So You Want to Be a Ham…and Don’t Know Where to Start?

Have you considered getting a ham radio license and don’t quite know where to start?

First of all, if you are still considering amateur radio, I invite you to read CQ, CQ, CQ… and Two-Way Emergency Communications to get a quick overview on why it is a big advantage for the prepper to become a ham. In short, amateur radio has the greatest capabilities and the most versatility when it comes to emergency communications. The ability to use one form of two-way communications to send voice exchanges, email, data messages, phone calls, satellite contacts, and even video images is only matched by cellular phones and the internet. However, both cellular service and internet access are heavily dependent on infrastructure, and therefore they cannot be relied upon in serious emergencies. This is when amateur radio shines; because it can stand on its own if a serious emergency strikes. As long as you have the right equipment and backup power, you would have all you would need to communicate.

So…do you have hesitations about getting a ham license?

Perhaps the cost is a factor, but it really shouldn’t be. The license is free in the United States, (although you usually pay a one-time fee to the test administrators, which is typically only around $15.) Also, there are plenty of free resources available to help one prepare for the exam that are found both online and as downloadable apps for mobile devices. So what about the cost of the equipment? Well…you can get a handheld transceiver for only around $30, so all in all, you don’t need great wealth to get started in becoming a ham.

Besides the cost, some have concerns that they do not want to have a government license. They would rather have all their emergency preps “under the radar” rather than have a registered FCC call sign (which, BTW, it is true that the identity of call sign holders can be looked up on certain web sites.) Those concerned often state that they are worried about privacy, and some reason that when an emergency happens, there will be no license enforcement anyway.  I admit…I highly doubt anything would happen if one were to use amateur radio without a license in a disaster scenario. However…there are counters to both of these objections. First, if privacy is a concern, one can use a post office box address to register their license in order to maintain more confidentiality. Second, if one reasons that they will only operate when a disaster strikes, they are making a critical preparedness error. Why? Amateur radio is a learned skill. It takes a lot of time to practice to get it down…just like gardening, self-defense, food preservation, etc. If you plan on not practicing ham radio until the need is there, most likely you will not be able to perform it. Trust me. It takes consistent practice. What if you plan on practicing without a license? Plain and simple…don’t. You will likely be caught. I’m not trying to be a snob about it here, but hams are self-policing, and there are plenty of “old-timers” that often report transmissions which they suspect as illegitimate…and, by the way, the fines can be high. Do you think you won’t be found? Think again. Hams can also triangulate the location of your transmissions. It’s done by a method known as “fox-hunting,” and some hams even make a sport of it. The need to be able to practice all facets of ham radio “above the board” alone should convince one that it would be worth going ahead and getting a license. That way, you would be free to practice and hone your communication skills without the fear of undesirable consequences if you were ever caught. Again, the need to practice communications exists before any disaster strikes, so the only way to be truly prepared in this is to be able to practice now, and often.

So what if you are already sold on the idea of becoming a ham and you are unsure of where to start?

If you are in the United States, you need to, first of all, study for the technician exam. (As for those who live outside the U.S., the requirements can vary widely, but it is not unheard of for non-U.S. citizens to take the U.S. exams and apply for license reciprocity within their own country.) The level of “technician” is the entry level license for amateur radio. It is the gateway level which authorizes the licensee to primarily operate on the amateur VHF and UHF frequency bands using a wide variety of communication modes including voice, data, SSTV, and CW (Morse code.) By the way, if you are holding back on getting a ham license because you do not know Morse code, you should know that it is no longer a requirement for licensing in the U.S.  It is also not necessary for you to understand all the transmission modes one can use…there is simply just too much to learn. All you need to do to prepare for the exam is to study the questions that will appear on a 35 question multiple-choice test. How do you study the questions? All the possible test questions…with their answers…are published, and there are many methods which you could use to learn them.

If you desire, you may simply memorize the questions and answers to take the test. This is one method many use. There are books available on the market, such as ARRL’s Tech Q & A, which have a format focused towards studying the pool of possible test questions alongside with their answers. Another possibility is to use flashcards to do the same thing. One excellent source for this is found at Of course, if you do not care if you have written books or flashcards in hand, and you are open to learning online or by apps, there are also several free resources available for you to help you prepare for the exam.  Here are some options:

Pic of HamExam org – free online study flashcards and practice exams

arrlexamreview – free practice exams on the ARRL website

eham net exams – another good source for free practice exams

Hamm Radio Exam itunes  Ham Radio Exam – Tech – free exam preparation app for iphones and ipads

ham radio exam tech android  Ham Radio Exam Tech – free exam preparation app for android devices

ham test prep android    Ham Test Prep – another free android app for exam preparation

Another method for studying for the exam, which I personally recommend, is to also learn from a book which explains the concepts behind the questions you are studying. That way, you are gaining understanding as you prepare for the test, not just memorizing questions. There are many excellent books out there for this purpose. Two books I personally recommend for individual study are The ARRL Ham Radio License Manual and Technician Class 2014-18 FCC Element 2 Radio License Preparation.

Besides memorizing the test questions or studying the concepts on your own, another option is to choose to take a class to prepare for the exam. Everyone learns differently, and you may feel that this method would work best for you. If the idea of taking a class with an instructor appeals to you, then I suggest you go to to find out if a class is offered in your area.

Once you feel that you are sufficiently prepared to take the exam, you can go to to find a test session offered in your area. Be aware that many locations accept walk-ins, but some require advanced reservations. In addition to the locations listed on the ARRL website, license exams are also often held at ham fests and ham club meetings, and they can even be arranged to be held privately as long as there are three qualified “Volunteer Examiners” present. All you would need to bring would be two forms of identification (including one photo I.D.,) a pencil, a calculator if you wish, and payment for the exam fee. (Find out in advance what methods of payment the test administrators accept as not all accept debit or credit cards.) As far as the test is concerned, relax. It’s actually not that hard, (as you should have been studying all the questions and answers in advance anyway,) and you only need to get 26 out of the 35 multiple-choice questions correct to pass. Nine-year old children do it, so if you study, you should be able to do it as well. What if you don’t pass? It’s true, some don’t…and that’s usually because they didn’t prepare before the exam. If that’s the case, just study some more and take the exam again. If you keep at it, you are bound to get it right.

Once you pass, you’ll get your “ticket” to become a ham. Your call sign will be assigned shortly, and then you will be able to practice and enjoy the world of amateur radio. Believe me when I say that studying for the exam was just the beginning, because the real learning takes place as you gain experience…just as it is with any other skill. There is much to learn and a lot to enjoy. Good luck!

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