Getting Started in Ham Radio

Ham radio is a colloquial term for amateur radio. Like commercial radio stations, ham radio operators require a license to operate legally. But unlike commercial radio, “Hams” are restricted from accepting any compensation for what they broadcast. Their realm is more like an online discussion board than a media website.

Getting started in ham radio means learning a little of its history, purchasing the equipment, then studying for the first of the three licensure levels that can be attained. Once attaining the Technician License, you can move to the General License and then the final one, the Amateur Extra License. The best place to start learning is at the website of the National Association for Amateur Radio (ARRL).

Just because we’re in the digital age, don’t underestimate this century-old form of communication. In two of the most traumatic recent emergencies in the United States, 9/11 and Hurricane Katrina, ham radio operators — after digital networks had gone offline due to either damage or too much traffic — played a crucial role in providing real-time communication.

In New York, the “Amateur Radio Emergency Service” was on the airwaves within 5 minutes of the first plane hitting the World Trade Center. Hams spent the next two weeks working in shifts to provide needed communications. In 2005, Hams were up and running three days before Katrina’s landfall and over 700 of them volunteered over the following weeks, including in coordination with the American Red Cross to provide supplemental communications at over 200 emergency shelters.

And when not doing important volunteer work, “Hams” enjoy and sense of community and connectedness that can be both local and global. There are approximately 679,000 Hams in the United States according to the International Amateur Radio Union.


Recent tragedies were not the first in the history of amateur radio, which was technically feasible beginning the late 19th century. The sinking of the Titanic helped usher the passage of the Radio Act of 1912 after it became clear that the lack of regulations regarding radio frequencies — including specific frequencies for distress transmissions — was one aspect of the disaster.

This was the first federal law regulating radio and introduced Amateur First Grade and Amateur Second Grade operator licenses. Later federal acts have supplemented the Radio Act of 1912 and have included making U.S. regulations mesh with international standards.

Technical Info

Per current Federal Communications Commission (FCC) regulations, there are 26 amateur radio bands — slivers of the much wider radio-frequency band — that are now set-aside for amateur radio operators. The ham bands run from near the commercial radio band at 1.8 MHz to 275 GHz.

When getting started in ham radio, one of the first steps is setting up your “shack” or “ham shack,” which are terms for the radio transmitter you will purchase and operate. Modern ham units can be elaborate enough to bounce signals off of the Moon or use one of the 18 Orbiting Satellite Carrying Amateur Radio (OSCAR) satellites currently in orbit. They can also be portable units that fit into a backpack. They can run off solar, battery, generator, or grid power.

Types of License

Planning your shack may be the first step in starting your ham radio career, but you can’t get on the air — or you certainly shouldn’t try to — without first getting your license.

There are three levels of licensure granted by the FCC, with the second and third licenses opening up more of the amateur radio bands to the licensee. All are built on an understanding of electrical and electronics theory, radio technology, radio operating principles, and modes (which are types of communication protocols, such as Morse code, analog voice, digital voice, text and data, etc.).

Reading at a high-school level is considered the threshold for being able to pass the test. It is not uncommon for teenagers to gain licensure.

The FCC does not actually handle the examination process directly. Rather, volunteer amateur radio groups — Volunteer Examiner Coordinators — administer the tests and report to the FCC. Licenses are good for 10 years and any U.S. citizen is eligible. A representative of a foreign government is not.

The Technician License

This is the entry-level test. It requires passing a 35-question examination on basic radio theory, regulations, and operating practices by answering 26 questions correctly (75%). There is a 426-question pool from which the 35 questions on the test will be taken.

Passage allows the holder to operate on amateur frequencies above 30 megahertz, which generally means communicating both locally and in most of North America. There is also limited access to the international communications frequencies, the shortwave bands.

The General License

Building on the Technician License, this second certification allows access to all amateur frequencies and operating modes and will enable the user to broadcast globally on shortwave. It is also a 35-question test, with more technically demanding questions, that also requires a score of 75% or better to pass. You must have passed the Technician License test first. There is a 456-question pool for this test.

The Amateur Extra License

The third in the series is a 50-question examination requiring 75% or better to pass from a pool of over 700 questions. Passing the two previous tests is also required. It grants full access to all amateur bands and modes.

Preparing for the Exams

There is a wealth of online and written materials to help you prepare for the tests. These include websites like HamStudy, online study guides like the No Nonsense Technician Class License Study Guide, publications of the ARRL, YouTube guides, and iPhone and Android ham radio test apps. Local ham radio clubs will also be a great resource.

Here are some quick tips for preparing for the tests:

  • The tests aren’t designed to be mind-numbingly difficult. Go in with a positive attitude. But you will have to study.
  • Study hard in the weeks leading up to the test and don’t leave a big gap between studying and then taking the test. You’ll forget things. Likewise, if you want to take the next level test, take it as quickly as possible since there is a great deal of overlap between the tests.
  • Don’t expect to learn everything on all the exams and have your goal be 100 percent success. The threshold for passage is 75 percent.
  • Have strategies for memorizing basic formulas like Ohm’s law and the power law equation. There will be a few math questions on each test, but you can pass easily without them, so don’t spend the majority of your time preparing for the math that will make up only a small percentage of the tests.
  • Practice exams are your friend. Take them over and over.

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