Become a HAM!
Recommended Study Guides:
ARRL HAM Radio Tech License Manual - good through 6/30/2022
ARRL HAM Radio General License Manual - good through 6/30/2023
ARRL Ham Radio Extra License Manual - good through 6/30/2024
You might find lower prices on other sites or for used used copies. Make sure you get the ones for the above question pools.
What's a Ham?
“The ham is friendly. Slow and patient sending when requested, friendly advice and counsel to the beginner, kindly assistance, co-operation and consideration for the interests of others; these are the mark of the ham spirit.” The Ham's Code
If you think about Amateur (or Ham) Radio, you may picture a dark and musty basement room smelling of coffee surrounded by all sorts of low-hanging wires running just overhead in dozens of different directions along with the required amount of cobwebs. There are scores of buttons, knobs, switches. and dimly lit dials and meters in old equipment sitting on countless dusty shelves casting a soft glow into the room. Look closely. There's a small desk lamp barely lighting up what appears to be a wrinkled figure sporting a white beard, wearing a cap, and sitting at a desk with a mic in his hand. "CQ, CQ, CQ..."
While some stereotypes of ham operators are true, more often they are not. Since there is no age limit, a ham can be almost anyone. If you can pass the test for a ham license, you can operate on any of the ham bands that your class license allows. Becoming a ham has some serious advantages and we'll show you why you should consider making amateur radio your new hobby.
An entry-level (Technician class) licensee using the VHF or UHF bands holds a powerful communications tool. While CB radio, so popular in the 70's and 80s (and still used by truckers today) is prone to atmospheric interference and very short range, the ham operator has the advantage of using higher frequencies (among others) that aren't as prone to noise. Instead of the 4 watts output the CBer is legally limited to, it's not unusual to find 2 meter mobile radios transmitting with well over 50 watts and a range of several dozen or even more miles. There are even specific "call channels" (similar to CBers using 19, 21, and 9) that are used. Generally hams are far more professional and courteous. It is required that you use a call sign that identifies you quickly, as well. While on the higher frequency amateur bands that are available to all amateur license holders, you'll likely have access to nearby repeaters that increase your range to many miles, even with a handheld. If Echolink or IRLP, or the like are available on nearby repeaters, you can talk across the country or around the world using plain analog (similar to AM or FM radio) transmissions. No Echolink enabled repeaters nearby? Run the Echolink app on your cell phone or computer and you're connected. DMR (Digital Mobile Radio) or similar digital systems can instantly link a simple handheld with any similar radio or repeater all over the world. No digital repeaters in range? Use your home or cellular internet connection and an inexpensive interface and you're on the air!
In an emergency, many local repeaters are made available to government emergency services through amateur operators to inform people about extreme weather conditions or keep them abreast of disasters. Many hams are trained as weather spotters or search-and-rescue. Hams have their own groups like ARES (Amateur Radio Emergency Service) or work closely with the FEMA government agency in a group called RACES (Radio Amateur Civil Emergency Service). As an amateur radio licensee, you can become active in either group (or both) after going through proper training. Be aware that if you have a radio in-hand and you're involved in a life-or-death emergency, all frequencies are open to you, licensed or not.
Stay Connected When Disaster Strikes
Though without power all other communications systems either stop working instantly or will eventually fail, ham radio hobbyists are an inventive group and are typically prepared for emergencies. Radios can be run on mains power, generators, solar, car battery, or many other means to get power to the radio. Ultra low power radios powered by a 9 volt battery or solar and use CW (Continuous Wave or Morse Code) can get amazing range when atmospheric conditions are right. When nothing else works...it's ham radio. Visit Code Green Prep to learn more about emergency radio use.
Not too long ago, a major hurricane hit Puerto Rico. infrastructure was totally destroyed and ham radio messages were the only ones getting out. For the complete story click here. During the Camp Fire in California in late 2018, ham radio operators were getting informational messages to the world faster than practically any other news outlet.
A Great Skill to Learn
Ham radios are easy to come by, however, you don't become an amateur operator by just owning a radio. It's illegal to transmit on ham frequencies without being properly licensed. Getting a license is not necessarily rocket science, but it does take some study. There are many places on the Internet where you can take practice tests or study courses for all of the license classes or you can attend in-person courses occasionally held by independent ham radio groups or individuals. We do have links to both video and flashcard study on this site, as well.
Your first license will be the technician's license and obtained by passing a 35 question written exam out of a 423 question pool and is valid through June 30, 2022. The test is usually $15 (pass or fail) and is reasonably easy to pass with just a little practice. This license class allows you to operate legally on some frequencies in the 10 meter band (just above CB range), Morse code (CW) in lower areas of the HF band, and phone (voice) ham frequencies above 50 MHz. Links to (currently) free study resources can be found below or the quick links section at the top of this page.
The general class is the next level and allows for use in many ham allocated areas of the HF band (from just above the AM broadcast band up to 30 MHz, plus some new long wave frequencies). There are still some amateur freqs this class does not allow, but it's the first license class that will allow you to use a radio on most the long-range HF spectrum. There are 35 questions of which you must get 26 correct on the written exam out of a 462 question pool expiring on June 30, 2023. Study links can be found below and in the quick links section at the top of this page.
The extra class is a bit more intense with a current question pool of 622 (expires on June 30, 2024) and allows for use of all frequencies allocated to ham radio. You'll have to correctly answer 37 of the 50 questions taken from the pool to pass. We have some tips here that are published on the website Ham Study to help with your trek to your extra class license They refer to it as a "hack." Here is that link. Though it is from a previous version question pool, the ideas are still valid. However you do it, take and pass a LOT of practice tests!
Incidentally, you can take all three tests in one session for a single testing fee, but failing one test brings an end to the testing session. Theoretically, if you're ready, you could take all three tests at one time and become an extra in a single session. You will get your license for the highest class that you passed.
But Why a License?
Once you receive your tech license in the US (it will be posted on the FCC site), you'll have access to amateur bands that include Morse code (CW) privileges on 80, 40, 15, and 10 meter bands, plus all amateur bands above 50 MHz. And there are many. Play nice and try not to interfere with the neighbor's electronic devices. When you get your general class license, you'll be able to use phone (voice) and digital modes on a great deal of the rest of the amateur HF (shortwave) bands. Obtain your extra "ticket" and the entire amateur spectrum is available to you.
In some cases, once you've passed your general exam, power limits increase. In many bands, but not all, you can use up to 1500 watts. But you're only expected to use just enough power to make the contact you're attempting. Using that much power to make a contact a quarter mile away is both unwarranted and unnecessary. Most contacts can be made with just 100 watts or less, even to the other side of the planet. It's more about the antenna than the power, but having both available helps considerably.
As a ham, you can legally build, modify, and tune your own radios and other devices as long as you pay attention to FCC rules regarding transmissions. However, with greater latitude comes more responsibility. You can damage equipment, cause interference, and maybe injury to yourself or others. It's a good idea to study Part 97 of the FCC Rules in order to stay within the confines of the rules. Licensing can help assure that you understand what's involved in and the dangers of working with electricity and RF energy. Even though you might understand RF energy, it's really brought home to you when you get your first RF burn by being careless with a connection or even antenna.
Licensing can also show that you understand emergency procedures. Many radio amateurs are active as communications volunteers with local public safety organizations. In addition, in some disasters, radio frequencies are not coordinated among relief officials and Amateur Radio operators step in to coordinate communication when radio towers and other elements in the communications infrastructure are damaged. You can work with your local clubs and coordinators to make sure you understand what you can do to help in an emergency situation.
Join a Ham Radio Club
The Jay County Amateur Radio Club is a great example of how a social ham radio club works. Every Saturday morning, you can find a bunch of the hams having breakfast at local restaurant or elsewhere telling fish stories, showing off new equipment, and bragging about a new contact they've made somewhere in the world. Once a month we have a meeting where our group gets together to discuss business, tell more fish stories...well, you get the idea. But during those get-togethers, it's not unusual to have new people come in and ask all sorts of questions. Ham folks are open to that and will share their wealth of knowledge. Need an antenna put up and can't do it yourself? Just ask, you never know who will be there for you.
The Cost of the Hobby
At one time, ham radio was quite exclusive, being very expensive to even buy basic equipment. And could be very dangerous. A radio could cost upwards of 500 or more in 1950s or 1960s dollars, and even a cheap radio was at least $200. Then there was the antenna. Fast-forward to the 21st century: Chinese manufacturing techniques came along and did for ham radio what they did for cell phones and TVs...made 'em cheap. Even the major players (Icom, Yaesu, and Kenood) have priced much of their low-end equipment competitively. The antenna? Well, some things never change.
In the case of inexpensive Chinese handhelds and mobile radios, it doesn't mean that they're not durable. Some are not, however, the most feature-rich radios that can be had. The receivers of the iconic brands are usually much tighter (less likely to accept transmissions from close radios on nearby frequencies), and "auto repeater shift" is generally a standard feature that makes keyboard programming quite a lot easier. With the case of Baofeng (pronounced "Bow-Fung"), TYT, and other Chinese brand names, keyboard programming is considerably more difficult, but still possible if you're in the field and need to program just one or two frequencies. Unless you're used to it, make sure you have an English version of the manual handy (Chinglish can be a really hard read). Fortunately, there are computer apps such as Chirp that make programming these radios a breeze and allows cloning (duplicating) not only from the same model radio, but to other models and brands (except for Digital Mobile Radio which uses totally different software and "codeplugs"...a story for another time). With a $10 connecting cable and free software, it's a snap. With some Chinese handhelds going for under $30, it's a great way to get introduced to your first radio. And with a local repeater nearby, your range goes from a couple of miles to up to 30, 40, or more, including worldwide...yes, on a handheld. We even have some Chirp image files for our area repeaters that you can use as an example of how to program the radios. Meanwhile, check out these links: Amazon Search Handheld Ham Radios | Ham Radio Buying Guide 2021
Incidentally, the $500 to $13,000+ radios still exist, if that's what you're looking for. Signal boosters, both incoming and outgoing are available and still pricey, and with the higher current and voltage requirements of high-powered amplifiers, you will likely need an electrician to run new 117v or 220-240v line, plus a heavy-duty grounding system. Towers, beams, rotators, antenna tuners, and much more...yes, you can still spend lots of money on the hobby if you really want to. MFJ Catalog Download (PDF - 29Mb)
Ready to Study?
We've provided these links to some of the best study guides on the Internet. After reviewing many sites, HamStudy is free, being sponsored by Icom America and Signal Stuff Super-Elastic Signal Sticks and the flash cards are a great study tool.
Volunteer Examiner Test Sessions
Want to find out more about local or online test sessions and what's currently required to get your amateur license? Here's a link to the page on the ARRL website:
Find an Amateur Radio License Exam in Your Area (please allow the re-direct if your browser asks)
Interested in a free testing session? You can find out if there's one in your area by visiting the Laurel VEC website. They've been giving free exams since 1984.
Here is that link: https://www.laurelvec.com/?pg=exams