Best Police Scanners: Get Emergency Alerts and Weather Warnings
These high-quality police scanners let you be the first to know all things local.
The Drive and its partners may earn a commission if you purchase a product through one of our links. Read more.
BY Corrina Murdoch / LAST UPDATED ON August 30, 2021
You don’t have to be a police officer, or even a journalist, to use a police scanner. These nifty devices have other advantages that benefit everyone. They tell you about the emergency situations in your area, the weather alerts around you, and the traffic and road conditions when you’re on the road. If you’re looking for the best police scanner on the market, this guide narrows down your search and helps you pick the top-rated police scanner that suits your needs.
Our top pick is feature-rich and comes with advanced programming capabilities that work for both the hobbyist and the professional alike. With plenty of accessories, GPS compatibility, and ability to receive S.A.M.E. weather alerts, it offers a lot of functionality in its compact size.
- Works with GPS
- Connects to a computer or smart device easily
- Registers transmissions automatically
- Doesn’t require pre-programming to receive
- Somewhat lengthy setup process
- Battery and attachment points can misbehave
- Power bank loses efficiency over time
Despite the very low price tag compared to other top brands, this scanner covers a lot of channels which makes it ideal to track just about any agency you like. It’s easy to use, and since you can program it on your computer, you don’t have to be a pro to start using all of its features.
- Comes at an affordable price point
- Able to receive multiple frequencies
- Charges at an efficient rate
- You can program it using the computer
- Comes with a steep learning curve
- Can be tricky to understand the jargon in the instruction manual
- Walls and trees obstruct the reception
With a reputable and dependable company behind it, this product stands out in both quality and user-friendliness. The reception is excellent, and the audio is clear and with plenty of storage, so you can use this scanner for a long time without worrying about freeing up space for new data.
- Includes all of the setup hardware
- Not prone to reception issues
- Performs consistently over time
- Large memory capacity to reduce technical issues
- Despite its value, this model is priced relatively high
- Audio quality wears down over time, starting with the speakers
Why Trust Us
Our reviews are driven by a combination of hands-on testing, expert input, “wisdom of the crowd” assessments from actual buyers, and our own expertise. We always aim to offer genuine, accurate guides to help you find the best picks.
Benefits of Police Scanners
- Keeps you informed. Having a police scanner on hand is a way to take a peek behind the curtains without risking exposure. It lets you learn about any potential dangers in your area, long before it hits the internet or TV news.
- Helps you learn your surroundings. Every town, city, and even neighborhood has its own personality. Proper use of a police scanner can familiarize you with the happenings closest to you. Instead of relying on reports, you can make an accurate risk assessment.
- Safety and security. If there is an incident near your location, whether you’re traveling or at home, the police scanner will let you know. It’s hard to prep for an emergency, whether a natural disaster or violence erupting if you don’t know what you’re facing. A police scanner keeps you in the know.
- Mobile or fixed. Unlike a lot of heavy-duty tech, you can choose either a portable or fixed police scanner model. Handheld models look just like a radio and can go with you anywhere. Larger options look more like an old-school boom box and are better if left in a dedicated spot.
- Accurate information in real time. Dangerous circumstances are fickle, they shift with the changing winds. Instead of guessing what the future holds, you can listen in and actually know what is going down, while it is happening. You can’t get any more real-time than that.
- Road and traffic conditions. Even on a regular basis, you can benefit from a police scanner. With updates about the traffic on the interstate to specific notes on construction zones, it can help you map out a route with efficiency even GPS would envy.
- Weather tracking features. From tornadoes to winter storms, the United States had 180 deaths due to natural disasters in 2019 alone. A police scanner can really help you out by sending you an alert when the weather is incoming (even before the internet or weather channel gets the update).
Types of Police Scanners
The most prevalent type of police scanner on the market, handheld scanners are popular for their portability and high functionality. Running on a battery, the majority use a rechargeable battery, but you can find some with replaceable batteries as well. Though it has a limited frequency range, it remains useful since most police scanning is localized anyways. These easily fit in your glove compartment and often come with other radio features that add to their function such as NOAA alerts and two-way communication.
Those looking for a heavy-duty scanner that won’t miss a beat usually lean towards the base model design. Much bigger than its handheld counterpart, these bulky devices require a fixed location. Because of their size, these scanners are less vulnerable to interference. If you are using the scanner from your home, the power offered by these scanners is unrivaled within this set of tech. Designed to work on a standard AC power supply, simply plug it in and start scanning.
Technically, this is a sub-type of base model police scanners. The key difference is that, in terms of size, they land somewhere between base models and handheld scanners. Designed for use on the move, many of these scanners are built to plug directly into your vehicle’s DC system. Others run on batteries. Meant to mount to your dashboard, these are ideal choices for those focussing on weather conditions.
Opening its doors in 1966, this Japanese company has its roots in Tokyo. Popular on the international market, it has an American location in Texas. Supplying a wide range of electronics products and technological security services, it has secured a prominent market share. Among its leading selections are the Uniden BearTracker Scanner and the Uniden BC355N 800.
After commencing operations in the 1970s, this Arizona-native brand quickly became a prevalent supplier of electronics. Gearing its efforts towards automotive gear, it continues to innovate to this day. Its efforts are highlighted by the large range of vehicular cameras (both for diagnosis and security) as well as its other electronics. One of its favored supplies for police scanning enthusiasts is the Whistler Handheld Digital Scanner.
Police Scanner Pricing
- Under $100: You can get a reasonably high-quality handheld model in this price range. Ideal for portability, the downside is a fairly restrictive range and may require a supplemental market to get the job done.
- Between $100 - $300: Though they are a bit pricier, it’s worth the extra expense. Most models in this price range are high-functioning, effective devices. You can get all types in this range. To ensure quality, aim for either dashboard or mobile selections in this pricing category.
- $400 and up: It’s a hefty investment, but the sturdiness of these devices makes it well worth it. If you’re thinking long-term and want a base model, this is where you should look. You can find some for a bit less, but given the expansive frequencies and fine-tuned calibration, it’s better to stick to this price range.
Access to Channels
A scanner is only as powerful as its reach, which is precisely why the number of channels you can get to is a critical feature. Though it might appear standardized, the channel access varies significantly between models. The most basic options have up to 20 channels, but you can find higher-end selections with as many as 1,000 channels. The larger the antenna and the bigger the system, the more powerful its reach. Though fewer channels can be fine for weather alerts and localized scanning, it might not be sufficient for all scenarios.
One of the top reasons police scanners are so popular amongst civilians is that it keeps you informed about local risks. Aim for a model that scans automatically for weather alerts in your area. The name of the system is Specific Area Message Encoding, abbreviated to S.A.M.E. If your scanner has this feature, it will only provide you with local alerts. This requires some manual input and programming to ensure that you get relevant local information.
Modern police scanners enable you to customize the programming to your specific needs. A priority scanning feature lets you select a key channel — the local police frequency, for instance — and scan it at regular intervals (usually every two seconds). This works in tandem with the scan delay feature that focuses the scanner on a frequency for two seconds before moving on. It’s helpful in ensuring that you don’t miss a beat or fail to register a communication.
- Range and obstructions. The distance from which your scanner can pick up a signal is a critical consideration. It determines how many channels you can access and how easily it will be impacted by your surroundings. If the range is too low, you may need to attach an aftermarket antenna. Especially if you are in a heavily treed or mountainous zone, be sure that the range is sufficient.
- Compatibility with GPS. Not all police scanners are compatible with Global Positioning Systems, but it definitely helps. It’s able to automatically adjust the frequencies you’re accessing based on where you actually are. Though it isn’t useful for base models, your handheld or dashboard scanner should be equipped with this feature. So long as the GPS is working, you can get accurate data based on your current location without making any manual adjustments.
- Controls. All models have different controls, but some are far more intuitive than others. If you’re newer to the world of bandwidth scanning, it might be better to get something with simpler controls (or something that works automatically). Some base models are really advanced with nuanced controls. Ideal for advanced users, they might pose a challenge to a novice.
- Setup. All police scanners are going to require a bit of time to get them set up, though some require a lot more attention than others. If you don’t have experience establishing a police scanner (especially if it’s a base model), be sure to familiarize yourself with the user manual. Make sure to budget enough time to set up the scanner correctly — your future self will thank you.
- System Memory. Some police scanners let you set preferences so you can default to your favorite channels with increased ease. Handheld police scanners will have the smallest memory, while base models can have up to 1,000 saved channels. It lets you store and track data more efficiently, adding a lot of value to the scanner.
- Battery life. Unless your scanner plugs directly into a wall or your vehicle, you’re going to rely heavily on batteries. Though the vast majority of handheld scanners rely on a rechargeable battery, some use replaceable batteries (usually AAA batteries). If you plan to take the scanner to a place where getting charge might be difficult, consider a backup battery or power bank.
- Maintenance. From gathering dust to the constant wear and tear on circuitry inside the scanner, it takes on damage over time. To avoid issues with performance, routine maintenance is critical. The simpler the scanner, the easier it will be to take care of. Conversely, base models require routine calibration checks in addition to their more demanding ventilation needs.
- Scanning technology. Particularly if you plan to track a wide range of frequencies, you need a police scanner that can search quickly. The faster it runs through channels, the more efficiently you can access transmissions. It reduces your risk of missing out on important communication. When you’re looking, consider scan speed to see the pace at which your scanner will operate.
Best Police Scanner Reviews & Recommendations for 2021
- Start learning your scanner by focusing on the basics like tracking road conditions and traffic in your area.
- When you come across a preferred frequency, be sure to input it into your police scanner for easier access later.
- Keep a physical copy of your chosen frequencies to save you time and effort in the event of a system crash.
- If you have a base model, make sure that you use a power bar or voltage regulator to prevent electrical issues.
- Investigate the radios used by your local police and fire departments to avoid any problems with compatibility — especially if you’re getting a handheld scanner.
- Aim for dual-band scanners, models that are able to access both analog and digital frequencies.
- Given its uses in emergencies, make sure you always have access to a charging station or an extra battery.
- Keep the scanner dry, avoid impact, and let it breathe to prevent damage to the circuitry due to overheating.
Q: Will police scanners become obsolete?
Though there has been an uptick in digital apps used instead of police scanners, it is definitely not obsolete. In fact, because these online sources are implicated in unlawful activity, police departments are encrypting frequencies. This makes scanning more relevant than ever.
Q: Can digital scanners pick up police frequencies?
Regardless of whether your local police use an analog or digital system, a digital scanner will be able to access the frequency. Most modern police scanners rely on digital technology, so it is not difficult to find an effective option. The Uniden BCD436HP HomePatrol Series is an example of tech that will work for both types of signals.
Q: Why is the police scanner public?
Police retain the right to withhold information that can impact an ongoing investigation; which, in the past, led to encrypted frequencies (i.e. private and inaccessible to the public). However, when different emergency departments tried to coordinate, these encrypted channels proved to be a risk. Most remain public to ensure open access during a time of crisis.
Q: Do police use UHF or VHF?
Police departments transmit and receive on UHF bandwidths. While it is legal to listen to public transmissions in this range, you cannot transmit without a license. This is to ensure that the channel remains secure and open for essential communications.
Q: Are police scanners legal?
According to the Communications Act of 1934, the US airwaves are public property. Owning a scanner that receives these transmissions is perfectly legal.
Q: What are alpha tags?
Alpha tags are alphanumeric symbols used to identify agencies and channels. They’re a more convenient way to store agencies, frequencies, and talk groups in the database.
Q: I live in the suburbs. Do I need a scanner with high sensitivity?
Scanners need a line of sight to send and receive transmissions. In urban areas as well as in mountains and forests, that line of sight is obstructed. You’ll need high sensitivity to pick up weak frequencies in these conditions.
Now that you know the ins and outs of finding the best police scanners, you can stay up-to-date on all things local. We named the Uniden BCD436HP HomePatrol Series as our top pick for its high compatibility ratings and close capture tech. If you’re looking for something more affordable, our value pick, the Uniden BC75XLT 300-Channel Handheld Scanner might suit your needs with its high efficiency and impressive range.
Everyone can benefit from the unrivaled access to info police scanners offer. Do you have some experience surfing the radio waves? Share your wisdom in the comments below. Happy scanning!