So, you may have read the material on the Why Get Involved With Amateur Radio? and are wondering how to get started. This has two main components: licensing and equipment.
Amateur Radio is unlike most other radio services in that you get to build your own radios, your own antennas, and operate over a wide range of frequencies. This is different than, say, a cellphone or low-power FRS walkie-talkie, where the government must approve every phone/device that is made, and these must be locked to specific frequencies.
A price of all this flexibility is that it’s easier to accidentally interfere with other radio users. The high power available to amateurs – thousands of times higher than a cellphone can use – also means a possibility for injuring yourself or others.
So, governments around the world require people to be licensed before they are allowed to transmit on amateur radio bands.
Levels of Licensing
In the United States, which this article focuses on, there are three levels of licensing. The entry-level license is the technician class, which lets you operate on VHF, UHF, and above. This band is primarily used for talking to local people, within a few hundred miles of your location. It is fairly easy to pass the technician-level exam.
To be able to do much with the HF bands, which permit you to transmit on bands that carry your signal around the world, you have to pass the general-class exam. You now would have the ability to interfere with radio service worldwide in some cases, as opposed to just within a few hundred miles, and are expected to be more proficient as a result. There are also valuable things to learn about working HF.
Finally, the Amateur Extra class is the highest level of licensing, and opens up more parts of the HF bands to licensees. These parts are often those used for international contacts.
People must always start with the technician license. Once that’s passed, they can move on to the general, and so forth. The next exam could be taken immediately, or years later, or never; it’s up to you.
Don’t let the length of this page scare you off! I’ve just given you detailed suggestions. Children as young as 8 regularly pass the technician exam.
A Note on Exam Questions
The exam sessions aren’t open-book, but the question pool is intentionally made publicly available. You can study with the real questions before you ever take the test.
The question pool for each question class of license is replaced every 4 years. The NCVEC has a list of question pool expiration dates. Make sure that you get a book and use practice questions that correspond with the correctly-dated question pool. Reputable books and practice software/websites will list the expiration dates for the question pools they cover as well.
Studying for the Technician Exam
The first entry into amateur radio is, of course, the technician exam. You will first want to study for it. There are two main books that are standards for this.
I recommend ARRL’s (the American Radio Relay League, the nationwide non-profit supporting amateur radio in the USA) Ham Radio License Manual for studying for the technician exam. It is written somewhat textbook-style, with a narrative. It helps explain the background behind the questions. That means you have a more thorough understanding of the material, rather than having to memorize lots of facts. I believe this makes it easier to pass, and will help you enjoy amateur radio more. ARRL’s “License Manual” series also includes the full question pool with answers at the back for studying, and cross-references both ways between it and the text.
The other major option are the Q&A-style books. These books present the entire question pool, sometimes rearranged for easier learning. They show you the correct answer for each question, and have anywhere from a couple of sentences to a page explaining each. They may also have mnemonics or other memorization aids. They tend to give you less of a full understanding of the material. Nevertheless, many people have used them to pass tests and that works too. The most well-known in this category are the Gordon West/W5YI series. For technician class, that would be Technician Class License Preparation. ARRL also has a Q&A series, written by Ward Silver. Their technician book is ARRL’s Tech Q&A.
All of these are quality options. They will prepare you for the license exam and also explain the exam process. They all also have suggestions for how to study, which you should closely follow.
Depending on your level of experience and amount of time you can devote to it, you may find yourself completing the study in anywhere from a few days to a few months. Some work through it in as little as a few days, but don’t push yourself too much.
Practicing for the Exam
Now that you’ve studied, it’s time to practice. I recommend waiting to do this until you complete the book you’re using. You want to know what your weak spots are, and brush up on them before you go to the exam. A passing score is 75%. That’s 26 out of 35 questions on technician or general, or 37 out of 50 on amateur extra.
I (John Goerzen) will tell you what worked for me. I passed all three of my exams without missing even a single question – though I didn’t expect that, and obviously that’s not needed to pass. There are many ways to practice, and some people may work better with others, but this has worked very well for me.
I highly recommend hamexam.org as a way to practice. There are several excellent things about it, particularly if you create an account
- It is regularly updated with the new question pools
- It remembers what questions you’ve missed, and how often, and presents those more frequently than the ones that you easily get correct. It automatically helps drill you on your weak areas.
- It keeps detailed statistics that can suggest particular topics to study more.
- It offers both individual questions and practice exams.
- It offers an iPhone/Android interface
- Completely free
There are many practice exam sites out there, but most of them fail the first two points. That means that you waste time answering things you already know, and may be using the wrong question pool entirely.
So, go to http://www.hamexam.org/. Here’s how I suggest you use it:
Create an account and log in. This enables the missed question tracking feature, which is essential
Now, start running the flash cards for “element 2: technician”
This will ask you random questions, one at a time.
Never use the Skip button. You want it to record whether to know it or not for future use.
If you know the question, or are pretty confident you can make an excellent educated guess, answer it and hit Submit.
If you are unsure, don’t guess. Just hit Submit without marking an option. This ensures that the software notes that you don’t know the answer to the question and will re-present it later. This will mean your stats look a little worse than they would if you took random guesses, but will make the site more useful for you.
Either way, after answering a question, the correct answer is displayed at the bottom of the screen, with a new question at the top.
Whenever you miss a question, you’ll know the question number (for instance, T3A09). Look that up in your study book, consult the detailed explanation, and figure out what you did wrong.
Watch the stats at the bottom of the right column. When you have “viewed” every question, you will start getting repeat questions – and many of them will specifically be the questions you missed before.
- Note: you can stop and come back to it any time, even using multiple computers. Just log in and it remembers what you need to see.
Once you are doing pretty well with these questions, even the repeat ones, start running some practice exams.
- I recommend waiting to do this until you are doing reasonably well on the flash cards. The immediate feedback of the flash cards is good, since you’ll remember what you were thinking when you got it wrong.
- Continue with not guessing on things you’re unsure of as above.
- hamexam will grade your exam at the end and show you the questions you missed.
- Continue looking up answers in your study material as needed.
Once you are passing these exams every time, and fairly easily, what’s next is up to you. If you are feeling fairly confident, you can just go take your exam now. For an extra measure of confidence, follow the steps below:
The last thing is to review all the material one more time. When I was studying for the extra, I found that I forgot a couple of things during the course of study. And some things I initially didn’t know, I got very good at, due to having missed them repeatedly and being re-drilled.
- To do this, you will tell hamexam to forget what questions you missed, so that you are drilled on all of them one last time.
- Click on My Stats on the left, then View Stats for Technician, then “Reset All” at the bottom of the “subelement statistics” box
- Repeat the flash cards and exam steps as above
Related site: http://www.hamexam.org/
Taking the Exam
You can find upcoming exam sessions by using the ARRL exam session search. Note that there may be some sessions not on the search tool; people at your local amateur radio club (see club finder) may also have other suggestions.
Call or email ahead of time and tell them you intend to attend, and which exam you will be going for.
Your preparation material will have a good list, but things you should take with you to the exam session include:
Pen and pencil
A sheet or two of scratch paper
A photo ID, and a photocopy of it
The original and a copy of your previous license/CSCE, if upgrading past technician
The exam fee, which is around $15. In cash is helpful.
Your SSN or FRN
If you don’t want to divulge your SSN at the session, you can also save the volunteer examiners a bit of work by pre-registering for a Federal Registration Number (FRN). Go to http://wireless.fcc.gov/uls/ and click Register. Print out the page with your FRN and bring it with you.
If You Pass
You will be given a Certificate of Successful Completion of Exam (CSCE). But, you are not entitled to transmit until your license appears in the FCC database. This will happen within about 2-20 days, depending on circumstances. You can search at http://wireless.fcc.gov/uls for your name. Once your callsign is posted, you can transmit immediately. You’ll receive an official license in the mail a few days later.
Also, if you pass one exam, you can attempt the next higher license class exam immediately for no additional fee. As a courtesy to the volunteer examiners, however, please don’t attempt this unless you’ve studied for it and have a reasonable chance of passing.
If You Fail
You should go back and study and practice some more. You can attempt a new exam any time, but each exam is randomly-generated so don’t obsess over the particular questions you missed; you’ll probably get different ones next time.
Upgrading to General or Extra
The advice here is similar to the above: study the same way and prepare for it the same way. All of the books I suggested are parts of series that are available for general and extra as well.
For More Information on Licensing
Buying A Radio
See the Your First Equipment section on the Amateur Radio Transceivers page for more information.
Finding People to Talk To
You’ll probably want to buy a copy of ARRL’s repeater book. This will list repeaters around the country that you can use. You can try various local repeaters and see what’s there. Note that some repeaters have periods of high activity and periods of low activity – say, 3AM.
Also, your local amateur radio club probably maintains some repeaters and would have good ideas for you. They can also help you select your first radio.
For More Information
Links to this note
I am frequently asked, “Why bother with radios? Don’t you have cellphones? VOIP? Skype?”
Amateur Radio really a very interesting hobby. It is the most versatile radio service available in many ways. Users of amateur radio get to choose their own radios and antennas, and can even design and build these things themselves if they like. They can operate with a surprising amount of power in many situations, and can work with all sorts of modes including CW (morse code), voice, and digital. Most other types of radio restrict people to only government-approved radios, certain specific channels, etc.
Amateur radio is a radio service in which people are allowed and encouraged to build their own radios, antennas, and so forth. It can be used to communicate all around the globe without any intervening infrastructure such as satellites or cables.
Here are some brief notes on ham radios. For some background information and what to do once you have your radio, see Getting Started With Amateur Radio.