Turn Your Phone into a Radio Scanner

cellphone in car
Radio scanner apps can provide in-car entertainment or even an insight into potential hazards. Blend Images - Dave and Les Jacobs / Brand X Pictures / GettyImages

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 premium speakers. If that’s the case, then your gateway drug into the world of radio scanners might already be 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 of the components in your phone might be referred to as “radios,” like a cellular radio or a Bluetooth radio, but they are only capable of sending and receiving information in the specific bandwidths allocated to cellular communications or utilized by Bluetooth devices, respectively. You can no more receive a police dispatch transmission with your phone than you can tune in to an FM radio broadcast (unless your phone has an FM radio built in, which actually does happen).

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 OTA transmissions, you actually rely on radio buffs to receive and then stream transmissions.

There are a number of apps available for each major mobile 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?

Radio scanner apps, which are also referred to as police scanner apps, 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. These radio buffs 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 they 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 can be even more dire.

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 they are legal where you live, you might just have found yourself a new hobby.