In designing cognitive radio systems, one of the most critical issues is handling the channel handover process (CHP). The CHP consists of spectrum sensing, spectrum decision, negotiation on the common control channel, and adjustment of frequency and modulation settings, and such, it can be a time-consuming process. Consequently, initiating the CHP after each detected user activity (UA) can decrease the aggregate spectrum utilization. To alleviate this problem, we introduce a novel handover strategy to find the optimal trade-off between the durations of the CHP and UAs. With the use this model, secondary users (SUs) track only local information on their current data channel to make the decision to initiate the CHP or to wait for the termination of the ongoing UA. The system adapts to the dynamic conditions of the data channels and reduces the frequency of handovers to increase throughput and decrease access delay. We give analytical utilization bounds for SUs and also compare the performance of our model to those of other channel handover strategies by using extensive simulations. Our results for channels with heterogeneous loads and dynamic environments show that this model can clearly decrease the frequency of handover and consequently increase the aggregate SU utilization. Copyright (c) 2013 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.