If you’re a fan of Spiderman or any of the old school days of Batman, you’ll notice that they listen to a device that picks up transmissions by the police. It is often referred to as a police scanner, radio scanner, or simply a scanner. Radio scanners work just like your radio. It taps into a vast ocean of radio frequencies. The ones that Spiderman and Batman use are tuned to the frequency used by the police. But this is not the only frequency that scanners can use.

Understanding Radio Scanners

Radio scanners work like your radio, which basically picks up radio waves in the air. Your TV and your cell phone work pretty much the same way using radio waves. Certain radio frequencies are used by fire fighters, police officers, and ambulance drivers, race car drivers, sanitation workers, paramedics, and even your baby monitor.

To make things simple, a radio scanner is a device that is capable of receiving various radio signals. Other people call these devices as radio receivers, which basically describes its function. Radio receivers pick up signals from VHF range to UHF frequencies.

These devices are inexpensive and are easy to carry around. Some people even make a hobby out of listening to scanners. You don’t need to wear a costume to listen in to all the signals that you didn’t know were there all along.

Scanner Modes

A typical scanner will usually operate in three fundamental modes: search, manual scan, and scan. Some models have other operating modes but these three are the most basic ones you have to know in order to operate one. You will basically use the search mode if you do not know any frequency to listen to. This is where you might want to start if you’re new to radio scanners.

In this mode, your scanner will be search two different sets of frequencies. From there you can look for frequencies that are actively being used in your area. Once you find a frequency that you find interesting, you can store that given frequency in your scanner so you can tune into it for later scanning sessions.

Setting your scanner to manual scan will mean you will have to turn the dial to manually skip to one frequency at a time. However, the frequencies you switch to should have been preprogrammed into your scanner. You will have to store the said frequencies you want to switch to before using manual scan.

Scan mode basically puts your radio receiver to something like a listening mode. The receiver constantly changes frequencies on its own. It will look for different frequencies in a set order. You’ll know that someone is using a certain frequency by the lights on your receiver. You can manually set what frequencies your receiver should listen to.


The controls on your receiver will vary depending on the model and manufacturer. However, all radio receivers will have the same fundamental controls. Basic controls include a volume control, squelch or mute, numeric keypad, search, scan, and manual buttons, and the lockout and delay buttons. Some high end scanners have serial ports that allow you to connect the device to a computer. Using scanner software, you can work the controls via your computer.

Legal Issues

Some have asked about and even challenged the legality of using scanners. In the United States, scanners are not allowed to pick up frequencies used by cellular phones. However, the use of scanners and the laws that pertain to them vary from one country to another. Some jurisdictions even prohibit using scanners in your car.

Buyer’s Tips

One of the things you should pay attention to when buying a scanner is to check the specifications. Be sure to inspect what frequencies that particular brand or model can tune in to. Another thing you should also think about is how well a scanner can receive weak signals. You should also check how many channels you can preprogram into the device. The more channels you can store on your scanner means that the device has a larger memory.