The $50 Ham: Getting Your Ticket Punched

Today we start a new series dedicated to amateur radio for cheapskates. Ham radio has a reputation as a “rich old guy” hobby, a reputation that it probably deserves to some degree. Pick up a glossy catalog from DX Engineering or cruise their website, and you’ll see that getting into the latest and greatest gear is not an exercise for the financially challenged. And thus the image persists of the recent retiree, long past the expense and time required to raise a family and suddenly with time on his hands, gleefully adding just one more piece of expensive gear to an already well-appointed ham shack to “chew the rag” with his “OMs”.

Not a $50 ham. W9EVT’s shack. Source:

As I pointed out a few years back in “My Beef With Ham Radio”, I’m an inactive ham. My main reason for not practicing is that I’m not a fan of talking to strangers, but there’s a financial component to my reticence as well – it’s hard to spend a lot of money on gear when you don’t have a lot to talk about. I suspect that there are a lot of would-be hams out there who are turned off from the hobby by its perceived expense, and perhaps a few like me who are on the mic-shy side.

This series is aimed at dispelling the myth that one needs buckets of money to be a ham, and that jawboning is the only thing one does on the air. Each installment will feature a project that will move you further along your ham journey that can be completed for no more than $50 or so. Wherever possible, I’ll be building the project or testing the activity myself so I can pursue my own goal of actually using my license for a change.

(A shout-out to Robert for suggesting this series, and for graciously allowing me to run with his idea.)

Getting Your Ticket

The licensing of amateur radio stations in the United States goes all the way back to 1912. (I’m concentrating on US laws and customs regarding the amateur radio service simply because that’s where I live; please feel free to chip in on the comments section about differences in other countries.) Anyone who wants to operate on the bands reserved for the amateur radio service has to be licensed by the Federal Communication Commission. Unlicensed individuals are free – and encouraged – to listen in on the bands, but if you don’t have a license, you can’t transmit. And trust me, the local hams, with know-how, equipment, and all the time in the world, will find you, resulting in an unpleasant encounter with the FCC.

There’s really no reason not to get a license anyway. This will be among the cheapest parts of a ham’s journey, and perhaps even free. To earn a license you’ll need to pass a written exam, but before taking the plunge you’ll need to know a little about the classes of amateur radio licenses, and the privileges they bestow.

The current entry-level license class in the US is called Technician class; the old Novice class was eliminated in 2000, along with the Morse code requirement for all classes. Technicians have privileges to operate mainly on the upper frequencies, primarily on the 2-meter (144 MHz) and 70-cm (420 MHz) bands in phone mode, which means voice transmissions. Technicians also have access to small slices of the 10-meter band using data modes, and small sections of 15-, 40-, and 80-meters if they learn Morse or use a computer to send and receive it. This limits the Technician to mainly local communications, but there’s plenty to do and loads to learn on these bands.

The band plan for US hams. Note that Technicians only have phone (voice) privileges on 10 meters and below; the long haul bands are off limits unless you use Morse. Source:


Practice, Practice, Practice

Even with all the limitations, a Technician license still offers access to a lot of spectrum and serves as the gateway to the next two classes, General and Extra. Everyone has to start with a Technician license, which requires passing a 35-question multiple choice examination. The exam is standardized with questions selected from a fixed pool, with topics ranging from knowing FCC Part 97 rules to basic electronics and RF theory. The exam is pretty easy, especially for anyone with a background in electronics. In fact, many complete newbies come to exam sessions after having run through enough online practice tests to see every possible pool question and pass the exam without understanding a thing about radios or electronics. There are lively debates over whether that’s a good thing or not – personally, I’m not a fan of it – but it is what it is; the Technician exam is dead easy.

Your investment in a Technician license will be minimal, and mostly consists of the time it takes to study. Online practice tests – I recommend the tests on – are free to take as many times as you need to. Some ham clubs offer local classes aimed at helping you to prepare, and those generally charge only a nominal fee. There are even one-day intensive “ham cram” sessions where you’re guided through all the material and take the exam at the end of the day.

Typical exam session. Calculators are allowed, but no smartphones, please. Source: Tri-County Amateur Radio Club

Exam sessions are run by Volunteer Exam Coordinators (VECs) Volunteer Examiners (VEs), hams who have special training in administering and grading exams. They too charge only a nominal fee – I think I paid $15 – and may even waive the fee under certain circumstances. There are also occasional special events like the annual Field Day, where hams set up tents and booths in public places as an outreach to the public, where exams are often administered for free.

Honestly, getting your Technician license is about as low impact as the amateur radio hobby gets. Once you can consistently pass practice tests online, the actual exam is a breeze. Exams are graded on the spot so you’ll know instantly how you did, and you can even take the next exam for no extra charge if you’re ready. Give it a shot even if you haven’t studied – I nearly passed my Extra exam going in cold after I aced my General.

Next Time

In the next installment I’ll start discussing what the newly minted Technician can do with his or her license. It may seem like a pipe dream to get on the air for less than $50, but it’s surprising what’s available these days, and you’ll find that fifty dollars can go a long way toward making your first contact.

118 thoughts on “The $50 Ham: Getting Your Ticket Punched

    1. Me, too!
      I have an Extra ticket for just over a year, but don’t really have much to say on VHF and UHF repeaters since the conversations tend to be rather mundane, and I don’t see the need to add any more to that. On the other hand, I’m encouraging my students to get their tickets, and I’d enjoy having QSOs with them.
      But I love the idea of this thread. I’ve spent some money already including Baofeng and Baofeng Tech (the one to look for – they’re based in the States) but it hasn’t gotten me into HF yet. And I have no budget for the big fancy transceivers from the big three. Kits are definitely where I’m aiming, and SDR and digital modes. Somewhere in there, I’ll find what I’m looking for without spending too much more. I’m hoping we’ll all find more when we ferret out the inexpensive places …

      1. Why not try some things to encourage intelligent, interesting conversations? The conversations don’t have to be mundane. Most hams have interesting jobs, hobbies, and histories, and if you can get them to open up, you can have a conversation that transcends rig here is…, antenna is….., how ’bout them Sox?

        1. Well, here’s the thing: amateur radio attracts such a wide variety of people, many of them have little in common, outside of the equipment they’re using, and the weather. Really, the chances are about the same as they are in a neighborhood bar.

    2. I took my tech a few years ago and was surprised to pass my general at the same time. And it actually cost me a chunk of money since I thought, hey, i have my general, I should get a HF radio! So I bought a ICOM 7300. But I totally understand what the OP is saying. I don’t talk much and even 100w (and living on top of a large hill with 500-700 ft of prominence) you quickly realize some of these guys your hearing from 1200 miles away can’t hear you (because their using 10000$ worth of beam antennas and 1000w amps). It also doesn’t help that we are in a solar minimum.

      Im interested to see where he goes with this series.

      And OP, don’t neglect the HF projects. :)

  1. Just starting out, perhaps unsure how deeply you want to get into the hobby and certainly if you aren’t excited about talking to strangers it is understandable that you are going to want nay require an inexpensive radio.

    Do be careful though. Make sure you get a good radio. If your signal is too weak or distorted people won’t want to talk to you. You will get frustrated. With this being your first/only experience in the hobby you might very well just give up.

    Used radios might be one way to get a good one for less money but it is difficult to find a good deal that way. Hams seem to treasure old equipment, not just classic or antique old. It seems almost like every radio to come off the factory line is sacred or something. The prices just don’t drop like other electronics. If you try to meet a tight budget by going for older gear it’s easy to end up going with something so beat up that it will not perform well. I’m not saying you can’t get a good deal on something used. Just be careful about it.

    Then there is the Chinese imports. The “big” name in those is Baofeng. The problem with those is that many have been tested and a significant portion of those tested transmit dirty signals. You hear the person you are talking to just fine. That person hears you just fine too. It’s easy to think that everything is ok. But at the same time the radio is putting out interference on other frequencies. That can get you in trouble!

    Just make sure if you go the cheap import route you get a low pass filter for it. Otherwise you could end up interfering with police, ambulance, firefighter or military frequencies. Imagine interfering with an ambulance. Besides getting yourself in trouble it could cost someone their life!

    1. I’ll certainly be mentioning Baofengs as an option – this is the $50 Ham, after all, and when you can get a transceiver and a decent antenna for less than $50, I’d be remiss not to. But I agree that they’re not the best radios, and I’ll offer a few options for upgrading on a budget. Still, I suspect merely mentioning Baofeng will make for a lively comment section ;-)

      1. I’d highly recommend that you mention Wouxun handheld radios as a better option. They have better characteristics on both transmit (better spectral purity) and receive (better sensitivity). A Wouxun will set you back between $70 and $190, though, depending upon the model and seller. Still cheaper than the Big Three vendors for a dual-band hand-held that is reasonably durable. Just don’t leave Wouxun and Baofeng radios in a location where there is significant temperature cycling. They’ll stop working. If you take care of them, Wouxun’s at least, will work well for years. I have a KG-UVD1P that I bought in 2010 that still works well.

        1. Agreed, and yes, I plan to mention Wouxun. Just don’t ask me to pronounce it ;-)

          I have a KG-UV6D that’s worlds better than the Baofeng. My only beef is the QRM in my shop blasts through the squelch in the Wuoxun, making it hard to monitor the repeater. Guess that speaks to the sensitivity of the receiver vs. the Baofeng.

          1. Not that you asked, but a fairly good approximation of how to pronounce Wuoxun is “Woo-oh-shoon”. But all smashed together like if you said it quickly.

            Thanks for the article! I look forward to getting my license myself, and I’ll definitely be a $50 Ham, so I could really use suggestions. The non-voice side is really appealing too.

          2. Someone told me it basically sounded like “ocean”, but I didn’t believe them. Still, it’s easier to just say “ocean” than “woks-on”, which is more like what it looks like in English.’

            Thanks for check out the series. Fair warning that some of my projects are certainly going to break the $50 mark. I mean, I already own an ICOM IC-7200, so I’m going to put it to use for some HF stuff. But I’ll try to mix in as many cheap to free projects as possible while keeping things interesting.

      2. I have a few nice handhelds but I feel like far and away what helped more than anything was installing (or making) a better antenna.

        I wouldn’t worry a ton about them not having the cleanest signals simply because they output so little power your unlikely to be interfering with much of anything (unless you live smack in the middle of a very dense metro area).

        The main thing to be aware of on the Chinese radios is they let you transmit on frequencies you *should not transmit on*! I use mine as a police scanner if something weird is going on but am very very careful to disable transmit (or turn the power to minimum) to avoid the ugly mistake of keying the mic on the police band (which is not something you want to do). The Japanese radios are FCC approved so they lock out those frequencies (listen only).

    2. Are these radios FCC type accepted for use on the ham bands? If so, you can’t expect a technician class ham to understand or know what to do about interference. If the FCC says the radios are good, out of the box, on US ham bands, then what is the problem? Fire, police, and EMS have moved to 800/900 mhz trunked systems in nearly all areas. This is just more doom and gloom bullshit..

      Very few hams starting out have spectrum analyzers or oscilloscopes, so unless you’re going to test everyone’s, shut the hell up with that “Chinese radios ruin the hobby” malarkey.

      1. They’re generally NOT type accepted. Here’s the thing: if you’re selling radios, you have two options. 1) get type certification, which allows you to sell them to the general public, 2) don’t get type acceptance, and restrict sales to licensed amateurs. Amateur radio operators (even technician class) ARE responsible for what their radios do. I think that’s even a test question. The expectation is that even if you don’t know what you’re doing, you can get help from more experienced hams.
        So don’t just run off at the mouth with the notion that if they can sell it, it must be okay. The FCC DOESN’T say those radios are good.

        1. Put one on test equipment and then say they are legal. I have
          (as have MANY others/ARRL)and they ARE NOT.
          2nd harmonic is only ~-30db down on 146Mhz. If you
          expect the FCC to enforce any rules
          on Part 97 you are drunk/stoned.

  2. The strategy I used to pass the written tests may be helpful. The testing is multiple choice and not as you remember it from school. First, the test questions are drawn from a pool of questions, which is freely downloadable. That’s right, every question you might be asked, is available to you, legally. As are the answers. Yup, the answers you will be given to choose from are also available to study. HOWEVER – the answers will be scrambled in the test. So remember the answer, not its letter.

    I studied by downloading the question pool and answering each and every question. This takes several hours. I worked an hour a night, but do what is easiest for you. Once you have answered all the questions, grade them. You will have gotten some (hopefully small) number of them wrong.

    Here’s the key – edit the question pool to remove the questions you got right (no need to study those). Now, understand why you got the remaining questions wrong, and re-take the test, using only those questions. You will get most of them correct the second time.

    Now, before you forget any of the answers, take the test for real (this involves timing your study sessions so that they finish right before the test session). You should pass easily (remember that the answers will be listed in a different order than in the dowloaded question pool, but they will be the same answers) — I did, back when I had to take General,Advanced and Extra written tests. The best part about this study scheme, is that you don’t need to buy any books, all you need is the current question pool, and that’s freely downloadable.

      1. That’s true. But you can take a lot of practice tests and still not see all the questions in the pool. Remember: you can get *any* question in the pool. Having answered them all, I would argue, prepares you better.

        But, in the end, it’s up to you. Many of the questions are easy, but some are what I call “secret code word” questions. You can fail them if you use common sense, because the answer is something out of the regs or uses a word in a different way than it’s normally used. There are enough of these that you can fail the test if you go in cold.

        1. I used for studying. They don’t just show practice exams, but have a set of flash cards with all the questions, and after you go through enough of them, the focus shifts to those, you had problems with.
          There is also a set of “No Nonsense” study guides by Dan Romanchik KB6NU with extensive explanations for all the questions, but for me doing research myself was much more effective in understanding the questions and learning the answers, than memorizing them from the books.

    1. Kindle has a book by Craig Buck .
      He does a good job of going over each question in the test and adds some discussion and analysys to support each correct answer. Under$10 per book. One book for each class. Helped me get through Extra.

    2. I did a variation on this: I downloaded the tests and deleted all of the wrong answers. Then I went and read all of the questions and their correct answers, several times. The result is that I was familiar with the right answers, but not the wrong ones. I aced Technician and General, and missed only a few (2 or 3) on the Extra.

  3. I do hope you will be talking about homebrew equipment!

    A Bittx might be a great way to start. Depending on one’s level of technical expertise you can find the directions online, collect your own parts and build one from scratch. Or you can get a kit to solder together. Or there are kits where the PCB is already soldered together. Those can be had for less than $50!

    Another option is the Minima. Being Arduino based it might hold a bit more potential for HaD readers. I’m not as familiar with what is/is not available for the Minima so far as kit options go.

    Of course these are QRP (low power) radios. That means you are probably going to have to wait for ideal atmospheric conditions to make contacts. Also you aren’t going to punch through if there is a lot of interference. That’s not necessarily a bad thing. Many hams prefer QRP for the challenge! It’s just important to manage one’s expectations though. If you expect to be able to just pic up your mic whenever you feel like and get someone to talk to QRP might not be for you and trying to start out that way could discourage you from continuing the hobby. If your interest is more in the technical side though and you want to be able to tinker that’s where the most potential is.

    1. Even with poor propagation, weak signal digital modes like JS8Call ( can be enjoyable on QRP. They’ll be amazing when things open back up.

      Also, as a digital mode, it’s great for mic-shy people or those with hearing issues or delayed audio processing.

  4. Thank you for this article!
    Hard to believe I’ve had my own ticket for more than 10 years now. I got mine thanks to the local ham club running a class, and now I’m the president of that same club! (Which only shows that I’m an idiot, I guess)
    Like you I’m a bit mic shy, and so never really got into long distance voice communications. I found myself instead drawn to digital modes such a WSPR and PSK. I do talk on the local repeaters from time to time, which for some reason I find easier to do than talking to strangers on the other side of the world, probably because most of the folks I talk to are people I already know.
    I have a slightly different take on the apparent ease of the Technician class license exam: I feel it’s intentionally easy so that it can be an entry into the hobby for anyone and everyone. The exam is just the key that opens the door to the hobby. All the real learning starts after one is licensed, in my opinion.

    1. Thanks, I appreciate the feedback. I have to admit that part of my motivation for doing this was to get my own lazy butt in gear and start doing something with my ticket. I’m especially keen to get into HF stuff, and to build a QRP rig. I’ll probably cover kit builds first, but I really want to try scratch built. Nothing says ham like building your own radio from scratch.

      The other motivation was getting my mug on a Joe Kim original. Finally, I have arrived!

    2. I think that last statement is true for every licence branch. One of the things studying for license exams did for me was to force me to encounter topics that I later wanted to study further. I started building anteennas and enjoy learning the techniques and technical content about how to best match a particular antenna design to a given radio/frequency. I like having my students build antenna that, with a bit of tuning and ajustment to the feedline we often get really good SWRs and overall impedence matches. Add that to understanding how to use repeaters allows us to make contacts over a wide area, but of course nothing like HF.

  5. Have you heard the language and topic of conversation on 2 meters and on local ham clubs on Sunday mornings? Back in the day, talking politics and swearing on air and using just barely suppressed anti-immigrant, anti-Democrat, anti-LeftCoasters or anti-EastCoasters retoric was really frowned upon. Now it’s just accepted talk. I can swear like a longshoreman, I am a Democrat,science believing (your hobby, btw, is based science) liberal that remembers back when all that was put aside when you were on the radio. No more. Too bad. Your hobby has enough going against it’s growth without turning off people to it’s purpose.

    1. It’s true in a lot of areas, less so in others. My local repeater has nightly nets that are just as pleasant as can be, with nobody spouting any nonsense, and I listen all day long and hear nothing but friendly chit chat. It’s really turned my perception of the hobby around. And mind you, I live in the reddest possible area in the reddest of red states. Not a hint of nonsense here. I found it way worse when I lived in Connecticut.

      1. I too live in a Red state in the heart of the area where walls may be built and I have heard nothing like that described by CW. In fact groups work hard at running professional nets for both Races and Ares. The social nets are enjoyable and filled with information about are hobby. Even when listening to the banter on Simplex it is pleasant and no nonsense. In addition many are ready and willing to man emergency equipment should the need arise. God bless Texas!

        BTW, there are plenty of free and low cost sites for learning CW. And CW gear is less expensive than voice or other digital modes. I can build a transceiver and a key for practically nothing. Add a long wire and someone somewhere is going to hear me! Hope your going to talk about that. Check out the Long Island CW club fantastic learning organization.

      2. My local nets only mention politics when there are proposed laws that might take spectrum away from amateurs. Under those conditions all sides in the amateur community should come together to protect the amateur bands.

    2. There are some nutz on Ham Radio like everywhere else. It is still illegal to discuss politics and religion on ham radio. Ham Radio is for the most part a brotherhood all be it one that it helps a lot to have thick skin. Hams do sometimes rib one another really hard. Laurin WB4IVG

  6. For most of HaD readers the exams should be a breeze. The part you will will spend most time studying are the regulations, but they are not that difficult to learn. The technical parts of the exams should be fairly easy for anyone who knows a bit about analog electronics. I spent less than a week on going through all the questions in the pools. My initial goal was to get General (Technician exam is so trivial that it wasn’t even worth the time it takes to get to the exam site), but after getting a passing score on an example test for Extra license without even looking at the questions before, I decided to take a look at them. In the end I went from zero to Extra hero in less than two hours, without sweating even a little bit.

    1. Right. You don’t have to start with a Technician license. You have to start with the Technician exam element. But if you pass it, you can take the General element, and if you pass that, you can take the Extra element, without so much as leaving the room. One fee, one session, if you have the knowledge your very first license can be Extra-class.

    1. The Laurel VEC does not charge a fee for exams. ARRL and W5YI do. Keep this in mind. Also with Laurel your license typically gets processed in about 3 days or as little as 1 hour. With the other two you could be waiting a week or more, I’ve heard horror stories of a month.

      The fee charged by the ARRL and W5YI allows you one attempt at each element exam. You can attempt each element once for that price. So, if you’re paying you might as well take all 3 exams, you paid for them. If you fail an element and want to re-take it, you have to pay another $15. Elements can be taken in any order but you have to pass the lower elements to get the license class for that element.

      I had an applicant study element 3 (General) instead of 2 (Technician). He passed element 3 but that didn’t grant him a license until he took and passed element 2, then he was a General class operator.

      At my sessions I typically allow you to miss 3 more than required to pass in order to retake the exam. I.E. you can fail up to 12 questions. If you fail more than that you really need to go back and study more.

      #1 don’t second guess yourself on the exam, your first answer is typically right.

      Element 2 (Technician) is mostly memorization of rules and regulations. The math is simple add/subtract/multiply/divide. Most people don’t even use a calculator.

      #2 get involved with a local club. We love sharing equipment with new hams. Sure, it’s not the latest gear with all the bells in whistles but electrons have been upgraded yet either.

      If you hold an expired license and can prove it, take a look at FCC Rule 97.505(a) as you may be eligible to get some element credit. You Pre-1987 Technicians can get ‘upgraded’ to Generals.

      1. I took my exams during session organized by Mount Veronon club. Not only it was free, but my license was in FCC database Monday noon, just 2 days after I took the exam on Saturday.

        1. Laurel is great. The cut-off for the FCC database is something like 6PM Pacific Time, so if you take your test early enough in the day and things line up, you can sometimes have your call sign on the same day.

    1. Take a look at his QRZ page and you’ll see that it’s not even a third of his gear. There are extra bays behind the console he’s sitting at, and one along the wall behind him. And that’s not counting the gear he has in storage for trades – probably half again as many radios.

    2. Don’t need the F word on this site !!!!, Sounds like the time I was hooking up a 2 meter radio for my younger grandson, and listen on the repeator and the ham was use in California using all kinnd of F- words. What a turn off. !!!!!

  7. Han Radio is no longer exclusively a “rich old man’s ” hobby. Though we’re still outnumbered, the number of women on the airwaves at every level is increasing. Most of us are pretty active too !

    1. I’m glad for that, personally. Call me crazy, but I like talking to women more than I like talking to men.

      There are quite a few very active women in my area. I chatted one up at a public safety local community day thing, and she got me turned on to the local repeater nets. She runs the net a couple of times a week. Part of the reason for that might be that we’re very heavily Mormon, and the LDS has an incredible network of amateur operators.

  8. If you’re going to study, find something better than random practice exams from — try a site like (which has explanations and guided practice as well as practice exams) or (which at least has flashcards as well as practice exams) so you don’t waste so much of your time.

    Just my $0.02 =]

  9. My first rig in the 1960s was a Heathkit Twoer, a 2 meter AM transceiver kit that cost $50. But in today’s money that’d be $400. It’s incredible how cheap everything electronic is now.

  10. $50? I’ve got maybe $250 of equipment right now, including the computers. Of course, I’ve been lucky along the way in my acquisitions (found a nice 2 meter transceiver at Habitat for Humanity for $10 once, and several HTX-100 units off of eBay when the 10 meter sunspot cycle was at its worst).

    The real trick is to spend the money where it really counts — the feedlines and the antennas.

    BTW, I don’t TX much these days — only when I’m experimenting with new techniques, protocols, or software. For me, listening and decoding is a lot more fun.

    73 de kd0gzj

  11. A pixie is a lot of fun and you can get away with a random wire and a water pipe ground for it. If you get a 40m and 80m crystal, you can land yourself right smack dab in the CW section of the band for newly minted technicians. Don’t underestimate the power of CW.

    1. I don’t underestimate it at all, and I plan to rectify my codelessness soon. At least enough to call CQ and have a useful QSO.

      But it is daunting to some, so I want to make sure I find ways for Techs to leverage their limited HF privileges. Look for a project that allows no-code Techs to use 40- and 80-meters CW QRP.

      1. I look forward to reading about it. But I’m skeptical of machines that attempt to read Morse off the air.

        For decades, the Morse requirement is what kept me from becoming a ham. When I heard it was eliminated, I got a license, but then quickly decided I ought to learn code, because it’s so much easier and cheaper to build a transmitter capable of long distance operation using Morse Code than any other mode. When I first got licensed, I had some success with 40m PSK31 (with computer, of course), and that bolstered my confidence enough to try setting up 40m CW via the computer. I could send just fine, but the guy who came back to me didn’t have a perfectly clear signal, so I couldn’t copy much of anything except his call sign. Furthermore, I wasn’t familiar with the prosigns and traditional format of a CW QSO, so I still have no idea what he sent. I signed off, ashamed and embarrassed, and resolved to learn Morse well enough to copy a few QSOs off the air before trying to transmit CW again. It took several months, and some coaching by friendly local hams, but I managed to learn enough to be comfortable on the air at 15 WPM or so.

        Morse doesn’t take great intellect (who thinks Radar O’Reilly was the smartest guy on M*A*S*H?), but it does require persistence, and consistent daily practice, sustained over time. It’s the most fun I’ve had with ham radio.

        I’m always encouraging Technician-class hams to use their CW privileges. I’ve never known of one to do so, though. It seems that passing the General exam is so much quicker for most people than learning CW, that everyone I know has gone through the General exam first.

        I’d love to have a CW QSO with a Technician! Computerized or not.

      2. Dan…
        Look at QCX
        It’s a single band 5W CW transceiver kit for $49, available for 80, 60, 40, 30, 20 or 17m; with high performance, synthesized tuning across the whole band, and lots of features built in, including test and alignment equipment. It also includes a CW decoder (nothing is as good as your ears though), Iambic keyer, and an onboard microswitch for using as a traditional “straight” Morse key.

  12. I used to get my Technician and General license at once, coupled with a couple of the exam books from Gordon West (If you send him a postcard with your callsign when you get your license, he will send you a pretty nifty welcome kit, and he’s been writing the study books for decades. You can find them on Amazon, they’re about 20 bucks a pop, he’s also got some pretty good learn Morse Code guides as well).
    Took all three exams actually but I bombed the Extra class exam as I hadn’t studied much for it.

  13. Nitpick: The hams who are present at an exam session to give and grade the exams are called VEs (Volunteer Examiners). The VECs (Volunteer Examiner Coordinators) are those organizations that have agreements with the FCC to coordinate and certify Volunteer Examiners. The ARRL is a VEC. I am a VE.

  14. As a couple of others have mentioned, the trash on the 2m band gets old quick.
    I’ve had my extra class for several years and quickly lost interest in local comms. Always the same guys on their way home from work complaining about their day or spouting off about politics and their upcoming knee/hip/kidney replacement surgery.

  15. I’ve been licensed for many years. I have my extra class and personally think it’s a shame the Morse part of the exam was discontinued. I can see some advantages to being morse code efficient. But now it’s just a matter of passing radio theory. All that being said just have fun.

  16. If you go to someone who is accredited through Laurel VEC, instead of the ARRL, testing is completely free all the time. Our test takers get their new licenses in a couple days, and lately it’s been a couple hours, rather than ARRL’s slower paper route, which takes about a week to a month.

  17. My hobby for almost 50 years.I enjoy antennas and building from scratch.A bonus to this is the ability to fix tv antennas,cb,ham and anything connected to a coax cable.Saved me piles of cash.Can repair own tv and radios from the knowledge gained from ham radio.Fantastic hobby.

  18. For those who think equipment is too expensive, try a hamfest. I have found many vhf/uhf radios there. From $25-75. About the price of the cheap Chinese stuff.
    Granted they are older and may not have all the bells and whistles of the newer stuff but they work to talk to other locals.
    Also Yaesu makes a nice ht, the ft 60r that can be found discounted online.
    You can build your own antennas we easily for 2m/70cm which will save you some money too.

  19. Since getting the Tech license isn’t hard, why not? To help you prepare for the test, the PDF version of my No Nonsense Technician Class License Study Guide is FREE. You can get it by going to

    I get lots of younger people and women in my classes, so the stereotype of it being an old guy’s hobby just isn’t true any more. There’s also a lot going on besides “ragchewing.” Get your ticket and be part of the changes that are taking place in amateur radio.

  20. The General license should be on all bands with 100 Watts.
    Many other countries in EU like Sweden Belgium Portugal etc are having more space with there Cept General. And it works. The youth like the HF bands and SHF. But not the hard studying. This is 2k19 not 1970 FCC.

    Fill the HF bands with youths.

  21. I can’t fathom why anyone that “doesn’t like talking to strangers” would even take up a hobby in which talking to strangers is the main premise. No harm, no foul. Im respectfully going to sit out the rest of these installments.

    1. I don’t think there is one “main premise” to amateur radio. Some people like to talk, others don’t – maybe they go with digital modes instead, which I’ll cover eventually. Some people can afford expensive gear, others need to start with the cheap stuff, whether it smears spurious emissions up and down the band. We’ll cover how to fix that in a later installment, BTW. Some people like to just run their shack solo, some people like to participate in clubs and services like ARES and RACES and SkyWarn. Are any of them wrong for how they enjoy the hobby?

      There should be room for all in amateur radio, and respectfully, your attitude of shutting down someone who enjoys the hobby in a different way than you do is exactly what’s wrong with it today. But thanks for giving the series a shot.

      1. Can I have his spot?! I got my ticket so I could do emergency communication. I was volunteering with American Red Cross, since I got my ticket I left ARC and jumped in with both feet. Member of the local club, ARES, SKYWARN, COUNTY DISASTER ACTION TEAM, BAPTIST MENS CLUB, and AUXCOMM. This series interests me because I work two jobs and am a sole provider for the family. I want to put a budget shack together. Let me know how to subscribe to the series.

        1. Glad you like the series. We don’t have a way to subscribe to a specific series, but you can use the feed buttons up at the top of the article (right hand side, just below the Search bar) to stay up to date. Before I was a writer I used the RSS feed to keep current, but there are also buttons for Facebook and Twitter that get an update for each new post. There’s also Google+, but…

    2. I only got involved in ham radio because I discovered a group of people on there to talk to. Most hams (in VK anyway) don’t share my interests (like punk rock). In radio terms, this means high-fidelity AM – people might complain about me filling 160 m with sidebands that blow out 20 kHz, but nobody ever uses the band anyway. Plus, having crossband conversations via a wideband AM receiver equipped with a high-impedance, low-distortion detector is something quite special…

  22. In case someone is interested, I have written a treatise entitled: “Free and Low-Cost Ways for Getting on the Air for Blind Radio Amateurs.” This information also applies to fully sighted hams as well. However, I use a much broader definition of low-cost. I considered anything $750 or less as low-cost. If anyone is interested, I will send you a copy; my call is K8HSY, and I am good in QRZ.

  23. Ham Radio is what you make of it. It in and of its self is bad in fact it is GREAT. I am a ham of 50 + years. Am I rich old man, not really but I started out a poor young boy, and Ham Radio has made a wonderful life for me and continues to do so. I started out radio curious at a very young age, maybe 4 years old. Between my grandparents old cathedral radio with several bands and an old S38 Hallicrafters that someone loaned to my dad I was introduced to wild world of long distance radio. I built my first crystal set from a kit given me for my 7th birthday by my mom’s sister. From them on it has been wild and wooly, with wires strung everwhere. I got my Ham Ticket at 10 years old and it has led me to a fantastic career as an RF Engineer. I have had times in my life that I was very active in Ham Radio other times when I was not at least not outwardly. I have always read voraciously about Radio and it’s tennants. I am very appreciative of my many Elmers. Likewise I have taught so many Ham Classes that I cannot count them and have Elmered many Hams of all ages. I continue to explore new venue’s in Ham Radio, from having been the first to have had a synthetic voice on any Ham Band to building cutting edge SDR projects today. Yes Ham Radio can be done on a shoestring, just look at the uBitx unit which is both SDR, ALL Band HF and can be had for around $100. This radio comes circuit fully assembled and tested only awaiting to be put into your custom case and operated. One cannot even find a digital multi-band receiver for this price let alone a tranceiver. So if you are a Rich Old Man or a poor young kid jump on in the water’s fine. You will never regret becoming a Licensed Ham Radio Operator! WB4IVG Laurin Cavender

  24. A very interesting read which I hope will bring newcomers into the hobby. Author failed to properly explain Technician privileges, which is 10 meter voice (28.3 to 28.5), various data and slow scan TV modes from 50 Mhz (6 Meters) and into the Gigahertz region. We need more activity on 6 and 220, use the spectrum or risk losing it. We lost a fair chunk of 220 back in the late 1990’s -.2000 time frame.

    Don’t neglect the used market, plenty of great deals to be made, just prepare to buy a new battery for that HT you’re eyeing as they tend to lose holding capacity after a few years.

    Plenty of converted commercial (Motorola, GE, Regency, etc) on our v/uhf brands including 6 meters. Get on 6! It’s a blast when propagation conditions are favorable.

    Good Signals and Happy DX,

    Ed N3KEX

  25. Dan Maloney you are too funny. These Elmers squelching NASCAR, Weather and Radio monologues from their microphone holes. Face to face they can make Mean Girls and Rhoda Penmark look meek. This clique in my estimation couldn’t be more anal and PA. Not public address. Pertains to group Mental Health. Heeee. Emergencies everyday for me. Don’t need practice.
    Mikey Joe, New Mexico
    NY7SM FCC Extra Class Operator

  26. Ham radio is a incredibly broad hobby that is far more “talking to strangers”, there’s the whole homebrew side of building antennas, radios and other gadgets that keeps many busy without ever talking to anyone on the air. The crossover between computer technology and digital modes is something I personally find fascinating, but for others it’s not their thing. And that’s ok, there’s something for everyone in this hobby.

  27. Dan Maloney, if you don’t like talking to hams much, but want to talk long distances, you might want to consider working the satellite. You can get into working satellites for reasonably low costs. A couple of handheld radios can get you onto the birds for very little cost. I’ve heard beginners using a pair of Baofengs and a homebrew 2m/70cm (see Kent Britain’s I currently use a Wouxun KG-UVD1P for receive, a Baofeng KG-82HP for transmit, and a spin on the “Cheap and Easy Yagi Satellite Antenna” ( The QSOs on the FM satellites are very short: Exchange call signs and grid squares and move on to the next QSO. If you move to the linear satellites, you’ll need to SSB-capable radios (or one and an SDR reciver) and you can reuse the same antennas. It is a lot of fun! I live near Dallas,TX and I’ve had QSOs with ham from Hawaii to the Caribbean, to Alaska, Greenland, and Panama on just the FM bird! Check out https:/ for more information. There is an active email redirector (AMSAT-BB) and an active Twitter following.

  28. Dan,

    I have enjoyed your posts regarding this topic and can relate to your sentiments.

    I have had my technician license since around 2000 and did little with it. Some years back I was actually given an 80’s vintage Kenwood 100W HF rig. I figured I would upgrade and do some voice QSO. So I ended up getting my extra (you know, the fake no-code, new kind of extra license) and threw up a dipole in some trees behind my house. Yeah, I just had no desire to converse with the majority of the people I heard on the bands… sorry. Even voice contesting just seemed, well, annoying.

    As others have said in this comment section: stick to digital modes on HF. My dipole was cut for the data part of 20 meters and I was AMAZED at the long distance contacts I made with that last-gasping Kenwood and an old laptop. The QSOs are short and can be pre-programmed in the software with hotkeys. I remember my neighbor seeing my shed light on one night and coming over to see what I was working on. When I showed him that I had just made contact with a guy in Poland he assumed through the internet. When I explained radio and ionosphere he had a look of disbelief.

    Eventually the Kenwood died and was not worth fixing. It definitely was not putting out a full 100W I can tell you that. I have since moved to an HOA area, so my antenna future is not a good one.

    I really want to like HAM radio, I do. When I try to get back into it I just get turned off by a myriad of reasons. The pro-code, no-code debate seems to still be around which is ridiculous in my opinion. I am frankly impressed with the restraint I see in the comment section of this post. On many prominent HAM sites I feel like the community does itself no favors to try to attract people into the hobby and retain them. Maybe that is their point…

    Anyway, I look forward to your other posts.

    1. I really tried to like the digital HAM modes but just never could get into them. It seemed like the entire purpose was to say “hey, you, I hear you” and someones responds with “yup, i heard you.” Except their doing it even fewer characters. It just seemed pointless.

      While I understand the general prohibition on “encryption” the practical result of the prohibition is to drive most all practical applications away from ham radio. Its part of why we see such a large amount of hacking and research going on in ISM bands and so little in ham bands.

      I personally wouldn’t at all mind seeing a few more ham only frequencies go unlicensed for exactly that reason. I know it gives some of the older hams seizures to even consider such a thing but I’d much prefer to see some of that very unused spectrum become widely available than the alternative which is to see it eventually get auctioned off to Verizon for a few billion dollars.

  29. Great start on a very needed topic.
    RE: study guides – Roy Watson has up-to-date FREE phone apps – both the questions & highlighted answers, and sample/ practice tests. Wonderful for on-the-go/short free time review and study.
    App titles are “HamRadioExam – “.
    Passed both Technician & General (General especially helped with Craig ‘Buck’ K4IA) – AND ARRL Handbooks).
    Nearly passed Extra without study prep… If you know something about this hobby – not just The Answers, you can do it.

    For your series, there’s also a very interesting – slightly dated – eHam article, about “Appliance Operators” –

    Finally, as a newbie (less than 1 year with ANY license, still exclusively HT (-$$$, of course), I see a great need for for-Techs articles, mentoring, pointing to useful options – and not just another ham club presentation on various CW keyers or working HF/DX contacts-for-awards using some 80 foot tower/rotor/32 element log antenna…. :)
    Stuff I see – where are the mentors – at ANY club meeting? – You Can Use Your Radio/License For: SkyWarn, comms for walks & bike events, ARES/RACES, satellite/space station contacting (and why we could REALLY benefit from that), Here’s how to use repeaters/help with repeater maintenance, net control/net-logging, fox hunting, WinLink, EchoLink, Tech bands vs. GMRS/FRS, MURS, and fire/police/etc -for no interference……
    Setting up car and home antennas – mentor and maybe getting actually installed…
    The list continues….. :)

    Thanks again!

  30. I’ve had my Extra for a few years now, having gotten my Technician ‘late’ in life. I’ve been interested in the hobby since high school in the early 1970s, but back then (typical teen), I was just too lazy (mea culpa) to learn CW well enough to get licensed back then.
    I will agree with Pokto Pokto about the Baofengs (even though I own and use one), however, “dirty” emissions or not, at least they’ll get a new ham on-the-air, initially, without breaking the bank. I also agree with MAC about the Wouxons – I have owned one and they are a very nice and (relatively) inexpensive radio (mine was a KG-UV920P mobile).
    Our local club, Yavapai ARC ( is, membership-wise, the largest in AZ and we do have monthly or at least semi-monthy Technician and General classes, usually held within a week or sometimes only a few days before a scheduled testing session (about every other month or every 3rd month).
    I went ahead and subscribed because I want to hear more – even though not necessarily a “new” ham, I AM one of the ones that could be considered a “broke” (or very low-income) ham.

  31. I have about $10K in gear, but often the most fun in amateur radio comes from building something cheaply. Ten years ago I built a QRP 80 meter CW rig mostly with parts that I scrounged from an old TV set and other circuit boards I had collected from dead and thrown away electronics. The design was cobbled together from various circuits I found in books and I built a CW keyer with a PIC microcontroller. The construction method was Manhattan and ugly style, soldered on top of a copper clad PC board. I continue to build other little rigs and circuits. Regenerative receivers are especially cheap and fun, and perform amazingly well despite their simplicity.

    I hope this series doesn’t focus on just VHF/UHF. $50 or less in that area is essentially Chinese handie-talkies or used rigs on Ebay. Add a homebrew ground plane or discone antenna for more range and you’re there. There’s so much more to amateur radio than just VHF FM repeaters. You get a lot of bang for your buck on HF, especially with QRP and CW. A spool of speaker wire can be used to make a really cheap feedline and HF antenna that will work the world. With QRP and CW, homebrew rigs can be amazingly cheap and simple, if you’re willing to take the time to learn, scrounge parts, and build. The margin for error in circuit building in HF frequencies is much more than VHF and UHF, so it’s ideal for beginner radio circuit builders.

    1. While I agree that HF has plenty of interesting projects Id disagree about your VHF/UHF comments. You looking at the bands as a type of phoneline so your seeing the handhelds as the end all.

      There are plenty of VHF/UHF projects that don’t involve chatting on a repeater with random people. Transponders for a balloon, APRS, IoT devices with real range, etc.

      And just in case the OP hasn’t seen them yet, you can find capable UHF and VHF (70cm and 2m) transceivers for 8-10$. The DRA818U and DRA818V.

      1. All I’m saying is too often entry into amateur radio is pigeon-holed as getting on VHF/UHF, with HF seen as an expensive out of reach endeavor with kilobuck rigs. Perhaps in my comment I’m unintentionally pigeon-holing VHF as only repeaters, however if the OP can showcase VHF applications outside of repeaters, great, I say. Although ultimately entry in VHF/UHF, regardless of the application, is likely a cheap HT or radio module and it’s unlikely anyone will homebrew the RF portion of any of the projects you mention to save money. (It’s also unlikely someone looking to get into a specialized application like HAB, APRS, or IoT is going to be limiting themselves to $50.) This is where HF can give exposure to RF circuit building, and not just interconnecting modules to make a system. Furthermore, don’t overlook HF because CW, big antennas, sunspots, etc. or because there’s a low barrier to entry cost-wise in VHF with inexpensive off-the-shelf gear.

  32. Hello Dan,

    Thank you for the article. I’m looking forward for a continuation. From what I know the cheapest entry level transceiver (not a CW or UHF one) is something like uBitx or Mini SW2017 and costs no less then 130$. Maybe someone agrees to sell his or her uBitx or similar transceiver for 60$, or even just to gift it. Otherwise I have no idea how you are going to fit into 50$, except building your own transceiver from scratch. I really-really hope that this is the case :)

    > Please feel free to chip in on the comments section about differences in other countries

    I described the process of getting an amateur radio license in Russia not a long time ago

    73 de R2AUK

  33. In Arizona you can buy a 200 dollar hf rig or for less than a high power export cb. If you cant afford 200 you probably cant afford a car. But as im sure its mentioned a baofeng is $20 new. As a extra class with 3 kids i get it. Ft8 digital is all the rage so you can make brief contacts all over the world on a few watts . It isnt just a rich old guys game. Ebay is the most expensive place for ham gear. Avoid ebay for used gear. Local hamfest and craigslist are great. And patience is key. Learn to fix stuff and you will do well.

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