How to Get a Ham Radio License

I got my license! In fact, I now have all three amateur radio licenses. I didn’t know where to start, so here’s my experience in case anybody finds it useful. (This information is valid for the United State of America. 日本で友人、すみません。)

When I first started looking for introductory information, I got a little frustrated because the “how to” information tended to speak over my head. I’m not the sharpest tool in the shed, so it’s probably just me. Here’s what I know from hindsight.

You Can Listen Without a License

To be able to listen to ham radio, nobody needs a license. Get a radio receiver that picks up the ham bands and have fun.

If you want to listen, there’s no point in getting a transmitter. It’s wasted money. If you did buy a transmitter, and started talking without a license, an official from the FCC, accompanied by a federal marshal with a gun, will knock on your door. Don’t think they can’t find you. Every transmission shouts, “Here I am!” Direction finding and triangulation are basic skills that many ham operators are very good at. Don’t do it. (No, I didn’t do that!)

Overview of the Process

Unless you’re hard up for fines or jail time, talking on the amateur frequencies requires permission from the federal government. This involves getting a license from the Federal Communications Commission, better known as the FCC. What may seem curious is that the FCC grants licenses, but that’s about all. You do not go through the FCC to get study materials, take exams, etc.

Amateur radio operators have proven themselves professional and passionate about radio. They truly are the experts and have no need to be micromanaged by bureaucrats. The FCC certifies a small number of individuals as Volunteer Examination Coordinators (VECs). This body makes up the tests and the rules for taking the tests. They certify other ham operators as Volunteer Examiners (VEs), who work in teams of three or more. These teams take applications, administer and grade tests, and submit applications to the FCC for those who pass. This is handled privately without government intervention. There will be a modest fee to cover FCC fees and out of pocket expenses. (I paid $14.)

The VECs draft, maintain, and publish a pool of multiple-choice questions covering ten topics. Tests are created by drawing a total of 35 questions from this pool. To pass the test, you must answer 26 questions correctly. That’s it!

When you pass your test, you’ll receive a paper called a Certificate of Successful Completion of Examination (CSCE). The CSCE does not grant permission to transmit! It is simply proof that you are eligible for a license. You will have to wait for your paperwork to make its way through the FCC. When the FCC grants the license, it will publish your license on the Internet and send a paper copy of your license in the mail. You don’t have to wait for the paper license to arrive. As soon as you show up on their database (on the web site), you can start transmitting!

Test Knowledge vs. Practical Knowledge

You will need to study to the test to pass it. After you pass it, you’ll need to learn the ropes. In my mind these are two different things. I had to accept the fact that while the test covers basic knowledge of important concepts, being able to pass the test does not mean that you know anything about being a ham operator. This was uncomfortable for me at first, as I like to understand how things work. I had some expectation that being able to pass the test meant that I understood being a radio operator. My bad. 🙂

Study for the test, pass it, and see your license as proof you’re out of the cradle. You’ll learn to walk after the test.

What to Study

The basic amateur radio license is called the Technician Class. You’ll need to know this when you search the Internet.

Here are several resources for study materials.

  • The ARRL Ham Radio License Manual is a pretty good reference book. It’s not mandatory, but I found it a good introduction to ham radio, as well as some practical information beyond just getting your license. It contains a complete list of questions and answers in the back.
  • Once you understand the terminology, N8KBR’s Amateur Radio Technician Class License Study Guide is a free PDF file that contains the questions rewritten as answers. Print out these thirty pages, put them in a binder, and carry this with you if that’s your learning style. I found it a great way to review during the spare minutes during the day.
  • The most helpful resource is the practice exams. These will allow you to test yourself and know when you’re ready! When you can consistently score above 80%, preferably 90%, the test will be a breeze.

Finding VEs: Where to Take the Test

Google is your friend. Look for amateur radio clubs in your area. The VE team from whom I took my test is affiliated with the W5YI Group. They have a search page that you may find useful. (If you live in Utah, the Utah Amateur Radio Club has a schedule of exams here.)

The VE team from whom you take the test will tell you everything that you’ll need to bring.

Best of luck! I hope to talk to you on the airwaves.



Added link for where to get information about testing in Utah. Small edit for clarification.

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