Matt already wrote two good articles explaining the importance of getting your ham radio license and the process by which to do it. Those articles helped push me over the edge after years of good intentions but no action. I earned my Technician license in December 2020, and I’ve been putting it to use nearly daily ever since.
One thing that struck me as I began learning about amateur radio is that a lot of information aimed at new or prospective hams seems written by people who’ve been doing amateur radio for a long time. I respect their expertise, but it seems most of them have forgotten what it’s like at the beginning of the journey. On the other hand, if I’m an expert at anything, it’s being a beginner. So this article comes from the perspective of a relatively new ham who still doesn’t know much- but who knows a lot about what he didn’t know six months ago.
I’ve organized it around six things that it’s important to know in order to get off to a good start in ham radio.
Know your WHY
Getting your amater radio license opens the door to some exciting possibilities, but it can also be intimidating. Having a clear purpose helps you to stay focused and not get overwhelmed by information, analysis-paralysis, and gear lust.
My “why” is developing off-grid communications capabilities and getting to know like-minded people in my area. Other “whys” include participating in search-and-rescue operations teams, learning about electronics, and making contacts with people all around the world. Being honest with myself (and you), another of my “whys” is that I just like sexy new kit- no one clicking around on this website should judge me for that!
Know your WHERE
Your location has a significant impact on your needs and abilities as a ham radio operator. If you’re in an urban area, the odds are good that nearby repeaters can increase the distance over which you communicate. That means you might be able to get by with a relatively inexpensive handheld radio, also known as a walkie talkie or handie talkie (HT).
If you’re in a more rural area, you may need a more powerful radio such as the kind you’d put in a car. Also, it’s important to know that the frequencies you’ll be working with are hampered by physical obstacles like buildings, trees, and terrain. Urban or hilly areas shorten your effective range whereas open terrain allows you to communicate over greater distances.
Know your WHAT
What should you buy, and when should you buy it? Matt makes a good point in his reflections on his interview with NC Scout that until you actually own a radio and start playing around with it, you’re just learning theory.
Practice is where things get fun. It’s illegal for someone without a license to transmit over frequencies reserved for amateur radio operators, but anyone can buy a radio, learn how to operate it, and use it to listen.
A lot of people buy a Baofeng UV-5R as their first ham radio. It’s a cheap handheld radio that works well enough to start learning how amateur radios work. If you stick with the hobby, you’ll eventually upgrade, but your little UV-5R will continue to serve a variety of purposes.
Of course, there are other, fancier options, and some people prefer the “buy once, cry once” approach. However, in the spirit of keeping things simple and minimizing analysis paralysis, I think a UV-5R is the right place to start, especially considering how cheap it is. It’ll give you a platform with which to learn more about your specific needs and interests. In that sense, you can consider it a $30 hedge against wasting $400 on the wrong radio.
Know your HOW
Once you’ve got a radio, you’ll need to learn how to program it. There are two ways to do this: directly through the buttons on the radio, and via a computer. It’s important to know how to do both. The factory manuals are often pretty bad, but there are plenty of better alternatives on the Internet. For the UV-5R, I recommend the one at miklor.com. Similarly, many radios come with their own programming software, but a good alternative is an open-source platform called CHIRP.
Of course, the next thing you’ll ask yourself is what frequencies should you enter?
That depends on what’s in use in your area. 146.52MHz is the national calling frequency on the 2m band. That means it’s the one people use when they want to make a direct contact with another ham radio operator. (Direct radio-to-radio contact over a single frequency is called operating in simplex.) That’s a good place to start, but you’ll probably find more activity on repeaters.
A repeater is basically a big antenna on a big tower that receives radio transmissions on one frequency and retransmits them on another frequency. A receiver’s height and power significantly increase the range over which you can communicate, especially if you’re operating on a handheld radio. To find the repeaters in your area, go to repeaterbook.com and use their proximity search.
Radios like the UV-5R operate on the 70cm and 2m bands, so choose those in the band options. Select FM in the mode options, and set your search radius to 25 miles. This will give you a list of the repeaters in your area. You can use this information to program repeaters directly into your radio. If you’re using CHIRP, you have an easier option. Both have the ability to query repeaterbook.com and pull down all of the information you need for the repeaters near you.
While it’s good to know how to program a repeater directly into your radio, CHIRP makes it a lot faster. [A side note regarding CHIRP – there’s a list of CHIRP-compatible radios at https://chirp.danplanet.com/projects/chirp/wiki/Supported_Radios. If you’re thinking about buying a particular radio, I’d recommend checking there to see if you can use CHIRP with it.]
Once you’ve programmed your radio, the next thing to do is to scan and listen. What should you be listening to or for? Plenty! You’ll hear people having one-to-one conversations, and you’ll also run across multiple people talking round-robin style. This is called a net.
Pay attention to little details like how people announce their call signs. Do they say, “this is…” and pause before stating their callsign? Do they use use standard letters or the phonetic alphabet (alpha, bravo, charlie, etc.)? Notice how long, or short, they talk. Many radios and most repeaters have a time-out setting. That means that after a certain amount of time, usually two or three minutes, the transmission cuts off.
To avoid being cut off, you’ll hear people briefly breaking their transmissions every minute or so. Another thing to notice is the unique vocabulary of ham radio operators. You won’t hear a lot of ‘80s movie CB lingo like “rodger” or “10-4”, but you will occasionally hear a few terms unique to ham radio. In particular, you’ll hear hams say “73” at the end of a conversation. That’s short for “kind regards.”
Lastly, take note of the call signs of the people you hear operating in your area. That leads directly to the next section…
Know your WHO
Ham radio isn’t hard, but it isn’t easy, either.
Finding someone to help you learn the ropes will definitely accelerate your learning process. In ham radio, such a person is called an “Elmer.” One way to find an Elmer is to get in touch with a local ham radio club. There are lots of them, and they can be a great resource for new or prospective hams.
Another way to get in touch with local hams is via qrz.com. The lookup page on qrz.com is like the phonebook for ham radio. You can use it to search for ham radio license holders by callsign, name, or location. Often, they’ll have their email address on their profile, which you can see if you create an account. (Something to keep in mind when you get your license is that your mailing address becomes part of your public record with the FCC. Because of that, some people choose to get a PO box to keep their address private.)
Know the ANSWERS
The last thing you need to know before getting your ham radio license is the answers to the test questions! The Technician exam is not particularly hard. It’s 35 questions chosen randomly from a publicly available pool of 428 questions. You have to get at least 26 correct to pass.
There are plenty of books and apps and programs to help you study. Some of them, like the official ARRL manual, are very textbook-like and contain a large amount of information. Others are more interactive. A lot of them are focused on just plain memorizing the answers. Is that cheating? I’ll leave that for you to decide. It’s definitely the fastest way to prepare for the test.
I used hamstudy.org to study for both my Technician license and my General. It gives you the option of taking the just-memorize-the-answers approach, but it also provides an explanation for each question & answer. I found that by reading the questions, the answers, and the explanations, I was able to minimize my study time while still truly absorbing the material. An added bonus of hamstudy.org is that it’s used by a lot of the organizations that conduct online license tests, so you’ll already be familiar with the testing platform when you go to take your test.
Thanks for reading this article, and thanks to Matt for inviting me to write it. I sincerely hope this information encourages more people to get their ham radio licenses. It’s a great hobby, and one that fits well in the arsenal of the Everyday Marksman.