Welcome to Emergency Essentials!

Catalog Request

Getting your Ham Radio License

Getting your Ham Radio License

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 nv7v@burgoyne.com.

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.


The National Association of Amateur Radio http://www.arrl.org/ham-radio-licenses, http://www.arrl.org/getting-licensed,

FCC website http://wireless.fcc.gov/services/index.htm?job=service_home&id=amateur



Steve Whitehead, Volunteer Examiner (VE) in the Provo, Utah area

Terry Buxton, amateur radio operator from Virginia

20 thoughts on “Getting your Ham Radio License”

  • Steven Onines
    Steven Onines May 21, 2014 at 12:46 am

    There are some new hand held radios from China out now. They work fine and will cost you less than $50. to get 'on the air'. At that price, they're almost disposable!

  • Plainsman

    As a ham with more rigs than he can count, I know that the $40 rigs are an excellent value for money.
    They started life as commercial rigs for large organizations with communication technicians to set them up.
    The English language manuals are somewhat limited and the programing can be clunky.
    Please download and read one of the manuals prepared or modified by a ham before you purchase one of these radios.

  • Anne

    This is a great article with lots of good and accurate information. I just obtained my technician license a couple weeks ago, and it was really pretty easy to pass the test with a little practice. QRZ is a great site for practice.

    • beprepared

      Hi Anne,
      Congrats on getting your Technician's license. Have you started using your radio yet? Have you had any challenges or difficulties using your radio/frequencies as a new Ham?

  • William F Treib
    William F Treib May 23, 2014 at 11:39 pm

    I have wanted ham radio for a long time so let me know what I need and all info

  • William Bybee
    William Bybee May 25, 2014 at 8:11 pm

    Very good article, one thing the slightly off. The question pools change every 4 years, not every 2. The Tech pool changes 1 July 2014, General in 2015 and Extra in 2016.
    Bill AD6WB

    • beprepared

      Hi Bill,
      Thanks for catching that. I just went and checked out the National Association's of Ham Radio site and they say the question pool is valid every 4 years. Thanks for the catch. I will go and update the post now.

  • Dennis

    I wrote a book about how ham radio works with the LDS Church. You can find it on Amazon under its title, which is, The Emergency Response Communications Handbook. It will be advertised in the Deseret News on Thursday, June 5th.

  • Thanks

    Your article was the nudge I needed. After reading it I decided to get my Ham license. Started studying for my Technician license and when that went well decided I would study for my General license, as well. I took and passed both exams on June 18, 2014 -- less than a month after I read your article, so a sincere thanks for the inspiration.

    • beprepared

      Hi Kdsolie,
      Glad that we could give you the push you needed! How has the process been? Did you join a Ham club? Have you been on the air yet?

  • Joey Clements W5BAK
    Joey Clements W5BAK August 20, 2014 at 9:47 am

    Very nice to see some real applications that can be used. Ham radio is what you make it! We have a great group in Houston and many agencies utilize those services. Get a license, get on the air, join ARES, get training and have fun! Thank you EE for helping make our world a better place!

    • beprepared

      Thank you for your comments. After writing this article, I can see that Ham radios are cool and a great hobby for communicating. How long have you been a ham? What advice would you give to those interested in becoming hams themselves?

  • MissSherry

    For the little hand helds your talking about a license isn't required. However, you are seriously limited to the amount of power you can use and that limits the distance you can cover. In rural areas your family may live just down the road- say 35 miles. This is a coincidence. Our conservative group just talked about everyone getting these radios . We all really need a radio and our licence, Just In Case.

    • beprepared

      Miss Sherry,
      Good to know. I think it is important to have ham radios and to learn how to use them for communication with groups and other organizations that can get you help in an emergency.

    • Joseph S Parker
      Joseph S Parker October 13, 2015 at 1:21 am

      To Miss Sherry,
      You are referring to GMRS/FRS radios that are sold at Walmart and such. Ham radio is different and to operate on those frequencies legally, you MUST have a license.

  • Juanita Clark

    Every 'Family Organization' must have at least 2 of these HAM folks at outergeographic reaches of the group to foster and maintain TRUE and reliable communication!

  • Joseph S Parker
    Joseph S Parker October 13, 2015 at 1:17 am

    I recently earned my Technician license. I studied via www.Hamtestonline.com and passed the first time. I am planning and studying for the General and Extra class to be taken in about 2 months. Keep up the great work in helping people prepare.

  • Dave

    I'm fairly new to Ham Radio, but I've been around it long enough to know the limitations of evangelizing it as "emergency communication" only...
    People don't understand a few things...

    To get the message through to people, they must do 3 things... 1) put their cell phone away for 7 days 2) disconnect the internet for 7 days 3) unplug the TV for 7 days
    Now, after that 7 days, people are ready to listen.
    Why? Because once you get used to having instant communication, as in a cell phone, you cannot imagine life without it.
    But during an emergency, that is exactly what will happen.
    The Government has the ability to TURN OFF the cell phone signal for anyone but them. Their phones are specially registered with the cellular networks to allow them to communicate, while turning off your ability to do so. Why would they do this? Well, it isn't for any nefarious purpose... they simply need to be able to communicate and coordinate emergency services, and if you and your family and their family (etc) are all trying to use the cellular network, it will shut down communication... so to keep communication lines open, they will lock out everyone but essential emergency traffic.
    The cellular network will go down. Fire, earthquake, etc... and the cell towers are inoperable. EMP, MCE... and the satellites might be out of commission.
    Phone lines, cable TV lines damaged, no internet or TV...
    Think "worst case scenario" and you might have no way to communicate AT ALL with ANYONE for ANY REASON... unless you can yell, really loud, or walk a very long way...

    Then comes the Amateur Radio guys... they can and will set up radio communications... and they will spend most of their time working with Emergency Services... helping CERT get a feel for the situation "on the ground", helping coordinate Search and Rescue operations and other helpful services, like Fire and Police, helping coordinate food shipments, water delivery, etc...
    They won't be ready to help YOU or be your line of communication until some time later... although they can and do help people, individually, communicate with family members (etc) to relay important information and more... but that is a SECONDARY consideration for them.
    So, what about you? Get your Ham License!
    And not just your Technician License, get a minimum of a General License... if you can study for one, you can study for both. Neither are very hard... if you made it out of High School math and science, you can do it... my 10 year old is getting his license next test session...
    Then get yourself an HT (hand held) for about $25... and get an HF radio (which might cost more, but gives you very long range communications) put up an antenna (easy and cheep) and you will be able to communicate with people, during an emergency or not, from as close as your same state to as far as the other side of the world (or even the International Space Station)...
    The point is, you won't have to rely on cell phones that won't work, or other Ham Radio operators that are busy with emergency communications, or the internet which will be down.
    Once you experience what it is like to be "in the dark" (even for 7 days) you won't want to be "in the dark" when it really matters...
    Once you are licensed, get the rest of your family to get licensed... because you cannot talk to them, unless they can hear you...

Leave a Reply
Back to Top