The first thing you need to know is which exam you need to take. We will assume you do not yet have an Amateur Radio license, so you will begin with a Technician Class License. This is the entry level for all hams. (Ham is a nickname for Amateur Radio operator.) You need to pass a multiple-choice exam of 35 questions. These are taken from a pool of 396 questions (from July 1, 2010 - June 30, 2014). Passing is 26 questions or more correct. The test covers the basic things you need to know as a licensed of Amateur Radio operator - FCC Rules; station license responsibilities; control operator duties; operating practices; radio and electronic fundamentals; station setup and operation; communications modes and methods; special operations; Emergency and Public Service Communications; radio waves, propagation and antennas; electrical and RF Safety.
What can I do with a Technician Class License?
After earning your Technician Class License, you can use all amateur VHF and UHF frequencies (frequencies above 50 MHz). You can also operate on the 80, 40, and 15 meter HF bands using Morse code, and on the 10 meter band using Morse code, voice, and digital modes.
WHAT? Yes, that's confusing. Let's put it this way... you know those hams who have hand held radios and rigs (that's a nickname for radios) in their cars? They talk on 2 meters, which is around 147 MHz. (Your FM radio receives 88 MHz to 108 MHz. It's the FM broadcast band.) 2 meters is FM or VHF (Very High Frequency) and it's mostly used for local communications. The other "meter" bands (ranges of frequencies) are where Amateur Radio operators have been authorized to communicate with each other. Each radio band acts differently. Your FM radio is line-of-sight, which means you generally can't receive FM stations more than 50 miles away. On your AM radio, mainly at night, you can receive radio stations from hundreds of miles away. Using other bands, hams can talk virtually around the world!
I'm totally confused! Now what?
If you're lost, don't worry. Once you start learning about Amateur Radio, all this will make sense. In fact, this stuff will just come as second nature. That may be hard to believe now, but just wait. A few months after getting your Technician Class License, you'll be talking about this stuff just like all the other hams. Trust me, it isn't that hard!
Morse code? Do I have to learn that too?
No, you don't need to learn Morse code to get your ticket (the nickname for Amateur Radio License). Beginning in February 1991, the requirement of learning Morse code was dropped for the Technician Class License test. In fact, in February 2007, the code requirement was eliminated from all levels of Amateur Radio.
So, if Morse code is no longer required, why do hams still use it? You'll hear different answers on that. Some hams say it's tradition, others say it's what Ham radio is all about. On the other hand, some hams say it's outdated and needed to go, while others say we need to keep up with changing technology. The fact is, many hams still use code and even take the time to learn it because with static and other stations, code is usually the most efficient way to communicate long distance. Those beeps and blips are easier to hear than voice. Plus, it is another skill to learn and become proficient at. It's part of the diversity of Amateur Radio communications.
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Why would I want a Ham License when I can get on CB without taking a test?
Amateur Radio is a high-tech hobby that has something fun for everyone. Hams are people from all walks of life no matter what age, gender or physical ability. Anyone can hold an Amateur License - there's no minimum age. Hams practice courtesy and respect for others.
Most of all, Amateur Radio is fun! Unlike Citizen's Band (CB) radio, there's more than just one way to communicate. Using a small 2-meter hand-held radio you can stay in touch with other hams in your area and operate from almost any vehicle, boat or just about anywhere. Hams can send live TV in realtime or just still pictures over the air. Technician class Hams can operate FM voice, digital packet (computers), television and more. You can search for hidden transmitters in a foxhunt and take part in contests. You can even make international radio contacts via Ham Radio satellites and communicate directly to hams aboard the International Space Station. Using the computer and Amateur Radio, you can talk or use your keyboard to communicate with other hams locally or around the world.
And that's just part of what you can do as an Amateur Radio operator. There are also nets and roundtables where you talk in groups, emergency communications and services, building your own equipment and antennas, weather spotting and hamfests.
Amateur Radio is a service which promotes and encourages the honing of technical and operational radio skills in order to have qualified operators to depend on in an emergency. It was created to experiment on cutting edge communications technology and techniques and to promote goodwill and the free exchange of technical knowledge among other Hams throughout the world. Having to earn the license, Hams treat their privileges with respect. Since an Amateur Radio operator's license is a privilege that can be taken away for misuse, close attention is paid to the FCC's rules. Proper etiquette on the air is maintained through informal suggestions, peer pressure and volunteer Official Observer notices. It's a family-friendly environment.
So how do I study for the Technician Class License exam?
Books - ARRL's Tech Q&A 5th Edition (ARRL Link) for $17.95 + shipping. It's a quick and easy study guide with the questions and answers just like you'll see on the test. But it won't leave you in the dark - the book briefly explains the answers, so not only do you learn the answers to the questions, you learn about amateur radio in the process.
If you want more detailed explanations, you might prefer Ham Radio License Manual Revised 2nd Edition (ARRL Link) for $29.95 + shipping. You'll get the same questions and answers with this book, but you can also learn about radio and electronics fundamentals, operating station equipment, communicating with other hams, regulations and radio safety. A CD is also included to use with your book to review the study material and to take randomly-generated practice exams using questions from the actual examination question pool.
These books cover the question pool for use July 1, 2010 to June 30, 2014 and may also be available at your favorite bookstore.
Of course, there is some free help too. After reviewing lots of material, the best of the what we found is on our Study Material To Earn Your Technician Class Ham License web page. We know this helpful and instructive information will get you that license!
Ready to take the test? Try it online first!
Now it's time to put the book away and take the test... at home. No, you can't get your license this way, but you can see if your studying paid off. Just go to QRZ's Practice Amateur Radio Exams and click on Start Test. These tests use the complete and current official VEC (Volunteer Examiner Coordinator) approved question pools and answers. Each test taken is composed of a unique combination of questions that are selected at random in accordance with the official guidelines set forth for each element and each subelement. There is also a large print edition if the characters on your screen are too small.
After answering each question the program lets you know if your selection was right or wrong. After completing the test, you will receive your score and told whether you passed or failed. It will also suggest if you need to study more.
Where do I take my exam?
Ready to take the test? Check out our Louisville Area Amateur Radio Testing Sessions page to learn what you need for the test and where you can go to take it. If you're not from the Louisville area, then go to ARRL Exam Session Search to find testing in your area. Good luck and hope to hear you on the air soon!
Information Sources: American Radio Relay League (ARRL.org); Federal Communications Commission (FCC.gov); HamUniverse.com; North Dakota State University Amateur Radio Society (www.w0hsc.ndsu.nodak.edu); QRZ.com; Triangle East Amateur Radio Association Volunteer Examiner Team (teara-ve.ka4puv.com); Wikipedia (Wikipedia.org).