All About Car Antennas

A rundown of the different kinds of antennas you'll find in a car

Supercar at the beach - Sunset sky copyspace

marcoventuriniautieri / Getty Images

There are many kinds of car antennas, from terrestrial radio antennas to satellite radio antennas, television antennas, GPS antennas, and cellular antennas. Each is designed to receive a specific type of signal. Monopole whip antennas are still the most common. These types of antennas receive AM and FM radio transmissions. There are other kinds designed to work with an array of technologies. Here are some of the common and not so common types of car antennas.

Terrestrial Radio Antennas

Most cars ship from the factory with an antenna installed. This antenna is either a monopole whip antenna or a flat, window-mounted antenna. Whip antennas have been the standard for a long time, and come in several styles. Some whip antennas are rigid and stationary, others telescope out, and some retract and extend automatically when the radio is turned on and off.

Satellite Radio Antennas

Although terrestrial radio and satellite radio share a similar name, each requires different kinds of antennas. This is because terrestrial radio is broadcast from local towers on either the AM or FM band. Satellite radio is broadcast from a series of geosynchronous and geostationary satellites on a different wavelength.

Satellite radio antenna
Rachel Haller / CC by 2.0 / Flickr

Unlike satellite television, which relies on directional dish antennas, satellite radio uses small, non-directional antennas. Satellite radio antennas are smaller than regular car radio antennas.

Television Antennas

Although analog VHF television and FM radio used to run parallel to each other (and overlap in some cases), the switchover to digital moved television broadcasts in the United States into the Ultra High Frequency (UHF) spectrum. In any case, you need a dedicated antenna to watch broadcast television in a car.

There are a few kinds of TV antennas for a car, including the iconic boomerang antennas that are on limousines, and motorized satellite dishes that adjust automatically as the car moves. These are more useful in RVs, vans, and buses.

GPS Navigation Antennas

GPS navigation devices come with built-in antennas. Adding an external antenna increases the accuracy of these devices and reduces the likelihood of losing a satellite lock. Unlike other types of car antennas, which tend to be passive, GPS antennas can be either passive or active.

GPS navigational system on dashboard of car
Rebecca Nelson / Getty Images

An active antenna has an amplifier to boost signal reception, whereas a passive antenna idly picks up passing signals.

Cellphone Car Antennas

There are two types of cellphone car antennas:

  • Antennas that physically hook up to a cellphone.
  • Signal boosters that amplify and retransmit weak cellular signals (like an active GPS antenna).

The former was more common. However, improvements in cellular technology have allowed antennas to be integrated into the design of phones, cars, and other receiver devices. Signal boosters, meanwhile, existed in a regulatory gray area until a 2013 FCC set guidelines for the use of these devices.