Welcome to amateur radio!
Whether you’re looking to make new friends, serve your local community through emergency communications, or anywhere in between, we are excited that you are taking your first steps to earn your amateur radio license! We would like to help you by providing some useful information that will help kickstart your amateur radio journey.
What is amateur radio?
Amateur radio, also called ham radio, is both a hobby and a service. Amateur radio operators are able to talk to people all around the world, and during emergencies provide critical communications when other methods are not available. Amateur radio stations can be set up just about anywhere, whether at home, in the car, or the International Space Station. But in order to operate, you need to understand some operating rules and a light amount of electrical concepts. After all, you are working with and transmitting energy, so knowing a few formulas related to electricity comes with the territory.
Once you demonstrate understanding of these items by taking an amateur radio exam, you will earn an amateur radio license. The Technician license is the first license level, the other two being General and Amateur Extra. As you continue your amateur radio journey, the other two licensing levels require more knowledge, and with that comes additional privileges. But for now, focus on your Technician and get some time on the air.
Do I need to learn Morse code?
No, as this requirement is no longer in place, but it could be useful. While Morse code used to be a requirement to earn an amateur radio license, over time this requirement has slowly been lifted. If you do learn Morse code, it will enable you to talk with others using this mode, and because it’s a tone rather than voice, it can be easier to pick up and understand when listening conditions are rough, allowing you to reach much further around the world versus using your voice.
How do I get started?
As you start your amateur radio journey you’ll need to do 3 things:
While you prepare for the exam to earn your license, you can listen to amateur radio frequencies without a license, but you won’t be able to transmit to talk with other amateur radio operators unless another licensed amateur radio operator is physically with you. But don’t worry, we have information available to help you learn about and pass your Technician license exam so that you’ll be on the air in no time!
Studying for your Technician License exam
There are three license levels: Technician, General, and Amateur Extra (commonly referred to only as Extra). You will start with your Technician license, which focuses on operating rules and general electrical concepts. For example, the formula V=IR, or Voltage equals Current times Resistance, is an electrical concept you should know.
Whether you prefer to study in a group environment like a classroom, or at your own pace by reading at home, you have a few options for learning about amateur radio basics to work towards earning your Technician license.
Connect with a local amateur radio club
Your local club is an excellent resource for starting your amateur radio journey. They may have an upcoming Technician license class, or perhaps they can connect you with an Elmer, an amateur radio operator who mentors others.
ARRL offers several resources, and one you should consider is the Technician textbook The ARRL Ham Radio License Manual. This book covers the information needed to pass the Technician exam.
Make sure any training resource you use is current. For example, the 4th edition of The ARRL Ham Radio License Manual covers the question pool in place from July 1, 2018 to June 30, 2022.
Can I take a practice exam beforehand?
If you would like to take a practice exam prior to sitting for your actual exam, whether for your Technician, General, or Extra class licenses, the ARRL has an online tool available at no cost. These practice exams utilize the current FCC question pools and follow the same FCC Amateur Radio exam protocol.
I'm ready to take my Technician exam
Where can I take the exam?
When you are ready to take the exam, search for an upcoming exam session using our online testing session calendar. Each session will have a link where you can find out more details and register if required.
What should I bring with me to the exam?
While you should verify with the test team what you need to bring with you, generally you should bring:
We strongly recommend checking with the test team on the specifics. For example, some may permit bringing a calculator that can store information but require you to clear its memory while they watch, while others may only allow a basic calculator.
What happens after I pass my exam?
The test team will provide your information to the FCC to issue your amateur radio license. You can begin operating as soon as your license is granted and found in the online Universal Licensing System search results! Try using “last, first” when searching by name, and while we know you’re eager to get on the air, this can take about a week or so to work its way through. Your test team can give you additional details.
I have my license, how do I get on the air?
Congratulations on earning your amateur radio license! Now that your license has been granted and its information is in the FCC database, you can begin operating your amateur radio station, but how do you get started?
Just as finding the right new phone or computer or car comes down to personal preferences, determining what amateur radio equipment to buy depends on what features you prefer and on the particular characteristics of where you’re located. To try and offer some general guidance, we have some information below to help you get started.
If you haven’t already, consider reaching out to your local amateur radio club for recommendations and guidance. Your fellow hams can ask questions about your setup, such as if you’re in an apartment, open area, or somewhere in between, to help you narrow down what equipment to consider.
What equipment do I need to get?
Any amateur radio station needs at least these things:
If you purchase a handheld radio, you have everything in one! If you opt for a mobile or base radio, you may need to buy each item individually.
What type of equipment should I start with?
If you were to put a group of amateur radio operators together in a room, you would have recommendations for just about every radio brand or antenna out there, followed by comments about why you shouldn’t go with any of those brands. The key here is finding what works well for you. For example, each radio offers a set of features and a particular interface to those features. If you use a radio that works in a way you find comfortable and easy to use, and within your budget, you’ll better enjoy your time talking on the air versus using a radio that’s complicated or difficult that cost a small fortune.
Handheld, mobile, or base
It is common for new hams to start with a handheld radio, and if you are close to an amateur radio repeater this may be a great option. Regardless of handheld, mobile, or base, it may make sense to start with either a 2-meter or a dual-band 2-meter/70-centimeter radio. These bands are a great place to start practicing and building your amateur radio skills, especially if you’re in an area with several amateur radio repeaters operating on these bands.
If you are looking for a base radio (as in, a radio you would use at your desk at home), consider mobile radios. These can serve as excellent base radios, and if you do purchase a base radio in the future, this mobile radio can be moved to your vehicle, or you can keep it at your desk to serve as a second radio.
New or used?
Amateur radio equipment can be expensive. As you’re starting out, purchasing your first set of equipment second hand at a hamfest or from a fellow ham can help with costs. In time, as new radio models enter the market and you start to figure out the features and options you find useful, you can consider purchasing that new radio you’ll use for a long time. Or, perhaps you’ll find a great deal on a used one at a future hamfest.
As mentioned earlier, you will find a fan for every brand out there, and turn around to find someone who isn’t. Again, the key is finding a radio that works well for you, within your budget. If you purchase a radio that has an interface you find extremely difficult to use, then running it will become more of a chore than something enjoyable.
We highly suggest you take the time to research different options, search online for reviews, ask other hams for their thoughts, and try video sites like YouTube for walkthroughs on how they work. If you happen to be near a retail ham radio store, they may have several models on display for you to try out.
When putting together your first station, consider that while a good radio helps, the antenna is a key place to focus. If your radio is great and your antenna is awful, you’ll get nowhere fast. Conversely, if your radio offers basic features without lots of bells and whistles, while your antenna provides a clear, strong signal, you’ll fare much better when trying to contact other amateur radio operators.
There are a lot of antenna designs and features, enough that there are entire books dedicated to them. If you start with a 2-meter or a dual-band 2-meter/70-centimeter radio, look at antennas based on the bands the radio supports. There are lots of options based on whether you are in an apartment, have a large area to set up a tower, or somewhere in between. If you have an Elmer, reach out to him or her to get some ideas on what antenna may work better for your radio and where you will place it. If not, you local amateur radio club is an excellent resource for antenna suggestions.
There are numerous power supply options , and for your first one it may be worthwhile to look for a switching power supply providing 13.8 Volts at 15 Amps. This is a decent power supply for powering your first, and maybe even your second radio. If you plan on having two or more radios, you may want to start with a larger power supply, still providing 13.8 volts, but maybe 30 Amps, or 50 Amps! When you find the radio you want to purchase, check its user manual for power specifications. It will tell you how much power it needs when transmitting. If the radio offers several power levels when transmitting, check the requirement for its highest transmit power.
Connecting things together
Handhelds have everything ready to go in a convenient portable setup, but if you’re setting up a mobile or base radio station, you’ll need to wire things up yourself.
Chances are there are some power cables in your mobile or base radio’s box which you can connect to your power supply. If there weren’t any power cables, a quick visit to the home improvement store will get you set. Make sure it is the right gauge for how far you need to run it. The longer the cable, the more voltage loss will occur. This is especially true for mobile radio installs in vehicles as the vehicle battery or other connection point can need a lot of wire, sometimes over 10 feet, and there may be too much loss if the wire is not a proper gauge. You will know if it isn’t if, when you go to transmit, especially on high power, the radio resets or otherwise cuts out.
To hook up your radio to the antenna, you’re going to need some coax cable. You are going to discover a sea of different coax cable types, and the one to get depends on how far you need to run the cable and, naturally, your budget. Each cable type has a different rate of signal loss (called attenuation), and the cables that have lower signal loss tend to cost more. Again, if you have an Elmer, seek their advice on what to use for your station setup.
How can I get help with picking the right things?
We cannot stress enough how valuable your local amateur radio club is. Even if you are not yet a member of your local club, you will find an enthusiastic group of fellow amateur radio operators ready to help you. Based on your budget, location, and what you’d like to be able to do, such as reach a local repeater, work stations worldwide over HF, or anywhere in between, you’ll get guidance on what options to consider to help you get started. Please feel welcome to reach out to your local club.
Make your first contact!
After you set up your equipment and you’re ready to hop on the air, you’ll want to find someone to talk to. Local amateur radio repeaters are a good place to start. While you could call out on the national simplex frequency, repeaters tend to have other amateur radio operators listening, and in some cases the repeater may host a regularly scheduled net. There are tools online for locating amateur radio repeaters, but if you haven’t found a local amateur radio group, be sure to ask the team from your amateur radio exam session for some local repeater information.
Once you are on the air, have fun! Yes, you may make a mistake. Yes, everyone else on the air has made a mistake and will probably make future mistakes. Learning is an ongoing part of everyone’s amateur radio journey, and if someone offers constructive feedback, know that it is in the spirit of helping you build your operating skills so that you can enjoy everything that amateur radio has to offer.
Congratulations again on earning your license, and we hope you’ll enjoy the camaraderie of amateur radio for years to come!