Police radio offers real-time drama for the curious or even the mildly interested. But can you listen to police radio in the UK?
You might be interested in listening to police radio in the UK so you can know what’s happening in your area. But is it legal or even possible?
Here, we’ll cover everything you need to know about listening to police radio in the UK.
A Brief History on Police Radio
The UK police had been using wireless telegraphy since the early 1930s. Typically, this operated from a primary base station at the headquarters and sent messages to fixed transceivers in just a handful of patrol cars in the 1940s.
Many officers were on foot or bicycles and relied on receiving information via regular pre-arranged phone calls when out on patrol.
A type of radio set appeared in the late 1940s based on models used by the military. However, they were bulky and interfered with the officers’ ability to do their jobs. These single-channel units were still in use in the 1960s.
Afterwards, lightweight personal radios, both UHF and duplex, came into use, persisting through the later years of the 20th century with ever-improving designs.
The channels were utterly insecure; criminals were listening in to gain an advantage, and radio hams were tuning in for a source of entertainment using scanners.
In response, a new digital communications system appeared in 2000 called Airwave, which is used by all police forces in the UK.
Airwave works like a mobile phone on TETRA (Terrestrial Trunked Radio) technology. Airwave is secure and encrypted.
Airwave carries speech and data; since 2010, it has also transmitted images. GPS capability also provides the exact location of officers.
Airwave is due for replacement in 2026 by ESN, Emergency Services Network, a modern platform for use on the 4G and developed by the Home Office to provide cross-emergency response and ease of data sharing.
ESN also has the capability to work with other emerging technologies and applications that the police use.
Is It Legal to Listen to Police Radio in the UK?
No, it is illegal and an offence under the Wireless Telegraphy Act 2006 to listen to police radio in the UK without permission. Furthermore, it’s also unlawful to listen to radio broadcasts from other emergency services and the military.
Since 2000, police radio communications in the UK have been encrypted to stop people from listening in.
In the UK, it’s only lawful to use a radio scanner to listen to transmissions intended for general reception. These include licensed broadcasting radio stations (not pirate radio), weather transmission, and amateur and citizens band (CB) radio.
Can You Listen to Encrypted Police Radio?
There’s nowhere in the world that permits the general public to listen to encrypted police radio messages. Encryption is there for a reason, and trying to decipher the message is breaking the law.
Airwave is a very secure and encrypted TETRA system, making police radio transmissions in the UK impossible to decode. So, it’s not only illegal but also impossible!
How to Listen to Police Radio
While listening to police radio is illegal and impossible in the UK, that’s not the case everywhere in the world. In places where you can listen in to police radio, scanners and mobile scanner apps can be used.
There are various scanners, from large desktop units to portable handheld devices.
Scanners work based on a set radius from the user’s location, so they’ll require some tuning to find the proper channels, and their range limits them.
It’s essential to choose a scanner with a suitable scan/search mode for the type of usage you want and avoid features you don’t want, which will inflate the price.
The moral is to do your scanner homework first before you buy!
Mobile Scanner Apps
Mobile scanner apps offer the latest technology, but beware – some credible app stores only provide recordings of messages, not a livestream.
Like any app, you may need to pay to access certain features. Some apps offer multi-channel usage and include emergency services like the fire brigade as well as the police.
Mobile scanner apps don’t have range restrictions, so they allow more freedom to find police broadcast channels located much further away.
Frequently Asked Questions
What Radio Frequency Do Police Use?
Up until 1987, the police used a public FM channel in the UK, which meant anyone could listen to them on a standard radio. After 1987, the police moved to higher band VHF and UHF. In 2000, the police started using Airwave, a private digital network, so the frequencies and police transmissions aren’t now accessible to the public.
Can You Pick Up UK Police Radio on a Scanner?
It’s no longer possible to pick up UK police radio on a scanner because communications are encrypted and sent on a digital network. The encrypted messages are broken up and sent over several frequencies to be put together by the receiving station, so there’s a double layer of protection.
Said to be the most powerful tool for any journalist other than a pen, a radio scanner to pick up police communications during the latter years of the 20th century was essential to find that scoop and get ahead of the rest.
Radio hams and hobbyists also got in on the act. However, nowadays, listening to police radio in the UK is illegal as well as impossible, so amateur enthusiasts must look further afield to jurisdictions where police messaging is still openly broadcast.
For the best selection of scanners and receivers, shop Moonraker, your UK radio expert, for all your radio needs.