maximum legal power of 4 Watts. Two of my amateur radios transmit 50 Watts, another 75 Watts, and my HF rig 100 Watts. Even if the transmitters are 50% efficient, 200 Watts is a lot more than 8 Watts. So much for CB “sucking” too much…

    I use what works. I can talk to truckers on CB, so I have one. I also have many amateur radios. And by the way, I have a quarter wave antenna for CB that works fine. It’s 102″ long. So much for 11 meters antennas– you don’t need a full wave. The pattern is wrong, anyway.

  • Amy Zwirko

    Amateur radio or “ham” radio is a great solution for this. I have experienced times when the cell towers had been overloaded and no call could go through. I was able to use my mobile radio to contact my husband and my other ham radio acquaintances to relay information. You will need to take a test and be licensed through the FCC before using the ham bands. Its easy and there is a lot of information and help available to you. You can check with these websites for more info. http://www.arrl.org/what-is-ham-radio/http://www.arrl.org/ares/http://www.arrl.org/exam-practice/