How Can I Get A Ham License?

There are lots of resources out there on the ‘Net to help you!  I am not going to try to duplicate those resources.  I will however, try to point you in the right direction so that you can become familiar with them and be aware of what’s out there.

Federal Communications Commision

Of course…the definitive source for everything regarding amateur licensing is the FCC website.  Now, the FCC has never been accused of making anything simple or easy to understand, but I would be falling short if I did not include their information!  The Amateur Radio section is found here. is one of the most highly respected organizations that has committed to supplying a wealth of materials to assist you in your quest.  You would do well to check them out. is a forum-oriented site focused on a place where you can ask questions of pretty much *any* ham-related topic.

The American Radio Relay League

The ARRL (American Radio Relay League) was founded in 1914.  It is considered to be the national association for Amateur Radio in the USA. Today, with more than 156,000 members, ARRL is the largest organization of radio amateurs in the United States.  The ARRL Board of Directors has adopted the following statement of the Core Purpose of the ARRL:

To promote and advance the art, science and enjoyment of Amateur Radio.

You can find the ARRL website here.


The following is Copyright:  CQ Magazine, March 2011 & Fred Maia, W5YI.  All rights reserved. Used with permission.

Getting Started in Amateur Radio
What you need to know to get your ham license

by Frederick O. Maia, W5YI – CQ Magazine, March 2011

From time to time, we get inquiries from individuals asking about Amateur Radio and how they can become a ham radio operator.  We also get questions about the Amateur Radio licensing scheme in the United States.  This month let’s cover the basics of U.S. ham radio and what you need to know – and do – to take part in the world’s greatest hobby.

Amateur radio, often called ham radio, is both a hobby and a service in which licensed participants communicate with other radio amateurs for public service, recreation and self-training.  Its origin can be traced to the early 1900’s when wireless communication was first developed.  So, Amateur Radio is as old as radio itself.

Co-ordinated by the Geneva-based International Telecommunication Union (ITU),  Amateur Radio operation is available to people in just every country in the world.  More than two million people located in all areas of the globe communicate with each other directly or through relay systems and amateur satellites.  There are approximately 675,000 licensed amateur radio operators in the United States.

Radio amateurs must be licensed by their government.  In the United States, the Federal Radio Commission began regulating Amateur Radio in 1912.  The agency, renamed the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) in 1934, is charged with regulating all U.S. non-federal government use of the radio.

The term “amateur” does not imply a lack of skill or quality, but rather that ham radio operators are not paid for communicating by radio.  It is a non-commercial radio service.

Anyone can be an FCC-licensed Amateur Radio operator no matter what age, gender or physical ability.  You  don’t even have to be a U.S. citizen.  There are hams under age 8 and seniors over 80.  Hams can communicate from anywhere …while walking around, from their car, boat or plane …or from their home base station.

Amateur Radio is allocated a variety of frequency bands and transmitting modes on which to communicate.  These bands, scattered across the radio spectrum, are basically the same in every country allowing hams to communicate worldwide.

Different frequency bands have different propagation characteristics.  Some bands are better for local communications, others accommodate long distance (DX) transmissions by “bouncing” signals off the ionosphere (sky wave.)  Microwave frequencies pierce the ionosphere allowing transmissions to be returned from satellites in space.

Although voice transmissions are the most popular mode, some ham radio operators still use the Morse code.  Hams can even transmit television or talk through orbiting amateur satellites.  There are also many digital modes.

The Amateur Radio Service is appropriately named. In times of disaster, when regular communications methods fail, hams assist with emergency and public service communications.  When tragedy is imminent, ham networks spring into action.

Getting started

Unlike CB, you must be FCC licensed to be an Amateur Radio operator.  Most people get into ham radio through the efforts of an already licensed friend or family member …called an “Elmer.”  You can also learn what you need to know alone by getting study material from the W5YI Group (see or the American Radio Relay League.  The ARRL is the national association for Amateur Radio.

Amateur Radio clubs are located all over the U.S. and members are eager to help the newcomer get started.  Many offer licensing classes.  The ARRL has an online list of over 2,000 ham clubs at Just enter your zip code and the nearest club pops up.  There’s bound to be one near you.

The purpose of FCC licensing is to be certain that you are aware of the rules and safety concerns of ham radio.  There are all sorts of “do’s and don’ts” that you need to know.  The “on air” privileges of Amateur Radio are immense and you can get into all sorts of trouble if you don’t know what you are doing.

You qualify for an Amateur Radio license by passing an examination consisting of multiple choice questions which are oriented towards operating a ham stations legally and safely.

Getting licensed

There are basically two types of amateur radio licenses: Individual and club station.  A club station license allows members of an amateur radio club to have a station operating under a club call sign. The license is granted only to the trustee of the club. It conveys no operating privileges.

All Amateur Radio licenses are granted for a ten year term.  There is an additional two year “grace period” during which a license may be renewed without having to retake the examinations.  Unless you specifically selected your own call sign, there is no cost to renew a license.

There are currently three levels of individual Amateur Radio operator licenses issued by the FCC: Technician, General and, the top-of-the line, Amateur Extra Class.  Each authorizes varying levels of privileges.

Most new amateur operators start at the Technician Class and then advance to the General Class or Amateur Extra Class operator license.  Some newcomers, however, begin at the General Class by passing two exams.  A few even begin at the Amateur Extra Class level.

Operator License Classes

Technician:  The privileges of a Technician Class operator license include operating an amateur station on any of more than a dozen frequency bands above 50 MHz with up to 1,500 watts of power.  Technician Class licensees also have operating privileges in four amateur service bands in the world-wide HF range: 10 meter voice plus CW (Morse code) on 80, 40, 15 and 10 meters.

General:  The General Class operator license requires passage of the Technician test, as well as the General exam.  It is the most sought after license class since it authorizes privileges in all 27 amateur service bands.  Hundreds of digital, analog, pulse, and spread-spectrum emission types may be transmitted.  Upon accreditation by a Volunteer-Examiner Coordinator (VEC), a General class ham can help administer Technician Class examinations.

Amateur Extra:  The Extra Class is the highest amateur radio license you can obtain and the written test is the most difficult of all the license exams.  The privileges of an Amateur Extra Class operator license include additional spectrum in the HF bands.  Extra Class hams get all Amateur Radio frequencies and can apply for the desirable shorter (1-by-2 and 2-by-1) “Vanity” station call signs.

Grandfathered license classes:  Up until a decade ago, there were six operator license classes.  But, as of 2000, new Novice, Technician Plus and Advanced Class licenses are no longer issued by the FCC.  There are still some amateurs around that hold these licenses, however, and they may be renewed indefinitely.  (Technician Plus class operator licenses were converted to Technician Class licenses when they were renewed.)

License Examinations

In 2003, the ITU ratified changes to the International Radio Regulations to allow each country to determine whether it would require a person seeking an amateur radio operator license to demonstrate the ability to send and receive Morse code.  This revision eliminated the requirement that a ham operator be Morse proficient when transmitting on frequencies below 30 MHz.  As of 2007,  Morse code examinations are no longer administered to prospective ham operators in the United States.

The class for which each operator is qualified is determined by the degree of knowledge in operating a station demonstrated during a written examination administered by a team of three volunteer examiners (VEs) who reside in your community.  The efforts of VE teams are supervised by Volunteer Examiner Coordinators (VECs) who develop the examination materials and question pools.

Volunteer Examiners (VEs) are General and higher class radio operators (18 years of age or older) who volunteer their time to administer amateur radio operator license examinations.  There is a fee (about $15, determined by the VEC) to take the exam which goes to offset the costs incurred by the examination program.

There are thousands of VE teams located in just about every community.  You can locate ARRL and W5YI VE teams online at or

The National Conference of Volunteer Examiner Coordinators (NCVEC) maintains a common question pool for each written examination element.  Each exam question (and its multiple choice answers) are taken word-for-word from these pools.  There are three written examination elements, Elements 2, 3, and 4.  Each pool contains at least ten times the number of questions required for a single examination.

The VEs prepare the written examinations from these question pools according to a selection formula.  There are about 400 Technician (Element 2) questions, 500 General (Element 3) and 750 Extra Class (Element 4) questions in the various question banks.  All questions and answers are publicly known and widely published.  You can find all of these pools – complete with answers – on the NCVEC website at:

You must pass Element 2 to qualify for the Technician Class license.  The General Class level requires passing an additional Element 3 exam.  Both Element 2 and 3 are 35 question multiple choice tests; passing score is 26 correct answers.  The Extra Class exam (Element 4) is 50 questions, passing score is 37.

Some clubs offer weekend licensing classes and testing.  It should take you a couple of weeks to prepare for your exam if you study on your own.  Both the ARRL and W5YI Group have excellent license manuals which include software for exam study and practice.

There are also several online practice exams you can take.  They are free and are an excellent method to determine if you’re ready for the test.  You will find them on the Internet at:, and Many of the exam questions are about FCC regulations.  So be sure to read the Part 97 amateur radio rules.  (Also available on the NCVEC website.)

Once you score a passing grade on an exam, the VE team issues the applicant a Certificate of Successful Completion of Examination (CSCE) and forwards the session paperwork to their VEC.  After screening, the VEC files the application over the Internet with the FCC.  It normally takes a couple of weeks for your license and call sign to be issued by the FCC.  If you fail the test, you can take the test again right away by paying another exam fee.

Station call signs

There are three different types of Amateur Radio station call signs: Sequential, Vanity and Special Event.  Your first call sign will be automatically assigned to you by the FCC during the processing of your license.  Each initial call sign is sequentially selected from the alphabetized regional-group list based on your license class and mailing address.

A station is always reassigned the same call sign upon renewal or license class upgrade, unless a change to a new sequentially assigned call sign is requested.  Once assigned, you are never required to change your station call sign.

Every U.S. ham station call sign has a one letter prefix (K, N, W) or a two letter prefix (AA-AL, KA-KZ, NA-NZ, WA-WZ) and a one, two, or three letter suffix separated by a numeral (0-9) indicating the geographic region. Certain combinations of letters are not used.  When the call signs in any regional-group list are exhausted, the selection is made from the next lower group.

There are 4 different call sign groups: A, B, C and D.  Amateur Extra Class operators qualify for the shortest Group “A” call signs.  Technician and General Class operators qualify for Group “C” (1-by-3) call signs.  Any radioamateur may hold a call sign from a lower group.

Once you pass the Technician or General Class requirement, your first FCC-assigned call sign will be from the Group “D” (2-by-3 format) block with the first character being a “K”.  This is because all of the “N” prefix (by 3 letter suffix) were allocated and “K” and “W” prefixes are not assigned by the FCC as an initial call sign.

Your 2-by-3 format may later be changed to a 1-by-3 Group “C” call under the Vanity call sign program if you wish.  Most new hams change their initial six character call sign to a shorter 1-by-3  format.  (See  for more on how to do it.)  Stations outside the lower 48 states qualify for special prefixes.

A “Vanity” call sign is one specifically selected by the operator. You must hold an unexpired amateur license grant of the appropriate operator class to request a vanity call sign for your primary station.  In other words, a “Vanity” call sign may not be your first station call sign.  A vacant call sign is normally assignable two years plus one day following license expiration or call sign cancellation whichever is sooner.

A “Special Event” call sign is a 1-by-1 format call sign selected by any amateur to commemorate some event of special significance.

Do’s and Don’ts of ham radio

There are certain things you can – and can’t – do on the Amateur Radio bands.  Ham operators may transmit two-way communications and messages with other hams world wide.  And unless specifically prohibited, any type of content is permissible.

No amateur station may transmit messages internationally for a third party (i.e. someone other than the sending and receiving ham operator) unless the foreign government has made arrangements with the United States to allow third party traffic.  The FCC periodically issues a Public Notice listing arrangements for international communications.

All Amateur Radio frequencies are shared and no frequency is assigned for the exclusive use of any amateur station.  This applies to all ham radio transmissions …including those of network round-tables and information bulletin stations.

Station control operators must cooperate in selecting transmitting channels to make the most effective use of the frequencies.  You may not intentionally interfere with the communications of another station.

Ham stations must identify their transmissions with their station call sign at the end of each communication and at least every 10 minutes during a communication.

Certain one way communications are permitted …such as beacon stations, Morse code practice, information bulletins, telemetry and brief transmissions necessary to make adjustments to the station.

You may not transmit secret messages and all communications must be made in plain language.  Communications intended to facilitate a criminal act, indecent or obscene language or false or deceptive messages, signals or identification are expressly prohibited.

You also may not transmit (broadcast) to the general public, play music over the ham bands or transmit communications for compensation.  You may, however, notify other amateur operators of the availability for sale or trade of ham radio equipment provided that such activity is not conducted on a regular basis.

Getting on the air

Most beginners start with a low-power VHF or UHF handheld or mobile transceiver.  This allows them to enjoy clear 2-way FM communications using repeaters and to chat with other Amateur Radio operators in the local area.  Cost of these radios can be anywhere from $100 to $400 and higher depending on the features.

Desktop multi-band base station transceivers are more complicated to operate and cost more …up to $2,000 and higher.  But less expensive used, older equipment may be available from a local ham radio equipment dealer or another radioamateur.  Many ham radio flea markets are held all over the country that sell good used equipment for less.

Ham operators may design, construct, modify, and repair their stations if they are qualified to do so.  Unlike all other radio services, the FCC equipment authorization program does not generally apply to amateur station transmitters.

Authority to operate

Your operating authority begins when your license information appears in the Amateur Radio Service’s Universal Licensing System (ULS) located on the FCC’s website.  ULS is a (free to use) consolidated licensing system that handles all FCC applications, not just those of the Amateur Radio Service.

You need a personal computer to access ULS at  (Click on the “Licenses” button, select “By Name” from the drop down box and enter your name, Last Name first, then a comma, and then your First Name.  Or you can enter your call sign if you already know what it is.)  Your FCC license record will be displayed.  Click on your call sign for additional information.  You can update your address and other information and renew or get a replacement license using ULS.

In order to access ULS, you need your FCC Registration Number (FRN) and FCC password.  New amateurs are usually automatically registered in the COmission REgistration System (CORES) by the VEC as part of the licensing process.  The FCC sends every new ham a letter indicating their FRN and ULS password by mail shortly after they are licensed.

Once your license application is processed, the FCC will send you a hard (paper) copy of your license.  There is no requirement that you actually have the license document in your possession before you begin operating.  You are fully licensed and may begin operating on the ham bands once your name, call sign and license class are listed in ULS.

(Copyright:  CQ Magazine, March 2011 & Fred Maia, W5YI.  All rights reserved. Used with permission.)