Becoming an Amateur Radio Operator

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Amateur Radio

Would you like to become an Amateur Radio operator? It's not difficult to do. Amateur Radio operators, often called "hams," are licensed by governments around the world to use specific ranges of radio frequencies. The entry-level license in the United States, the Technician class, is all that is necessary for local routine and emergency communications. To obtain this license, you need only pass a 35-question multiple-choice written licensing exam for which all the possible questions and their answers are public information. You need not be a US citizen, though you must have valid photo identification, and there is no lower or upper age limit. Knowledge of Morse code is no longer required for any US Amateur Radio license. Though the license itself is free, there may be an examination charge of up to $15. License renewals, required every ten years, are free for most hams and do not involve an exam.

Information about becoming a ham radio operator is also available from the American Radio Relay League (ARRL), the national association for Amateur Radio in the United States.

How to Prepare for the Technician-Class Exam

Note: A candidate for Technician Class licensing should be sure to use study materials designed for the exam that will be administered on the date he or she will sit for it. Technician-Class exams given after June 30, 2014 are based on a different pool of questions than were the exams given before July 1, 2014.

There are many ways to prepare to pass this simple Amateur Radio examination. Choose the combination that works best for you:

Read a book

You can obtain a review book (some are available as Adobe® files or as e-books) and study on your own. Options include:

Take an online class

You can take an online review course and study at your own pace. Options include:

Take a local class

Preparation classes for the Technician-class exam are available locally. You may prefer to meet for a few hours every week for a few weeks or to take a "cram" course that lasts only one day and ends with the exam itself. To find a local class, you can use the ARRL online search service, or ask at your local Amateur Radio club.

Take online practice exams

In support of any of the above preparation methods, you can also take free online practice exams that include all of the actual questions you can possibly be asked. Options include:

Taking the licensing exam

You must sit for the licensing exam in person. Licensing exam sessions are managed by Amateur Radio operators who are designated Volunteer Examiners ("VEs") and are held frequently, especially in metropolitan areas. To find upcoming exams in your area or anywhere in the US, you can use the ARRL online search service. ARRL is the largest of the Volunteer Examiner Coordinators ("VECs"), but there are others, listed by the FCC. VEs working with one of them may offer an exam session convenient for you.

Once You Are Licensed

Once you pass the exam and your assigned call sign appears in the FCC online license database a few days later, you'll be a licensed Amateur Radio operator! But you won't necessarily know everything you need to know in order to operate skillfully and courteously, or to get the most out of your accomplishment. Listening to more-experienced hams is very good advice, but don't choose a careless or ill-trained operator as your role model. The ARRL Operating Manual for Radio Amateurs, 11th edition (or later), contains much sound information about good operating practices for hams.

Though there is no requirement that you own a ham radio, you probably will want to buy one - many new handhelds sell for less than $200 and a few for less than $100 - so you can participate in ham radio when and where you wish. You may also find that you enjoy ham radio for reasons that go well beyond what you had in mind when you started.

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For advice on all aspects of being a ham, join a local ham radio club.

Enjoy the challenges and successes of being a licensed Amateur Radio operator!

John Rabold KS6M
Section Emergency Coordinator, ARRL East Bay Section
ARRL, the national association for Amateur Radio™
October 2016