The Skinny on Ham Radio: Getting Licensed
A lot of preppers are talking about Ham radio as a communications system during and after an SHTF event. The ability to listen and even talk with people vast distances away in real time is powerful tool.
For a very long time I’ve wanted to get an Amateur Radio license (“Ham”). For one reason or another I never undertook the study and the test. Until now. I have just passed my Technician’s license exam! (as of writing this) While it will still be a couple of weeks before I get my official station call sign, I’m very excited and already preparing for the next step of licensing. In this article I will walk you through the details of exactly how to get your first Ham radio license. It isn’t a hard process but can be a bit confusing and I didn’t find any one source that clearly listed it all.
Amateur “Ham” radio is considered to have started when Guglielmo Marconi sent the first wireless transmission across the Atlantic in 1901 from his self-made radio station on Cape Cod. Every year a memorial event is still held at that location on the Cap). The U.S. government issued the first amateur radio license in 1912. At the time, Ham radio was just using Morse Code, but by the 1920’s voice was added.
After World War 2 Ham radio grew even more popular resulting in the formation of the FCC (Federal Communications Commission) to regulate the ever-growing demand for radio frequencies between commercial, news, government and amateur radio users. In 1961 the first ham radio satellite named OSCAR-1 (Orbiting Satellite Carrying Amateur Radio) was launched, and by the 1970’s a system of repeater transmitters began to dot the landscape. In the 1980’s and 1990’s data transmission via ham radio also become popular.
Today, internet, GPS, and even VoIP (Voice Over Internet Protocol) is possible. As much as ham radio is for personal non-commercial use, Hams have also played a vital role in disaster communications assisting government and other rescue/relief efforts. Amateur Radio Emergency Services (ARES) and Radio Amateur Civil Emergency Services (RACES) are two of the organizations that assist in disasters.
Several organizations have been formed to help promote amateur radio and help people get licensed. The American Radio Relay League (ARRL) is the best known, and there are hundreds if not thousands of local ham radio clubs all over the country and the world. Even though it’s called “amateur” radio, there’s nothing amateur about it. The only requirement is that you can’t be paid for your radio use nor transmit (or re-transmit) commercial broadcasts . Otherwise, the licensing and regulations, technology, science, and capabilities are nearly the same as any commercial radio station.
Who can be a Ham?
There are few restrictions on who can be licensed as a ham by the FCC. You have to be an American citizen (there are provisions for resident aliens), and you have to have a functioning ability with the English language as that’s what the licensing exams are given in and is the common language used on the radio worldwide. Other than that, nothing else! No age restriction, no background check, no experience or education requirement, etc. Realistically however, you will have a much easier time of understanding the material and the technology if you already have some minimal measure of knowledge related to hobby-level electronics and circuits. Also, if you have been a CB radio enthusiast at some point in life that will help too (although Ham and CB are more different than similar, a topic for another article). Last, brush up on your basic High School level Algebra!
Ham license categories
At the time of this writing, the FCC issues 3 levels/classes of amateur radio licenses (from initial to highest):
- Amateur Extra (also referred to as just Extra).
People who hold unexpired older classes of license are still valid and have been grand-fathered into the privileges surrounding one of these new 3 classes.
Basically, the fundamental differences between the classes is the range of bands and frequencies you are allowed to use and the power levels you are allowed to transmit at:
- Technician – All VHF and UHF privileges, and some HF privileges (mostly using Morse Code).
- General – All VHF and UHF privileges, most HF privileges (more HF voice frequencies).
- Amateur Extra – All amateur frequency privileges (all voice, Morse, and data frequencies).
There are good color diagrams online you can print that visualize the bands and frequency privileges for each level of licensing that make it much easier to understand the differences. All classes will definitely get you on the air and give you a good ranges of popular frequencies in the common communications modes:
- Phone (voice)
- Digital (like a chat room)
- Radio Teletype (RTTY)
- Single Side Band (SSB)
- Image (amateur TV!)
- CW (Morse code)
You can even try to communicate with the International Space Station! (There is an amateur station onboard the ISS and licensed astronauts do monitor it from time to time, depending on the crew.)
The main licensing difference is that as you move up the scale of licenses, the range of HF frequencies and bands available for use increases greatly. Also, you are expected to know more electrical circuit construction and operation, antenna design, and band/frequency details. The exams become more technical and mathematical. Most hams seem to try for at least the General level. The Extra level is as much about learning more and most complete access privileges (as well as for bragging rights).
As of writing this, each licensing exam for each category consists as follows:
- Technician – 35 questions (26 right is passing).
- General – 35 questions (26 right is passing).
- Amateur Extra – 50 (37 right is passing).
Getting licensed for ham radio
This part is pretty simple. Study the material, pass the exam, and get on the radio, but the devil is in the details.
There is no single source for licensing exam study materials. Many places publish study manuals for the exams. I used the one published by the ARRL itself (available from their website, Amazon, and many ham clubs). The book includes all the material, is well organized (I think), and it has a pool of exam questions for practice (including a CD-ROM version). But there are other publishers of study guides, including a Dummies book. These books are self-study and you take the exam when you feel you are ready for it.
There are also several online sources for information, including practice exams and online self-study. I especially recommend the online sample exams if you haven’t used the ARRL preparation book. Most ham radio clubs offer classes leading up to the exam. Often the class is free though you pay for the study materials. Also, some libraries and community colleges offer a study class usually for a fee. I am very comfortable doing self-study but the choice is yours. I also attended some classes and was able to see examples and demonstrations of various ham devices, technologies, and procedures you don’t get form self-study. Which is best all depends on you.
Is Morse Code needed?
Back when I was a youngster amateur radio operators were required to learn Morse Code, as well as other technical information. The licensing exam including being able to understand a message sent in Morse. As you moved up the licensing classes, you were expected to grow in Morse proficiency.
I’m not sure exactly when it happened, but some years ago the FCC created a new class of ham license that didn’t require knowing Morse, and beginning in February, 2007, the FCC no longer requires Morse Code for any of the three classes of amateur licensing. Many good long distance contacts can be made using Morse Code at low power levels. So while Morse is no longer a requirement it’s a very good idea to learn it!
There are several software packages that will convert Morse into alphanumeric characters on a screen, and will allow you to type a message on a keyboard then convert it to Morse for transmission. While this is good technology, my recommendation is that you learn it the “old fashioned way” of DAH’s and DIT’s too. At some point in life, you may not have access to a computer and need to send or receive a Morse code message!
There are many books and programs as well as websites (often free) to help you learn.
What’s on the licensing exam?
The exam itself is multiple choice questions, and there’s a very interesting aspect of this examination process: You actually get to see all the questions you might be asked in advance!
As of writing this article, the questions pool for the Technician license consists of 394 multiple choice questions covering a wide range of what they call “sub-elements” including Electrical Principles, Electrical Components, Operating Modes, Radio Waves, Station Equipment, FCC Regulations, Safety, etc.
The exam selects a certain number of questions randomly from these sub=elements. The exam is given on paper so each copy of the exam contains a different set of random questions. You could try to just memorize the answers to the question, but you would just be cheating yourself. While the questions and answers on the exam will be what you practiced with, they may change the order of the answers. Besides, you will need to know the material to be an effective ham operator.
The General and Extra license exams work the same way but with different sub-elements.
Finding where and when to take the exam
When you feel you’re ready to take the licensing exam, you have to find where and when it’s being given. In the past, examinees had to go to an FCC office to take the exam. Fortunately, today the exam is given locally often at several locations around your area. Throughout the country there are Volunteer Examiner Coordinator (VEC) groups. These groups are approved by the FCC to train and certify local Volunteer Examiners (VE) – fellow ham operators of either General or Extra license class – to administer the licensing exams.
If you are taking a study course at a ham club, chances are the club has at least one VE who will administer the exam at the end of the course, but you aren’t required to be part of a club to take the exam or even if you are you can take the exam anywhere. The easiest way I think to find out where and when exams are given is to go to the ARRL website and under Licensing, Education & Training click on the link for Find An Exam Session. There you can search by location and/or date range for where exams are given (usually every month).
When you do find a location for taking the exam, I suggest contacting the VE (most VE’s can be contacted via email) listed to confirm:
- The exam date & time
- The exact address
- If pre-registration is required (If it says “walk-ins allowed” usually there is no need for pre-registration, but check anyway.)
- Any specific things you need to bring
Be sure to arrive on time! The exam will be graded right there when you are done.
What to bring with you to the exam
Taking the exam is a pretty straightforward process. Check with the VE to see if you need anything else, but in most cases all you need to bring to the exam is:
- A government issued photo ID (e.g. driver’s license, state ID, passport, military ID, etc) NOTE: Upgrade exams require 2 forms of ID and a copy of your current amateur license.
- Your social security number or TIN (or FRN if you have it, see below)
- Some #2 pencils (They may have them there but bring a few anyways.)
- A calculator capable of doing Log mathematics (i.e. scientific calculator, though some non-scientific ones can also do Log)
- The exam fee (cash is preferred)
To point #2, some people have privacy concerns and not without good reason. Before you take the exam you can go to the FCC’s Universal Licensing System (ULS) web site and register there (the ARRL website has a guide to registration). Once registered you will be mailed your Federal Registration Number (FRN). You can use your FRN instead of your social security number for the exam and all other documents and forms related to your amateur radio license. The ULS also allows you to maintain your licenses such as change your address and renewing your licenses. This pre-registration is optional however. If you choose not to register, the FCC will issue you a FRN when your license is issued.
To point #5, as of writing this the exam fee is $15 per session. That means you can take as many exams at the one session you want for that fee. So you could take the Technician exam more than once the same day if you don’t pass the first time. Or, you can take the Technician exam then go on for the General exam too at the same time if you feel up to it.
You passed! Now what?
Congratulations you passed! Presuming this was your first exam for the Technician license, your question is, Now what?
Your VE will help you fill out two important forms (or they may fill it all out themselves, depends on the people). First is the ARRL’s Certificate of Successful Completion of Examination. This is basically a receipt confirming you took and passed the exam indicated. This document is important because if there should be a problem issuing your license (rare but happens) you have one year from the date of passing the exam to get it resolved and your license issued before you have to retake the exam. Keep this certificate for your records.
Next, you will complete the NCVEC Quick-Form 605 Application For Amateur Operation/Primary Station License. This form is not an official FFC form! Do not mail it to the FCC! The form is from the National Conference of Volunteer Examiner Coordinators (NCVEC) and is what the VEC uses to enter your information into the FCC system. (NOTE: You may be asked to fill out this form before taking the test instead).
After the VEC has processed the form, the FCC will mail your license that contains your official radio call sign that must be used for all communications. It will also have your FRN if you haven’t applied for one already as described above. Your license is valid for 10 years and as long as you renew it in time (before expiration or within 2 years grace after it expires) you never have to retake the exam so be sure to renew it!
What if you don’t pass?
One of the nice aspects of the licensing process is that it is not out to “get you”. If you don’t pass the exam, you can usually retake the exam right away! You’ll get a different version of the exam with a new set of questions taken from the pool of questions and you can try again and so on.
So when can I get on the air?!
You only have to wait until your name appears in the FCC’s ULS database. This means that the FCC has issued your call sign. You can check the call sign database from the ULS website.
Once you see your name and call sign on the database, you can get on the air before actually receiving your license in the mail. The official time frame is up to 15 days from when you take the test for your call sign to appear in the database, but it can be sooner. Mine was only 6 days. Just remember that being licensed for ham radio doesn’t mean being qualified for all aspects! Some things still have to be learned and will come over time, but that’s for another article.
About your call sign
Your call sign is unique among all ham operators in the world! Each nation has different letters and formats so learning those will help you quickly identify where someone is located. Hams enjoy contacting people far away so there’s little desire to be anonymous, and anonymity is against FCC rules. For a license issued in the U.S. your call sign will start with a K, N, or W followed by a single digit number and two or three letters. (Extra licensees may have a little different format, too detailed to go into here).
Call signs are assigned by availability of the letter/number combinations in your licensing region (there are 10 regions in the U.S.). So the rules for U.S. call sign formats aren’t set in stone but are usually true. You can request a “vanity” (select your own) call sign but there is no guarantee you’ll get it if someone else already is using it (either by their request or just random assignment). There is an additional fee for requesting a vanity call sign, whether you get it or not, and you will need the actual FCC 605 form to file for your license. It’s up to you if you want to try for it.
Ham radio is more involved than CB, FRS and other fixed-channel radio services, but with that involvement comes more options and opportunities. The wide variety of equipment and possibilities makes getting your first license a permit to learn more and develop. As a prepper, before undertaking a ham license decide what you really want to achieve and if ham radio is the best way to do it. But in general, amateur radio is fascinating and very enjoyable!