The need for getting a ham radio license was once again made apparent on December 25, 2020, when an RV loaded with explosives detonated in downtown Nashville.
In seconds, dozens of buildings were damaged, eight 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 instantly, 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. This guide walks you through the details of exactly how to get your first ham license. It takes the confusion out of it and shows you how simple it is to fill this gap in your emergency preparedness plans.
Let’s get started!
Table of contents
- Why are ham radios important?
- What is ham radio?
- Why do I need a ham license?
- Who can be a ham radio operator?
- Can I use a ham radio without a license?
- How do I get a ham radio license?
- What kind of ham radio should I buy?
- Do I have to learn Morse Code?
Why are ham radios important?
The Nashville explosion is a real-life example of what communications and the impact of the lack of it look like in an emergency situation. Granted, it was a localized incident (with some regional impacts), yet that just underscores the need that will exist in a more widespread event. Consider:
- What will you do if your cell phone and the internet don’t work in a crisis?
- How will you get accurate information?
- How will you stay in touch with loved ones?
If you learn how to get your ham radio license, you’ll be ready for any disruption in the lines of communication you rely on.
- You will still get accurate information about your local area and beyond.
- You will still be able to stay in touch with the people you care about.
I got my Technician’s license in 2012. It wasn’t a hard process but can be a bit confusing. Let’s clear up what you might not know or what might be confusing you.
What is ham radio?
Ham radio, or amateur radio, uses a radio frequency spectrum for non-commercial uses. It allows people to communicate locally, regionally, nationally, and globally without the internet or cell phones.
Some Historical Background
Ham radio, also known as amateur radio, is considered to have started when Guglielmo Marconi sent the first wireless transmission across the Atlantic in 1901 from his self-made radio station on Cape Cod.
In 1912, partly because of radio noise during the sinking of the RMS Titanic, Congress passed the Radio Act of 1912 to impose procedural order on the airwaves. The US government issued the first amateur radio license, now legally required, that same year.
In addition, bandwidth was restricted to around 200 megahertz, which kept them off of commercial and military wavelengths. At the time, amateur radio was believed to be worthless because it only transmitted short distances, and the 200 megahertz restriction was expected to be the death knell for amateur enthusiasts.
Instead, the American Radio Relay League (ARRL) formed in 1914. By the time the 1920s arrived, voice was added to what had previously been a Morse Code-only device.
Ham radio’s growing popularity
After World War 2 Ham radio grew even more popular resulting in the formation of the FCC (Federal Communications Commission). The FCC regulated the ever-growing demand for radio frequencies between commercial, news, government, and amateur radio users.
In 1961 the first ham radio satellite named OSCAR-1 (Orbiting Satellite Carrying Amateur Radio) was launched, and by the 1970s a system of repeater transmitters began to dot the landscape. In the 1980s and 1990s data transmission via ham radio also became popular. These and other technological advances (notably the vacuum tube) allowed messages to be sent much longer distances – even to the moon!
Today ham radio enthusiasts are active all over the world.
One thing hasn’t changed since 1912, though. To legally transmit using a ham radio, you must still first become licensed by the FCC.
Why do I need a ham license?
Amateur radio is an alternative form of communication for entertainment, information, and assistance in disasters. It’s those last two which are particularly important for us.
I highly recommend it for preppers, especially those who work long distances from home. One friend’s husband constantly 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.
As stated earlier, the license itself is required by law in order to legally transmit. More on that in a moment.
How is ham radio beneficial to survival?
As much as ham radio is for personal non-commercial use, Hams have also played a vital role in disaster communications, assisting government and other rescue/relief efforts. When natural disasters happen, ham radio operators are often the first to begin relaying details and calls for help.
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
Amateur Radio Emergency Services (ARES) and Radio Amateur Civil Emergency Services (RACES) are two organizations that assist in disasters.
In addition, the National Weather Service uses the same frequencies as used by ham operators to send messages about extreme weather events. And the Salvation Army also has its ham radio division to assist in disasters. So if you want to do volunteer work, this is a great way to combine service work with a hobby you enjoy.
But, it’s also just plain fun!
Can we get a family ham radio license?
Each family member needs their own call sign and hence their own license in order to transmit. That being said amateur radio is 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! (There is an amateur station on board the ISS, and licensed astronauts monitor it from time to time, depending on the crew.)
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 massive kick out of collecting Q cards, and what an excellent way for them to learn geography!
If you’re wondering how easy it is to get the license, kids as young as five have passed the exams.
Who can be a ham radio operator?
Just about anyone.
One of the great things about an amateur ham radio license is that anyone of any age can become an operator if they pass the exams. There’s no age requirement. (There’s also no background check, experience, or education requirement.)
I already mentioned five-year-olds doing it. Men, women, stay-at-home moms, women working outside the home, youngsters, oldsters, preppers, hobbyists, homeschoolers…I could go on, but I think you get the idea.
YOU, whoever you are, can do it.
You only have to pass the exam.
Can I use a ham radio without a license?
No. And yes.
No, you cannot transmit without a license. However, yes, you can listen.
If caught transmitting without a license, fines, and equipment confiscation are possible. The Ham community also frowns upon unlicensed transmitting. So don’t expect any sympathy from them if caught. In normal circumstances, they may even be the ones to report you.
If you’re operating in an FCC-regulated area, you need an FCC-issued license or a Canadian license. Individuals holding licenses from countries with which the United States has a reciprocal operating agreement may operate in FCC territory.
How do I get a ham radio license?
Before we dive into the specifics, here’s the big picture.
A Quick Overview
Generally speaking, prospective hams take a study course online or in person, do some reviews and practice tests, then take the official test. After passing, you get your unique call sign.
When my husband and I decided to become hams, we found a class through the ARRL website. 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 was already part of his knowledge base. For me, it became a matter of rote memorization to pass the test, which I did with only one error.
As of this writing, the FCC issues three levels/classes of amateur radio licenses.
Each one has a more involved test than the previous one, requiring more knowledge and skills, and allows those who pass access to transmit on more bands, frequencies, and power levels.
The three license classes, from initial to highest, are:
- Technician. All VHF and UHF privileges, and some HF privileges (mainly using Morse Code). This allows local communication and most often within North America.
- General. All VHF and UHF privileges, most HF privileges (more HF voice frequencies). Global communication happens here.
- Amateur Extra (also referred to as just Extra). All amateur frequency privileges (all voice, Morse, and data frequencies) are available.
Since the Technician class has the most limited privileges, most hams seem to try for at least the General level. The Extra level is about learning more and having the most complete access and operating privileges (as well as for bragging rights).
NOTE: People who hold unexpired older classes of license are still valid and grandfathered into the privileges surrounding one of these new three classes.
US licenses and renewals are good for ten years.
Steps To Get An Amateur Radio License
Several organizations help promote amateur radio and help people get licensed. The ARRL is the best known, and there are hundreds if not thousands of local ham radio clubs all over the country and the world. But, even though it’s called “amateur” radio, there’s nothing amateur about it.
- Set a deadline for finishing your study and taking the test. Make it achievable and within sight.
- Study for the test. There is no single source for licensing exam study materials. I go into more depth on this below.
- Become familiar with how amateur radio operates by listening in via shortwave radio, also here.
- Take online practice exams. Here’s a link to the Android app and one for the iPhone app to download the practice tests. (Highly recommended!) Or use the resources on this page.
- Take the test. Upon passing, wait to receive your license and call-sign.
- Buy a radio. You must practice, practice, practice.
- Find a club in your area. You could do this step during the studying stage. You’ll want the mentorship (called Elmers) and community to continue the learning process. (It’s highly likely that some will even be survival/prepper minded.)
How much does it cost to get licensed?
On April 19, 2022, in accordance with a law passed by Congress, the FCC began collecting $35 for new amateur radio licenses.
To take the test will run you anywhere from $5-$15 depending on where you take it; choose an ARRL affiliate and you can take multiple tests for a single fee.
The cost of study material varies depending on your chosen option; there are many free online options, though.
What’s the best way to study for the test?
The best way to study for the test is how you learn best.
If you’re a self-starter and learn best on your own, begin studying online, check out a study book from the library, or buy one. 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!
If you learn best in a classroom setting, check ARRL’s schedule of classes to find one in your area.
Some additional resources to help in your studies include:
- The Best Amateur Radio and Shortwave Apps for ios and android
- Setting Up An Amateur Radio Station: Help For The New General Class Radio Operator by Bob Patterson
- ARRL Licensing Manual
What kind of questions are on the test?
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?
- Two years
- Three years
- Five years
- 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 much help to me.
What kind of ham radio should I buy?
Once you get your license, there’s no need to break the bank with your radio purchase. Be aware, though, 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.
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!
Do I need a repeater?
No, not necessarily.
Repeaters extend the range by receiving and retransmitting a signal. Repeaters already serve many communities, so discuss this with those in your amateur radio club. 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.
Do I have to learn Morse Code?
Back when I was a youngster, amateur radio operators were required to learn Morse Code, as well as other technical information. The licensing exam included being able to understand a message sent in Morse. As you moved up the licensing classes, expectations of Morse proficiency grew.
Some years ago, the FCC created a new class of ham licenses that didn’t require knowing Morse, and beginning in February 2007, the FCC no longer required Morse Code for any of the three classes of amateur licensing. However, many good long-distance contacts can be made using Morse Code at low power levels. So while Morse is no longer a requirement, it’s an excellent idea to learn it.
Several software packages will convert Morse into alphanumeric characters on a screen and allow you to type a message on a keyboard then convert it to Morse for transmission. While this is good technology, I recommend that you learn it the “old-fashioned way” of DAHs and DITs. You may not have access to a computer and need to send or receive a Morse code message at some point in life!
Getting your ham radio license prepares you for any disruption in the lines of communication you rely on. When a crisis occurs, you’ll still know what’s happening in your local area and beyond and stay in touch with loved ones.
Is getting a ham radio license part of your communication preparedness plan?
This article was originally published on May 21, 2020, and has been updated and revised.