Sage Advice for the New Ham

If you’re on the edge about getting your amateur radio license, just go do it and worry about the details later. But once you’ve done that, you’re going to need to know a little bit about the established culture and practices of the modern ham — the details.

Toward that end, [McSteve] has written up a (so far) two-part introductory series about ham radio. His first article is fairly general, and lays out many of the traditional applications of ham radio: chatting with other humans using the old-fashioned analog modes. You know, radio stuff.

The second article focuses more on using repeaters. Repeaters can be a confusing topic for new radio operators: there are two frequencies — one for transmitting and one for receiving — and funny control tones (CTCSS) etc. This article is particularly useful for the new ham, because you’re likely to have a relatively low powered radio that would gain the most from using a repeater, and because the technology and traditions of repeater usage are a bit arcane.

So if you’re thinking about getting your license, do it already. And then read through these two pages and you’re good to go. We can’t wait to see what [McSteve] writes up next.

39 thoughts on “Sage Advice for the New Ham

  1. Imagine they used this to have an easier task when it comes to listening in on low power hams, perhaps when necessary, apply a filter to slow the spread of information but continue the impression of open communication.
    I should imagine the licencing people have a field day, power, distance wise. [discounting bouncing]
    Conspiracy nut talk, then again if it’s possible, people have probably already tried it. From mating helicopters with balloons to coving an entire army with canvas painted to look like countryside.

  2. I am sorry but in some cases this kind of (public) information is making things bad for licensed ham operators as cheap Chinese radios are readily available but unknowing users do not know how to use these “stronger signal” frequencies and thus can create more havoc when using them improperly.

    Ham radio licence is a must as it comes with lessons on all of ham radio related information and how and when to use them.


    1. Those articles don’t, contain any information that hasn’t been available, to the general public for decades. The scare mongering is silly. Many free banders are more knowlegable about these topic as some old time general class hams. Old time in the sense the obtained the general class license, when it took more comprehensive knowlede as the currentgeneral call exam requires. Most if not all free banders are aware that they are and are about to violate FCC regulation, but don’t care about it.

  3. My amateur radio license has opened more doors for me than I can remember.
    -and I’m not talking about the laminated one that got me back into the bathroom either.

    Would wireless networking be as much fun if it wasn’t for having a good solid radio foundation?
    I think not.
    Would RC modelling be as much fun without being able to modify radio gear for more reliability and better performance? -well…yeah probably but still!

    Pardon the expression but radio is tits.

      1. Of course, however their antics, and some of what goes on time to time on 20M, gives lie to the idea that technical knowledge somehow naturally makes one a better operator and frankly FCC enforcement is spotty at best these days. I left the hobby decades ago due to other priorities, and little of what I hear these days on the bands makes me want to get back in.

  4. The tests are easy and cost 15$. Use the arrl book and for pretests. Get a baofunk but make yourself a 10awg wire antenna for 2m and 440. Ask a local ham to come over and tune it.

          1. me either, I got up to general in the first sitting. Extra is a little more difficult. I missed 7 more than I could have to get all three at one time.

  5. My biggest gripe about Amateur Radio is that what seems to be the typical activity for licensees holds zero interest to me. I couldn’t care less about talking to random people about the length of their antenna. Contests likewise–zero interest. My interest, and the reason I hold a license (just recently passed the Extra exam with a perfect score), is because I’m interested in getting devices communicating and passing telemetry, particularly with satellites. I’m also very interested in learning RF design and building my own equipment. Unfortunately, because most everyone in the hobby is interested in talking and contesting and such, not as much information is available about these things. What there is tends to be at a level that’s either too technical for me to understand at this point, or too “don’t worry about the details–just build this and it’ll work!” for me.

    I guess what I’m saying here is I’d like to request more articles like this, but rather than “you can talk to people on the air too!” I’d like to see some articles that give good instruction on building oscillators, amplifiers, mixers, etc. and how to put them together. Or how to build a quality antenna. Or how to use your equipment to catch a signal from a satellite. Or how to implement a specific protocol (say SSTV, for example). You know–the technical stuff that nobody seems to be able to explain in an understandable way.

    I hope I’m not wishing for too much. =)

    1. You might be interested in one of my upcoming posts, which will probably actually end up being a series unto itself about APRS. I’ve just started working again though, so it may be a few weeks out yet.

    2. I am also in the love-Amsat club, even though I only worked AO-27, ISS, and AO-51 a few times to impress my kids, I actually had more fun building and having the gear and getting having the ticket so I can test a bit. I took over 25 years of on-off practice to learn code though, I could build a QRP CW HF set from junk but the code kept me off of HF because code keeps worthless a$$h01es off of the good bands. I would play more with HF if I could think of a reason to chat, but contesting sounds like being assigned to write sentences on the chalkboard over recess.
      ps sorry for accidentally clicking report instead of reply, probably similar to why I couldnt learn code?

    3. Respectfully “understandable way” is relative to the student(s). Even though an instructor can’t get it through to one student, the instructor manages to get it through to the majority of the class. Plenty of instructional material on YouTube on most topics.

      If I want to talk to strangers and I want to do it in a way that feels “old timey” I’ll log onto IRC. It’s the technical aspects of equipment design that really interests me about the amateur radio hobby.
      Though, I just received an invitation to volunteer for the Boston Marathon as a radio operator, and while that’s not my usual sort of thing it might be a fun day out.

  6. A ham license isn’t an end in itself. But now that there’s no code required, and the test simpler, the promotion seems to be “get the license, then look around”. Which seems to make for a lot of cluelessness.

    I learned about amateur radio because it was out there. In the Canadian magazine I got about Scouting, in the children’s magazine that I was still getting. Something in the description appealed to me. I found out that in Canada, you had to be fifteen or older to get a license, over five years in the future. So I didn’t set out to “pass the rest”.

    I started reading the hobby electronic magazines, and a few months later the ham magazines. I read everything I could get my hands on. I learned electronics, but learned quite a bit about ham radio. So I had an idea of what I wanted to do with the hobby.

    Then the rules changed, so I could get the license right then, which was when I was twelve. I didn’t study much for the test, and it wasn’t a burden, just part of the process.

    But it was a different time. Entry was a subset of all that amateur radio could be. It wasn’t “get on locally, like a cellphone, and then maybe do something else”. Back then, local VHF was an adjunct, keep in contact with the locals, rather than “this is amateur radio”. But since licensing has simplified, the initial presentation is now much simpler. Forget about long distance communication or experimenting, “I can’t program my walkie talkie”. I didn’t get a walkie talkie till last year, 43 years after I got my license.

    I’m not sure if the simpler licenses are a good thing. In Canada, you can’t use a home made transmitter with the entry license, as if talking is all that counts. But the simplification of the license has caused a simplification of the hobby. Not “build your own transmitter”, not “talk to distant places” or “experiment with something new”, but talk to locals va local repeaters.

    The lure needs to revert to that of the old days, lure them in for all that the hobby offers, but now the entry requirements s less. Find the people who want that greater hobby, or convince people of the appeal. Don’t go for the easy “study for an hour, pass the test and get on their locally for a few dollars”. That way increases numbers, but do they stick around? Do they do anything further with amateur radio?


    1. Local VHF is by far the easiest and most affordable starting point, though. In my opinion, anything that lessens the barrier to entry is excellent. Personally, it was getting my first crappy Baofeng and just listening for a while that got me really determined to get on the HF bands, explore digital modes, play with SSTV, and learn about APRS. Talking to other hams about contesting and nationwide nets is a large part of what convinced me to make a huge investment (for me) in an old IC-740 and antenna.

      My overriding motive with these posts is simple; I want to hear more younger people on the air, and make sure they know what they’re doing. I want people to have the confidence to pick up the microphone and make that first contact, whether on a local repeater or on HF SSB to a different country.

      Thanks for the feedback though, I appreciate all of it. Writing for the public is very new to me.


      1. Unfortunately just about every reason that might entice a young person to get an amature radio ticket can be satisfied without one and mostly less expensively and with the cell phone you already own. Even chatting on a repeater can be done in most big centers on GMRS if that’s your thing, again without any tech requirement.

        1. Well, here in the Twin Cities, we have exactly one GMRS repeater. I used to keep a radio tuned to it 24×7, and I think I heard exactly one person, making a test transmission in that year-long period. I have heard that other areas have more active systems, though.

          If I might ask, though, what information would you like to see given to prospective new hams? I’d be happy to talk pretty much any related topic in the future parts of my series.

          A little further on, I already plan to discuss more of the experimentation, kits, homebrew stuff, etc.

          I like to think that the hobby has something for everyone, and different people are definitely drawn in by different things. I’d like to ultimately cover as many of them as possible.

          1. Well there are a lot of Ham repeaters without much in the way of active users either for that matter.

            There has to be some way of integrating the things amature radio can do with the communication desires of the younger generation because neither hobnobbing with experimenters (who I hold in the highest regard and who are the real standard-bearers of the service) or rag-chewing with old Boomers are going to draw the sorts of numbers that will keep the hobby healthy.

          2. As an exercise, last night, I went through and programmed my UV5R with a couple of local repeaters, (Boston and Arlington) and monitored for several hours. No joy. Also monitored 146.52 simplex for a while and heard half of one conversation.

            Probably this is a combination of me somehow not having tones correctly programmed and the repeaters simply being dead silent much of the time.

    2. How does explain the ignorance displayed by those hams whose call sign indicate they where licensed when the exams where much more difficult? The problem isn’t so much the licensing process than it is the individual’s commitment to learning and keeping abreast of technology and current regulation as it pertains to them where they operate ham radio. As far as ” sticking around” goes there are many other life factors that are going to affect that, more so than the difficulty factor of becoming licensed might do so.

  7. I don’t even bother with phone (aka voice) modes anymore because of my perception that the wackos of the hobby mostly use phone. I’ve made a lot more interesting contacts using CW, RTTY, SSTV, APRS, fax, and other modes. Experimenting is also a lot more fun for me.

    73 de kd0gzj

    1. Too often it’s the adults that are the reason many newcomers walk away from amateur radio with a bitter taste of it. Kids will hear adults holding conversations using the conversational slang they grew up with, but when the kids get on the repeater using the conversational slang of their generation the old farts get all excited and publicly accuse the kids of using profanity. When their slang isn’t any more profane the slang the old farts use on the air. That bitter taste develops when the kid and or newcomers discover that a good percentage of the old farts are current with regulation, and, along with a reasoned discussion with hard headed old farts isn’t possible. I’m sorry my observation as someone age wise, would be considered an old fart is; the problem isn’t with the newcomers it’s, the problem is with old timers living in the past. Then again that problem isn’t unique to amateur radio as many organization experience similar problems. What amateur radio and many organizations need is for thick skinned newcomers to grab the reins from the old timers. Enough of the old timers will appreciate new leadership to make the wailing of the old timers who remain in the past tolerable.

  8. Getting into Amateur Radio in the United States is fairly easy these days. There is no longer a Morse code requirement. The test is inexpensive ($15) and the questions are available for online study (for example at A cheap 2 meter radio costs $25.

    But maybe there are a couple questions a potential ham should answer for themselves:

    “Why would I want to do this?” and “Who would I meet on the air?”

    The motivations are various and you’d have to find out which ones work for you. Some people like working on technology, experimenting, building equipment, and testing ideas. Some people just like to build radios. Others like collecting classic gear. Some are into local disaster preparation and work to link area hospitals together. Some like to use radio to chat with nearby friends during commute time. Even just to feel less lonely or to have someone ask how their day is going.

    What reason would work well for you?

    But there are things that might discourage you. Some of the technology is old. Decades old. Some of this stuff is from the analog age. Today that doesn’t carry a lot of prestige with the wider public. You’d have to figure if it’s something you’d respect enough to do.

    The personalities you can hear on the air vary. For VHF frequencies which are short range, you mostly hear locals. On HF, you easily hear people across the US and when the ionosphere cooperates, from elsewhere on the planet. Different languages! Although the ham radio skews heavily to older conservative white guys and needs to diversify, there’s a bit of a mix still: Software engineers and tradespeople. Artists. People who live on boats. Bicyclists. LBGT people. People from other countries. Women. Parents. Homeschooled kids. College students. So you should ask yourself:

    Would I like to talk with some of these people?

    That said, there are the negative aspects to the hobby: Some of the people behave awfully. That ranges from overt bigots to ornery troll types…to unidentified people who spend their time illegally jamming. You will just have to think about how to deal with these people. They are a small group. They can be ignored.

    Could you do so?

    If the hobby seems of interest, most of us hams would certainly welcome you and would be happy to try to help you get started.


  9. Information that has been available for free for quite some time now. Perhaps McSteve’s delivery style might connect with those who have trouble grasping the technology, who knows?

  10. Its like IRC or some other dinosaur chat room but over the airwaves! I’ve heard a lot of talk about peoples daily commutes to and from work and wood stoves and tree trimming, what the wife is making for dinner and the grandkids are coming in next weekend. How exciting is that folks!? Get an extra class license and you can hear all about the same subject matter from people in other states or even overseas! Get a moar bigger antenna and modify your rig, just make sure you follow the laws. You could work on all kinds of RF gear without a license (or a need for a license) and do pretty much the same stuff, but who are you going to talk tree trimming and grandkids with?!

  11. Perfect! Just in time to remind me of the local Hamfest. Nothing like a refresher for the kids I will be bringing along to see fi they get their licenses. ;) 73 de KC8KVA

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