How to Be a Ham: An Introduction to Amateur Radio and Licensing

by October 26, 2010 10/26/10

Intro to HamAmateur radio consists of a series of radio frequency bands designated internationally for public, non-commercial use. Various types of information can be transmitted over the bands, such as voice, video, and digital data.

A doorway to the world, amateur radio can be used to communicate with people both local and distant. Even off-planet communications are possible, as the astronauts in the International Space Station (ISS) maintain an amateur radio station!

Since the invention of radio, amateur operators — often referred to as hams — have been on the airwaves, constantly pushing the technology. Hams are responsible for not only many advances in radios themselves, but also in satellite communications (hams regularly launch their own satellites, called Orbiting Satellites Carrying Amateur Radio or OSCARs) and digital computers.

Why should I become a Ham?

Today, amateur radio is used for recreational communication as well as a public service to provide communications for communities, whether during an emergency or during a local event, such as a parade.

Here are some other exciting things you can do with a Ham License:

  • Doorway to the world! Talk to people in foreign countries . . . DX’ing is a favorite activity of many hams.
  • Talk to people both local & distant while driving to work or someone on those sleepless late nights!
  • Public assistance by providing communications during emergencies, natural disasters, parades, bike races, marathons and other public events
  • Help other people become hams . . . also called “Elmering”
  • Hook your computer to your radio and communicate “computer-to-computer”
  • Collect QSL cards. Collect cards from other hams, from all over the world
  • Participate in radio contests or ARRL Field Day events
  • Provide radio communication services to your local Civil Defense organization: ARES (Amateur Radio Emergency Service), RACES (Radio Amateur Civil Emergency Service), FEMA (Federal Emergency Management Agency)
  • Aid members of the U.S. military by joining the Army, Air Force or Navy/Marine MARS (Military Affiliate Radio System)
  • Participate in “Fox Hunts” or transmitter hunt games
  • Receive weather satellites pictures
  • Operate low power from remote locations: SOTA — Summits On The Air
  • Build radios, antennas, direction-finding equipment
  • Learn some electronics & radio theory
  • Talk to astronauts in space!
  • Use the moon to bounce signals to talk with people on Earth
  • Experiment with Amateur TV (ATV), Slow-Scan TV (SSTV), or send still-frame pictures by facsimile
  • Connect your ham radio to the public telephone system & call friends toll free . . . “auto-patching”
  • Communicate through orbiting satellites

Licensing

A license is required to transmit on the amateur bands. In the United States, licensing is handled by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC). There are three different license classes, each of which award the operator with a variety of privileges across the radio frequency spectrum.

On February 23, 2007, the FCC eliminated Morse code testing. The Morse code requirement was a major stumbling block for many interested in amateur radio. While no longer required for licensing, Morse code (or continuous wave) remains an interesting and effective mode of communication by many amateur radio operators.

New amateur radio operators typically enter the hobby by obtaining a Technician Class license, advancing later to the General Class or Extra Class. Volunteer Examiners prepare and administer written examinations from published question pools publicly available. Helpful study guides, training courses and online resources are widely available.

Technician Class

The privileges of a Technician Class operator license include operating an amateur station that may transmit on channels in any of 17 frequency bands above 50 MHz with up to 1,500 watts of power. Technician Class licensees also have privileges in four amateur service bands in the high-frequency range. To pass the Technician Class examination, at least 26 questions from a 35 question written examination must be answered correctly.

General Class

The General Class operator license authorizes privileges in all 27 amateur service bands. In addition to the above written examination, the requirement for a General Class operator license includes answering correctly at least 26 questions on a 35 question written examination.

Extra Class

Operating privileges of an Extra Class operator license include additional spectrum in the high-frequency bands. In addition to the two above written examinations, the requirement for an Amateur Extra Class operator license includes correctly answering at least 37 questions on a 50 question written examination.

A First Station

A great place to start as a new amateur radio operator is with a dual band hand-held radio capable of operating on both the 70 centimeter and 2 meter bands. This will get you active on the local repeaters and nets, as well as the amateur satellites and the ISS.

Additionally, 2 meters and 70 centimeters are the bands used by local emergency radio services such as the Amateur Radio Emergency Service, Radio Amateur Civil Emergency Service and Community Emergency Response Teams. These radios are small, compact and very portable. They can be used with the standard rubber duck antenna, a magnet mount antenna on a vehicle, or a portable antenna with a coaxial cable feed line.

A hand-held 5-watt radio can be found used at very reasonable prices on eBay or the online QRZ Swap Meet.

Ultimately you will be tempted to get a base station, upgrade your license and start making long distance contacts. A great resource for setting up your first station can be found at Ham Universe.

The Amateur’s Code

(Adopted by the American Radio Relay League from the original written by Paul M. Segal, W9EEA, in 1928.)

The radio amateur is:

  • Considerate, never knowingly operating in such a way as to lessen the pleasure of others.
  • Loyal, offering loyalty, encouragement and support to other amateurs, local clubs and the American Radio Relay League, through which Amateur Radio in the United States is represented nationally and internationally.
  • Progressive, with knowledge abreast of science, a well built and efficient station, and operation beyond reproach.
  • Friendly, with slow and patient operation when requested, friendly advice and counsel to the beginner, kindly assistance, co-operation and consideration for the interests of others. These are the hallmarks of the amateur spirit.
  • Balanced, Radio is an avocation, never interfering with duties owed to family, job, school or community.
  • Patriotic, with station and skill always ready for service to country and community.

Resources

First off, we’d like to sincerely thank USNERDOC for the contributing content in this article. If you haven’t ever checked out Doc’s YouTube Channel, head over right now! He has some great videos on Ham and even on communicating with the International Space Station!

With this article information, Doc also send over this PDF document for download. It will provide you with the information from this article as well as a great list of links and resources you can use to expand your Ham knowledge.


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Chris
Chris

Paul,

Can Ham be used for emergency between friends and family in the event of a disaster where cell and land lines are down? Im looking for something I can use to communicate with my wife that works roughly 20 miles from me in the event of an unpredictable event so that I can feed real time info to her on where to meet me and so on? Thank you for your time!

Chris

John Doe
John Doe

Outstanding! I am also a radio amateur and loved the article .

Amateur banded radios are great com for emergencies. And with the advent of the new China radios out there such as the UV5R you can get into the hobby (including licence fees) for about $80 bucks. Good Job 73's and God bless.

John Doe
John Doe

Outstanding! I am also a radio amateur and loved the article . Amateur banded radios are great com for emergencies. And with the advent of the new China radios out there such as the UV5R you can get into the hobby (including licence fees) for about $80 bucks. Good Job 73's and God bless.

Brandon
Brandon

Jack,

I'd like to make a slight correction to your statement. I don't know much about the frequencies used outside my area, but where I live, I volunteer as an EMT and Firefighter, and our radio frequencies are all within the ham bands. Ham radio on those frequencies are considered secondary to our radio service. Now with that said, unless I really truly needed to get ahold of our county dispatch and my phone and department radio both aren't getting me anywhere, I don't think I'll be using my handheld on fire dept frequencies. Just to be on the safe side.

Brandon
Brandon

Jack, I'd like to make a slight correction to your statement. I don't know much about the frequencies used outside my area, but where I live, I volunteer as an EMT and Firefighter, and our radio frequencies are all within the ham bands. Ham radio on those frequencies are considered secondary to our radio service. Now with that said, unless I really truly needed to get ahold of our county dispatch and my phone and department radio both aren't getting me anywhere, I don't think I'll be using my handheld on fire dept frequencies. Just to be on the safe side.

Datajockeys
Datajockeys

There are several repeater listings and apps. Get one! Simplex is fine if you are talking locally to the buds, but if you are out in the boonies a repeater can save your butt!

KF7CJQ

Datajockeys
Datajockeys

There are several repeater listings and apps. Get one! Simplex is fine if you are talking locally to the buds, but if you are out in the boonies a repeater can save your butt! KF7CJQ

Truss
Truss

Alexander:

Any specific recommendations on a "good hand held?"

Truss
Truss

Alexander: Any specific recommendations on a "good hand held?"

Bill - Jackel
Bill - Jackel

I have had a HAM license for about 11 years now. I have not been active lately, but I am planning to upgrade my license and get back into it a little bit. I took the Technician test on a dare. There are a lot of nice, interesting and very intelligent people that one can meet on the HAM bands.

Bill - KF6WMC

Bill - Jackel
Bill - Jackel

I have had a HAM license for about 11 years now. I have not been active lately, but I am planning to upgrade my license and get back into it a little bit. I took the Technician test on a dare. There are a lot of nice, interesting and very intelligent people that one can meet on the HAM bands. Bill - KF6WMC

Alexander
Alexander

Excellent article. I've also been a HAM for about 5 years. A good hand held is a good place to start, though Paul makes an excellent point about eventually wanting / needing a mobile setup for the vehicle. There are also some that are designed to work in the vehicle, and then pop out and fit in your backpack with some batteries. This gives even more options to local emergency / search and rescue efforts if you take the time to get to know those folks.

Also, a good hand held of the types mentioned in the article, will allow you to scan police frequencies. This allows you to keep a higher degree of situational awareness in emergency and disaster situations. Mine can scan police, fire and hospital frequencies on one band, while allowing me to transmit with other folks on the other band. It's all programmable from my computer, and then uploads to the hand held.

If you don't have a HAM license, go get one. The web has many available resources to learn what you need to know, and find the local testing times and places.

RLTW,

Alexander

K7IVN

Alexander
Alexander

Excellent article. I've also been a HAM for about 5 years. A good hand held is a good place to start, though Paul makes an excellent point about eventually wanting / needing a mobile setup for the vehicle. There are also some that are designed to work in the vehicle, and then pop out and fit in your backpack with some batteries. This gives even more options to local emergency / search and rescue efforts if you take the time to get to know those folks. Also, a good hand held of the types mentioned in the article, will allow you to scan police frequencies. This allows you to keep a higher degree of situational awareness in emergency and disaster situations. Mine can scan police, fire and hospital frequencies on one band, while allowing me to transmit with other folks on the other band. It's all programmable from my computer, and then uploads to the hand held. If you don't have a HAM license, go get one. The web has many available resources to learn what you need to know, and find the local testing times and places. RLTW, Alexander K7IVN

TICK
TICK

I've been a Ham for 5 years now and enjoy it. I'm an A.R.E.S. and Skywarn member here in Mid-TN and talk on the local repeaters(as a matter of fact, we have tornado warnings right now in TN). There is so much more you can do with amateur radio! If you do become a ham, like Paul said, you will want both a handheld and a mobile radios. Good luck.....Ted KJ4HFG

Paul
Paul

Great article. I would comment that hand held radios are not always the best way to get started. With only 5watts of power and a stubby antenna, the distance performance is not much more than your typical frs or gmrs radios. For instance, from vehicle to vehicle you cannot expect much more than a mile of effective range. A 2m and 70cm mobile radio with a mag mount antenna will often get 50w of power and much better coverage. I am often able to hit my local 2m repeater from more than 60 miles away with my mobile station. Keep in mind that a mobile is designed to go into a car, but it doesn't have to. Any old marine battery can power a mobile wherever you are.

To sum it up, we use our handhelds often, our mobile almost as often. And most often we communicate from the mobile to a handheld. You are going to want both eventually!

Get on the air and have fun!

Paul

KD8MRG

Paul
Paul

Great article. I would comment that hand held radios are not always the best way to get started. With only 5watts of power and a stubby antenna, the distance performance is not much more than your typical frs or gmrs radios. For instance, from vehicle to vehicle you cannot expect much more than a mile of effective range. A 2m and 70cm mobile radio with a mag mount antenna will often get 50w of power and much better coverage. I am often able to hit my local 2m repeater from more than 60 miles away with my mobile station. Keep in mind that a mobile is designed to go into a car, but it doesn't have to. Any old marine battery can power a mobile wherever you are. To sum it up, we use our handhelds often, our mobile almost as often. And most often we communicate from the mobile to a handheld. You are going to want both eventually! Get on the air and have fun! Paul KD8MRG

Sam Buhlig
Sam Buhlig

Chris,

Yes. The fist liscence can give you access to equipment that will let you talk 20 miles very easily.

Most people that get their ham radio liscence start out with what is called a 2 meter radio. These radios cost any where from $50 to $250 as well are a great place to start.

I suggest looking for a local ham radio club to get started.

Try this website to find a club near you: http://www.arrl.org/find-a-club

The ARRL is a great place to start.

I have been into Amateur radio for 16 years now and find it to be very rewarding as well as educational.

Hope this helps!

Sam

Jason
Jason

I got a Wouxun KG-UVD1P for $115. Its a good dual band radio on ham, and great also if you work with police, EMS, Firefighters or other public service, as this radio allows transmission on these frequencies right out of the box. Very happy with mine. I can get places with it on 1 watt that my Kenwood won't get on 5 watts with the rubber duck.

Chris
Chris

Paul, Can Ham be used for emergency between friends and family in the event of a disaster where cell and land lines are down? Im looking for something I can use to communicate with my wife that works roughly 20 miles from me in the event of an unpredictable event so that I can feed real time info to her on where to meet me and so on? Thank you for your time! Chris

Jack
Jack

I would like to make a couple statements here. First and foremost, any ham radio that is modified to transmit outside the amateur bands are against the law. Now we all know everyone does it, and in an Emergency it can be used. Because in a life threatening situation, all bets are off on the FCC rules. But beyond that, you can only use radio equipment that is type accepted for that particular band. These radios are not type accepted to work in the commercial bands. The only exception to this, is that you can use any radio in the ham band. IE: Like taking a Motorola commercial radio into the ham band. But you cant take a ham radio into the commercial bands. So therefore if you decide to use any ham radio in the business, fire or police bands you are breaking the law, like it or not. Now, will you get caught? Probably not unless you are doing something really stupid. However if you do get caught, expect at a minimum to get fined and possibly lose your license. Enough on that.

On these cheap $150 Chinese dual band radios. They are exactly that. Cheap. As the old saying goes, you get what you pay for. Dont expect to take these things through any type of extreme conditions, let alone drop it and expect it to work. Right out of the box the specs stink on these radios, and I only expect them to degrade over time. Dont expect to use them any type of high RF environment(like a major metro area)and expect good results. Are these good backup radios or maybe a first radio? Maybe.. But again they are still a $150 radio. So take it for that.

As far a recommendations for hand-held radios..It really depends on your need. Personally I use mostly commercial equipment. However, if you arent tech savvy or know someone that is a radio guru then those are probably not good choice. Im partial to Yaesu. For the price right now, the FT-60 is a good dual band radio. As far as single band radios the VX-170/270 and VX-177/277 radios are good single band radios. Kenwood and Icom make decent radios as well however I just prefer Yaesu.

Everyone that takes any type of survival seriously should get a ham radio license. Dependency on any type of infrastructure for communications is out of the question. The Technician class license is easy to get and there many resources on the net to get going. I cant stress enough working out a plan for comms when the normal means come crashing down.

Jack
Jack

I would like to make a couple statements here. First and foremost, any ham radio that is modified to transmit outside the amateur bands are against the law. Now we all know everyone does it, and in an Emergency it can be used. Because in a life threatening situation, all bets are off on the FCC rules. But beyond that, you can only use radio equipment that is type accepted for that particular band. These radios are not type accepted to work in the commercial bands. The only exception to this, is that you can use any radio in the ham band. IE: Like taking a Motorola commercial radio into the ham band. But you cant take a ham radio into the commercial bands. So therefore if you decide to use any ham radio in the business, fire or police bands you are breaking the law, like it or not. Now, will you get caught? Probably not unless you are doing something really stupid. However if you do get caught, expect at a minimum to get fined and possibly lose your license. Enough on that. On these cheap $150 Chinese dual band radios. They are exactly that. Cheap. As the old saying goes, you get what you pay for. Dont expect to take these things through any type of extreme conditions, let alone drop it and expect it to work. Right out of the box the specs stink on these radios, and I only expect them to degrade over time. Dont expect to use them any type of high RF environment(like a major metro area)and expect good results. Are these good backup radios or maybe a first radio? Maybe.. But again they are still a $150 radio. So take it for that. As far a recommendations for hand-held radios..It really depends on your need. Personally I use mostly commercial equipment. However, if you arent tech savvy or know someone that is a radio guru then those are probably not good choice. Im partial to Yaesu. For the price right now, the FT-60 is a good dual band radio. As far as single band radios the VX-170/270 and VX-177/277 radios are good single band radios. Kenwood and Icom make decent radios as well however I just prefer Yaesu. Everyone that takes any type of survival seriously should get a ham radio license. Dependency on any type of infrastructure for communications is out of the question. The Technician class license is easy to get and there many resources on the net to get going. I cant stress enough working out a plan for comms when the normal means come crashing down.

Sam Buhlig
Sam Buhlig

Chris, Yes. The fist liscence can give you access to equipment that will let you talk 20 miles very easily. Most people that get their ham radio liscence start out with what is called a 2 meter radio. These radios cost any where from $50 to $250 as well are a great place to start. I suggest looking for a local ham radio club to get started. Try this website to find a club near you: http://www.arrl.org/find-a-club The ARRL is a great place to start. I have been into Amateur radio for 16 years now and find it to be very rewarding as well as educational. Hope this helps! Sam

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