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How to get a ham radio license

February 2, 2011

Many people, if they have any impressions about amateur radio at all, feel that the hobby is way beyond their capabilities. “Too much about electronics (or math, or equipment; pick your area),” they might say. That’s not necessarily true.

I say “not necessarily,” because like any hobby, it depends on how well you grasp the material. For example, I know folks who could fix just about any problem with their cars. I wouldn’t even go near the spark plugs anymore. Others could compete with the average CPA if they wanted to. I balance my checkbook each month, but leave the year-end taxes to a pro.

Get my point? Each person has his or her own strengths. So it’s impossible to say whether a ham radio exam is “difficult,” as I’m often asked. I mastered the material, but can you? Only you can answer that. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

Times have changed in the amateur radio world, and that means good things for those interested in getting involved. Specifically, the Morse code exam–once the bane of many a prospective “ham”–is long gone. The FCC still requires a written exam, but it’s a lot easier to study now. The material is in the public domain, and is available via the Web.

“Where do I begin?” Good question. The best place is with another ham radio operator. Do you have one for a neighbor or co-worker? If not, look for a ham radio club in your area. A good place to start is with the American Radio Relay League, The ARRL is our main educational organization and acts as a source for everything related to amateur radio. Click on the “Clubs” link found near the top of the home page, and follow the instructions from there. Then, check out one or more ham radio clubs. Be sure to mention that you are interested in becoming an amateur radio operator, and are looking for an Elmer–that’s ham-speak for mentor–to help guide you. You can count on one or two cheery folks offering to assist.

The next step is to start studying for the exam. The amateur radio service offers three classes of license, each with its own operating privileges. The first one is Technician Class. The higher up the scale you go, the more privileges (in terms of frequency bands, primarily) you get. There’s no rush to upgrade. One nice feature about amateur radio is that you may proceed at your own pace.

You can find study guides for the Technician Class license through numerous sources, including the ARRL, W5YI Group,, and Amateur Electronic Supply,, among others. At least one Web site,, offers online practice tests. You can “test” yourself to see how well your studying is going. (Official tests are taken in person.)

The next step is to take the exam. Ham radio tests are offered in numerous places around the country; chances are one is offered near your home sometime during the month. At the ARRL site, click on the “Exam Sessions” link found near the top of the home page. Follow the instructions from there. Contact the group offering the exams  for more information, including cost.

Once you’ve passed the test, you’ll be fired up to get on the air. But first you’ll need some equipment and simple instructions about on-air procedures and etiquette. Your Elmer can help you with those as well. Soon you’ll be talking like a pro (or an OT, for Old Timer). Pumped up, you’ll want to jump into operating; many opportunities exist, and I’ll cover one valuable way you can use your new ham radio license in another column.

Until then, best wishes as you prepare to join the amateur radio community.


From → Amateur radio

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