Is it legal to use handheld radios to listen to (general aviation) airport frequencies in the USA? Can I go to an airport with a handheld radio and listen to their frequencies?

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    $\begingroup$ Yes. Just don't transmit. $\endgroup$
    – acpilot
    Jan 19, 2017 at 20:39
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    $\begingroup$ When I first started flying I would often go to the airport during the morning and afternoon rush to listen to the traffic. That way I could practice figuring out where all the traffic was in relation to the airport and what the common ATC instructions were without also having to fly the plane. I still do it from time to time and I use LiveATC.net to listen to frequencies from all over the world from the comfort of my living home. $\endgroup$
    – JScarry
    Jan 19, 2017 at 21:03
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    $\begingroup$ even if it were illegal, how would anyone possibly catch you? $\endgroup$
    – user428517
    Jan 19, 2017 at 22:11
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    $\begingroup$ @sgroves Some years ago, when police radio communications weren't encoded, it was illegal in some countries to have radio receivers capable of being tuned to police frequencies. I don't know how easy was to enforce that. If listening to aviation frequencies were illegal, listening them near an airport could be risky. $\endgroup$
    – Pere
    Jan 19, 2017 at 22:40
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    $\begingroup$ @sgroves - many radio receivers use a technology called a "superheterodyne receiver" which has an oscillator that runs at a frequency similar to but slightly different from the frequency they're receiving (usually it's 455 kHz higher). These receivers actually broadcast an identifiable signal at that frequency and can be detected quite easily. $\endgroup$ Jan 20, 2017 at 6:04

4 Answers 4


Your receiver must comply with USC 47 302a, the law that says, "you can't interfere with other equipment".

USC 47 301 in general is all about "transmission of energy", or broadcasting. And it really is beyond the scope of government to say you can't stick a piece of metal in the air and process the signals it receives, provided you don't cause interference to anyone else.

Assuming your radio is receive-only, you really won't have a problem with that. (short of a total malfunction!).

  • 13
    $\begingroup$ Well, beyond the scope of US government, but not all governments $\endgroup$
    – TomMcW
    Jan 19, 2017 at 18:44
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    $\begingroup$ The question explicitly says "USA". $\endgroup$
    – abelenky
    Jan 19, 2017 at 18:45
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    $\begingroup$ I think it's just the wording, "beyond the scope of government." That makes me think of government as a concept rather that a specific government. You could just make it "the government" and it wouldn't sound that way $\endgroup$
    – TomMcW
    Jan 19, 2017 at 18:48
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    $\begingroup$ It's not above the scope of the US government, as 18 U.S. Code § 2511 makes it's a crime for anyone to intercept a radio transmission. It's legal to listen into aviation frequencies in the US because the law specifically excludes "aeronautical communications system". On the other hand sticking a piece of metal in the air and listening to the mobile phone conversations it receives can land in you in jail for up to five years. $\endgroup$
    – Ross Ridge
    Jan 19, 2017 at 20:24
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    $\begingroup$ This is not true: "beyond the scope of government to say you can't stick a piece of metal in the air and process the signals it receives". For a general discussion. For North America specific $\endgroup$
    – Makyen
    Jan 19, 2017 at 20:24

Sure you can. I have an ICOM AC-24 Aviation VHF Transciever in my flight bag and will use it, often when walking around on the apron of untowered airports to be aware of, and communicate with, other aircraft on the ground and in the pattern using the CTAF.

Just be courteous with it and don't use the device to either interfere with ATC communications or for personal conversations with ATC or aircrews.

  • 1
    $\begingroup$ That reminds me of an airport in Minnesota that I was visiting. Parking for the flight school was on the other side of a taxiway and we had to use a handheld to call ground for permission to walk across the taxiway to the aircraft. $\endgroup$
    – JScarry
    Jan 20, 2017 at 4:00

If you don't have the appropriate license and thus can't legally transmit, disable the transmitter. The easy way to do this is to open the radio and remove the little plastic piece that protrudes through the case on the transmit switch. Yes, you could push the switch with a pencil or other item, but disabling the transmit will show good faith that you are not breaking the law and have no intention of doing so in the future.

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    $\begingroup$ This seems, well, ridiculous. Should he also puncture the tires on his car to demonstrate that he doesn't intend to intentionally run over someone? $\endgroup$
    – MPW
    Jan 20, 2017 at 15:01
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    $\begingroup$ @MPW Doesn't it sound sensible? If you're not supposed to operate a transmitter without a license, one way to prove you're compliant is to show that your device is not (or cannot be operated as) a transmitter. $\endgroup$
    – ChrisW
    Jan 20, 2017 at 17:21
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    $\begingroup$ @MPW removing the tires is a pretty good way to demonstrate that you don't intend to drive the car (which is what you would need license/tax/insurance for). As a bonus, they'd also be the easiest part for someone to steal. $\endgroup$
    – OrangeDog
    Jan 20, 2017 at 17:43

If they are broadcasting on frequencies that are public, then yes, you can listen in. However, you can't interfere with the conversation (broadcasting from your radio, garbling their signal, etc.), because that's a violation of FCC regulation.

  • 2
    $\begingroup$ It would be good to explain what you mean by "frequencies that are public", and provide a reference for the regulation. $\endgroup$
    – fooot
    Jan 20, 2017 at 6:15
  • $\begingroup$ Ah, I see. Sounds good. $\endgroup$ Jan 20, 2017 at 22:36

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