Congratulations on taking the very first step into the world of amateur or “ham” radio! The very first step to this lifetime hobby is starting to learn what you need to do to become licensed as an amateur radio operator. This page is a short introduction to licensing and pointers to material that will help you get licensed.
Amateur radio is operated on a licensed basis by the US Federal Communications Commission (FCC). Glossing over a lot of details, there are three FCC license levels for the amateur radio service – Technician, General, and Amateur Extra. Each step up in the licensing permits the use of greater amounts of frequencies within the allocated amateur radio bands.
The entry-level license class is Technician and is a great way to get started in amateur radio. It gives you enough privileges to be active in radio and whets your appetite for future license levels. Operating locally with minimal equipment to talk to local and regional hams is easily accomplished with a Technician license and some inexpensive radio equipment. However, you most likely won’t stop there! Additional licenses and all the facets of amateur radio provide for a lifetime of possibilities.
To get your initial Technician license you need to take the following steps:
- Study for the Technician or “Element 2” exam. All variants of the Technician exams are drawn from a single question pool. You can study the questions you will be asked.
- Locate a local license exam session called a “VE Session”. SARA offers quarterly VE Exam Sessions.
- Take (and pass!) the Element 2 exam
- Wait approximately 7-10 days for the FCC to issue your license which is done electronically in an online database.
- Get on the air!
Here are some resources to help you along the way:
- The American Radio Relay League or the “ARRL” is the nation’s largest club and interest group for ham operators. They have a lot of information on licensing and getting started in amateur radio. The ARRL also publishes excellent books and tools on preparing for all three license classes – Technician, General, and Extra – while learning a lot about radio theory and operations.
- The No-Nonsense Guide series by Daniel Romanchik KB6NU. The Technician book is available as a free eBook.
- HamStudy.org has flashcards and practice tests that track your readiness to take an exam and are free to use. Works on both your desktop and your mobile device.
Here are a few frequently asked questions about getting licensed.
Is it hard to take and pass the tests? It may be, depending on your previous experience and ability to spend the time studying the material. Most people have no problem passing the license exams given diligent, sufficient prep time. If you are concerned about being able to take or pass an exam due to a special physical or situational need, please contact the SARA VE Team Liaison and we can most likely accommodate your need either at the scheduled session or at a special session designed to accommodate you.
Is Morse Code required? No. While historically Morse Code was required to obtain a license, the last requirements for code were dropped in 2007. While code or “CW” is fun and a time-honored way to enjoy amateur radio, the code requirement was dropped in recognition of the many operating modes in radio from voice to CW to digital. Learn code at your own pace and interest.
Can I take more than one license exam at a time? Yes, at each VE license exam session, you may take the next element after passing the previous one assuming there is sufficient time remaining in the session. At SARA-run VE Sessions, there is usually time for examinees to take two tests. It is common for new prospective hams to study for and take the Technician and General at the same session if they have a background in radio or electronics or have been diligently studying for both exams. There is no additional testing fee for taking multiple successive test elements at the same session.
If I don’t pass, may I re-take the test? Yes, assuming there is sufficient time remaining in the session. At SARA-run VE Sessions, one usually has the time to take two exams. However, re-testing for the failed element will require another payment of the test fee per the ARRL VEC rules. The test will be a different set of questions drawn from the same question pool.
After I study and pass the test, what do I do then? The best way to get involved in amateur radio is to work with a friend or mentor who is involved already. In the ham community, these people are sometimes known as “Elmers”. A mentor can help you choose equipment, can explain much of the practical aspects of the radio arts, and can help you get on the air. A local radio club is a great place to find people willing to assist – and most hams are eager to share their amateur radio hobby and knowledge. Come to a SARA meeting, seek help on the SARA Barometer or Tuesday night nets or simply call out on the repeater, or join the SARA Discussions mailing list to find help getting on the air or taking that next step.