Getting started in amateur radio
Perhaps you were talking with someone about communicating in an emergency, or maybe you heard about being able to talk across the country with less energy than an incandescent light bulb. However you became interested in amateur radio, this page is a resource to help you begin on your journey.
Before you get started, you may want to print out our Glossary of Amateur Radio Terms to help you while you are studying for your amateur radio exam.
- 1 What is amateur radio?
- 2 Preparing for your Technician license
- 3 What are the Technician license privileges
- 4 After you earn your Technician license
- 5 See also
- 6 External links
What is amateur radio?
Amateur radio, also called ham radio, is both a hobby and a service. Amateur radio operators are able to talk to people all around the world, and in times of emergencies or other need, provide communications when other methods are not available. Amateur radio communications can be set up just about anywhere, whether at home, in the car, or the International Space Station. But in order to operate, you need to understand some operating rules and a light amount of electrical concepts. After all, you are working with and transmitting energy, so knowing a few formulas related to electricity comes with the territory.
Once you demonstrate understanding of these items by taking an amateur radio exam, you will earn an amateur radio license. The Technician license is the first license level, the other two being General and Amateur Extra. As you continue your amateur radio journey, the other two licensing levels require more knowledge, but with that comes additional privileges. But for now, focus on your Technician and get some time on the air.
Do you need to learn Morse code?
No, but it could be useful. While Morse code used to be a requirement to earn an amateur radio license, over time this requirement has slowly been lifted. If you do learn Morse code, it will enable you to talk with others using this mode, and because it's a tone rather than voice, it can reach much further around the world versus using your voice.
Preparing for your Technician license
While the General and Amateur Extra licenses go more into electrical circuits and long-distance communication, the Technician exam focuses more on operating rules and general electrical concepts. For example, the formula V=IR, or Voltage equals Current times Resistance, is an electrical concept you should know.
Whether you prefer to study in a group environment like a classroom, or at your own pace by reading at home, you have a few options for learning about amateur radio basics to work towards earning your Technician license.
Find an Elmer
If you can, find an Elmer to help you on your journey. An Elmer is an amateur radio operator who mentors others to help them understand the many facets of amateur radio. Your local amateur radio group may have Elmers waiting and eager to help!
If you haven't heard of them yet, you are going to become very familiar. The American Radio Relay League, or ARRL, is the largest membership association of amateur radio operators in the United States. ARRL offers several resources, but the one you should consider first is the Technician textbook The ARRL Ham Radio License Manual. This book covers the information needed to pass the Technician exam.
Make sure the book is current. For example, the 4th edition covers the question pool in place from July 1, 2018 to June 30, 2022. On July 1, 2022 the question pool will be updated, and a new edition of the book will be released.
If you prefer to learn in a classroom environment, your local amateur radio group may offer ham classes to help you get on the air. Check with your local group to see what classes are offered in the area. If you're not sure how to find one, the ARRL maintains a list of classes. You might also find information at your local library.
The ARRL has information on its website about earning an amateur radio license.
The exam questions are public, and some organizations have made online practice tests available so you can self-asses your understanding. Some offer feedback on what areas you need to focus on, while others offer flash cards to help you study.
What are the Technician license privileges
Once you earn your Technician license, you are allowed to transmit on VHF and UHF frequencies, as well as on a limited amount of high frequency (HF) frequencies.
A useful way to quickly see where you are permitted to operate, and in what modes, is to have a band plan handy. On the band plan you will find both what frequencies you can operate on, and the voluntary partitioning on those bands to help avoid interference between modes. For example, those holding a Technician license can transmit on 10 meters from 23.00 MHz to 28.500 MHz. The band plan shows that 28.000 MHz to 28.330 MHz is for RTTY and data, and 28.330 MHz to 28.550 MHz is for SSB phone. Those with Amateur Extra, Advanced (a former license level which isn't offered anymore), and General can transmit both phone and image from 28.300 MHz to 29.700 MHz.
Confusing? Luckily, you can print out a band plan chart. and the ARRL has charts available for download.
After you earn your Technician license
Once you earn your license, sometimes referred to earning your ticket, and your call sign is issued by the Federal Communications Commission, you will be able to operate on the air. Congratulations!
But you will need a few things to get started. Hopefully by now you have met with other amateur radio operators and started talking about what to get, but here is some guidance to help you on your amateur radio journey.
The essentials for your first amateur radio station
Any amateur radio station needs at least these three things:
- The radio, called a transceiver
- An antenna
- A power source
- A way to hook it all together
If you purchase a handheld radio, you have everything in one! If you opt for a mobile or base radio, you will need to buy each item individually.
Picking out your first radio
If you were to put a group of amateur radio operators together in a room, you would have recommendations for just about every radio brand out there, followed by comments about why you shouldn't go with any of those brands. The key here is each radio offers a set of features and a particular interface to those features, and it's about finding a radio that works in a way you find comfortable and easy to use, while falling within your budget.
If possible, try to locate a local store with amateur radios on display. For example, Ham Radio Outlet operates several stores across the United States and has radios on display and plugged in for you to try out. By trying the radios, you can gauge which one you prefer.
Handheld, mobile, or base
It is common for new hams to start with a handheld radio, but regardless of handheld, mobile, or base, it may be wise to start with either a 2-meter or a dual-band 2-meter/70-centimeter radio. These bands are a great place to start practicing and building your amateur radio skills. If you are looking for a base radio (as in, a radio you would use at your desk at home), consider mobile radios. These serve as excellent base radios, and if you do purchase a larger base radio in the future, this mobile radio can be moved to your vehicle, or you can keep it at your desk to serve as a second radio.
As mentioned earlier, you will find a fan for every brand out there, and turn around to find someone who complete talks down that brand. Again, the key is finding a radio that works well for you, within your budget.
The Baofeng/Pofung radios have become a go-to for first radio seekers because of their prices. Sometimes as low as $20 (or cheaper) for a handheld, they have brought down the cost of entry into the hobby quite a bit. The saying, "You get what you pay for," does apply, however. Some Baofeng radios may be very difficult to program from the keypad, instead using a computer program like CHIRP to more easily set them up. In some cases, using a computer program is the only way to change certain settings.
Other, more established brands include Yaesu, Kenwood, Icom, and Alinco. Depending on how many features you want, such as built-in Automatic Packet Reporting System (APRS) support, waterproofing, or bright colorful displays, the price can range quite a bit, going as high as $600 or more. This is where getting familiar with the radio's features, and more importantly its menu interface, becomes critical to help ensure you're purchasing a radio you will be happy with for years to come.
There are a lot of antenna options. If you start with a 2-meter or a dual-band 2-meter/70-centimeter radio, pick the antenna based on the band or bands you started with. There are lots of options based on whether you are in an apartment, have a large area to set up a tower, or somewhere in between. If you have an Elmer, reach out to him or her to get some ideas on what antenna may work better for your radio and where you will place it.
There are numerous power supply options out there, and for your first one it may be worthwhile to look for a switching power supply providing 13.8 Volts at 15 Amps. This is a decent power supply for powering your first, and maybe even your second radio. If you plan on having two or more radios, you may want to start with a larger power supply, still providing 13.8 volts, but maybe 30 Amps, or 50 Amps! When you find the radio you want to purchase, check its user manual for power specifications. It will tell you how much power it needs when transmitting. If the radio offers several power levels when transmitting, check the requirement for its highest transmit power.
Hooking it all together
If you opted for a mobile or base radio, chances are it came with power cables in the box. Simply hook this up to the power supply. If there weren't any power cables, a quick visit to the home improvement store will get you set. Make sure it is the right gauge for how far you need to run it. The longer the cable, the more voltage loss will occur. This is especially true for mobile radio installs in vehicles as the vehicle battery or other connection point can need a lot of wire, sometimes over 10 feet, and there may be too much loss if the wire is not a proper gauge. You will know if it isn't if, when you go to transmit, especially on high power, the radio resets or otherwise cuts out.
To hook up your radio to the antenna, you're going to need some coax cable. You are going to discover a sea of different coax cable types, and the one to get depends on how far you need to run the cable. Each cable type has a different rate of signal loss (called attenuation, and naturally, the cables that have lower signal loss tend to cost more.
Getting on the air
After you purchase your equipment, get it set up, and you're ready to hop on the air, you'll want to find someone to talk to. Local amateur radio repeaters are a good place to start. While you could call out on the national simplex frequency, repeaters tend to have other amateur radio operators listening, and in some cases the repeater may host a net. There are tools online for locating amateur radio repeaters, but if you haven't found a local amateur radio group, be sure to ask the team at your amateur radio exam session for some local repeater information
For those in the Dallas/Fort Worth area, a list of repeaters is available on this wiki:
Once you are on the air, have fun! Yes, you may make a mistake. Yes, everyone else on the air has made a mistake and will probably make future mistakes. Learning is n ongoing part of everyone's amateur radio journey, and if someone offers constructive feedback, know that it is in the spirit of helping you continue your journey and build your skills.