All About Car Antennas

car antennas
Some car antennas are roof mounted. Marco Rosario Venturini Autieri / E+ / Getty

The days of the one-size-fits-all car antenna are gone, if they were ever here in the first place. The fact is that basic monopole whip antennas are okay at receiving FM broadcasts, but they weren’t ever terribly efficient at receiving AM. And if you want to listen to anything other than boring old AM/FM radio in your car, let alone watch anything, then you’re going to need something other than the factory-installed whip or window antenna that you’re driving around with right now.

There are many kinds of car antennas out there, each of which is designed to receive a specific type of signal. Monopole whip antennas are the most common, and they’re capable of pulling in both AM and FM radio transmission, but things get a little more complicated once you move past the basics. Some of the most common types of car antennas include:

Car Radio Antennas

Chances are pretty good that your car shipped from the factory with an antenna already installed, and it was probably either a monopole whip antenna or a flat, window-mounted antenna. Whip antennas have been the standard for a long time, and they come in a number of different flavors. Some whip antennas are rigid and stationary, others telescope, and some even retract and extend automatically when you turn the radio on and off.

Satellite Radio Antennas

Although terrestrial and satellite radio share similar names, they require completely different antennas.

This is due to the fact that terrestrial radio is broadcast via local towers on either the AM or FM band, whereas satellite radio is broadcast from a series of both geosynchronous and geostationary satellites on a completely different wavelength.

Unlike satellite television, which relies on directional dish antennas, satellite radio uses small, non-directional antennas.

In fact, satellite radio antennas are much smaller than regular car radio antennas.

Car Television Antennas

Although analog VHF television and FM radio used to butt right up against each other (and even overlap in some cases), the switchover to digital moved television broadcasts in the United States up into the UHF spectrum. And in any case, you need a dedicated antenna if you want to watch broadcast television in your car.

There are a few different kinds of TV antennas you can get for a car, including the iconic “boomerang” antennas you may have seen on limousines, and motorized satellite dishes that adjust themselves automatically as you drive.

GPS Navigation Antennas

GPS navigation devices come with built-in antennas, but 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.

Cell Phone Car Antennas

There are two main kinds of cell phone car antennas: antennas that physically hook up to a cell phone, and signal boosters that amplify and retransmit weak cellular signals. The former used to be more common than they are today, due to improvements in cellular technology, and the latter existed in a regulatory gray area until a 2013 FCC ruling that laid down specific guidelines for cell phone boosters.