Get Your Amateur Radio License Already!

We run a lot of posts on amateur radio here at Hackaday, and a majority of our writers and editors* are licensed hams. Why? Because playing around with radio electronics is fun, and because having a license makes a lot more experimentation legal. (*We’re sure you have good reasons for slacking, Szczys.)

So let’s say that you want to get your “ticket” (and you live in the USA). It’s easy: just study for an exam or two, and take them. How to study? We’re glad you asked, because we just found this incredibly long video that’ll prep you for the exam.

swr_powerAt six and a half hours, we’ll admit that we haven’t watched the whole thing, but what we did see looks great. Admittedly, we were a little bit unnerved by [John (KD65CY)]’s overdone enthusiasm. But the content is fundamental, broad-ranging, and relevant. Heck, even a bit entertaining.

Even if you’re not interested in taking the exam, but are just interested in some radio basics, it’s worth looking. If you give it a shot, and like what you see, let us know in the comments what times stamps you found interesting.

The other “secret” about the amateur radio exams is that all of the questions and their answers are drawn from a publicly available pool of questions. This means that you can just cram the right answers, pass the exam, and you’ll have your grey cells back good as new in no time. To help you along your path, here are all the current Technician questions with only the correct answer for each. (And here is the Python script that generated them.) Read through this, take a couple of practice exams, and you’ll be ready to go.

In our experience, the Technician exam is easy enough that it’s probably worth your while to study up for the General exam as well. You have to take the former before the latter, but there’s nothing stopping you from taking them all in one sitting. (General gets you a lot more international shortwave frequencies, so it’s at least worth a shot.)

But don’t let that slow you down. Just getting the Tech license is easily worth studying up for a couple of hours or so. You have no excuses now. Go do it!

78 thoughts on “Get Your Amateur Radio License Already!

  1. No lie, Elliott, that’s how I passed mine last fall–I studied the questions until the right answers leapt off the screen at me. I just needed a ticket because the local maker space wanted a “club license”, and for the rare occasion that the whole group needed to be on 2m for something. I had my first license 25 years ago when code was a requirement, and just let the thing lapse a couple of years ago because i wasn’t using it. It kind of smooths things over for certain face-to-face transactions to ba able to say that yeah, I’m a ham, too.

      1. I crammed for a month for General, felt ready, and then in the last week before the test I decided to cram on Extra too. And I actually passed both. :) Oh, and in my experience QRZ’s practice tests are the best practice tests out there!

        1. Similar story here – played w/ radio since mid-seventies, Tech ticket shortly after code eliminated (1997?). Fast-forward to 2014, moved to TX, got involved in hobby again, studied for General, passed both General and Extra – never even looked at Extra question pool or study guide.

          1. Well, I sure looked at the Extra question pool. :D I studied for 3-5 hours a day for most of that week. I was sick and tired of cramming by the time it was over!

  2. Excellent post as always, Elliot. Anyone can do this, just takes a little time. Well worth it. No need to know Morse Code anymore. You can scratch-build 1.5 kW transmitters and use them on the air, or build a station to bounce your signal off the moon, the possibilities are endless, its an incredible experience. Far from amateur I think.

  3. Yep, Elliot, that’s exactly how I got the last re-up. I had let my license lapse because I never used it. I had my first license well over 25 years ago when code was still required, and re-upped this fall only when the local maker group wanted enough warm bodies to pull a club license together. It’s occasionally handy when a whole group needs to be in real-time contact– 2m can fit that bill, and it’s an entry fee into some conversations to be able to say that yes I’m a ham, too– and makes for more opportunities to meet like minded people.

    1. Well, at least with amateur radio they will tend to have some semblance of intelligence since they have to pass an exam to use it. They may not agree with you or the like but at least you know they’re not dumb as a box of rocks.

    2. It’s like the old days of the internet when the only things people talked about was computers.

      You’ll hit a 2m repeater, tell them you just got your ticket, they’ll ask what kind of radio you have, they’ll tell you about their first radio…
      Occasionally you’ll hear something interesting, but I’d say 80-90% of what is said is related to radio…

      Though there is packet radio so you can do BBS setups… or APRS which is handy if you want to share your location or other information (look up wtih weather in the surrounding area without a computer…)

      There may be more interesting conversations to be had on HF, I’m just a technician, but what I’ve heard it’s pretty much people calling CQ, making a quick contact and moving on, and more talk about radio…

      it’s not hard to get a license, and it opens up a few opportunities that you wouldn’t have otherwise, it gets you into a community of what is largely oldschool tinkerers.

      1. “There may be more interesting conversations to be had on HF, I’m just a technician, but what I’ve heard it’s pretty much people calling CQ, making a quick contact and moving on, and more talk about radio…”

        On certain bands, yes (15, 17, 20 meters), others, like 40, 80, and 160 are chock-a-block with multi-state ‘Nets’ where folks congregate on a schedule (certain times every day) and discuss current events, politics, weather, family, and their health. It would behove you to consider looking for an online SW radio (websdr, remotehams, etc) and listen to the conversations.

        Rather than ‘random dudes’ the folks on the nets quickly become friends, especially for the older hams that have a hard time getting out and about…

        I won’t lie, it’s not for everyone, but it isn’t all chasing DX.

        1. Personally, I like that interactions are often short. I’m not one to try to force conversation with someone I don’t really know. On occasion some real affinity will occur but generally I’m more interested in the technical aspects of the hobby. I like to design equipment and build circuits. I don’t tend to chat that much. I’ll hold up my end if I encounter someone chatty, but if the other person is like me, we’ll have a fairly short contact.

      2. Hams are like the the population in general. Some are interesting and good conversationalists. Others are less so and not very good at holding up their end of the conversation. When I have a contact with someone, I always try to draw them out about something or another, whether it be their job, or their other hobbies, or perhaps the history behind their town’s name. I’ve had lots of great conversations that way.

        1. I doubt it. It’s not just a matter of being connected to somebody magically at an appropriate distance. It’s about doing what it takes to MAKE that connection happen. There’s a shared sense of accomplishment involved that just isn’t there with the Internet. Whether you only use equipment you built yourself, or just sign the credit card ticket, there’s still the effort it takes to learn the laws and understand at least SOMETHING about how it all works. And when transmitting real electromagnetic waves, you operate at the whim of Nature – solar conditions, geomagnetic conditions, even weather conditions – every time you make a contact, and especially when you make a DX contact. I can’t see getting excited when a computer decides I get to talk to somebody on the other side of the world.

    3. LOL. Maybe even less! :) But it makes sure that you know the laws, and then gives you crazy permission to do radio stuff.

      I can count on one finger the number of times I’ve contacted strangers over radio (it was totally fine, just kinda awkward for me) but I run out of fingers and toes for high-alt ballooning and rocket experiments, small bots around the house, and miscellaneous radio foolery.

      It’s a cool tool to have in your tool belt. And as Greg Charvat says above, a lot of amateur radio is far from amateurish. https://hackaday.com/?s=amsat

      1. I frequently say I go through more solder than log books. However, there are nets for specialized interests (although not as many as their used to be since the Internet) and a lot of “random” conversation on digital modes like PSK31. I was always mystified when SSTV (send still pictures) came out that people didn’t use it to punctuate their conversations. I have XXX radio and here’s a picture of my station. But they don’t, they just send pictures over and over. But there are some of the digital modes that let you digitally transmit pictures and I’ve had a few QSOs (contacts) that were like that. “I spend a lot of time on my boat (picture of boat)” — it was very cool to see that finally happening. Still the exception rather than the rule, though.

        1. I was just listening to somebody’s SDR on websdr.org the other day (take a look – you can listen to over 100 SDRs around the world), and they were doing what you describe: making a contact by voice, and interspersing pictures in SSTV mode. It’s effectively Picturephone over radio. I didn’t have anything set up to decode the SSTV parts, but this didn’t hurt the conversation much.

          Websdr.org looks to me like the ideal way to familiarize yourself with amateur radio with zero investment. I just passed my tests and am waiting for my call sign. Not sure what I’m going to use for a starter radio, since I’m not at all interested in 2M, but I’ve got my eyes and ears open.

          1. If you have access to Linux just install QSSTV, and ‘pavucontrol’ for rerouting audio. Or put the mic by the speakers. I’ve received SSTV and HamDRM both from websdr.org SDR’s that way (QSSTV can decode both!)

    4. Actually, I sort of think it’s *less* interesting. The conversations tend to be dominated by the technical minutia of your station details, operating power and so on. After that… I sort of run out of stuff to say.

      It’s still fun to see where the ionosphere will take you at any given moment.

    5. It’s more fun that you would expect! The most fun part of it to me is that on HF, you never know where your next contact is going to be. It isn’t unusual for me to have to look up on the net where the country is. There is a lot of fun technical stuff that can be done too.
      BobH
      KE7FEF

  4. John and Martha King ! I wonder if they have an amateur HF rig in any of their airplanes ? lol
    I had to do a double take when I saw Martha’s picture in front of that Bird 43. They must be
    branching out. More power to them ! They’re well liked and respected in the aviation community.

    1. I too immediately recognized them. In order to fly drones in a COA for the UAV research group nimbus.unl.edu I used to work in, we were required to all pass the Ground test. Sadly, none of us but one of the professors got any actual seat time. We all aced the test though and I actually learned a lot.

    2. I recognized the face of John as well and wondered if I saw right till I saw Martha a bit down. I guess getting an aircraft to a location and do a QSO there can be fun, quite possibly fun enough that they wanted to help other get into aviation and amateur radio.

      And yep, “if you can’t learn it from the Kings, I don’t think you can learn it”. ;-)

      I’m not a pilot though, I only have maybe an hour or so every month in the free, open source flight simulator FlightGear (http://www.flightgear.org).

  5. Hey! I know those faces! Weren’t they the creators of the instructional videos shown in Microsoft’s Flight Simulator?

    Anyway, I’m glad to see this post… I got my license 3 months ago, passed my HAREC (the equivalent of Amateur Extra) last month, I really enjoy the hobby! Amateur Radio covers such a large scope of technologies, you learn something every day :)

    73 de ON6RF

  6. The Technician and General exams used to be precisely the same test, until some time in the 80s. Technician was the old test and Morse code at 5 words per minute, General was the same test and 13 WPM. The two written tests haven’t diverged much since then, so if you can pass the Tech, you can probably pass the General. Use some common sense, remember that most ham bands are an integer multiple of 3.5 MHz, and that a meter is about a yard. Read carefully – many questions will actually answer other questions for you. You can pass this thing with a sixth grade reading level and decent test taking skills.

    1. The technician/general test was split into two parts, one for the technician that covered rules and some technical stuff and the general that covered more technical aspects. Over time, the technical aspects have been reduced.
      So, while it’s likely true that if you can study and pass the technician you can study and pass the general, they are very different tests.
      Most people with good study habits can pass the extra also, but it’s a combination of some serious EE questions (The former advanced test) and questions on arcane details of the rules, so it takes some work.

      1. I took the tech, general, and extra exams the same morning in 2002, and I remember then that tech and general tests were extremely similar. Haven’t looked at the question pool in a couple of years. The extra was indeed quite a bit harder. Took the 5 wpm morse a year later and went from tech to extra just in time for field day. I intentionally stayed off HF until field day so I could be the gota station…

  7. Reviewing the question pool with only the correct answers is a useful component to studying for the exams, I believe it helped me prepare for the General exam.

    As a note about the US exam process, every time you ‘sit’ for an exam, a modest fee must be paid (well under $20), but at each sitting you may take multiple exams, provided you pass the previous exam: pass Technician, you can attempt General, pass General you can attempt Extra.

    Studying *just* the question pool and correct answers is a feasible way to prepare for Technician, and maybe General, but the Extra question pool has some 702 questions the 50 questions on your exam are pulled from – IMHO it is easier to learn the topics than memorize that many questions and their answer.

    Rather than watch an old video series or memorize question pools of hundreds of questions, I suggest picking up the correct ARRL license manual for the license you want to obtain (many local libraries have the current manuals courtesy of local clubs) AND look for a local club to join.

    Good luck!

    1. I used to be a volunteer examiner (ran out of free time). Every once in a while, someone would come in and go “zero to extra” in one sitting. It was actually rather exciting to watch. Usually those folks were either retired EEs or had been hams previously and let their old licenses lapse (the Extra class exam is… non-trivial). But still.

      1. I did that while I was in the US for an exchange semester. Didn’t actually pay anything for it at all, I took my exam at HackDC and they didn’t charge anything for it. Never had anything to do with amateur radio before, but I met a very enthusiastic ham over there and he convinced me to go with him when he went to upgrade from General to Extra. I thought “what the hell” and just took a few practice exams on hamstudy.org and went to see how far I could go. Managed to go straight to Extra in the exam :). Being close to getting a master’s in EE definitely helped though XD

  8. I think most people reading HAD will be able to pass the majority of the Technicians test w/o prep.. Shouldn’t take very long at all.. 35 questions. You can get 9 wrong and still pass. Practice at hamstudy.org It will keep stats on your progress. I would also highly recommend the free ‘no nonsense tech study guide’ available at kb6nu.com

  9. Hackaday might want to encourage its hackers to design a much-need bit of ham gear to parallel the ease and low cost of VHF/UHF handhelds.

    A rough description would be that it’d transmit and receive PSK digital in the segments of 20 and 40 meters where that’s common. 20 meters would be for day and 40 for night. It’d off-load all the complex processing onto apps for iOS and Android smartphones and connect via USB. Keep the power in the 1-2 watt range, build in an antenna tuner and battery pack, and you’d have something that’d slip into a pocket, in conjunction with a smartphone or tablet, would let hams talk anywhere in the world.

    Don’t just hack it. Make and sell it either assembled or as a kit.

    –Mike Perry, KE7NV

    1. I dunno if you want to target QRP operation for beginners (of course there are those who smugly claim 1 watt is QRO, but never mind). Besides, (US) technician class licensees don’t have permissions on 20 meters and only CW on 40.

    2. You can use a computer to send/decode CW on the technician allocations in the 80, 40, and 15 meter bands… Sites like eBay and banggood offer numerous kits for those bands at very affordable prices (many under $20). Of course, they are typically QRP (less than 5 watts RF), which allows for QSOs but introduces challenges of it’s own.

    3. The large ham radio manufacturers concentrate only on pricey all-dancing HF rigs, while a two-band PSK unit as KE7NV described would be innovative and, I agree, much needed. The bang for the buck is so much greater with these digital modes.

  10. I think there’s actually an easier way. There are lots of practice exam sites on the net. My favorite is http://aa9pw.com/radio/ . Take the test repeatedly. If you’re on hackaday, then it’s likely the electrical theory stuff will be old hat (at least for the Technician exam). You’ll get some of the rules and regulations questions wrong, but frankly some of them are just obvious. Learn from the wrong answers. After a few hours, you’ll pass, like, 5 times in a row. At that point, go to an exam session and take it for real.

    The question pool is public, as are the rules for how you select questions from the pool to make a valid exam. There’s therefore exactly zero difference between the practice exams and the real thing (except that the practice tests don’t count).

  11. Here are my 2 excuses: 1. I’m busy (everyone is, of course) and 2. I like to build everything from scratch. Sitting beside modern digital ham transceiver differs little from the experience of online chat. Which does not interest me at all. I’m mostly interested in remote data collection (high altitude baloons etc.) and building radio receivers and transmitters myself. Now as someone above pointed out, the only good thing about ham communication is that people are (should be) a bit above the Joe six pack in intelligence.

    1. Kit builders and scratch builders are all over the ham radio landscape, they just don’t advertise their accomplishments as well as Icom, Yaesu or Kenwood do.

      Every club seems to have a handful of members who only use radios/transmitters they’ve built themselves.

        1. Although I have an old Kenwood TS-830 I don’t spend much time talking. Most of my ham activities are homebrewing and fixing gear for fellow hams. If you work in a tech related field it won’t hurt mentioning a ham license on a CV.

  12. In reference to the many comments of old hams chatting just about their transmitting gear and station details or health: on HF this is fairly common for random contacts. That or CQ, QSL, and 73 — contact, confirm, goodbyes, and next. As with all things, HAM radio is what you make of it. I’d love to see more technical knowledge traded and shared on ham radio with a younger crowd who may not have been in the hobby for 40+ years, but perceptions and realities of the content on air being what they are, its hard to see that coming.

    I personally am into radio because of my affinity for all things electronic and my passion for DIY hardware and software, and the same passions exist in this community necessarily. My license enables me to use frequencies and transmit on a variety of unique bands with equipment I can learn and experiment with. All of this and by doing so I can reach others some of who mirror my own passion and those that exceed my own knowledge and have a wealth of information to share on EE and RF design.

    The test is 15$, you can take all three serially (until failing one), and can retake the highest failed time permitting a second time ( and another 15$ ). For the hackaday demographic the technician questions are laughable, the general test a little more in depth, and I personally found the extra to be easier than the general. I looked at the question pool, researched the math theory of the RF world and 24 hours later after not knowing a honey baked from an amateur I was taking my test and passed all three with a fairly good understanding of the material.

  13. Ham radio has a LOT of niches, and it’s a fragmented community. There are people who build gear but don’t talk much, people who talk a lot but only use factory-built gear, people who meet in person but don’t meet on the air, people who meet on the air but not in person. There are those who transmit purely digitally, those who only do Morse Code (as has been pointed out, Morse code is not required for any class of license, but it’s still a popular niche), those who only do voice, etc. Some operate big stations at home, others only operate portable stations that fit in a knapsack. Some only transmit on VHF/UHF bands, some only on microwaves, some only on the HF (shortwave) bands. Some use radio to keep in touch on hiking/camping trips where there is no cell service. Some love long conversations with new people over the air, others like quick contacts with distant stations where they just exchange call sign, first name, and signal report. Some delve really deeply into one niche, others play broadly across a whole lot of areas.

    Though there is a modest technical test, there is no personality test to get a license. You’ll surely find a few people, both in person and on the air, with whom you don’t mesh very well. Keep searching, and you’ll probably find several who have common interests and who can become good friends.

    I’m an ARRL VE, and I’ll point out one minor quibble with the original post: You don’t HAVE to pass the technician exam before you pass the general exam. But to get a general class license, you need to pass both exams, in any order. So if you pass the higher level exam before passing the lower level one, you don’t get a license, you just get a Certificate of Successful Completion of Exam (CSCE). That’s a paper that says you passed the exam, and it’s good for 365 days. If you have an unexpired CSCE for the general exam, and you then pass the technician exam, you can immediately get that general license. Similarly, the Extra class license requires passing all three exams, but there’s no requirement that they be passed in any particular order. You just don’t get the Extra class license until all three are passed, and your CSCE papers are only good for 365 days.

    In practice, almost everyone passes the exams in order.

    Anyway, your one modest fee ($15.00 for an ARRL-sponsored exam session) covers a single attempt at each of the three exams. There’s no penalty for failing an exam, so you might as well give all three a try while you’re there.

    The Extra exam is considerably longer and more in-depth than the other two; it’s unlikely you’ll pass it without at least a bit of preparation, but if you know a bit of AC circuit theory, and understand what a one-pole low-pass filter is, you’re probably well on your way.

  14. Here is the UK situation:

    The foundation license is trivial; I believe the youngest holder is nine years old, which gives you an indication of its difficulty.

    Then comes the intermediate, which also includes a practical element, usually building and calibrating a RF VFO.

    Finally, we have the full license, which requires some actual study, and the exam also includes some calculations.

    These licenses are probably equivalent to the US ones, however there is no common pool of questions, so you have to learn the material, which I feel is the better approach.

    1. The UK foundation license may be trivial, but you pretty much have to take a multi-week course before you’re even allowed to take the exam (there are a bunch of practical requirements you have to be tested on by a registered assessor before the exam, and usually that’s done as part of a course run by your local club once a year at most) and the exam’s $40. I haven’t bothered trying to get mine because it’s such a pain. Plus, if you want to design and build your own radios you need an intermediate licence which means another practical assessment and a $50 exam fee. Much harder and more expensive than the US system.

  15. My experience as a ham has taught me that the real learning happens after you pass the test or tests. That’s when you can get on the air and learn what ham radio is all about, and what you want to do with it. As [Richard] mentions above, there are a HUGE amount of different things that you can do in ham radio. The hobby is big enough for everyone, and the more the merrier.

    Me? I like talking to some of the best friends I’ve ever had on VHF, and playing WSPR on HF.

    1. “the real learning happens after you pass the test or tests”

      That it the truest thing I’ve read on the internet today. It’s a foot in the door that has given me a lot of excuses to learn (and re-learn a lot I forgot) a LOT.

  16. Adapted the python script to generate a similar cheat sheet for the General License test. Now, is there a handy flashcard program that can (easily) take that info and run on Android?

  17. I’m guessing this video doesn’t cover digital modes like PSK31 and JT44, or restrictions on the 60 meter band (which are on the test). In other words, don’t watch the whole 6 hours and then think you’re ready for the test.

      1. Parts of the video are obviously older than others — you can see the couple aging. And there are frequently bits that seem to be inserted in. It looks like it’s being kept up to date.

        That said, all I saw was something on RTTY, but nothing on PSK31. Your point may still be valid. That’s why it’s also good to have a look at the practice tests and the question pool.

  18. “We run a lot of posts on amateur radio here at Hackaday…”
    Actually I think you could do more. But anything is better than nothing, which is what we get from the mainstream media. The ARRL needs to wake up and concentrate on getting the Kardashian Bobble-Heads licensed!

  19. Went for my Radio lic back in the 70’s, right at the time the FCC was transitioning from tubes to transistors. Studied the transistor test, got the tube test, missed by one question.

  20. I have the give Jd some credit. as a ham I am frustrated in the state of the art is stuck in the 1970’s with gear made in 2000’s Still HF has some DIY, (contact without using the internet or somebodies net) appeal. I am more interested in digital but we should move beyond 300 baud on hf and RTTY. I am tired as a electronics tech being insulted by an old ham because I do not use code or multiple choice questions. Also I think Ham radio is going to get a rude awakening for emergency communications whn it easier to mesh smartphones, and mobile hotspots. Being frustrated in cost of VHF SSB equipment I want try my hand at homebrew 2m and 40cm transceivers but can’t find anything up to date.

    Still as a experimenter ham radio still has some bright spots like ham broadband, SDR , APRS, Echolink,IRLP and drabbling in adrino and Raspberry PI. The big question for me is wehre can we get together wiothout using eham.com Qrz.com or the loca club. Which I written of as buch old stubborn men unwilling to change and make something happen.
    Richard
    KG7CSS

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s