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Becoming a ham radio operator is a natural fit for anyone wanting to be more self-sufficient or those looking for a new hobby. Ham radio has many different applications that are helpful in emergencies or as a way to communicate with others around the world.
There are about 3 million ham radio operators worldwide, with about 700,000 of them residing within the United States. Ham radio operators range from young kids up through older adults who enjoy talking to other people around the world using technology that doesn’t require a cell tower or internet signal.
Ready to start your own ham radio journey? Learn how to get a ham radio license in the United States to begin chatting with others around the world.
When wanting to get a ham radio license, it is important to understand what the radio involves and how it works.
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Why Is It Called Ham Radio?
Many new to amateur radio life may wonder why in the world it is called ham radio in the first place. While you may assume that the h-a-m stands for something, it actually doesn’t. The term “ham” is simply a nickname for those amateur radio operators. It was first heard over the radio waves in 1909 in reference to another radio operator, and the name stuck.
How Does It Work?
Ham radio uses lower non-commercial radio frequencies for communication. The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) regulates these radio frequencies and provides them free of charge for public use. Many amateur radio operators use different kinds of equipment that range in complexity from a hand-held antenna to more technical equipment.
How to Get a Ham Radio License
Before starting any activity on the ham radio frequencies, the FCC requires that you have a license. This helps everyone operate their radios legally and to learn how to communicate over the airwaves.
Different Types of Licenses
There are three types of licenses to choose from in the United States. These licenses are valid for ten years and offer different benefits to the operator.
This entry-level ham radio license is the first choice for those new to radio life. To receive a technician license, you must pass a 35 question exam covering radio regulations, theory, and operating practices. The Technician license allows access to amateur radio frequencies above 30 megahertz to chat with others within North America.
For those wanting to communicate with other people worldwide, the general license offers access to a broader range of radio frequencies. You must already hold a technician license and pass a 35 question test to upgrade to the general license. Ham radio operators with this license enjoy access to the entire range of operating modes and amateur radio frequencies below 30 megahertz.
Amateur Extra License
The highest class for ham radio is the amateur extra license. This option is more complex but provides access to all available U.S. Amateur Radio operating privileges on all bands and modes. You can even talk to astronauts in space! You’ll need to hold a general license and pass a 50 question test to become an amateur extra ham radio operator.
Study for the Test
The National Association for Amateur Radio (ARRL) offers study materials for all license types. You can even take practice exams to help you study. The ARRL Ham Radio License Manual is an excellent place to start learning all there is to know about ham radios.
Find a Class
While you don’t need to attend a class to pass a licensing exam, it can significantly help you learn more about ham radio and ask any questions that you may have. Consider finding a class in your community to attend before taking your ham radio test.
Take the Test
Most ham radio enthusiasts can find an in-person ham radio test in their area.
What to Bring
Volunteers often organize ham radio test sessions under the FCC. Be sure to bring the following with you on test day.
FCC Regulation Number
You must submit your FCC Regulation Number (FRN) on the license application form. This requires creating a user account with the FCC and providing your social security number before attending the exam. You must also have a valid email address to receive your FRN number.
While the exam fee does vary, it usually is $15 or less. Contact your exam session administrator for their fee schedule according to the license that you are testing for. The fee is usually paid by cash, check, or money order.
Legal Photo ID
Bring one legal photo identification to prove your name and identity. The following documents should suffice for this requirement:
- State driver’s license
- Government-issued passport
- Military or law enforcement officer photo I.D. card
- Student school photo I.D. card
- State photo I.D. card.
If you do not have any of the above legal photo I.D. options, you can bring two of the following forms of identification:
- Non-photo State ID card
- Birth certificate
- Social security card
- Employer’s wage statement or minor’s work permit
- School ID card
- School or Public Library card
- Utility bill, bank statement, or other business correspondence with your name or a postmarked envelope addressed to you at your current mailing address as it appears on Form 605
Copy of Current License
If you already hold an Amateur Radio license, bring a copy of it with you to the exam. Ask your exam administrator for more details about license copies.
You’ll need two #2 pencils with erasers and a pen for the exam. You can also bring a calculator that is cleared of formulas and memory. Slide rules and logarithmic tables are also acceptable to use as long as they don’t have any formulas or notes on them. The use of electronic devices such as smartphones, tablets, etc. is strictly prohibited.
There are a few special circumstances to be aware of when getting a ham radio license in the United States.
Online Exam Option
For those who don’t have an exam location near them, online exam options are available that require an internet connection strong enough to video chat.
Children Taking the Test
Students or minors without a photo I.D. need to bring one of the above items along with a legal guardian who presents their legal photo I.D. If the minor is taking the test, they may be accompanied by an adult in the testing room.
Disabled Person Resources
There are many different resources for those interested in getting a ham radio license who are disabled in some way. Courage Handiham is a non-profit group that helps those with physical or sensory disabilities become ham radio operators.
Becoming a ham radio operator is an exciting way to connect with others in your community. Not only could you meet others around the world that you would never meet in person, but you can also provide vital emergency services in the wake of a disaster. Consider becoming a ham radio operator today to learn more about how amateur radio can become part of your daily life.
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