So, you are interested in becoming an amateur radio operator (a "ham"). It is easier than you think!
The first thing you should do is figure out what exactly you want to do with the hobby. Do you want to make new friends? Talk to people locally? Talk to people far away? Participate in providing emergency communications? Become more prepared for "the big one"? Be able to keep in touch with family and friends in an emergency? Experiment with electronics and radio technology? Learn more about how radio and electronics actually work? There are a multitude of reasons to get involved with amateur radio as a hobby.
Once you have an idea of what you want to do with the hobby, you need to look into getting licensed. In the USA, radio amateurs are licensed by the Federal Communications Commission. Having this license is required before you can transmit on the amateur radio bands (you can listen all you want before you get licensed, so it's okay to go ahead and buy a radio before you get licensed... just don't transmit!). In the US, there are three different classifications of license, called "Technician," "General," and "Extra" class. Each higher class requires additional knowledge and skill and provides additional privileges and abilities, as well as additional radio frequency bands that you are allowed to operate on.
First, a word about the various bands... you may have seen this page before: Band Chart. This chart shows the various bands that amateurs are allowed to use in the US, and identifies what license classes are required for each one (you'll note that the chart also mentions two additional license classes, "Novice," and "Advanced." These classes were formerly available and, if you were licensed in one of them and have continually renewed your license, you could still operate under the privileges of those license classes. You can't get either of them now, though). You'll note as you review the chart that the Technician class allows you to mostly operate in the higher frequencies, typically 10 meters and above (as the frequency increases, the length of the band decreases, so 2 meters is considered a higher band than 10 meters, for example), and that Technician privileges even on 10 meters are quite restricted. While technicians have some privileges on the lower bands, those privileges are often restricted to "CW" or Morse code operation only.
Why is this important? Because the higher bands, typically in the VHF (Very High Frequency) and UHF (Ultra High Frequency) ranges are limited to mostly line of sight operation. This isn't as big of a restriction as you might think at first, thanks to things like repeaters, digital modes, and internet-based linking of radios. Even as only a Technician, you can still talk to people around the world... you just can't do it on the HF (High Frequency) bands unless you also learn Morse code.
About that Morse code stuff... originally, you had to learn (and prove competency with) Morse code to get an amateur radio license in the US. This is no longer required for any license class, so don't let that keep you from getting licensed!
Many people are happy to start with a Technician class license and then later get their General class and even their Extra class as they get more familiar with the hobby.
Once you decide how you plan to use the hobby and what license class you want to go for, you should start studying! There are a number of great resources available, from books to software and web sites that will help you learn. There are also in person and recorded (video) classes you can go to or watch that will help you understand the basics and what you need to know. See below in the references section of this page for lists of books, web sites, and materials that will help you study. It's also a great idea to look for a local club at this point.
You may be wondering why you should look for a club before you even have your license? It's quite simple... clubs are full of people who were once in the same position you are. They wanted to become an amateur radio operator but didn't know how to do it. They can help you, guide you, and advise you. This process, called "Elmering," is very common in amateur radio. Your "Elmer" might be someone you know or just someone from a local club who is interested in helping people get involved with the hobby. Your Elmer is available to help you make decisions on things like what equipment to buy, what repeaters and/or frequencies to use, how to build effective antennas, and many other aspects of the hobby. There are a lot of clubs all over the place, so you should look for one that is close to where you live.
Okay, now you've decided what license to go for, you've read some materials and watched some videos or even attended live classes, and you're ready. You need to go take the test(s). (Each class requires testing for all license classes below it, so if you want to be an Extra class, you'll have to take and pass three tests... the Technician, General, and Extra tests.) Testing is done by a group of amateur radio operators known as "Volunteer Examiners" (VEs for short) who work under the guidance of a Volunteer Examiner Coordinator (VEC). These people take the testing process very seriously, since they don't want people becoming amateur radio operators unless they are actually qualified to do so. It used to be that these tests were only done in person, in a proctored fashion, where you could be observed taking the test to ensure that you didn't break any of the rules. Now, thanks to COVID-19, several groups of VEs have figured out how to offer the examinations virtually... entirely on the computer. There are several requirements for this, however, including that you must have two web cams that are transmitting pictures of both you and your desktop area while you're taking the test.
You need to find a test session. Many clubs offer these test sessions on a monthly basis, so it shouldn't be too hard to find one. You can use https://hamstudy.org/sessions to search for in-person sessions near you and also for virtual (on line) sessions. The costs for taking the tests generally range from $10 to $15 and this cost is paid to the group that organized the testing session. The FCC also charges a fee of $35 for processing and issuing a license. This fee is paid directly to the FCC and is intended to cover the administrative costs associated with providing the license. There are also some forms you will need to have filled out and you should apply for a FRN (FCC Registration Number) number from the FCC before starting the process.
So, you've taken your test, you've passed it, now what? You have to wait for the FCC to issue your license. You can check the ULS (Universal License System) for your license to show up... once it appears in the system you are a licensed operator and can transmit on the bands which your license class allows! Now it's time to get involved. This is another time when that local club will come in handy. Your club will help you continue to learn and grow in the hobby, as well as keep you informed about events that are happening where you can use your abilities to help others. Also, get on the air! Start talking to people and making friends. Participate in ham radio "nets" (on-air sessions where various operators "check in" with each other). Get out there and have fun!
- Getting Licensed
- Getting Involved