This article will provide you with some information on how to study for and obtain your Ham/amateur radio license and what to look for in your first radio.
The amateur radio (aka “Ham”) licenses issued by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) are issued in three classes– Technician, General, Amateur Extra (usually just called Extra). Each license class brings increasing privileges of frequencies that can be used. There are three grandfathered licenses classes called Novice, Technician Plus, and Advanced. The Novice license was issued to those who passed the old five word per minute (wpm) Morse code test but not the written test for the Technician. The Technician Plus was issued to Technicians who passed the five wpm Morse test. The Advanced was a class between the General and Extra. There is no longer a Morse code test for any of the license classes.
Testing for the FCC license is conducted by at least three volunteer examiners, otherwise known as VEs. VEs submit test results through a Volunteer Examiner Coordinator, also otherwise known as VECs. The VEC is an organization that creates and administers tests based on FCC guidelines and submits test results to the FCC. The FCC authorizes the VECs to charge a fee for administering exams, currently up to $15. The fee is per sitting of the exam; in other words, if you pass the Technician you can take the General for the same fee. In fact you could take all three exams for $15 if you pass the preceding one. You have to answer a certain amount of questions correctly to pass each licensing test, which is listed below:
- The Technician exam is 35 questions; you need to get 26 correct to pass.
- The General exam is 35 questions; you need to get 26 correct to pass.
- The Amateur Extra is 50 questions; you need to get 37 correct to pass.
The license is good for 10 years. If you wish to renew, you simply apply to the FCC.
There are a number of VECs. The two most commonly known ones are the Amateur Radio Relay League (ARRL) and W5YI. A full list of VECs is available.
There are usually exams monthly in most areas of the country. Exams can be found at:
Studying for the Exams
There are a number of websites that offer free study material and sample tests. I have included the links to some websites below. Additionally, ARRL and W5YI sell text books as well as audio and video material.
Some study sites include:
- KB6NU (very good reading material)
- W5YI (books, audio & video material)
- ARRL (books)
- I recommend the 6-hr YouTube video by ARRL.
I Passed! What Do I Do Next?
You will receive a Certificate of Successful Completions of Examination (CSCE) when you take your test. You may begin using your new Technician privileges as soon as your name and call sign appear in the FCC database. You do not need your license in hand to begin using your Technician privileges. The FCC no longer issues paper licenses, so you can go online and print from their database. Check the FCC database. (or Google “FCC ULS” and follow the prompts to search the Amateur database. If you previously had a Technician or General class and upgraded, you can begin using your new privileges as soon as you pass. The bottom of the Certificate of Successful Completions of Examination indicates the actions you need to take to correctly identify your station until the upgrade appears in the FCC database.
Find a Local Club
A Google search should reveal clubs in your area. You will probably find they have a repeater, or several. You should not have any trouble finding an “Elmer”– an experienced Ham who is willing to give you advice. Your Elmer can help you program radios and may give you advice on what to look for in a radio, including the different radio (repeater) systems that are in your area. A local club might also run classes for licenses.
What Frequencies/Bands Can I Operate On?
Band plans show what frequencies you can operate on depending on your license. These can be found at:
Most newly licensed Hams start out using voice, mostly through repeaters. A repeater is usually located on a mountain or other high place. It receives the “weaker” (five watts for a hand-held) signal from your radio and retransmits it, usually somewhere between 50-100 watts. This means you can talk to someone 50 or more miles away. Some repeaters are linked by radio, microwave, or Internet. You talk on one, and you could be heard on any number of repeaters around your state or multiple states.
Other systems link repeaters across the country or even the world. Therefore, with a Technician license you could be talking on your hand held to someone on the other side of the world. Some of these linked systems allow you, the user, to select which other linked repeaters you want to talk to, such as Echolink, IRLP, and D-STAR. Others are permanently linked, such as DMR.
D-STAR and IRLP are interconnect systems that are connected to an existing repeater. Simple codes let you connect to other repeaters. Echolink is usually connected to a repeater but also has an application you can download to your computer, and after verification that you have a license, allow you to connect to other repeaters through your computer.
DMR is a digital form of communications, usually on the 2 meter or 70cm bands. These radios will also do analog communications for the common 2 meter and 70cm repeaters. Connect Systems sells a very inexpensive DMR radio. Colorado has one of the most extensive DMR repeater systems in the country. DMR radios take some skill to program, however the Rocky Mountain Ham Radio group operates the network in Colorado, which extends to Wyoming and Arizona, and provide complete code plugs (the code for programming the radio) for most DMR radios. Most local groups that operate DMR networks offer assistance with programming.
For a more detailed explanation on radio bands, radio services, such as GMRS and FRS, and other information on communications in an emergency, please refer to the SurvivalBlog article, “Communications For When SHTF” by N.M.
What Repeaters Can I Use?
Before you buy a radio, see what is in your area so that you have an idea of what frequencies (bands) you want to talk on. Most common bands are VHF (2 meters) and UHF (440MHz or 70cm). Typically rural areas will have more 2-meter repeaters as the signal covers further. Urban areas tend to have more 440 repeaters. Other repeaters accessible with a Technician license can be found on 23cm (1.2Ghz or “1270” band), 33cm (900Mhz), 1.2 meters (220Mhz), 6 meters, and/or 10 meters.
A Technician class operator can operate in all of these bands. Some areas also have a form of digital repeaters, such as D-STAR and DMR. Both of these require a specific type of radio, which will be discussed further below. A Google search for ‘amateur repeaters’ will result is several sites that provide lists of repeater systems in your area. There are also apps for smart phones. Some repeater search sites are:
- The Repeater Book shows search groups by band, type, (i.e., D-STAR, Echolink, IRLP, DMR, linked, et cetera), wide area coverage, systems (repeater groups), use such as ARES, as well as coverage of major routes, and location by towns and counties.
What Radio Should I Buy?
Note that the radios listed below are not an endorsement of any particular radio. Some are listed because they appear to be a common first purchase or because a current look up of the capabilities (i.e. bands or memory channels) appear to present a useful combination.
If you are looking at a mobile or home installation, consider a multi-band radio. Currently, Yaesu offers a FT-8900R, which is 10m/6m/2m/440 for under $400. This radio, with a suitable antenna, will provide voice (phone) operation on (2m/70cm) frequencies a Technician can operate on and give you a taste for HF operations on 10 and 6 meters. If you operate one of these radios with a Technician class license, make sure you have a band plan with you, as a Technician is only allowed to operate on certain frequencies on 10 meters (28300-28500MHz). Of course, if you get one of the radios listed below you can operate Morse code (CW) on several other HF bands as a Technician.
If you are planning on advancing to General and Extra class and you have the budget, there are a few HF radios that also have 2m/440 and could be mounted in a vehicle or operated at home. The only current models appear to be the Yaesu FT-857D and the Icom IC-7100. The IC-7100 replaced the Icom 706MkIIG, one of which the author operates. I’m not sure that the IC-7100 face plate could be easily installed in many new model vehicles. If you look around for used radios, I strongly suggest you get help from a local Elmer or club to make sure you don’t get sold a box of parts.
Other considerations include whether you want to use FRS and/or GMRS frequencies. (See the article titled “Communications for When SHTF” for detailed explanation on these other radio systems).
NOTE: You must have a GMRS license from the FCC to use GMRS frequencies. Currently the license is $90 and is valid for five years. In 2010 the FCC filed to dissolve the fee, but this is still pending. Another consideration is how many channels you wish to program into the radio. Also, consider your needs for emergency communications, such as the AMRRON network.
Most new Hams purchase a hand-held radio as their first Ham radio. Many are purchasing the Baofeng radios, commonly the UV5R, F8HP, and UV-82HP models. These radios work on both the 2-meter and 70cm bands and cover the weather band, GMRS, FRS, and MURS frequencies. These radios are very inexpensive but are not as good quality as some of the major brands, such as Icom, Kenwood, Yaesu, and Alinco. The Baofeng radios usually have about 128 memory channels to store frequencies in. The major brands typically have larger memories. The Yaesu VX-6R offers 2m/220/440 and 900 memory channels. The Yaesu FT-60R (2m/440) offers over 1,000 channels. A good website to compare features is: Universal Radio. If you are considering the need to use a DMR network then Connect Systems has some good radios at reasonable prices, however these are single band, either 2 meter or 70cm.
If you are considering the need to use D-STAR, then you will need to purchase an appropriate Icom radio. Connect Systems has reported that they are working on a DMR/analog radio that will also be capable of operating on D-STAR systems.
One band that is very much overlooked is the 1.2 meter (220MHz) band. If you have a “220” repeater in your area, you should consider a radio that has that capability. If you have a group of people and you want to be able to talk where very few people are, this is the place. There are a couple of handheld radios on the market that have 2-meter, 70cm, and 220 capability– Yaesu VX-6R, Yaesu VX-8DR and Kenwood TH-F6A. Unfortunately, the Yaesu radios only offer low power on 220; the Kenwood model has a full 5 watts on 220. Currently there are no multi-band mobile radios with the 220 band, and the only 220 mobile radios available are the Alinco DR-235T and the Jetstream JT222M. It should be noted that Alinco has, at least for the past 10 years or more, always offered the 220 mobile.
If you are purchasing a hand-held as your first radio, you should also purchase an extension antenna. The antennas that come with radios (aka “rubber ducks”) are not very efficient. You should also consider the ability to obtain a battery pack that will take AA batteries as these are more plentiful than the ability to recharge a radio in the fields.
You can also buy an antenna for the outside of your vehicle. While a portable radio is usually no more than five watts, putting an antenna on the outside of your vehicle will increase the range. If you do this you will need a short extension cable with a connector on one end to connect to the antenna cable and one to connect to your radio on the other, as most antenna cables are not the same connector that is on hand-held radios. If you simply buy an adaptor, the extra weight puts a strain on the connections inside the radio, and they will break over time.
Another consideration is whether there is software to assist in programming the radio and whether it is included in the costs or an additional fee together with the programing cable. While programming software is helpful, you should also consider how easy the radio is to program from the keypad for field programming. The Icom and Alinco radios are a little easier to program from the keypad. Radios with D-STAR are considerably more difficult to program from the keypad, and DMR radios have to be programmed with software. Again, these are things that an Elmer can help you with.
I Have A Radio; Now What?
Listen, listen, listen! You will want to listen for a while to get a feel for how conversations usually go. Find out when local nets are. An internet search, or your local club’s website, will usually have this information. Some nets are informal, while others pass “traffic” messages that are passed from one Ham to another until someone in the intended area takes it and delivers it to the intended recipient. This is just like the old telegram system. It is practiced so when the commercial systems are down in a disaster area, such as in Katrina, messages can still be passed.
Practice, practice, practice! You need to get on and talk to people. If you are part of a group, you can ask a local repeater owner if you can use their repeater at a certain time for your own net. Remember that everyone can hear; Ham radio is not secure.
Look for an opportunity to be involved with the national Field Day! This will give you great hands-on experience and a chance to contest! CQ Field Day is a wonderful event to get children and teens excited about amateur radio. Field Day is usually held the last full weekend in June.
Your newly acquired Ham radio skills can also be used to help your community in times of emergency, such as forest fires, floods, tornadoes, hurricanes, and other natural disasters. You can look for an ARES (Amateur Radio Emergency Services) group in your area. Normally these groups are organized by county.
It is strongly suggested that you now look at upgrading your license to General so that you can obtain privileges of HF (“shortwave”) and talk longer distances without the need for a repeater. Again, refer to the study material references cited earlier and look for a local club that is offering a class. There are many other areas of Ham radio that you might wish to explore. These include learning Morse code. W5YI sells some excellent CDs to help you learn. There are many other digital forms of communication over Ham radio. This web page has a good summary of many of them. Another great emergency communications over Ham radio applications is Winlink. Many local ARES groups use this to assist their local emergency management and other agencies in an emergency or disaster.
This article was intended as a “primer” to get you started with your Technician license. I hope you have found this useful. Good luck with obtaining your Technician license, and I hope to catch you on the air sometime.