How to Become an Amateur Radio Operator

Simple Steps and Resources to Prepare for Your First Amateur Radio License

Copyright © 2005 by Harold Melton, KV5R. All Rights Reserved.

Introduction

Becoming an Amateur Radio Operator is easy - lots of people are doing it, with little or no prior background in radio or electronics. Under the current rules (July 2004), the entry-level license is called “Technician.” Applied to Amateur Radio, the term “Technician” is a misnomer - it does not mean you’ll have to learn how to repair or service electronics. A licensed 2-way radio “technician” and a licensed “Amateur Radio Technician” are two different things.

As an Amateur Radio Operator, Technician class, you will be licensed to use VHF and UHF radio equipment and repeaters comparable to that used by local public agencies like Police and Fire departments. This will give you communications capability to participate in local roundtables, stay in contact with licensed family and friends, citizen patrols, volunteer programs like Citizen Corps, severe weather spotting, and emergency response teams providing backup and interoperability services to various public service and emergency response organizations. It allows you to become an active and effective volunteer communicator, assisting your community in times of need, and you’ll make lots of new friends, too!

Amateur Radio is not like CB radio. Communications are polite and “family friendly,” unlike CB, where conversations are often rude and vulgar. Amateur Technicians usually operate on VHF and UHF FM, using repeaters, just like police and other public service agencies. The communications are clear and reliable, unlike CB, and are not bothered by a roar of interference. FM radios use “squelch” that silences the radio between transmissions, again unlike CB, but like police radios. Using 2-meter FM radios is a purposeful and rewarding experience, not annoying nor frustrating like CB. Amateur Radio operators are trained, tested, and licensed, once again unlike CB.

Amateur Radio is strictly a non-commercial service. It may not be used for business or advertising. Businesses must use radios licensed and approved for the Business Radio Services, not the Amateur Radio Service.

The Technician class license gives you the ability to use any and all Amateur radio modes, like FM, single-sideband (SSB), digital, and even satellites and 2-way television, on VHF and UHF frequencies. This includes all the Amateur bands above 50 MHz. Technicians typically begin by purchasing a small hand-held radio and using 2-meter repeaters. Repeaters are devices located around the area that “repeat” or re-transmit your signal, so that you can reliably cover a large area using handheld, mobile, and base radios. The “repeater” is controlled by your radio and instantly repeats whatever you say, with greater power and range. Amateur repeaters typically use the same type of commercial repeater equipment used by police and other such agencies.


Exam Preparation

“Is it for me? Can I do this?” Once again, we stress that licensed Amateur Radio operators do not have to learn complex radio engineering theory nor radio electronics repair! There are licensed Amateurs from 6 to over 100 years old. You can do this, if you commit to a period of study and pass the exam. It’s just like any other course of study: You immerse yourself in it for a little while, pass your exam, then enjoy all the benefits for the rest of your life.

There are many resources online for studying ham radio. There are also many books and software programs for preparing for the exams. There are even web sites that give practice exams. I have located and compiled herein what I consider the best resources. If you follow these steps, you will be ready for the Tech exam in less time that you think. Two weeks to two months is typical, depending on how much time you can devote to study.

  • First, familiarize yourself with the Amateur Radio “world.” Please read the ARRL article at http://www.arrl.org/hamradio.html. When complete, use your “Back” button to return here and continue.
  • It’s important and very useful to learn the terminology. This will make study much more beneficial. Subscribe to ham radio magazines and learn the terminology from the context.
  • Order and read the book Now You’re Talking! from ARRL. This $19.95 book is the standard entry-level Amateur Radio text, and is essential to prepare you both for the exam, and a firm foundation in Amateur Radio, since it explains the correct answers. It is very user-friendly, and highly recommended reading. It goes well beyond the exam, giving you a wide-angle view into the Amateur Radio hobby. Magazine subscriptions are also very helpful, just as in any other hobby.
  • Study the Technician exam question pool. See http://www.ncvec.org/page.php?id=338. These are the official question pool from which 30 or 50 questions (depending on the exam being taken) will be drawn at random to compose your exam. Most people recommend that you never read the distracters (wrong answers). Simply read the questions and the correct answers. This will teach you a lot, and prepare you for the exam. Many people like to read and record the questions and answers on cassette tape or into the computer, and play them in the background while driving around or working. This is very effective!
  • Take practice exams at  http://www.qrz.com/p/testing.pl . The practice exams are drawn from the actual question pool that real exams are drawn from, and each one is different. While your scores are low, keep listening to and reading the exam pool. Soon you will be consistently passing your practice exams at 90% or above. When you can do so, you are ready for the exam. There is no Morse code test for the Technician license.
  • Contact your local club to schedule an exam session for you.

When a local club schedules an exam session for you, three or more Volunteer Examiners (VEs) will require the VE fee (currently $14), and will give you an FCC Form 605 to fill in, then the exam. You will need to bring certain things to the exam site:

  • A photo ID and two other forms of identification (credit, library, Social Security cards, etc.)
  • The approved VE fee of $14.00, to cover the cost of VEC expenses.
  • You may bring a calculator, but the memory must be cleared. An examiner will check it.
  • Two #2 pencils with erasers, and a pen to fill out the 605 form.
  • Please call ahead if you need special accommodations. FCC rules provide for testing people with handicaps.
  • If you fail the exam, you may take another one, for another VE fee.
  • You will be provided an exam, exam graphics, an answer sheet, and scratch paper.
  • Some VE groups are equipped to give the exam by computer.
  • RELAX! Stress and nervousness will only hinder you. This isn’t a job interview!

When you pass your exam,  the examiners will give you a Certificate of Successful Completion (CSCE) and file your paperwork with their Volunteer Exam Coordinator (VEC). They, in turn, will file with the FCC. Your new call sign will show up on the web in a few days.

While waiting, you can check for your callsign in the FCC ULS database. Click FCC Search, put in Last, First name and your zip code. When your call is issued, this is the first place it will appear. It will show up in QRZ a day or two later. Congratulations!

Your license is free and good for ten years. It is your responsibility to renew the license with the FCC. You can do it with a Form 605, or electronically, up to ninety days before it expires.

Now the fun part: Buying your first radio. It’s a good idea to make contact with your local Amateur Radio Club and talk to members about radios. Most Amateur Radio equipment is purchased from any of several large mail-order companies. These include AES, Ham Radio Outlet, Burghardt, GigaParts, Texas Towers, and others..

Most new hams start with a 2-meter H-T (small hand-held radio - we don’t call them “walkie-talkies…”) These tend to go for $120 - $250. They may be made more useful by adding a magnetic mount mobile antenna. They tend to put out 1/2 to 5 watts of power, and cover 144-148 MHz, the 2-meter band. There are a great many 2-meter repeaters that these radio can use, and they provide local FM communications coverage similar to police and other public service radio systems, typically 30-70 miles radius.

The next radio is usually a 2-meter mobile radio. They put out 50 watts or more, and are usually used with a permanently mounted mobile antenna. Adding a 12-volt DC power supply and a base antenna will make the mobile a base station. In this configuration, you can expect to hit repeaters in a 50-80 mile radius circle (depending on terrain), and the repeater will get you another 50-80 miles.

Join the ARRL ( www.arrl.org  ) and you will start receiving QST, the ARRL magazine. Becoming an ARRL member is very important: There are many threats today from commercial interests, and ARRL is our only spokesman and lobby. The ARRL also sells a large selection of Amateur Radio books and videos. These will help you grow in Amateur Radio.


Upgrading

After you have been a Technician for a while, you may want to upgrade to General class, and then to Extra, the top license. With General, you have to pass a 5 word-per-minute Morse code text, and another written exam. The General class license gives you access to the “HF” (high-frequency) bands. These bands, located in the “short-wave” part of the spectrum, from 1.8 to 29.7 MHz, allow you to communicate world-wide. The Extra class license gives you all the frequencies available in every Amateur Radio band.

A very good way to study Morse code is by using the “Koch Method.” A software training program is available — see http://www.g4fon.net/ . You will want to download and install the latest version, along with KochRx. This method teaches you characters at full speed, adding one character at a time. It bypasses the infamous “plateaus” otherwise encountered if you use the “old” method of learning all the characters slowly, then trying to increase your speed.

There are many other Morse code training programs that will generate perfect code for you to copy. One good link-list is located at http://www.rac.ca/opsinfo/cw.htm . Make sure to use the “Farnsworth” method — fast characters with wide spacing — to avoid listening to “slow” characters. Learn each character at full speed, at least 15 WPM. This keeps you from counting dots and dashes (these recommendations come from long-time experts).

Important Morse code pointers:

  • Never buy a key and start sending before you learn to receive. Sending and receiving are different mental operations, and sending does not teach you to receive - in fact, it will greatly inhibit your ability to learn to receive.
  • Never look at nor count printed dots and dashes. Never view printed Morse code.
  • Avoid gimmicky programs that associate Morse characters with silly sounds or words. You will have to un-learn the gimmicks before you can proceed.
  • Each letter, number, punctuation, and pro-sign has a particular sound. Learn the sound of each character — not dots and dashes. Never count dots and dashes. Learn the whole sound of each character. This is why you should never once view printed Morse code. Learn the sound of each character, not it’s dot-dash structure!
  • The FCC may remove the Morse code testing requirement in the future. This does not in any way reduce the value or purpose of Morse code proficiency.
  • Download the classic book “The Art and Skill of Radio-Telegraphy” from TASRT.pdf (a 1.8 meg PDF file — open and then save it to a local folder, then read it offline), by William Pierpont, W0HFF. See at least the 12 most important points on pp. 13-17.

Study the written exam for the General and Extra in the same fashion as the Tech - buy a study book, read it, then study the exam pool, never reading the wrong answers. Please remember that your license is a license to learn - there is a great deal to absorb beyond the testing requirements. Some of it is technical, but much of it is just good old-fashioned radio etiquette and common sense. Few people are naturally gifted in both, so improving skills, both technical and personal, is an on-going process. The rewards are both personal satisfaction in the accomplishments of a great hobby, and the meeting of many new life-long friends!

Best Wishes (73),
—KV5R

6 thoughts on “How to Become an Amateur Radio Operator
  1. Why would I wish to registrar my radios, anymore than I would wish registrar my rifles?

    Love this fountain of information, downloading it all for the future…Thank you

    • There is no requirement to register a radio (or a rifle). The ham radio license is about demonstrating competence and responsibility for sharing a limited natural resource.

  2. A great article on becoming a HAM”. For the Canadians reading here I would suggest trying learnhamradio.info This web site is good for those who have obtained a licence already but never gone as far as to use it. It is to change those inactive HAMs into REAL HAMs no matter what country they are in. It’s also a help for LDS members who are ECS in their Stake or Waed

    • That’s a nice site, and we need more like it where elmers take new hams from license to real operating skills. That’s why I stress that they should learn the subjects, not just memorize questions. But reading the best books (and web sites) is no replacement for practical experience. Activities like building antennas and accessories, and local club events, help them move forward.

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