As a UK radio supplier licensed by OFCOM I frequently get calls for help from buyers of radios on ebay. I have written this guide to help you avoid buying something useless or illegal.
There are many legitimate radio bargains on ebay and I shop here myself often. However there are many sellers offering useless or illegal radios at what appear to be bargain prices (until you get your hands on them). Before you buy do your homework, there are many good UK radio websites and even more legitimate UK web traders who will advise you before you buy. Also see Wikipedia.
All radio transmitting equipment in the UK has to be build to a certain specification and often requires a licence. This is to prevent interference to other users and to protect yourself from interference..
Interference may not sound too likely until you think of all the emergency services, medical and safety radio system on the ground or in the air controlling aircraft etc. If you use a radio on the 'wrong' frequency' you will probably never be aware of the problems you are causing. Just because you don't hear anyone it doesn't mean they cant hear you. Your transmission may block a receiver somewhere from picking up vital transmissions.
To help co-ordinate the hundreds of radio channels Ofcom issues licences which specify frequency and a location where that equipment can be used. They also monitor frequencies for illegal use and hunt down and prosecute offenders.
Radio channels are co-ordinated on a worldwide basis. For historical reason a radio for use in the USA will not be built to a suitable spec for the UK and vice versa. The same applies to Asia so a radio from Hong Kong will not be suitable for the UK.
In the UK the only licence free hand-held radios are clearly marked on the case as PMR446. Any radios marked as such will work with any other regardless of make. Make sure your PMR 446 radio has CTCSS (Tone squelch) and you can change the channel and CTCSS setting, You will then be able to avoid listening to other users.
There are several types of licence costing from around £20 a year. All details are on the OFCOM website but it is a complex issue so best talk to a radio dealer to find what best suits you. In the vast majority of cases a licence is not needed as Licence Free radios will do the job just fine.
Don't get seduced by radios that transmit on higher power. It will make marginal difference to range and only mean your batteries will not last as long. For simple hand-held-to hand-held radio communications a quality PMR446 will give as good a range as a 5watt radio in nearly all circumstances. And you wont need a licence. The things that really make a difference to range are location, terrain, receiver sensitivity, aerial type and position and general audio quality, simply bumping up transmit power is usually pointless.
Time and again I get calls for people who have bought US or Asian spec radios and need spares or repairs. Because this equipment is different from UK spec radio spares are not available here in the UK and even if they were anyone repairing them knowing they were going back into UK use would risk losing there own OFCOM licence.
What to look for:
Having done your homework you will have a fair idea of what you want. The big brand names always give the best long term value and get the best re-sale price. They are much more expensive but you will get spares and support from dealers (even if you bought off Ebay) for years to come.
The low cost radios are fine if you are on a budget but don't expect them to last or find spare or even earpieces to fit. They are good for occasional use and when your budget is not big enough for the quality stuff.
Don't buy anything that is not to UK specification or you are not sure exactly what it is.