Amateur Radio, or Ham Radio can be a hobby or career for anyone, young and old. There are many hundreds of thousands of ham radio operators throughout the world. Hams were some of the first radio operators when radio communications came into existence. The ham community is made up of individuals wanting to communicate person to person without any other technology in between. In a major disaster or potential grid down failure when all other forms of communication be it telephone, cell phone, internet, ceases to function, hams can fill the void and get valuable communications out across the city, state, or even the world. Earning a ham license will put you in the forefront when a disaster would occur. Helping others by communications is a natural with a ham radio system. During non disaster times hams converse with each other, make friends in local or distant places, practice and hone their skills, perfect their radio systems, and train for disasters. Even the National Weather Service asks volunteer hams to help report local adverse weather conditions confirming what their radar system is seeing or not seeing. This service is called Skywarn. Some hams establish a liaison with public services such as the sheriff's department as volunteer communicators providing information and welfare, search and rescue, etc., freeing up the police bands for emergencies. So get your ham ticket!
What is a ham ticket?
A ham ticket is an Amateur Radio license issued by the F.C.C. and comes with a unique call sign and specific class of privileges assigned when you pass the test. There are three classes. Technician (for beginners), General, and Extra (the highest). A licensed ham radio operator is initially issued a random call sign, usually a 2X3 call sign meaning two letters, a number and three more letters. An example is WA3PVP or KG8PMR. There are other sets of call signs for higher class ticket holders or for special event or contest stations like WB4D, K1J, W1AW, A9DJ, AA6OM. Once assigned a call, if you are not happy with the letters, you can request a change in your call sign by picking your own letters as long as no one else is using them. This is called a "vanity call". The number in the call sign is the region of the country you reside in (example: 4= southeast U.S., 3= mid-Atlantic, 6= CA, 1= northeast) but you can change it if desired too. With very few exceptions all U.S. licensed call signs begin with A, K, N, and W.
Why should I get a ham ticket?
In order to legally use the many frequencies across the spectrum and run much higher power levels you must have a ham license. Amateur Radio (ham radio) is a fun hobby. You can even build your own radios and antennas and communicate with other hams all over the world.
If I get a ham ticket can I use any and all frequencies?
No! You can only use the frequencies in the Amateur Radio band. For any other services you must have a license for that band. FRS, MURS, and itinerant channels do not require a license. GMRS requires a special license. You cannot legally transmit on any police and fire channels. There is a rare exception if a person's life is in danger. Beware that some "unlocked" transceivers can operate on confidential Federal government channels which will bring stiff fines and imprisonment if you use them.
What's involved in getting a ham ticket?
There are three classes of licenses: Technician, General, and Extra Class. The Extra Class is the highest class you can obtain. There are question and answer pools to study either in book form or on the web, and if you become proficient in learning all the answers, you can take a test from a Volunteer Examiner. A few days after you pass the test you can check the F.C.C. website to see what your new call sign is.
What can I do with a ham ticket?
Depending upon the class you receive, you can use walkie talkies, mobile transceivers, and even base stations on most bands.
What frequencies can I use with a ham ticket?
There are many bands from the LF, HF, VHF, UHF, and SHF frequencies. The majority of hams use HF and VHF bands.
How far can I communicate with a ham ticket?
With UHF/VHF transceivers you can expect a few miles to maybe 25 miles depending upon power and terrain or working through a repeater. With HF bands, even transmitting a few watts you could work station to station with hams all over the world!
How much does a ham radio system cost?
It can vary from free for used equipment or it could cost many thousands of dollars. Typically, depending upon the band it averages a couple hundred dollars.
Where can I go see a large variety of ham radio gear?
There are annual "Hamfests" throughout the world and in every state. These hamfests are like flea markets and many individuals and vendors attend and display their wares. Hamfests are traditionally held early on Sunday mornings. Check with other hams or local ham clubs in your area. A database of A.R.R.L. sanctioned hamfests is listed here.
Do I need to learn Morse Code to get a ham ticket?
No. Morse code was eliminated years ago but it didn't minimize its usage on the ham bands. Many hams love using Morse (CW mode) code. A culture of its own. Morse code is still great for breaking through interference or weak signals or long distance communications in disaster scenarios.
How much does it cost to get a ham ticket?
Depending upon the testing group it could be free or it cost less than $20 to take the test. Testing is done by Volunteer Examiners authorized by the F.C.C., the A.R.R.L., and radio clubs around the area.
Do I have to get a ham ticket?
You must have a valid license to use any frequency in the Amateur Radio bands. If you are caught using these frequencies without a license you could be fined up to $30,000 or more. Getting a license will allow you to talk to many other hams and have a better understanding of your equipment and its capabilities.
How can I learn to pass a ham radio test?
There are many websites with interactive quizzes that have the actual question and answer pool. Some are: hamstudy.org, hamradioprep.com, hamradiolicensexam.com, w5yi.org, qrz.com, radiomentor.net.
What can I do with a ham radio license?
There are various "modes" of communications on the ham bands. A mode is a means of modulation. Similar to your car radio. You can switch between AM and FM modes on your car radio. The AM band is 540-1700 khz, and the FM band is 88.1 to 107.9 mhz. This is the type of modulation that is transmitted and received. You can transmit and receive AM and FM modes in different parts of the ham bands. There are other modes of modulation. USB, LSB, CW, PACTOR, PACKET, WSPR, FT8, RTTY, SSTV, DMR, and a few others.
You can use your radios for making contacts and friends all over the world or in your back yard. There are "bands" or sections of frequencies allocated by the F.C.C. reserved for ham radio operators to use. Each has its advantages and disadvantages. The higher the frequency, the shorter the distance you can communicate and the lower the frequency, the more distance you can communicate. The bands are LF, HF, VHF, UHF, and SHF.
You can also use your radios for communication contests, security, weather reporting, "rag chewing" (conversing with other hams), passing valuable information in emergency situations.
Who represents Amateur Radio operators and lobbies on our behalf in Washington?
The A.R.R.L. (American Radio Relay League) in Connecticut lobbies for us and has a large staff that heads up training and amateur radio related events. We suggest you becoming a member of the League which protects our hobby. You will receive an excellent monthly magazine too.
Can I just wait until the world falls apart and use whatever frequency I want?
No! You should become proficient and knowledgeable with your equipment, learn to "speak ham" and practice ham radio etiquette, know its capabilities and limitations, know how to troubleshoot problems, learn the ways and means of passing life saving information to others, understand propagation - weather and time to make the best contacts. Being proficient and polite on the band goes a long way. No one likes to talk to a rude or interfering station. Rudeness = being shunned.
If I have a license can I use my radio in other countries?
No. Not unless you contact a consulate or embassy of the country you wish to operate from. They will issue you a temporary license and call sign for your use. There may also be a charge for this service.
If I'm on a cruise can I use my ham radio on board the high seas?
Not unless you receive special permission from the ships Captain.
Can I talk to the International Space Station?
There are times this is possible but you have to understand that many others are attempting to communicate at the same time with astronauts with ham licenses on the I.S.S. You must not interfere with ongoing communications.
Contest - A time, usually on the weekend when hams try to make contact with as many hams as possible, log the contacts and submit them to the A.R.R.L. to see who had the most contacts. Your call and ranking may appear in a future QST magazine if you rank high.
Simplex - When you talk to someone from your radio to theirs directly, it is called simplex.
Repeater - When you talk to someone through a repeater, usually FM, you transmit on one frequency, the repeater receives your audio and retransmits it on another frequency. All other hams will hear the stronger signal the repeater puts out.
Vanity call - A desired/custom call sign the F.C.C. will assign to a licensed operator upon request and it is not currently issued.
Mode - A type of modulation used when transmitting. AM, FM, CW, SSB, Digital. etc.
Band/Band plan - A span of frequencies allocated to a service like Amateur Radio. You can download a PDF of the band plan here.
Meter - Meters are the wavelength of the frequency. 160 meter band is 1.80-2.00 mhz, 80 meter band is 3.5-4.0 mhz, 40 meter band is 7.00-7.30 mhz, 30 meter band is 10.1-10.15 mhz, 20 meter band is 14.0-14.35 mhz, 17 meter band is 18.068-18.168 mhz, 15 meter band is 21.0-21.45 mhz,10 meter band is 28.0-29.7 mhz, 6 meter band is 50.0-54.0 mhz, 2 meter band is 144.0-148.0 mhz. 70 cm band is 420.0-450.0 mhz. There are a few other bands too.
Sub band - A portion of the band usually designated for a specific mode. Example: You shouldn't use voice mode from 7.000 mhz to 7.100 mhz. This is the digital or CW portion of the band, or sub band. Some sub bands are set aside for higher class of licensees too. A color chart of all the assigned bands and modes can be downloaded here too.
Guard channel - The first and last frequency (channel) in each band. You should never operate on a guard channel because portions of your signal will encroach on a non ham service. Example: never transmit on exactly 7.000 mhz or 7.3000 mhz.
Field day - A date (weekend) in June when most hams traditionally go out into the field, a park, top of mountain, campground, and use emergency power and set up their station on as many bands as they can and try to make as many contacts as they can all day and night. Extra points are awarded if running low power, microwave, on generator or solar, longest distance.
Q signals - These are three letter groups used to simplify a status. Examples:
QTH = location, "What is your QTH?"
QSO = conversation, "I had a QSO with a guy in England".
QRT = Going off air, "It's getting late so I'm going QRT".
QSB = fading signal, "There's a lot of QSB on your signal".
QSL = confirmed contact, "QSL" - (I acknowledge your last transmission.)
QRZ = calling, please reply, "QRZ the station calling...." - (Means repeat your message.)
QRP = low power usually under 5 watts. "I'm running QRP right now".
These are the most common ones you will hear. There are a few dozen more and can be seen here.
CQ - General calling - "CQ 40 meters, CQ 40 meters" - (anyone on 40 meters hear me? Please reply)
RST - Readability, strength, tone. A 5-9-9 report that is given or received confirming the highest readability.
QST - A monthly magazine sent to all A.R.R.L. members.
QSL card - A postcard like a large business card of a ham station exchanged by hams as a confirmation of their contact.
Log or log book - A record of your contact. It is not required by F.C.C. rules anymore but most hams on the HF band keep a log of their contacts. The log will list the call sign of the person you made contact with, their name, the date and time, their location, frequency used, and a comment section. Logbooks can be obtained from ham supply stores or online. Some hams that operate contests use a computer tied to the internet so they can enter pertinent information and the database can match up correct information or complete the log electronically.
Phone band - Not to be confused with telephone type operation. A "phone" band is a portion of the band where voice communication is used with a microphone.
Propagation - On the HF bands, conditions like weather, sun spot (solar) activity, time of day can make the difference between hearing another distant station or not. When conditions are right it's called a "band opening".
NVIS - Near Vertical Incidence Skywave. This only works at frequencies from 2 MHz to 10 MHz. The signal must penetrate the D layer of the ionosphere, and bounce off the F layer. Lower-frequency signals will not penetrate the D layer; higher frequencies will not bounce off the F layer at these sharp angles and just goes out into space.
Repeater - A receiver and transmitter connected together to receive a weak signal on one frequency and retransmit it on another frequency. Repeaters are strategically placed on a mountaintop or tall buildings. Many police/fire communication systems use repeaters too. Another example of a special repeater is a satellite that takes a small signal from an uplink location and broadcasts your satellite TV all over the country similar to DirectTV or Dish Network.
DX - Distant reception or transmission.
K - End of transmission or back to you.
QRP - A low power mode that many hams like to use. It means running less than 5 watts and seeing how far they can communicate. There are many QRP clubs out there and promote just how little power can be used to establish a contact or how small and simple the transceiver is.
Net/Emergency net - A designated operator will call numerous hams on an agreed upon frequency and establish a "round robin" group to disseminate or broadcast important ham or emergency information, or just a social roundtable. The designated operator is called a "net control operator" and manages communications among the participants. The A.R.R.L. manages the N.T.S. (Network Traffic System) and establishes protocols for message handling anywhere around the world. When a disaster occurs a net can be established with liaison to officials in federal and local governments in the area. This is called an A.R.E.S. net that is managed by the A.R.R.L. designated hams. F.E.M.A. and other government agencies also have a more formal organization of volunteer hams called R.A.C.E.S. During earthquakes and hurricanes volunteer hams in the disaster area communicate help and welfare information to those outside the disaster area.
Elmer - An Elmer is an individual, usually an older ham with lots of experience willing to teach and mentor new hams into the hobby.
Other slang abbreviations mostly used in CW conversations but often heard on the phone band: OM = Old man (a compliment to another ham). Lid = a real immature ham (derogatory). FB = Fine business. (Older term for acknowledgement.) HI = (laughing). HIHI = (laughing a lot). HR = (here). R = Roger or received ok. 73 = End greeting. 88 = love and kisses. Shack = Ham station. TU/TKS/TNX = Thank you. TST = contest. YL = young lady or girlfriend. XYL = wife. CUL = see you later. FER = for. K = End of message. Handle = Your name.
An example of a Morse code conversation could be: R R HIHI FB OM TU FER QSO XYL CALLING ME OUT OF SHACK MUST QRT SO CUL 73 N6HXA K
Other abbreviations can be found here.
©2022 Rick C. Ver 0.17 updated March 21, 2022