Once you have decided to get your license, you may wonder what steps you need to take. This page should contain all the information you need to understand how Amateur Radio licensing works, how to prepare, and finally how to actually take the exam. If you have questions about any of the information presented, please ask us!
Understanding the requirements
Currently, there are three classes of Amateur Radio licenses in the US granted by the FCC: Technician, General, and Amateur Extra. (As you study, you may see a couple of other license classes mentioned; however, these are historical and are no longer issued by the FCC.) Everyone starts as a Technician licensee, and then can upgrade their license to General or Amateur Extra levels. Each additional level requires more understanding about how Amateur Radio works, but in return opens up more frequencies that you can make use of. (For example, Technician licensees have limited privileges in the HF bands, but upgrading to General opens up many more HF bands to play with.) This page will focus on getting your Technician license -- once you've been through the process, upgrading your license will follow a similar path.
The Technician exam consists of 35 multiple choice questions selected randomly from a larger pool of ~425 questions that cover basic radio theory, rules and regulations, and operating procedures. You must correctly answer at least 74% of the questions to pass. Question pools are refreshed every four years, and all the questions in the pool are public -- you can see the current ones on this site. There will be no surprise questions on the exam! Basic proficiency in Morse Code also used to be a requirement, but this is no longer the case.
Once you successfully pass your Technician exam, you will have extensive privileges on the VHF/UHF+ bands and a small section of the HF bands. You will be able to easily communicate with operators who live nearby and get a taste of communicating with people further away. The ARRL provides a very nice chart that shows all Amateur bands and the permissions that different license classes have within them.
Study and prepare
You can study for the Technician exam on your own, with a friend, or as part of a class. Studying alone allows you to move at your own pace, but if you have difficulty understanding a topic you will have to search out the answer on your own. Pairing up with a buddy who also wants to get their license can help provide both mutual encouragement as well as someone to quiz you on the exam questions.
If you're not part of a class studying for the exam, you may find that you have questions or need clarification on one or more topics covered by the exam. If you know someone who already has an Amateur Radio license, ask them! At one point or another, everyone was new to the world of Amateur Radio. Most experienced hams are more than happy to assist new and aspiring hams. (You may hear these hams referred to as "elmers.")
Many Amateur Radio clubs offer licensing classes on a periodic basis. If you would prefer to learn with a group of other people, this is the way to go! In the Tucson area, the Radio Society of Tucson offers both Technician and General license classes as need and demand arise. Visit their site to see when the next class will be offered. Other clubs also offer classes -- find out what clubs are near you and then ask them about any classes offered. Not sure what clubs are nearby? Try using the ARRL's club locator!
Here is a list of various manuals and study resources that you may find useful as you study for your Technician exam. While they all cover the same material (the current Technician question pool), you may find that the format or presentation of material in one of them more closely matches your preferred manner of learning.
David Casler's YouTube video series (slightly out of date, but still useful)
Take the exam
Before the big day, spend some time taking practice exams. This will help you become familiar with the format of the exam and give you confidence that you'll ace it! There are many online sites that will automatically generate a 35 question Technician exam for you, then score your answers to let you see how you did. One such site is eHam.net, but there are many others. Once you are passing by a fair margin, it's time to find an exam session.
All Amateur Radio licensing exams in the United States are run by fellow hams. The FCC works with several different organizations to proctor the licensing exams. These organizations are referred to as Volunteer Exam Coordinators (VECs). Some of the largest ones are ARRL, Laurel, and W5YI-VEC (click on their name to search for a testing session near you). At each testing session, at least three licensed hams will be present to run the session and grade the exams taken.
VECs are allowed to charge a small fee to cover the cost of materials and expenses like renting a location to hold the exam, but the actual exam itself is free. The Radio Society of Tucson, affiliated with the Laurel VEC, offers entirely free exams on the second Monday of each month. (All Laurel VEC testing sessions are completely free.) The W5YI VEC also offers online ham exams in response to the COVID-19 pandemic -- you can get licensed without having to leave home!
You will need to bring a photo ID and your FCC Registration Number (FRN). You will need to get your FRN before taking the exam by registering on the FCC's site. You will also need to provide a working email address where you will receive your license if you pass. (You can also use this site to update your contact information, renew your license, or apply for a different call sign.)
After showing your identification to the examination team, you will fill out a short form with your contact information and what exam you will be taking (Element 2/Technician). Then, you can take the exam! Take your time, and when you've finished go back and double check your answers. You won't get any bonus points by setting a speed record.
After you are satisfied with your answers, the examination team will grade your exam right there while you wait. If you pass, you will be given a Certificate of Successful Completion of Examination (CSCE). Within a few weeks the FCC will send you your license and you can get on the air! If you didn't pass the exam, and if you only missed by a couple questions, the examination team may elect to give you a second try at the exam (the questions will be different).
Get on the air!
Congratulations! You passed your Technician exam and received your own call sign. Here are some things you can do with your new privileges:
Use local repeaters
10m and 6m long distance communications using sporadic-E or trans-equatorial propagation
EchoLink, Yaesu System Fusion, DMR, D-STAR, and Allstar repeater linking systems
CW on 15m, 40m, and 80m
Airplane scatter on UHF
Meteor scatter communications on 6m, 2m, 70cm, and up
A highly recommended resource as you begin your adventures in Amateur Radio is titled "Ethics and Operating Procedures for the Radio Amateur". This is an excellent document that describes how to be a polite and efficient Amateur Radio operator of the highest caliber. You can learn more here.