Ham Radio on $100 Or Less

There are a lot of reasons to get a ham radio license, and if you are one of those that think ham radio is dead you can probably skip this post. However, if you have been interested, but didn’t want to drop a lot of money on a station, [KE6MT] has got some great advice for you. He says you can have a rewarding time in ham radio for about $100 of spending.

The post is the advice he wished he had been given in 2015 when he got his license. It turns out you can get on the air very inexpensively these days, especially if you aren’t afraid to build gear from kits.

There are some caveats. With low powered gear, you might want to stick to Morse code, a mode with which it is much easier to make contacts. He didn’t mention it, but PSK31 is good for that as well if you’d rather type than do code. He did borrow a “big radio” from a local ham and got some time with the microphone, but he still prefers the code.

He found an interesting solution to having problems making contacts with people. He participates in something called SOTA, or Summits on the Air, where you bring your equipment to the top of a mountain and then people try to find you. This is a pursuit at which the small portable equipment is an advantage. If you don’t have mountains nearby though, there are other ways to become a rare station. There are hams who try to work islands, for example. Or rare US counties. If you can make yourself a rare station, you can sit back and let those hams chase you! Great idea.

If you aren’t up on the code — you now you don’t have to pass a code test anymore — [KE6MT] has some online resources for you, including the amusingly-named Morse Toad iPhone or Android app.

The centerpiece of his station, though, is the QRP Labs QCX kit. Although he praises the instructions, he adds a few things about winding the receiver input transformer toroid. Of course, you also need an antenna, and he covers that with another kit, as well. Rounding out the kits is a CW paddle you build yourself.

You don’t need the paddle to send code, but a lot of people do prefer it to a straight key. With a straight key the dots and dashes are formed by hand, while with a paddle (and an associated keyer) a press on one side of the paddle produces dots while the other side produces dashes. Press both at once and you’ll get an alternating pattern. For ultimate convenience a computer produces the exact lengths of dots and dashes required for the speed you desire. Handy, but not necessary, if you were really on a budget.

So with no code requirement and $100 in gear, why don’t you have a ham radio license? You can experiment legally on ham frequencies, do public service events, or do many other activities.

61 thoughts on “Ham Radio on $100 Or Less

  1. Of course, you don’t have to buy everything new. There is a TON of used ham gear available at very reasonable prices. Just go to any hamfest (a flea market for amateur radio operators) and you’ll have lots to choose from. Also, lots of helpful advice on the various pluses and minuses of each.

    1. People used to make their gear from discrete components, transistors (or vacuum tubes) in both audio and CW modes. These were good times. Nowadays no one really bothers to make their own gear, unless they are living in one of those poorer countries. Modern hams are like CB users, just have more channels, longer range (but I’ve seen a CB transceiver modded with 100W PA) and few additional dials to play with…

      1. Difference being that while CB is pretty much dead at 27mhz (but UHF and even a bit of VHF are now hot for handheld) amateur radio is explicitly about hacking your gear. Buying is ok if you want to experiment with something else than the stuff inside the expensive box such as modes or antennas. Sure plenty of people cheat with $$$ and defeat the intent of the frequency allocation, maybe they only have the free time of their commute, but the laws and regulations are designed to encourage experimentation by amateur experts while CB on all bands is pretty restricted to what you can legally buy assuming that those amateur users are not trusted as capable of non-interfering transmissions if using modified equipment or modes.

      2. Really, Moryc? Tell that to all of the hams who show off their projects on their websites, and selling kits dirt cheap. Tell it to all the people who are building QRP transceivers in Altoids tins. Amateur radio has always been a hobby of options, ranging from contests where you can build anything you want, as long as the most advanced component you use is a 2N2222 transistor, to buying radios that price in the tens of thousands of dollars. I think there are probably more hams today building their own rigs than there ever were, mainly because of the wealth of components and PCB fab services available online now.

        They took the morse code test off of the licensing requirements, but do you know what they DIDN’T remove? The technical tests. Amateur radio is still about promoting technical skills building, so even people who just want to plunk down some money and pick up the mic, they still have to accidentally learn something about the technology involved.

        1. I have been a ham radio operator for years. Vhf and uh using the repeater in my tristate area and being a member of a club is very rewarding. The tech exam will take memorization and effort, but doable.

          1. Oh, I’m not saying the tech questions are a barrier – I passed my extra exam last year, on the first try. I’m just saying that the hobby (and its federal charter) definitely emphasize the technical parts, so it’s a personal choice people make about whether they want to build or buy. I was just countering Moryc’s “kids these days” comments about how it’s not like it used to be. Well, I know that 40 years ago there were people making the same comments. HEY YOU KIDS, GET OFFA MY LAWN!

      3. This doesn’t ring true to me at all. There’s a whole community of ham home-brewers out there for the simple reason that building your own equipment out of discrete components, and ICs as well, is a sublimely fascinating way to learn and pursue analog circuit design. This makes for a solid gateway into the the rest of the RF world and also, audio, if you feel the spark for that as well. For many home-brewers, making contacts thousands of miles away is not really about talking, rather it’s about the hugely gratifying final confirmation that your design and implementation works as you intended.

    2. Used gear might be a trap for some younger ham without too much electronics experience.
      Some old rigs are perfectly fine and solid performers, others are a minefield of components dying of old age, moisture and all spares are unobtainium.

      That’s why new kits like QRP Labs QCX a 49usd single band CW rig, with good instructions that meet or exceed the old Heathkit manuals and built in test gear used to align it. It’s a noob friendly electronics kit and one does not realyl need anything else than a soldering iron to assemble it, but a separate multimeter might help.

      The Bitx40 and uBITX kits from hfsignals.com are more like modules, boards are assembled and soldered, you just need to wire it up to a speaker, antenna connector and microphone. Bitx40 is 59usd for a 40m SSB transceiver and uBITX (pronounced micro-BITX) covers 3-30MHz with SSB and CW for the price of 129usd.

      Both a are current and low cost. When a 250eur used 100W rig might be a years long trail of tears requiring one to buy testgear and parts that have been out of production for 30 years.

    3. I don’t know about that. Hamfests carry tons of accessories and parts at reasonable prices. But transcievers? Those things just don’t seem to devalue. I think there are too many collectors.

      1. You get dirt cheap when something is obsolete and/or plentiful. In the early seventies there was endless stuff at really low prices because it was AM and nobody wanted it. After some attrition, and time, they became desirable, hence price went up. It helped that by then there were fewer of each model.

        More modern equipment stys bi e a threshold. An SSB transceiver from the sixties will be a collector’s item, but something from the late seventies or later is “modern”, it’s solid state except for output tubes, it has all the WARC bands, it probably doesn’t use an analog VFO, but will have digital frequency readout. It may also have general coverage receiver. You might not get the bells and whistles, but it’s a better rig than the sixties ones.

        So you won’t get them for ten dollars like the neat things I brought home in the early seventies. But the price will remain constant. So you have to have a few hundred dollars to buy in, but if you want to sell it, you can likely get back what you paid for. Somebody else has already paid full price, and lost money when they sold it.

        Fifty years go newcomers often made do with horrible equipment. They’d have a low end shortwave receiver, the ham bands taking up less than an inch on the dial, and build a single tube transmitter. Very rudimentary and most would seek out better equipment as soon as possible. Other than old stuff, there’s no real equivalent now. Any reasonable recent shortwave portable is way better than my first shortwave receiver from 1971, but nobody seems to use them with a simple transistor transmitter. Other than almost one man operations, there isn’t much cheap entry level equipment, there’s no Heathkit or Ameco selling one tube crystal controlled transmitters. So the bar us raised but more.

        Michael

        1. Hey Michael, I’m glad you brought up crystal-controlled transmitters. There is something I never understood, back when Novice class hams were restricted to crystal-controlled transmitters operating below something like 20 Watts, and only in certain corners of the bands: how were Novices supposed to make contacts? Did they just send CQ, and hope some General or above, or another Novice who happened to be on exactly the same frequency, would answer? Were there just a few Novice-designated frequencies? Or did they send CQ, then scan the whole band for responses on other frequencies? And how did they respond to others who were either sending CQ, or who were finishing a contact? Did they respond on their own frequency and hope the other would somehow get back to them? That didn’t make any sense to me when I was a teen in the 1970s, which was why I didn’t become a ham then. Back then, Novice only required 5 WPM Morse code, which I was pretty sure I could pass that, but I didn’t see how I was going to get better at it as a Novice, when I couldn’t see how I would be making contact with anyone at all. Keep in mind, this was the 1970s, so for all I know, there may have been an amateur radio club in my neighborhood and I wouldn’t have known about it – our neighborhood didn’t even allow rooftop TV antennas, much less 20 meter beams.
          Jim

          1. I was a novice back in 1958. We were crystal controlled only and were limited to 75 Watts of input power to the final stage. When you called CQ, you tuned around looking for a response since it was very unlikely that the other operator had the exact same frequency crystal. Crystals were expensive, so most novices only had a few frequencies available. Obviously, holders of a higher class license having a VFO could answer right on the same frequency.

            In answering a CQ, you didn’t just give the other station’s call once, you sent it a few times to give him time to find you. It was an early version of split frequency operation similar to what DX stations do now so that the pile-up is elsewhere than on their frequency.

            The other thing was that the receivers that most of us had had selectivity that was broad as a barn door so that helped, actually. We became adept at using that filter between our ears to separate stations.

          2. Roger: Thanks. Okay, I kind of figured that might be the way for a Novice to initiate a contact, but what if he wanted to contact, for example, someone else who was sending CQ. Was EVERYONE just scanning the whole band constantly? I mean, if a Novice sends CQ, and someone with a higher license and a VFO could just tune to his frequency. But if a General Class was sending CQ, would he expect to have to look for Novices? Doesn’t seem like too many people would bother, once they had VFOs, and I can’t see anybody sticking with fixed-frequency any longer than absolutely necessary. Like I said, it’s kind of why I didn’t bother – I couldn’t see any use at all for a Novice license, and at the time, 10 WPM Morse seemed like a difficult barrier. Or was it 15 for General Class? Been a long time.

          3. Good questions, Jim. Some general class and higher operators specifically operated in the novice bands to give the newcomers an opportunity to work with experienced hams to help get them ready for moving up. Usually, a general with a VFO would answer a novice CQ on their frequency to make things a little easier. A general operator calling CQ would tune around so as to be able to contact crystal controlled novices.

            There is a group of hams who re-live their novice days. See http://novicerigroundup.com/

            Back when I was a novice the license was only one year with no renewal so there was a strong incentive to get upgraded. I still do some crystal controlled operating with some QRP rigs including a home-made breadboard transmitter running about 10 Watts.

    4. My name is Penny Dileo and my husband did ham radio since he was young. He passed away a yr ago so now I have some of his equipment and looking to sell at a reasonable price. Can you helom?

    1. I saw a bumper sticker in Boulder, Colorado that said.
      “Back Off! I’m a Scientist!”
      Leaving the consequences of not “backing off” to the imagination of the reader.

  2. Any non-hams out there. You can easily get into ham radio for less then $40 and no need for CW. There’s many different motivations and interests for using ham radio. But a 2M handheld for under $40 is a good place to start. Maybe spend another $10-$20 on a decent antenna.

    1. Even cheaper, buy an rtl-sdr compatible DVB-T stick, and listen. You can listen to SSB, decode CW and all digital modes, receive satellite pictures, etc. All for free, using open source software.
      Then you can decide whether you want to participate.

    2. I was going to get one of those, but Ham licence would mean dealing with a lot of old men. Maybe I’ll get a chance at university next year (results permitting)

      1. Hard to argue about that, when every other comment says something like “I’ve been doing this for 80 years”. But you don’t have to deal with anybody you don’t want to. The license gives you access to frequency spectrum not available to anyone else. That’s really the bottom line. You don’t have to get involved with the social aspects at all. It’s a little like getting a private pilot certificate – you get access to resources that are otherwise restricted, but nobody’s forcing you to fly to Miami.

        Also, I don’t know what you consider ‘old’, but when I went to take the test last year, there were about 20 of us testing, and the average age I’d guess was about 35. Even the people administering the test weren’t much older than that.

      2. I got my license in college at the urging of the lab manager, who was well over 70.
        Yeah, the ham radio community is mostly white hair. It’s beneficial, though. I put my ham license on my resume and when I interview for my current job one of the interviewers (now coworker) was a major ham devotee. I also ended up meeting another future coworker just by chance because he was talking about ham radio at a conference.

        Truth be told, I’ve never actually transmitted. I listen around sometimes, but I’m much more interested in experimenting with the electronics and radios than actually talking to people.

  3. You don’t have to spend big bux for an antenna on any band. All antennas start from scratch with someone’s idea. Having been a Ham for over 50 years, and a Radio Electronic Communicators Engineer for almost that long, I can tell you my best antennas are all home made, out of normally available items from Walmart or the Home Depot or similar sources.

    No that is not true because I am an Engineer, in fact I am an Engineer because of it! I have built and designed antennas most of my life. I learned 2 cents at a time from selling pop bottles how to make antennas work on the cheap! In fact to this day one of the best vertical antennas I have ever used was made from some old water pipe (discarded from an old house site) and a Coke bottle. I drove about 6 feet into the ground for one side and sat the other 3 pieces about 32 feet counting the spigot on top of the Coke bottle and held it to the eve of the house with a piece of pipe strap picked up from the same construction site! All it cost me was the time to pick up the materials and bring them home and install them. The only money spent was the feed line and connector.

    To this day it was and is one of the best 40 Meter antennas I have ever used. I operated from 10 to a 1000 watts on this antenna at times working stations all over the world from Tonga island to King Hussein of Jordan JY1. I have held some very good and enjoyable jobs with a lot of high profile Electronic Communications Companies doing work for Companies an Governments around the world and it all started with Ham Radio and a shoe string budget, so don’t ever let anyone tell you it cost a lot of money to be involved in Ham Radio truth is it just doesn’t.

    That said one can spend megabucks but I get way more satisfaction from building something and making it work! After all any dummy can write a check and open a box no where near as much satisfaction in that. To tell the truth I have a brand new high dollar radio that I bought still in the box, but I also have a new kit from India the uBitx for about a hundred bux that I am putting together you guess which one will be on the air first! Laurin Cavender WB4IVG

  4. > So with no code requirement and $100 in gear, why don’t you have a ham radio license?

    Just a note: That’s in the US. Here in Germany I had to pay ~240€ (or something like that, it’s been a while) to get my license, so that may be an obstacle for a few people. I only got it because I got my license in the US and wanted to have one over here as well.

    I haven’t been active though because I was mostly interested in local audio chatting and around here it’s pretty much just people at least double my age complaining about their health, politics and old radio equipment -_-

      1. Yep. US citizens can use their US license for a while if they’re here on vacation, but I can’t use my US license *at all* because I’m a German citizen so I had mine transferred. At least I didn’t have to take the exams again.

        Interestingly, I haven’t gotten any invoice/communication for the annual fee so far, despite it clearly being stated that there *is* such a fee. However I was unable to find out *anywhere* how large the annual fee actually is… I guess they’ll tell me at some point.

  5. Want to get on 80 CW super cheap? Build a Pixie 2 and use a color burst crystal. You probably have most of the parts in your junk box already. It’s not a great performer, but you can send and receive with it, and it will take you a couple of hours to build ugly-style on a piece of copperclad.

    There are more costly options, but a Pixie 2 will cost you under $25.

  6. Radio hams on a budget can buy and build a complete HF station for $500-700 with careful shopping. About half that sum goes to purchase a reliable, used 100-watt transceiver. The other half is for the rest of the station: power supply, cables, antenna, etc. Sources for the rig are someone you know or a local hamfest. For the first-timer, getting help from an experienced ham is worthwhile.

    QRP, kit building, homebrewing (DIY) and buying commercial equipment are all valid ways to get on the air.

  7. There are no free rides.

    I don’t mean to be negative or to discourage people. Quite the opposite, I would like to see more hackers in ham radio. But.. to lure people in with false expectations.. that’s a good way to make people that will never try again and even discourage others.

    By all means, build a receiver kit. Tune around. Get your license. Build a kit transmitter. Make contacts. Experiment! But.. know what you are getting into.

    ” With low powered gear, you might want to stick to Morse code, a mode with which it is much easier to make contacts.”

    That’s a good point but if you measure your time and effort as part of the cost I would not consider learning morse code a low budget item. That’s not to say it will not be rewarding, just that “easier” might not be the word I would use for it.

    “[KE6MT] has some online resources for you, including the amusingly-named Morse Toad iPhone or Android app.”

    Ughh. I see that advice all over the net. It’s not exactly wrong but neither is it correct. Here’s the rub, most hams communicating via morse code are not doing this. They are still sending by hand. Human beings, even well practiced ones do not have the perfect timing and constant sending speed of a computer. Apps are great at sending code. They might even be great at receiving code IF that code was sent by another app. But.. for receiving most of the code that is actually being sent on the air nothing can handle the inconsistencies like a human brain.

    In my own experience trying to decode morse code with an app or even with a directly connected desktop computer I’ve never found an on the air conversation that I could copy well enough to join. Occasionally I might be able to follow what they are talking about but that is only because I am able to recognize written words even with some of the letters mixed up. Consider that one of the most important things to copy in ham radio is the other person’s callsign. How can you read KC8ACL* on the screen and know that it was actually supposed to be KC8ACF* if this is your first contact with that person?

    I think it would be great if there was a common calling frequency for people using computer-assisted morse code. There one might have a chance at making a decodable contact. I can imagine some of the older hams might resist this strongly though.

    “He didn’t mention it, but PSK31 is good for that as well”

    Yes but, be very careful with this advice! A common thing about these inexpensive kit transmitters or transceivers.. they are not made for high duty cycles. Digital modes such as PSK31 keep your transmitter at full output for a much greater percentage of the time than CW or voice. Often, if you don’t turn down the power output, which may have not control and so require a circuit modification you may burn out your transmitter. The good news is that they really do work so even at the lower power you can make contacts.

    * – callsigns totally made up at random, too lazy to go check QRZ or the FCC site to make sure they are or are not real

    1. “I think it would be great if there was a common calling frequency for people using computer-assisted morse code. There one might have a chance at making a decodable contact. I can imagine some of the older hams might resist this strongly though.”

      It occurs to me, if anyone reading this does feel that way.. An often repeated story is that early telegraph receivers printed out the code on a paper tape. At one office, either the machine broke or the office ran out of tape or something like that. The telegraph operators just kept on going as they had long since learned the clickings of the relay by ear just by repetitive use and didn’t need to look at the tape anyway. Thus simpler receivers and the practice of receiving by ear took over.

      Perhaps then newcomers using apps to receive code would end up learning anyway and not be so different from the ‘olden days’ eh?

  8. The “think HAM radio is dead” or “interested” is a false dichotomy. I don’t think HAM is dead, and I’m not interested. I have more than enough interesting RF projects that use unlicensed spectrum, or legally use licensed spectrum for low power/intermittent transmissions.

  9. I love the QRP LABS gear. Hans really knows his P’s and Q’s when it comes to these circuits. I have the 20 and 40m varieties of the QCX kit, along with his Ultimate 3S with multi-lpf and GPS constant (to help with grid and time beacons). There is some Toroid winding, but it is easy once you get the knack.
    Another is the UBitx from Ashar Farhan. I met him at last years QRP meet at Hamvention. The UBitx is the simplest to get on with. Just solder some connections and you are good to go. All be it there is 5W on the QCX kit, you get roughly 10W with the UBitx (With voice on USB and LSB). ALSO…you can use CAT control with the Raduino for a “headless” radio. Perfect when you want to use WSPR or JT8 modes. ;)

    1. That’s as it should be. The antenna system is by far the most important part of your setup for determining performance. X-watts of clean RF is X-watts of clean RF no matter how many bells and whistles on the radio. The antenna itself, though important a great one can be made cheap! The cable though, not so much.
      Yes… I know… one can homebrew ladder line.
      How many people have a clear run from a good place for their radio to a good place for an antenna with no metal objects? And if you do, do you really want to only have one antenna? Or do you have separate antenna locations, each reachable in separate metal-free directions so that ladder line can be run to each without interfering with one another?
      If so, do you live in a tree?
      I’m pretty sure most of us will stick with coax for this reason. Cheap coax is like connecting your antenna through a long line of resistors. I can almost imagine one making a dummy load out of RG-58. Non-cheap coax is expensive!

  10. hello, I have been a ham since age15 (1959) first becoming a novice morse code test 5 wpm, then 6 months later, code test 13 wpm and general, then some years later, amateur extra code test 20 wpm. learning the cide at a young age opened the door for my navy carreer as a radioman. when among other hans and I showed my a/e license, it was almost as if I were an a amateur radio god. later on towards the end of my navy carreer, I tested for and became a licensed radio officer in the U S merchant marines. I cannot express how disgusted I am at the ARRL and the FCC for essentially making the amateur extra class completely wirthless. . I listen to conversations on the bands and it sounds like the cb bands, profanity is rampant. I feel that the fcc should change the amateur extra licensees that got their license the old fashioned way, by passing the 20wpm code test and written test at an fcc office to add a change to our A/E license that would identify the holder of the license as pre no code days to something such as k1aaa/AE and using the AE identifier up to the license holder. I think a lot of my fellow A/E licensees would definitely like this remedy or something similar.
    73s. k7 – – -/AE

  11. I’ve always seen ham radio as a technical hobby, but one can look at it from different angles. I’m still not sure if the very early hams built to play with technology, or to get on the air and yap. But just being on the air so early helped radio develop.

    Hams were relegated to the “useless” frequencies, just above the top of the current AM broadcast band. But in December 1921 they organized a test, almost like n early contest, and showed that shortwave could span the Atlantic, which opened up a lot more spectrum space.

    The US Signal Corps bounced signals off the moon in the late forties (and there was an early satellite which was just a passive reflector), but hams seem to have done a lot more moonbounce. That must have some value, and it certainly required really good equipment. In 1957, similar hams worked at using 144MHz to communicate between Hawaii and California, amazing stuff which requires communication. I was amazed about twenty years ago to hear an FM broadcast station from Mississippi here in Montreal, early one hot July morning. Not ham radio, but you miss that if you aren’t listening. The weirdest radio thing I’ve heard was 6M ssb bounced off the aurora, it sounds like whispering. So there are technical things to pursue, even without building.

    Fifty years ago you needed a lot of equipment for serious VHF or UHF work. It got better in the seventies, you could get serious 6 or 2M ssb rigs that had lots of bells and whistles, but not one rig that did it all. Though, Icom had some interesting portables, hand held SSB for 6 and 2 and I think 432. I lusted over those. But now you can buy fairly good rigs that cover HF but also 6, 2, and 432, and in a small package. You can even get a low power one to run off batteries. Way better than those late seventy Icom portables. So long as you have a place to go with height, you can get on and DX the VHF/UHF bands. This is still a testing, and beats FM on those bands. 46 years after I was licensed, I’m seriously thinking of buying one of those portable rigs, the first time I’ve considered buying a new ham rig (though it helps that I have some money I could spend on it).

    Michael

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