Since communication is vital in an emergency, getting your Ham Radio license could go a long way in giving you up-to-date information during a crisis. Ham Radios, also known as amateur radios, give you access to hundreds of different frequencies and the opportunity to communicate in a number of different modes (voice, Morse code, or in digital/video).
But before you can get on the air, you’ll need to pass a written test and know the rules to legally operate a Ham Radio. But don’t worry—getting a Ham Radio license is easier than you may think. Check out these six steps for getting your license and learning how to use your radio.
1. Decide what type of Ham license you want. The Ham Radio network is regulated by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), and they have created the operator test. There are three types of Ham licenses you can get—Technician, General, or Extra. Each license gives you different privileges on the waves. You have to get the Technician license first before you can get the General and Extra licenses.
- Technician: The entry-level Ham Radio license. You must take a 35-question multiple choice exam, which is relatively simple. Each question comes from a pool of 400 questions. If you’re only interested in talking locally (city, town, community, etc.), you’ll only need a Technician’s license.
- General: The secondary-level license. You must take a 35-question multiple choice exam, which is of moderate difficulty. Each question comes from a pool of 500 questions. This license is the one you’ll want for emergency communications. Having a General license will help you and emergency crews to communicate by using Ham frequencies when local lines are down.
- Extra: This is the most advanced license and the most difficult to obtain. You must take a 50-question multiple choice exam. Each question comes from a pool of 700 questions. With this license, you’ll have all the privileges of the Ham Radio network. You can communicate locally, nationally, and internationally.
2. Study for the test. We’ll focus on studying for the Technician license, because you’ll have to get that license first in order to obtain the other two. According to Steve Whitehead (NV7V), a volunteer examiner (VE) from Provo, UT, the Technician test requires you to know some frequencies, operating rules, knowledge of basic safety, electoral and electronic principles, along with some basic arithmetic.
Once you pass the Technician test, you’ll be able to access frequencies above 30 megahertz, which allows you to communicate locally. This license also gives you limited privileges on shortwave bands. To learn more about the General and Extra licenses, check out this American Radio Relay League (ARRL) article http://www.arrl.org/ham-radio-licenses.
All the questions and answers for each licensing exam are published online or in books, and many of these study materials are free. Here’s a list of some websites and resources that can help you study:
- QRZ: Ham Radio News , look-up who is a Ham in your neighborhood, and a lot of other useful tools
- Dcasler.com: A complete and free video course is available online. The instructor uses the ARRL Technician study manual, but you don't need the manual if you use the free resources listed here.
- Kb6nu Ham Radio Blog:"No Nonsense Study Guides”
- A free site for studying made by Richard Bateman (call sign: KD7BBC): Ham Study.org keeps track of your studying, ensures that you see all 500 questions that may possibly come up on the 35-question exam.
- Practical Amateur Radio Podcast: Great for listening to the course while jogging, gardening, or doing other activities.
- American Radio Relay League: At this site, you can purchase books to study for the test.
- Join a Local Ham club. Local clubs offer classes to help you study for the test as well. Joining a club or talking to a local club member is helpful because they can help you find study resources, and they can teach you about radio lingo and equipment. Find your local club at the American Radio Relay League (ARRL) website (http://www.arrl.org/find-a-club). And if you live in the Utah County area, Steve Whitehead teaches classes in the fall, winter, and spring in Provo. If you have questions, contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Remember: If you use online sources, keep in mind that the question pool for each of the three licensing exams changes *every two years. It can take websites a little while to update the question pool so make sure you’re studying the current one. The test questions for the Technician entry-level pool will change on July 1st, 2014.
3. Take the test. In most states, the cost for taking the exam is $15 dollars, and exam sessions are available monthly in Utah and most other states. Again, you'll want to contact a local Ham Radio club to find out what the cost of the test is and when exam sessions are held in your state. Once you get your license, it is valid for 10 years. After passing the test, you’ll be assigned a “call sign” by the FCC (it’s like a code name or identifying marker that you use over the waves. For example, John Cunningham of hamradiolicenseexam.com call sign is W1AI).
4. Get a radio. Taking the exam doesn’t cost much, but where you’ll really spend money is on the radio itself (as to be expected). Terry Buxton, an amateur radio operator from Virginia, said his first radio, which was a Handie Talkie (HT), cost $130.00. He also got an antenna for his car which was $40.00. He now uses a radio that cost $700.00. The price range changes depending on experience, what you plan to use the radio for, and where you plan to use it. If you plan to purchase a radio, but don’t know where to start, talk to club members. Club members can advise you on the type of radio to purchase and can also suggest places to buy them for a good price.
5. Learn the rules of the waves. Steve Whitehead says that “just like any other community, there are established procedures and behavioral expectations using a Ham Radio. You need to fit in and know what others expect of you on the air. You gain this knowledge through using your radio and talking to other Hams. Swearing and CB “lingo” used on citizen band radios are not tolerated and are a violation of FCC rules. All communications must be “in the clear” and hiding the meaning of your communications is not permitted.”
6. Practice, practice, practice. Like we always say, practice makes perfect when it comes to an emergency situation (if you have a plan and know what to do, you can make it through any emergency). The same applies to Ham Radios. If you want to become an operator, you can’t just use your radio once and expect to know how to use it in an emergency. Ham Radios can be difficult to use because you have to learn the various frequencies and how to connect with others, and for that you need to practice and know how to use your radio when it matters most.
Learn more about the importance of emergency communications and the importance of radios by checking out article, “Communication During and After an Emergency.”
*Editor's Note: According to the National Association of Amateur Radio, the test question pool is valid every four years, not every two years.
Steve Whitehead, Volunteer Examiner (VE) in the Provo, Utah area
Terry Buxton, amateur radio operator from Virginia