How to get your Ham Radio license

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hand holding a baofeng radio, small handheld ham radio

On December 25, 2020, an RV loaded with explosives detonated in downtown Nashville. In seconds, dozens of buildings were damaged, 8 people were injured, and communication lines in several states were disrupted. Survival Mom readers quickly reported the impact of this outage:

“I am in the Nashville area and could not reach my adult daughters all weekend because they have AT&T. “

“My friend in Clarksville, TN says their calls still aren’t really going through and neither are texts.”

“911 was out in places all over the state, including Knoxville because of this.”

In a world where communication and information can be accessed in an instant, an event like this reminds us just how fragile these systems are.

Preppers know that backup systems are vital, but often we overlook this one. In a crisis, how will you get accurate information and how will you stay in touch with loved ones? A simple way to cover that base is with a ham (amateur) radio. Learn how to get your ham radio license and be ready for any disruption in the lines of communication you rely on.

What is Ham radio?

Ham radio, or amateur radio, uses a radio frequency spectrum for non-commercial uses. It allows people to communicate without the internet or cell phones. However, to legally use a ham radio, you must first become licensed by the FCC. Most people study for the test, sometimes take a study course in person or online, and then take the official test. Once the test is passed, you get your own unique call sign.

Like many things, it can be difficult to pin an exact start date on when amateur (ham) radio started but it was in the general vicinity of 1910. By 1912, it was popular enough that Congress approved the Radio Act of 1912 to regulate it. Ham radios were limited to the bandwidth around 200 megahertz.

At the time, amateur radio was believed to be worthless because it only transmitted short distances. The restriction to 200 megahertz was expected to be the death knell for amateur enthusiasts. Instead, the American Radio Relay League (ARRL) was formed in 1914, and ham radio enthusiasts are active all over the world. This and other technological advances (notably the vacuum tube) allowed messages to be sent much longer distances – even to the moon!

How can it be useful?

Amateur radio is an alternative form of communication for entertainment, information, and assistance in disasters. I highly recommend it for preppers, especially for those who work long distances from home. The husband of one friend always has his handheld radio with him whenever he goes on business trips. His wife carries one in her purse, and they are ready to communicate, anywhere, any time.

When natural disasters happen, often ham radio operators are the very first to begin relaying details and calls for help. The National Weather Service uses the same frequencies as used by ham operators to send messages about extreme weather events.

During disasters, hams are often the first to be up and running, transmitting vital messages to emergency personnel.

When disaster strikes, ham networks spring into action. The Amateur Radio Emergency Service (ARES) consists of licensed amateurs who have voluntarily registered their qualifications and equipment for communications duty in the public service.

“Ham radio operators to the rescue after Katrina” NBC News

Salvation Army has its own ham radio division to assist in disasters. If you want to do volunteer work, this is a great way to combine service work with a hobby you enjoy.

It’s also a fun family activity, especially as you begin reaching out and meeting people from all over the country, the world, and even outer space! Yes, you can pick up on conversations from the guys and gals on the International Space Station! Some hams take great pride in collecting Q cards, or QSL cards, that confirm conversations and contacts with other hams. Our instructor showed off his collection of Q cards with a big grin on his face, and no wonder. They came from all over the world, including a few obscure islands in the Pacific.

Kids, especially, would get a huge kick out of collecting Q cards, and what a great way for them to learn geography!

What are the requirements for a license

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) regulates ham radio operators, as the Communications Act of 1934 requires. There are three classes of licenses – General, Technician, and Extra (or Amateur Extra, but usually shortened to simply Extra). Each one has a more involved test than the previous one, requiring more knowledge and skills, and allows those who pass access to a more of the radio spectrum available for ham operators. Licenses are good for ten years.

Generally speaking, prospective hams will take a class, do some reviews and practice tests, then take the exam. Ham Radio Prep offers online courses that make learning all about ham radio easy and they even offer a money-back guarantee if you don’t pass the FCC exam on your first try!

When my husband and I decided to become hams, we found a class through the ARRL website. To be honest, a lot of the technical stuff was over my head. My husband had been an electrician, so all the talk of wavelengths, frequencies, and transceivers were already part of his knowledge base. For me, it became a matter of rote memorization to pass the test.

After some diligent study, I passed the test with only 1 error. Much of the test consisted of questions about ham radio protocol and rules, such as:

What is the grace period following the expiration of an amateur license within which the license may be renewed?

  1. Two years
  2. Three years
  3. Five years
  4. Ten years

Now, I can learn that kind of stuff and retain it. “Where is an RF preamplifier installed?”, not so much.

I encourage you to not be afraid of the test. Taking a class isn’t required, and in my case, I’m not sure it helped much, since I ended up doing most of my studying using the various practice tests and study guides online. I’m more of a hands-on learner, so I needed to get my hands on an actual radio and start monkeying around with it. Sitting around just talking about transmitters and modulation wasn’t of much help to me.

You can download practice tests here, or use the resources on this page. If you have a smartphone, I highly recommend downloading the practice tests and using those to help study. Here’s a link to the Android app and one for the iPhone app.

What do you need to get started?

Not very much. Sign up to take a class to learn the skills. For about $25, you can take the Ham Radio Prep course online — you’ll start with the Technician’s license.

Pass the test and wait to receive your license and call sign. Buy a radio to practice with. Be aware that some cheaper models may have the ability to receive but not send.

Probably the cheapest handheld radio out there is the Baofeng, popular among novices, despised by veteran hams! If you want something, anything, to just get started and get a feel for how ham works, this is a good starting place for 60 bucks or so.

Be sure to check out eBay and Craigslist, too. When I was writing this article and did a quick check on my local Craigslist, there were numerous listings for amplifiers, receivers, and even a 50-foot antenna tower for just $600.

What I found is that most all hams are fanatical in their devotion to their hobby. When I was researching my book, Survival Mom, I contacted 2 or 3 gentlemen who proceeded to talk my ear off about everything related to ham radio! I learned a lot and their enthusiasm was contagious.

Even before you take the class or get your license, consider attending a local ham radio meeting or one of their fun events, such as their Hamfest. (ARRL calendar of events can be found here.) You will be most welcome, have your questions answered, and connect with like-minded people living near you. It’s highly likely that some will even be survival/prepper minded — double bonus!

More resources for AMATEUR RADIO:

 

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I'm the original Survival Mom and for more than 11 years, I've been helping moms worry less and enjoy their homes and families more with my commonsense prepping advice.

9 thoughts on “How to get your Ham Radio license”

  1. Actually, ham radio got started right at the turn of the century, before the term “radio” existed. Early hams used spark-gap transmitters, which weren’t tunable and so didn’t transmit on particular frequencies. They produced RF across the whole spectrum, kind of like static from lightning. It wasn’t until the Titanic sinking in 1912 that any restrictions were place on amateur frequencies. The restriction wasn’t to frequencies of 200 MHz and higher, it was to wavelengths of 200-meters and shorter (which they considered shortwave back then). A 200-meter wavelength corresponds to a frequency of 1.5 MHz, or 1.5 megacycles as we still called it back when I started in ham radio in the mid-60’s.

    The entry-level license is actually the Technician, followed by General and Extra. Even elementary-school kids have passed the Technician and probably General exams.

    Many hams dislike the Baofeng/Pofung HTs because they are not type-accepted and because they are software programmable and make it easy to operate on unauthorized frequencies. The radios themselves are decent performers, not even considering their very low price. You can find the UV-5A and UV-82 models for $28 to $35 on Amazon. Even after you accessorize it with stuff like a spare battery pack, battery eliminator, AAA battery pack, headphone/mic, a decent whip antenna to replace the helical dummy load it comes with, and so on, you’re still talking in the sub-$100 range, which you can’t beat with a stick.

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  5. I’m not much of a ham, though I have a general class license.

    I learned the importance of ham radio after going through a little earthquake in 1989. Our phone was out for a week. We had no other means of communication.

    One major sticking point in getting into ham radio is the expense. A decent transceiver usually costs well over $1000. If one is on a tight budget, like I was for many years, the cost of the transceiver was more than I had. Groceries came first.

    The beginner tech license is very limited in what he can transmit. The Baofang radios are cheap, but can transmit only a short distance. If they want to transmit any distance, they must communicate through “repeaters”, special radios set up to receive then retransmit the signals so that other radios can receive the messages. I had one once, but from where I live, I could not connect to any repeaters. I now have a Yaesu hand held, and can connect to one repeater (barely) from where I live. It uses a standard digital mode, C4FM, that gives a clear sound even on weak signals.

    But if there’s a major emergency that knocks out the local repeaters, then one needs to communicate on the HF (High Frequency) bands. For that one needs a general or extra class license. And for those, the transceivers + power supplies + antennas cost over $1000. But then it’s possible to communicate all over the world.

    In closing, after Puerto Rico was hit by hurricane Maria, it was ham operators with portable HF rigs who provided much emergency communications for the island.

  6. LOL…I got my gewnewral ham license on a dare. I have been interested since my teens bnut the math involved always scared me. So when I got dared, I decided to give it a try, bought some used ARRL study guides, and dove in. 8 weeks later I went to a local ham club who was offering tests, and since I could test for both the basic ll\icense and the general one I gave it a shot. Imagime my surprise when I got the more difficult general license.
    I am joining my local ham club down here where we finally moved to, and am working now to learn morse code so I can do CW (carrtier wave, no voice, just code) work. This time I dared myself!

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