I'm new to radios. Only ever used them for squad communication in airsoft. I have two Baofeng UV-5R handhelds and would like to use them this week to communicate on a family camping trip with no cell service. I wanted to know how to do this legally in central Pennsylvania. Thank you.
In the United States, for the most part, all radio transmissions fall into one of three categories:
- The operator is allowed to transmit on that frequency (amateur, "business band", aviation, military, etc.)
- The radio is allowed to transmit on that frequency (CB, FRS, MURS).
- The transmissions are very low-power ("Part 15": WiFi, Bluetooth, lots of other things).
Your radio is not very low-power. Your radio does not meet the requirements of CB or similar services, most significantly that it not be able to transmit other than on the relevant frequency bands. Therefore, you may not currently use it except to receive.
The simplest way to be able to use it legally — or in general, to use radio transmitters for personal communication purposes (that aren't cell phones or such) — is for you and your family members to get amateur radio licenses (and obey the relevant rules).
The process is simple: you take a test about radio theory and operating procedure, and receive a license. The test is multiple-choice and administered by individuals called Volunteer Examiners (VEs) (who are organized into groups called VECs) usually in regularly scheduled sessions. There may or may not be a fee for the test depending on the policies of the VEC in question. There are multiple levels of test and license; for your purpose you only need the first one, a “Technician” license.
Many people cram for the test and pass it in the same day. Or, gently paced self-study is readily possible. There are books, classes, and free online resources. If you'd like to jump in and see what the test is like, I personally recommend HamStudy.org; it's free to take practice tests and read the questions and answers there.
When you receive your license, it will include your call sign. You must include your call sign in all transmissions; there are other rules, but this is the one that most affects everyday activity. Everyone using a radio must have their own license, unless they are being directly supervised by a license holder.
A good resource for learning more about amateur radio in the United States is the American Radio Relay League (ARRL) — here's their page on getting licensed. (Note that the ARRL is a VEC but not the only VEC.)
If you'd like to know more about amateur radio, feel free to look around here, and ask more questions if you can't find answers already — it is the focus of our site, as you can tell by the name!
[The beginning of this answer was previously posted here.]