**Disclaimer** I cannot and will not instruct anyone to break the law by owning or operating a radio which is not legally allowed in the country of use. However, it would be misleading of me to describe UK CB without explaining how radios have been used outside the law. This article is for information only. You're an adult. Make your own choices. Don't blame me.
The Australian CBers guide to UK CB radio
CBers are called Breakers. I don't know why this peculiarly British name was adopted. But it has been used since the 1970s. In the 1970s and early 80s CB lingo was commonly used. Everyone had a handle and the 10 codes were used a lot. There was a lot of "10-4 Good Buddy" and "smokey in a plain wrapper" and "Kojak with a kodak" and all sorts of Americanised slang which I am quite embarrassed to admit that as a teenager I really enjoyed. But into the 1990s this slang faded away and everyone just started speaking normally. Handles were still used but they became regular nick names and were used on and off air. I gave up using a handle in the late 80s and was known by my name or occasionally by a DX club callsign.
A license was required to own and operate a CB. The cost started at UKP10 and became UKP15. There were no compulsory callsigns. In the late 90s an official government issued voluntary callsign system was started. The callsigns were the number 2, followed by a letter, then a number then two letters. ie 2A1BC. The reason these callsigns were issued was because the British Citizens Band Confederation, who were CB radios representative society told the government authority that UKs CBers wanted official compulsory callsigns just like radio hams had. This was a blatant lie as the UKs CBers wanted nothing of the sort. The BCBC were a small committee of self important egos who thought they were the gods of CB. I was a BCBC member and area rep, but I fell out with them spectacularly when I discovered they were lying to the government. The BCBC died out, literally, in the early 2000s. Callsigns and licenses were scrapped in 2006 as part of the move to bring UK CB more in line with the rest of Europe. CB is now license free. I have met very few people who ever had a license. Nobody bothered getting one. I never had one. And nobody, government authority or otherwise, cared. Most CBers didn't know you needed one and they wouldn't believe me if I told them.
Usage of CB has dropped off a lot. Much more than in Australia. CB is rarely used by businesses or closed groups such as campers or event organisers etc. All usage is enthusiast hobby use. Once there was a CB in almost every truck, just like it is today in Australia, but now the truckies, or lorry drivers, have given up with CB. In the 1970s and 80s there were many millions of CBers in the UK. Nobody can be sure how many but 5 million seems a low estimate. A quick scan around any car park would show CB antennas in every row of cars. Now CB contacts are often pre-arranged by email. Or left until organised weekly net nights. CBers seem to have split into two groups. 1- the real enthusiasts who are also interested in ham radio. And may also hold a ham radio license. And 2- abusive swearing people who use CB to spread their filth as far as they can. Fortunately the enthusiasts outnumber the sweary people by a very large margin. But, just as in Australia, the people who are least capable of maintaining emotional stability always have the most to say. In cities the CB will have a few people on air most of the time but in less populated areas contacts may seem rare at first. The newcomer is best to visit the Charlie Tango DX website and read the copythat CB forum, or visit the transmission1.net forum to find other groups of CBers and find out where and when the evening nets are, and where clubs and groups meet.
Let's look at the different types of CB and how they all came about.
CB was legalised on the 2nd of November 1981. Before that date American AM CB was used. And it was used a lot, the band was very busy. Back then a straight 40 AM CB would cost UKP70. That was a weeks wages. The people who were illegally importing these radios couldn't get enough into the country. They sold like hot cakes. In the USA 40 channel radios were introduced in 1977 which was before the boom in CB use in the UK. So all the imported American AM rigs were 40 channel 26.965 to 27.405MHz. Some AM,FM,SSB rigs were used. Often with low, mid and high channels which had another two sets of 40 channels above and below the regular 40. The practice of adding the three additional switches to the pll chip to get extra channels was never adopted in the UK. If you wanted more channels you just bought a radio which had them.
Some people will say that pre-legalisation were the best days of CB. The on air behavour was very good. I never heard a swear word on CB pre-November 1981. There was a real sense of community. We were "good ole boys dodging the law". In reality the authorities considered us a pain in the rear but we didn't do any harm so they left us alone. Illegal CBs were openly fitted under car dash boards and rarely did this ever cause a problem with the law. Everyone thought these radios were going to become legal anyway. But the government really screwed us all over by legalising a different type of CB. After legalisation many continued to use their illegal AM CBs. But by about 1985 AM CB use had died away to almost nothing.
There are still a load of AM CBs coming up for sale on ebay and other places. These days a straight 40 AM is not worth much and is not particularly useful. Read the plate on the back and if it's an FCC standard, it's an AM CB. Some AM models became available as new legal CBs, such as the Midland 2001, Maxcom 4E or Cobra 21 which were identical apart from mode and frequencies so when buying take care you know what you are looking at.
The new legal CB was 40 channels FM on 27.60125 to 27.99125MHz. These channels are called UKFM, or sometimes, the muppet channels. As some SSB operators think this is where the muppets, ie the idiots, hang out. These radios were required to have "CB 27/81" in a circle marked on the front panel so that unfamiliar authority figures, and Australian CB buyers could tell at a glance if it was legal. The odd frequencies were chosen to make it deliberately difficult to use any non-approved equipment. UKFM took off and for the first 5 years the band was very busy.
While AM was still in common use a lot of people had AM and FM CBs side by side and used both. I did.
On UKFM there were a few channels which were listed in the license for specific uses. Although these were never legally protected as they are in Australia.
Channel 9 was for emergency use. There were some emergency monitoring societies, THAMES, REACT etc. They were never particularly effective and they faded away within a few years.
Channel 14 was the local calling channel. To begin with this channel worked very well. But as CB became busier it became blocked with children, music players, mic keyers and.... muppets. So most abandoned it to use the mobile calling channel or use another channel with their regular group of friends. (mine was channel 23). Some groups are trying to get enough interest to start using channel 14 as a calling channel again, especially in the south of England.
Channel 19 was the mobile channel. Around any major road this channel was alive with signals all day and night with lorry drivers swapping "smokey reports" and general chatter. As truck drivers left CB this channel become quiet and has become the default calling channel for everyone. It also seems to have become the default chat channel for the sweary people who choose not to move off to another channel once they get a good swearing going. For a comparison Australians should think of ch35 LSB and you'll get the idea.
In 1994 the manufacturing specifications for UKFM radios were tightened up and these sets got a new mark on or near the front panel. PR 27/94 in a rectangle. This move was overdue as although the manufacturing spec for UKFM was fairly tight on the transmit side, some early radios had terrible receivers which suffered catastrophic de-sensing from nearby strong signals. Radios such as the Fidelity 1000 and Amstrad 901 were known as "bleed over boxes". The new spec ensured a minimum standard of receiver performance. But even though some of the worst radios came from 1981/82, some of the best also did. Some CBers still use their 1981 radio as they think a better quality replacement has never arrived. The best radios were Rotel, York, Harrier, Uniden and Uniace. I also liked Midland but that can be a contentious issue. There are hundreds of different models to choose from. Seek advice from an experienced CBer. If you don't know any personally, ask on the web forums. The 27/94 radios were only produced for three years with low number runs and are quite rare.
In 1988 (I think, if not 88 then 86 or 87. My memory is not what it should be) the government realised they had made a mistake introducing the odd offset UKFM channels and decided they should have given us the same channels as the rest of Europe. So another 40 CB channels were legalised. 26.965 to 27.405MHz. That's the same channels as a straight 40 AM, but using FM instead. These radios were marked PR 27 GB or CEPT PR 27 GB. So if you had a AM,FM,SSB radio from pre-legalisation, the mid band covered the new legal channels. This band became known as CEPT channels, after the French organisation which standardised them. Or just mid band. This band never had any channels used for any specific purpose and they were used as an additional 40 chat channels after making contact on UKFM. But very few people used them and UKFM stayed the main band.
The government had a plan to recall UKFM and use the band space for other services. But it eventually became clear that this would never happen. They could never stop us using it so they scrapped the plans to recall UKFM and in 1997 they released a new spec which allowed both UKFM and CEPT channels in one radio making an 80 channel CB. These were marked PR 27/97.
Prior to 1997 enterprising small electronics companies were making add on circuit boards to add the CEPT channels to a UKFM radio. So before they were officially allowed there were loads of 80 channel radios around. You may find if you buy a UKFM radio and when you switch the channel 9 switch, or PA switch and it doesnt do what you think it should do, it may be switching to another set of channels.
Into the 21st century things changed again. Front panel marking was no longer required and the new "multi-norm" sets became available. I have no idea what multi-norm means and apparently neither does anyone else. These radios were able to be legally used anywhere in Europe as they had a set up menu which allowed you to choose your country and the radio then worked on the channels which were legal for use locally to you. This allowed you to go into the set up menu and select UK for the 80 UK channels. Or by selecting Italy it allowed it to work on AM, or by selecting Germany it allowed it to work on the low 26MHz band. You were not supposed to do that. I think the authorities thought that CBers were too stupid to figure out how to access the extra channels. I mean, us muppets can't press three buttons at once eh?
So that's the options available for FM CB. Make sure your radio covers the 27.60125 to 27.99125MHz UKFM band and call on channel 19. Saying "One nine for a copy" should get a response if someone is listening. If you hear a conversation going on, wait for a pause and call "Breaker on the side". The huge majority of CBers will welcome you into the contact. If they don't, ignore them, move on. They were not real CBers. Most CBers have been on air since the band was much busier and would like it to be busy again, so any new operators will be considered a good thing. If anyone uses terms you don't understand just explain you are not accustomed to UK CB. FM CB is not an elitist band and "CB lingo" is not expected any more.
There are heaps of multi-channel SSB radios around. In fact so many that some people don't even know they are not legal. You can buy them in any CB shop or on line supplier. Freebanding is so commonplace that nobody bothers hiding it. Illegal radios are on youtube, ebay and pictured on legitimate ham radio websites. 26 to 28MHz has pretty much been abandoned to the pirates and so long as you stay in that zone and don't stray outside it you can do what you like. On the web forums the advice always given to newcomers to CB is "get a multimode rig, SSB is where everyone is". The gap between the two bands of 40 FM channels, 27.415 to 27.590MHz has always been the unofficial SSB CB segment. 27.555MHz USB (ch12 or 52 high band) is the calling channel. There is another calling channel on 26.285MHz USB (ch19 super low band), but I'm not sure if it's used much these days.
SSB operators tend to be a little more reserved than FM operators. Contacts can be a little less boisterous and hilarious, and you have to be more cautious calling in on an ongoing contact. The Q code is very much the lingo used here and QSK is the SSB equivalent to saying "breaker on the side". Incidentally, do not use QSK on ham radio, they don't like it. It's for CB only. There are no handles used on SSB. Everyone uses an AB123 style club callsign along with the Alpha Tango international prefix system. Division 26 for England, 108 for Scotland etc. If you don't want to make up a call and would prefer to have a recognised club callsign, go to the Charlie Tango DX website and ask to become a member. Its free and they will give you a callsign. They have thousands of members and the CT callsign gains instant credibility and is recognised country wide. I am 43CT006, when I visit my family in Scotland I'm 108/43CT006.
The primary purpose of this unofficial SSB section is working DX on the skip. Local chat always gives way to DX. In the 80s and 90s I remember local chat contacts being considered as interference. Some SSB DX chasers would be annoyed at local chat which they thought should have been happening on FM. Local nets only happened when everyone on that channel knew everyone else already. Strangers were not made to feel welcome. A general call would never be answered. But as operator numbers have diminished things have changed. Now local nets are common and the band is much more friendly. A CQ call will get a local reply if there is someone else listening, especially if the caller has a CT, AT or other known club callsign. And with the current drop in sunspot activity local chat may be all you can get some days. SSB has become an extension to FM CB.
Unlike Australia the UK is too small to fit inside the usual skip distance. In other words, skip contacts will be from another country. A good knowledge of Q codes is essential as sometimes that's the only common language between the two ends of a contact. At one time all SSB operators had access to a post office box so they could collect QSL cards without having to give their address on air. Now there are electronic means of confirming contact a PO box is less important. On very rare occassions during high pressure weather events there can be very short skip distances or ducting. This results in CBers in the north of the country hearing CBers in the south. The SSB guys know what's going on and use it to their advantage. But due to the rarity of this event FM CBers sometimes don't initially realise what's happening. This results in contacts which go like - "Where are you????...... No you're not!". The conditions sometimes last for just minutes. And some summers pass without it happening at all. All good fun though.
If you enjoy elaborate equipment, the best buy recently seems to be the Anytone AT5555, AT6666 or any of the similar Chinese programmable radios. The beauty of these radios is that with the computer lead you can add in the UKFM odd offset channels. So you can have the legal 80 FM channels and all the pirate SSB channels in one radio. Cobra 148GTL-DX are still very popular as they can be expanded to 240 channels with an additional eeprom board, which includes UKFM. There are a lot of more modern multi-band multi-mode 27MHz radios easily available. If you want to do more than just FM, there are a few good options to go for. Most serious SSB operators use wide banded ham radio gear. Owning stuff like this when you don't have a ham license is not illegal like it is in Australia. It's just an offence when you use it. And as long as you use it sensibly on 27MHz, nobody will care. In fact the authorities probably prefer 100 watts from a Kenwood than they do from a CB with a cheap Italian unfiltered amplifier.
One law that is stricter than Australia is for scanners. You can buy and own them, but you can't listen to anything that isn't a radio ham, a legal CB operator or a music station. All scanners supplied to the UK have a fast memory wipe feature. Remember which buttons to press and wipe the memories if you get pulled over.
27MHz legal SSB
In 2014 the UK aligned itself with Europe even further and legalised AM and SSB on the CEPT channels. Now you can buy a legal AM,FM,SSB radio which works on the CEPT 40 channels, and also has FM only on UKFM.
They finally legalised AM CB like we all wanted in 1981. 33 years too late. But they did it.
There is now regular SSB nets on legal CEPT channels, even though most people are using their Anytone or Yaesu to join in. Some groups are trying to establish calling channels for the new modes. 14 for AM and 27 for USB if memory serves me well. But I don't know how well these are being adopted.
In 1981 there was a second CB service legalised which few people know existed. 20 channels of FM on 934MHz. These radios were very expensive, costing as much as a months wages. Because of this very few were sold. Only a few thousand. Operating on such high frequencies was easily do-able from base stations, but mobile use was challenging. Even so, some good distances were achievable, much more than 27MHz. Because of the high cost of equipment the muppet element was totally absent and it was a very friendly and polite band. Radio hams said it was a nicer band to work than the ham bands. A family atmosphere with absolutely no attitude. The UK934 club was aware of most 934 operators in the country and listed all the net times and areas of activity. Unfortunately the usage of the band was not enough for the authorities to allow it to continue and in 1988 they announced 934 would be recalled. From then on, no new 934 sets were allowed to be manufactured or imported, and on the 31st of December 1998 the band was recalled completely. A sad tale indeed. If 934 had been allowed to continue the breakthroughs in cheap microwave equipment for mobile phones could have allowed 934 radios to be made much cheaper and it could have become like Aussie UHF CB. A fantastic band cut down before it could develope.
Despite the rarity of these radios they still come up on ebay sometimes. Most often the Cybernet Delta 1 or Reftec. They are usually bought by CB historians and collectors. They are marked CB 934/81 in a circle. Don't buy one by mistake, you won't have anyone to talk to if you do.
In 1999 the UK introduced a radio service called PMR446. It was 8 channels FM from 446.00625 to 446.09375MHz. In 2005 channels 9 to 16 were added taking the allocation up to 446.19375MHz. Channels 9 to 16 were used for digital voice using a DMR tier 1 protocol. In 2018 the division between the channels has been removed and now all 16 channels can be used for analogue voice or digital voice.
In 2015 dPMR446 was introduced with 32 channels between 446.003125 to 446.196875MHz which slot between the PMR446 channels. dPMR446 is all digital using FDMA.
The radios are hand held only and 0.5 watts maximum ERP. No mobile or base radios, or external antennas are allowed. It is license free and replaced the old Short Range Business Radio service. PMR446 is intended to serve the same purpose as the American Family Radio Service and General Mobile Radio Service. Small businesses, event organisers, families and any group which requires short range radio is provided for. Use of CTCSS tones is encouraged and open communal CB style use is not. Analogue voice use is allowed Europe wide, but the digital channels are UK only.
In spite of being told that PMR446 is not CB, CBers have adopted the band as a UHF CB service. Some 27MHz nets have a secondary net on 446. All activity is analogue voice on channels 1 to 8, as 99% of the equipment available is only 8 channel. Channel 8 with CTCSS tone number 8 is usually used as a calling channel.
Equipment varies widely in quality. A lot of radios are no more than toys. But some are very decent. Alinco and Kenwood make PMR446 radios. But..... UK CBers will be UK CBers, and the bulk of CB style 446 use is with Baofeng UV-5Rs and similar transmitting 5 watts, or amateur radio equipment which can do 35+ watts. Some are using portable beams and achieving impressive distances. Sometimes across the English channel into mainland Europe. The odd frequencies are 12.5KHz spaced, but require a radio with 6.25KHz channel spacing in order to be able to select them. Most amateur radios do that these days.
Again its best to get on the web forums to see where other operators are and some contacts will likely result.
Some CBers are being very productive with 446 band. A number of VoiP nodes are on air using eQSO or the Free Radio Network. I have heard of some using Zello. I have also heard of cross band repeaters using 27/446MHz gear. All this is of course illegal, but it still happens and it doesn't do anyone any harm.
For the price of a Baofeng and the time it will take to set the 16 channels into the memories, it really isn't worth NOT being on PMR446. While mobile in the UK I scan the 2mtr and 70cms repeaters, and the 446 channels. I get a much better laugh out of 446 than ham radio.
There is also a license free two way radio system with 69 channels on 433/434MHz. It is 10 milliwatts output power. The frequecies are shared with garage door openers, car alarm remotes and is bang in the middle of the 70cms ham band. Some of the channels interfere with ham repeaters which has forced the repeaters to be moved to other frequencies. This radio system is a bad joke. It's a disaster and is best ignored.
There are also pirate CB systems dotted up and down the HF radio spectrum. The most used is a calling channel on 6.670MHz LSB. Don't use it. It causes interference to shipping and aircraft and you will be charged and possibly imprisoned. I once mentioned 6MHz on a CB web forum and received an email asking for a contact on 6MHz. I replied advising the person get a ham license and stay well clear of pirate HF use. The emailer then admitted he was a government radio inspector whose job was tracking pirate HF use. 6MHz piracy is interesting to listen to. But do not transmit.
So that's UK CB. Compared to Australian CB I find British CB much more relaxed and friendly. The lack of any concerns about legalities certainly adds to that. In Australia I have heard mad men screaming death threats, house invasions and violence. This simply does not happen in the UK. The worst thing that'll happen is that someone might be rude to you. Generally they are just blokes talking on radios and if they don't like it they will switch off. CBs can be bought reasonably cheaply on ebay. But if you make contact with some local CBers via the web forums you might get the offer of gear without taking a chance on a distant seller postingit. Loads of gear is available new, but often better options are available for much less money if you ask around. Contacts may seem illusive at first, but once you get to know who is around there will be someone to talk to.