License Requirements

You need an easy-to-earn license to transmit on an amateur radio frequency. License tests cover electronics theory and amateur radio rules and regulations. Study guides are readily available. There is no age restriction. Each country has its own licensing arrangements. Many countries share many of the same frequency bands with hams in the United States. Each license class allows operation in certain bands, using certain modes. The higher the class of license, the more allowable frequency bands that are available for use.
Recently, the FCC relaxed the Morse code requirements portion of the rules to make it easier to get an amateur radio operator's license. The FCC's new licensing plan means you will be able to become a ham by passing a single 35-question written examination. License study guides are readily available for the written test.
The American Radio Relay League (ARRL) helps many get into amateur radio. The ARRL was organized in 1914 by H.P. Maxim to help relay radio messages. Most radio messages had a 25-mile range at that time and were transmitted around 1.5 MHz, at the high end of the AM broadcast band. The ARRL has many useful publications. Local volunteers around the country administer amateur radio tests. These volunteers are usually members of an amateur radio club.

What are the amateur radio operator exams like?

The FCC licensing requirements includes a mixture of written tests for several license classes and a Morse Code test of five words per minute for some license classes.
The written tests consist of multiple choice exams. You can access online study guides or you can buy them. Each type of license has specific operating privileges on each ham band.

Ham Radio Equipment

A typical ham radio is a transmitter and a receiver, usually purchased as one unit, called a transceiver. Newer transceiver models often have semi-complicated controls and menu systems that may take some reading of the manual. You may be able to find an older transceiver with controls that are easier to use as a beginner, having the usual analog controls.
Hand-held transceivers have their own antennas. Many hams choose to do most of their operating from their automobile during commute times, using a magnetic mount antenna connected to an under-dash transceiver or a hand-held radio.

Power Output

Depending on the size (hand-held or desktop), power can be from a few milliwatts to 1,500 watts. Many new hams are graduates from citizens band (CB) radio. Unlike the 5-watt limit on CB, hams can use quite a bit more power (1,500 watts).
The ham radio can fit in your shirt pocket, take up half of an attic or garage, sit on a desk next to the computer or go into a car. Right now, during the current sunspot cycle, it is possible to talk around the world during daylight hours running just a few watts of power. This particular type of radio-wave propagation is in the 28-MHz band (commonly called the 10-meter band) thanks to short-wave propagation (300 divided by the frequency in MHz is a quick way to convert to "meters").


Little whip antennas, wire antennas in trees, and antennas atop a tower are all used, depending on the frequency in use. Lower frequencies have longer wavelengths. Longer wavelengths need larger antennas. The same antennas (used to transmit and receive) can be small, portable, put in trees or on the trunk of a car.
The common 146-MHz (2-meter) antenna is a 19-inch quarter-wave whip. A wavelength at 146 MHz is approximately 2 (300 divided by 146) meters, and a quarter wave of 2 meters is about 19 inches (50 cm). Hams enjoy the fun of experimenting with various types of antennas. Some antennas are made of wire strung between trees. Be sure to use lightning protection for outside antennas!
Hams, including the writer of this article, have communicated with other hams using the following types of antennas with antenna tuners:
  • Metal window screens in upper floors of hotels and motels
  • Aluminum extension ladders, insulated from the ground, leaning against a house (the lower the frequency, the longer the ladder)
  • Soldered-together rain gutters and downspouts
  • Flat copper "burglar-tape" hidden behind wallpapered walls
  • Extended "Slinky" toys supported by a rope through the middle, in an attic
  • Camera-tripod-supported whip antenna
  • Disguised flagpoles fed with buried coaxial cable
  • Fine wires cast with a fishing rod between dormitory buildings

What keeps ham operators from transmitting on the same frequency?

Many hams can be on the same frequency, but it depends on the propagation factors. VHF and UHF are line-of-sight, so many hams can be on the same frequency in one state. On short-wave bands, radios havevariable frequency tuning to allow moving your transmitted signal (in very small increments) in between two other transmitting stations. Hams often do a lot more listening than transmitting. Often, they listen for another ham that identifies the station as being in a sought-after county, state, or country.

Hams collect confirmations of contacts using QSL cards. Hams collect the QSL cards and receive awards for contacting so many countries on certain frequency bands. VHF and UHF hand-held radios typically use channeledcommunications, using selectable fixed frequencies.


There are frequent hamfests, or ham radio flea markets, in many areas. Hamfests are the best place to meet hams, buy equipment, and take your license test. It's a great way to find some terrific deals on used equipment. You will also find computer parts at hamfests. It is relatively inexpensive to get into amateur radio if you learn how to shop for used equipment with the aid of someone at a local radio club. Think of a hamfest as a real-time, in-person ham radio display like that found at eBay -- but you don't have to bid against others!
Look for a transceiver with a built-in general coverage receiver. That way, you get the versatility of two hobbies: ham radio and short-wave listening.
Each May, the world's largest ham radio convention is held in Dayton, Ohio.