Smart & Connected Life Connected Car Tech 56 56 people found this article helpful Turn Your Phone Into a Radio Scanner Is it legal? By Jeremy Laukkonen Writer Jeremy Laukkonen is tech writer and the creator of a popular blog and video game startup. He also ghostwrites articles for numerous major trade publications. our editorial process Facebook Twitter LinkedIn Jeremy Laukkonen Updated November 18, 2019 Connected Car Tech Android Auto Apple Carplay Navigation Tweet Share Email Radio scanners serve a handful of different niche audiences. You may have had a few people tell you about some of the crazy or interesting things they’ve heard on their scanner, and it sounds like it might be fun to have one in your car, but for the same price, you could upgrade your head unit or even install a couple of premium speakers. If the cost of buying a police scanner is a big stumbling block, then you might already have a much more affordable door into the world of radio scanners right in your pocket. It’s your phone. Yes, in between sending texts and checking Facebook, you can actually use your phone to listen in on a huge variety of radio scanner streams. But Phones Aren’t Radios! Phones aren’t radios. Not even smartphones are radios. Some smartphones do include secret built-in FM radios, but if you're interested in listening in on police and emergency services broadcasts, that just won't do. Some of the other components in your phone can also be referred to as radios, at least technically, like a cellular radio or a Bluetooth radio, but that still isn't what you're looking for. These components are only capable of sending and receiving information in the specific bandwidths allocated to cellular communications or utilized by Bluetooth devices. You can no more receive a police dispatch transmission with your phone than you can tune in to an FM radio broadcast, even if you do happen to have a phone with a built-in FM receiver. So How Can You Turn a Phone Into a Radio Scanner? In order to turn your phone into a radio scanner, you need an app and either a mobile data plan or access to a Wi-Fi signal. Since your phone can’t actually receive over the air (OTA) transmissions from sources like police radios, you need to rely on radio buffs to receive and then stream transmissions. There are a number of apps available for each major mobile operating system (OS), and they all work in the same basic manner. Instead of tuning your own scanner to a local broadcast that interests you, you simply choose from a selection of streams. Depending on where you live, you may be able to tap into local streams, or you may choose to listen in on streams from far distant places. How Do Scanner Apps Work? Cell phone scanner apps allow you to stream live feeds from police scanners down the street or across the world. Radio scanner apps, which are also referred to as police scanner apps and phone frequency scanners, rely on networks of radio enthusiasts to provide thousands upon thousands of audio streams. These enthusiasts have real, physical radio scanners, which they use to pick up a huge variety of local, non-encrypted radio transmissions. They also have the necessary equipment to stream audio sources over the internet and create online radio scanner streams. They basically do all the heavy lifting that allows you to tap the touchscreen on your phone a few times and pull up just about any kind of local radio transmission you want. Although these programs are sometimes referred to as police scanner apps, they usually aren’t quite that limited in operation. One of the main uses of these apps is to listen in on local, non-encrypted police—and other emergency services—communications for whatever reason, which is why the programs are often called police scanner apps, and the actual devices that radio enthusiasts make use of are sometimes called police scanners. In reality, these apps provide access to emergency services communications, police dispatches, railway transmissions, other transit communications, and a whole world of other short-range radio transmissions. Are Radio Scanner Apps Legal? This is a sticky question since police scanners are legal in some places and illegal in others. It’s important to check out the actual laws in your jurisdiction before you install one of these apps, since you may actually be charged with a separate crime if you’re ever arrested for something completely unrelated and the police find a radio scanner app on your phone. If you’re actually brazen enough to use one of these apps in the commission of a crime, then the consequences may be even more dire. For instance, in the state of Florida, intercepting police communications to assist in a crime or escape automatically escalates the severity of the crime. As with so many other things, the use of radio scanner apps is one of personal responsibility. If they’re illegal where you live, you can choose to use one anyway, and since there’s no way to actually track your usage, you’ll be fine so long as you don’t get caught. But if you do get caught, and they are illegal, you’ll find out very quickly that ignorance of the law isn’t an acceptable defense. On the other hand, if scanner apps are legal where you live, you might just have found yourself a new hobby.