The $50 Ham: Entry-Level Transceivers For Technicians

Last week , I covered the ridiculously low barriers to entry to amateur radio, both in terms of financial outlay and the process of studying for and passing the FCC examination. You’ve had seven days, so I assume that you’ve taken the plunge and are a freshly minted amateur radio operator. The next big question may be: Now what?

We briefly mentioned the image that ham radio is a rich old person’s hobby, and that reputation is somewhat deserved. For ham gear, there really is no upper limit on what you can spend. Glossy brochures and slick web pages hawk transceiver bristling with knobs and switches and loaded with the latest features, all of which will probably be obsolete within a few years when the Next Big Thing comes along and manufacturers respond with new, must-have models – looking at you, ICOM IC-7300. It’s no different than any other technology market, and enough people fall for that marketing to make it a going concern.

But thankfully, while there is no apparent ceiling on what you can spend on ham gear, there certainly is a floor, and it can be very, very low. Our $50 budget can go quite a long way to getting a new Technician on the air, if you’re willing to make some compromises and can forego the latest and greatest for a while.

Better Than Nothing

Like seemingly every other class of electronic device, there has been a flood of cheap ham transceivers aimed at newly licensed Technicians lately. And just like with TVs and computers and everything else, there’s a good side and a bad side to these cheap imports. On the good side is the benefit to consumers who couldn’t otherwise afford such devices. Such cheap devices also tend to push the manufacturers of higher-end gear to adjust their pricing strategies lest their lunch be eaten; competition is always good for the consumer, especially in niche markets like ham radio gear that have comparatively few manufacturers.

The bad aspects of cheap import electronics have been hashed over many times, and we won’t belabor those points here except to say that in many cases, you get what you pay for. You can’t expect as much from a radio you spent $25 on as one that cost a couple of hundred bucks. It’s up to the consumer to evaluate the value proposition of the purchase; some people need the quality and features offered by an expensive device, others can get by with the cheap one.

The first “shack” for many hams: Baofeng UV-5RA on the right, Wouxun KG-UV6D on the left. Personally, I keep the Baofeng for experiments and for places where I might lose it.

That said, a hue and a cry always arises at the mere suggestion that anyone should purchase one of the cheap Chinese radios as their first ham rig. Older hams scoff at these radios and deride not only the technology but those that would deign to use something like that. Some particularly recalcitrant hams will flatly refuse to talk to anyone using a cheap Chinese handy-talkie (HT).

They have a point – Baofengs particularly are known for their spurious off-band emissions – but personally, I find this to be boorish and exclusive behavior. I’d think anyone interested in growing the hobby would take such QSOs (contacts) as teachable moments rather than leaving a newbie with feeling bad about their choice of gear.

But if you think you can suffer the slings and arrows, your first radio is only $25 away. The Baofeng UV-5R dual-band HT is one way for the newly minted Technician to exercise his or her privileges on both the 2-meter VHF band and the 70-centimeter UHF band. The radio is impossibly small and lightweight, has decent battery life, and has a maximum transmit power of four watts. It’s programmable from the front keypad, although that’s tedious enough that getting a programming cable and an open-source programming app is not a bad idea. It allows the Technician to make contacts both in simplex mode (short range, radio-to-radio on the same frequency) or duplex (longer range contacts using two different frequencies and a remote repeater; we’ll cover repeaters in more depth in the next article).


Obviously a $25 radio has plenty of compromises, and chief among these for the Baofeng is the antenna. The stock rubber ducky antenna is, simply put, pathetic. A teardown reveals there’s not much in there but a coil of wire and a simple matching network inside the flexible plastic covering. Luckily there are better antennas available, also on the cheap. The Nagoya antennas are a good choice and will only set you back $15 or so. And nothing prevents you from building an even more elaborate antenna, like a quarter-wave ground-plane antenna or a Yagi, both of which we’ll cover in future installments of this series.

Even with the better antenna, your whole first “rig” can be had for well under our magic $50 limit. However, if you have the means, investing a little more is probably wise. My first HT was a Wouxun KG-UV6G, another dual-band HT that goes for about four times the cost of a Baofeng. It feels like it too – heftier, more solid and less plastic feeling, with a better stock antenna. Some will still knock it as a cheap import, but I haven’t had any trouble with it over the years. Still, “real” dual-band HTs from manufacturers such a Yaesu and ICOM can be had for not much more than that, and deals on used high-quality gear can be found if you’re patient.

Regarding Baofengs and their inexpensive cousins, the FCC recently issued an advisory prohibiting the import or sale of devices that don’t comply with their rules. The sticking point with these radios is their ability to transmit outside of the ham bands, particularly in the public service bands. With the (im)proper programming, these HTs can be set up to not only receive police and fire calls, but could be used to transmit on those channels. Listening to the folks in blue and red can be interesting and is completely legal, but even accidentally blocking public safety services is a serious problem. However it seems to me like the FCC is going about this the wrong way. Banning the radios outright seem drastic when it would be possible to reflash the firmware of these radios to prevent transmitting on anything but the ham bands.

It’s hard to tell what the FCC is going to do with their advisory, or how they plan to enforce it. Will they forbid future import of these radios? Will they fine anyone found using them? Or worse, will they try to confiscate your new rig? If you’re transmitting legally, I very much doubt any of that will happen, but even if your new Baofeng ends up outlawed, you’ll only be out $25. To my way of thinking, dropping a few bucks on one of these import HTs is probably a solid investment if it gets you on the air and jump-starts the learning process.

Are there other ways for the new Technician to get on the air? Absolutely! Homebrewing is always an option; I’d love to build a 2-meter rig from scratch for this series. There are UHF and VHF kits out there, and some people have even found ways to modify old CB radios, which operate on what used to be the 11-meter ham band, for use as single-sideband (SSB) radios for the narrow slice of the 10-meter band that Technicians have phone privileges on. CB radios are basically e-waste these days, so that might make a cheap and interesting project.

But for just getting on the air and at least listening to what’s going on, you can’t beat the cheap HTs.

Next Time

In the next installment, we’ll discuss what to do once you’ve got a radio: checking in on the local repeater, finding other hams in your area, and participating in networks.

95 thoughts on “The $50 Ham: Entry-Level Transceivers For Technicians

    1. It always amazes me how many CB antennas I see on the road vs how few people I ever hear talking if I actually hook one up and turn it on. Most of us believe CB is pretty much dead right? Well listening probably will not change that. Driving down the freeway though and just watching the cars, and I don’t just mean the semis and one might think the 70s never ended. I don’t get it. Why install them if you don’t want to talk on them?

      When I was a kid I used to collect the things. I would buy them at garage sales, take them home, try them out and if they worked and compare them to my own. If it worked better than my own I would keep it. If it was ok but not better I would “loan” them out to friends so I had someone to talk to. Most didn’t work at all though or else worked so poorly I only kept them for parts. I certainly never saw one that put out anything near the legal 4-watt limit. Those old metal-chasis CBs did make great project cases though!

      I’m familiar with the concept of blowing the finals if the SWR is too high. Is it possible that a long term effect of transmitting into a crappy antenna system but not quite crappy enough to blow the transistors outright somehow reduced their gain over time? Or maybe we had a lot of people that tried to “tweak” their radios but didn’t actually know what they were doing.

      Anyway, that might be one reason for them to be e-waste. The used ones are so often crap that people who have tried it before might not want to bother.

      1. “Why install them if you don’t want to talk on them?”

        For the same reason the Jeep and rockcrawling communities install two CB antennas (not phased, mind you!) with LEDs up and down the length of the antenna: for looks!
        “Off road vehicles are *supposed* to have two antennas, so I need to put them on there.”

        Just look at the little street racer cars that have massive spoilers. They’re rarely mounted at the proper size/angle for the car they’re on – but it’s meant to convey the owner’s intent for the vehicle. It’s all for show.

        1. Oh yes.
          Too busy being critical about something you know nothing about, or too prideful to ask and admit you don’t know.

          The LED lit sticks on off road vehicles aren’t antennas. Obviously, since the power and actual diodes would obviously put entirely too much RF noise into any radiated signal.

          They’re a safety item.
          During the day, many off road recreation areas, especially those with hills and dunes, require safety flags, also known as dune flags, to be placed on poles significantly higher then the roof of the vehicle, either on th front or rear, which allows other vehicles that may be on the other side of a hill or dune to have some advanced warning in an area where sight is limited.
          The LED lit sticks are an evolution of that, allowing trail rides at night with warning significantly higher then the roof of the vehicle..

      2. When I first got my radio (icom 7300) i was looking through the bands on the waterfall and saw a bunch of activity past 10m. Curious I tapped the signals and quickly discovered it was CB traffic. But the interesting bit was that it was traffic a solid 400-500 miles away from my location. Apparently I had decided to listen in right during a “ducting” or similar atmospheric activity.

        Not long after that I picked up a CW transmission from California (I’m in Kentucky) on 10m as well. It was a 100w beacon (28.300). I received it 12-12-2016 at 7:18 UTC time. One of my first “contacts” actually. I discovered afterwards that my antenna setup is actually pretty good at recieving but tends to transmit pretty vertically so its not so good for long distances the way its setup now. It does work quite well for local communication on 10m though.

      3. “long term effect of transmitting into a crappy antenna system but not quite crappy enough to blow the transistors outright somehow reduced their gain over time?”

        Shouldn’t. Valve transceivers can tolerate mismatch and solid state ones just back off the power if they detect a mismatch. The ft817 has a reputation for blowing it’s finals but that’s something more complex than just high swr and is a design issue. Antenna feeder will slowly deteriorate over time as will the quality of connections in line

      4. “Is it possible that a long term effect of transmitting into a crappy antenna system but not quite crappy enough to blow the transistors outright somehow reduced their gain over time?”

        Yes, I believe so. It can be difficult to troubleshoot if you do not have the gear since it happens slowly over time and DC gain may remain the same. This can happen at the input side of amps as well, if they do not include the proper over-voltage protection circuitry.

    2. My wife Bertha made beans for supper tonight, they were pretty good, I got some pretty bad gas and a nasty cold now. Farts into the mic, followed by hacking coughing wheezing. What’s the weather like down there near you Bill? It’s pretty windy here. That’s about what you hear on ham radios. It’s like the old Yahoo chat rooms, with four people still online hitting on the same chick. Except ham radio operators are actually dumber than bots. And less interesting to listen to. They’re out there protecting radio waves people should be able to openly use like a CB. But instead all you get is a bunch of garbage from morons who saved up all year for that $50 license. They are good to have in an emergency, but then you don’t need a license to use one for that reason.

        1. Everyone’s mileage may vary, but I don’t have any issue talking to someone with a Chinese radio. First of all, I have no way of knowing who is running a Baofeng unless they tell me. I do have issues talking with scratchy, fading, dropping signal HT operators who aren’t close to the repeater, but this has nothing to do with Chinese. Second, I’ve enjoyed most club meetings I’ve attended. I’ve toured the Boston Logan airport fire command center, a Boston Harbor fire boat, the DOT air traffic facility in Cambridge, and a variety of corporate manufacturing plants. I’ve heard presentations on new technology, some facet of the hobby, or some technical topic. Some meetings have been bombs, but most have been worthwhile.

          Finally, the hams that I’ve come to know have bent over backwards to help me hang antennas, run coax, and test radios. They’re an amazing set of friends.

          1. I think the main reason I’d be interested in joining a ham club is that I’d love to take those kinds of field trips. That and I’m absolutely nuts for the remote radio sites that house repeaters. My son and I like to take hikes to the local radio sites so I can check out antennas and such. Getting inside the shelters at those sites would be pretty cool.

      1. Opinions are a dime a dozen.  Facts are,  amateur(not always recreational or engaged as past time, and never  unskilled), radio operators are more than rag chewers.   They also talk chat about the weather and activity of daily life,  but go a step further, a chat about Faraday’s law and Faraday’s cage for instancence,  which CBer’s don’t have a clue,  with exception the trucker above who uses CB and Ham radio.   The CBer who has not heard the use of CB on the road,  most likely is not aware of the prevalence of truckers using smart phone taking care of business,  and chatting with contacts, thus not as much time for chatting on CB, and/or take into account  the usefulness of CB being available as alternitive or emergency.   CBer’s gaining access to Ham frequencies, absolutly not.   Look at the trucker in the above blog.  A ham and a CB user.   Everyone has the opertunity of getting a ham licience and having the privlage.   Privlage is  what Dan Malony’s series of articles are all about.  My father and mother taught me driving a car is a privlage.  I wish more people were taught that way.  Ham radio I look at the same way, it is a privlage that I have earned.  I have an incentive to go from general to extra ham privlage to get more usable frequencies and be able to talk with that higher class on the privlaged frequencies, yet not so privlaged that everyone has the opertunity to do it, if they earn it.   Corey you have missed the point and sounds like missed the boat also.

      1. WTF? US companies like Drake, Swan/Cubic and Collins were pretty much dead long before NAFTA. What in the world does NAFTA and unions have to do with the content of the article??

    3. I would never recommend an HT as a first ham rig. The antennas are a compromise, and unless you plan on using a very local repeater, you’re not going to be able to reach much of anything else. A better choice would be a decent mobile radio, a power supply, decent coax, and a decent outside antenna.

      THEN the newbie can get an HT.

      1. Well, YES. The key word is “industry”. In the U.S., the Amateur Radio Service is very specifically designed NOT to be used commercially.

        CB was a poorly implemented service, because the FCC made it attractive to people to use for casual communications, by having a low licensing fee with no test requirement. So a lot of people who weren’t willing to spend the time to not only study for a test, but also learn Morse code, bought CB radios instead, and totally overwhelmed a service that wasn’t designed for that many users.

  1. There is nothing wrong with wanting an inexpensive radio. Nobody should be bothered for that.

    There is nothing wrong with sacrificing performance for price when that is a choice one makes either either due to means or due to simply having other priorities.

    Spurious emissions however are another matter. That isn’t something that affects the user, that is something that affects others. It’s not ok to knowingly cause interference no matter how much of a beginner you are or how limited your means.

    If you want to try your luck with a cheap radio that is perfectly fine. Just realize that you need to test it and I mean more than just calling up the local repeater and verifying you can successfully have a conversation with someone. That’s like driving a broken old car that belches thick black smoke that chokes everyone behind you and thinking all is ok because it gets you where you are going.

    Obviously most of us are ill-equipped and under-trained to give our radios a full certification test. At least get or borrow a dummy load and a second receiver. Try tuning around while transmitting and look for your own signal in places it doesn’t belong. If you find strong signals that shouldn’t be there then build a low pas filter and try to get rid of them that way. If you can’t then sorry, use a different radio.

    It is every ham’s responsibility to make a reasonable effort not to transmit off frequency. On the ham bands it’s important so that we can share the bandwidth with one another. Signals extending out of the ham bands can cause bad attention that do not look good when it comes time to decide if ham bands should be preserved, extended or cut to make bandwidth for other services. Also, while with a low powered handheld this is not terribly likely still, it isn’t impossible that you might interfere with a service that has life and death importance such as ambulance or fire fighting services. Slowing down an ambulance on the way to rescue a dying person is not a regret you ever want to have.

    1. Ironically, as a ham for over 20 years now (How did that happen?) and an experienced RF builder, I see far more interference coming from the old grey hairs who overdrive their linear amplifiers well into compression and splattering all over a single band than I ever do with the spurious emissions from cheap or badly designed ham transceivers.

      If you want really ugly, get out a 902/903 receiver and climb up any good sized hilltop. The low end of the 900MHz ham band is all but unusable because of all of the poorly designed ISM gear. 2.304GHz and 5.760GHz are rapidly heading down the same rat holes.

        1. Funny you should mention that – I’ll be building a bandpass filter for 2-meters as part of this series. Should be good clean cheap fun. I just need to find a way to adequately test it without a spectrum analyzer. My neighbor is a radio tech for the BLM – perhaps I’ll ask for a field day with him.

          1. That’s awesome, I’ve been working on one for my x-uhf RF building blocks project but have the same problems so I started building a red noise generator to use with an SDR as a cheap and nasty VNA

          2. A wide-range VFO and an RF voltmeter or power meter will do the trick.
            Yeah, it’s a PITA, but once you characterize the VFO’s output over frequency, you have a more accurate instrument than most spectrum analyzers.

      1. Agreed. Obviously something like that is going to be far worse due to the power levels involved. Also there are many sources of interference out there. Look at all the LED lighting that is installed now with no care in the world that the electronics inside are missing the filter components they need to be Part 15 compliant. The noise floor has grown a lot!

        The thing about these cheap handhelds though is that tests were done, numbers were published both in QST and on the internet. Your grey hair should no better but maybe he doesn’t. The people installing cheap lights and etc they certainly don’t know any better. But we have seen the numbers on these HTs. And yet every time someone points out that maybe we shouldn’t be using those a dozen people chime in that we are just a bunch of old crumudgeons that want to keep newcomers out of the hobby by making them buy expensive radios, boorish as I guess Dan would say.

        Come on! I for one want to see as many people as possible in both ham radio and every other set of making/hacker hobby. I’m all for encouraging people. I just want to encourage people to do it right not crowd the bands with a bunch of splatter.

        1. As a ham for over 40 years and previous Commercial radio station and TV station engineer I applaud the cheap entry radios if they spark more interest in a great hobby. Most hams wouldn’t blink an eye on spending $35.00 for a Raspberry PI. Why not spend $50.00 on a radio that could also bring fun and help our old generation introduce a great hobby and pastime to a whole new generation. Heck new kids are discovering vinyl recording in 33 rpm. They can also discover HAM radio in the same way with a low entry cost.
          Put down your $50.00 and join the fun. Everyone is welcome.

          1. I tend to agree. Ive scanned through the HF bands with my 7300 and higher bands with an SDR (in a reasonably large metro area of the USA) and most of the time the ham airways are empty. Especially the less used VHF/UHF and higher stuff (1.2ghz, etc). I saw that ARRL was opposing any changes to 47ghz recently and they tend to hang on with their claws to any frequency they have regardless how much its used.

            Personally even as a ham Id much prefer to see more unlicensed spectrum (im excited that they might be opening 6ghz). I feel like their are just too many restrictions on how the spectrum can be used to really allow for experimentation with modern techniques, especially the whole “no encryption” clause.

            Just look at the growth of stuff like LoRA and then compare it to projects like “FaradayRF”. LoRA is growing like crazy and faradayRF died the second the creators got bored. You want a band to get lots of use (especially VHF and up)? Make it unlicensed. Unfortunately until the “old guard” are gone and the new hams are willing to push the FCC ham radio will likely stay in the realm of analog voice and low datarate “digital” (if by digital we mean trading call signs). And dont get me wrong, thats interesting sometimes, I just don’t think it will drive the communications field like it did the past 100 years. It just doesn’t allow the experimentation that modern systems require (but that can be done in ISM and unlicensed spectrum).

      2. You say that but ive never met a ham using 2.4 or 900 amd certainly not 5.7. Ive seen a few talk about it, and some in florida repurposed consumer wifi hardware to make a “ham only” wide area wifi network, but other than those tiny edge cases I can’t think of many.

        Yet I can find *tons* of users of 2.4 (billions in fact) using it in life changing ways, and now we are starting to see massive growth in the 900mhz band using LoRA and other long range low power mesh setups.

        Sorry but those bands are going to waste being horded by the ham community (and im a general class amateur so its not exactly frequency envy).

        The low frequency stuff has massive range and poor bandwidth and probably would never be able to support enough users to ever be useful commercially even if it was unlicensed so it makes sense leaving it alone. But the higher frequency bands, especially the ghz bands are essentially wasted on hams though im sure the handful who make a hobby out of them would vigorously disagree with me. Still, like public land its a shared resource, and in this case its vastly more useful being turned into unlicensed spectrum that can be used in commercial products.

        Out of the 2 different clubs ive visited in the area not one had a single member who did anything on 900mhz or higher. We have (or had) a single 1.2ghz repeater in a 100 mile radius. Its all essentially wasted spectrum at the moment.

  2. Regarding FCC ban, a problem with Baofeng units is that, you can’t reflash them. Their microcontroller is OTP (at least for a few models I touched), so no firmware update possible. Too bad that you can’t set TX and RX frequency limits separately on them

    1. I’m surprised that with all the hacks we see here and elsewhere on the Internet I have never seen one where someone actually removes the microcontroller from a radio and replaces it with something they can develop their own firmware for with an open tool chain.

      I’ve seen plenty of hacks where someone works around the programmed in limitations by changing a clock frequency or something like that but never where one just replaces the on-board controller entirely. Doing so might not be easy but considering that many ham radios do come with full schematics it would certainly be easier than many other hacks that happen every day!

    2. that makes them more reliable though, as the flash doesnt corrupt if left unpowered for >6 months. Sometimes my uv5r locks up, then I reset to defaults and it is back to working order. I had another radio I couldnt fix easily that I eventually got rid of.

    3. Isn’t really that the radio is banned, it is a matter of certification. The FCC has two categories: compliant with the rules and not compliant with the rules. Non compliant radios can’t be sold or marketed. It is easy for the manufacturer to change the software to make it compliant and resubmit for approval. If a radio is sold or marketed which doesn’t comply with the rules it may raise a notice of apparent liability and associated fines and seizures. Its really pretty simple. By The Way, if a manufacturer self certifies, as most of the Chinese companies do, and is found to not be compliant, that is a compliance issue too which can also raise an NAL and fines.

      1. Plus if we note that the ban is on the import and sale, not on owning, then it is clear we are in the clear with these cheap radios, even if our signal is not so clear. I’m thinking about getting a copule just to promote hacks and fixes.

      2. Careful, not on Canada’s side of this ITU region.
        Even possession of non-stamped re-programmable transmitters or equipment capable of interfering or going out-of-band is now a Federal crime as of Feb 2019. Our IC Minister of Parliament is being difficult about allowing amateurs an exemption like the US, and no one can figure out why.

        If you are a Northern Ham, e-mail Mr Bains to inquire why his office adopted this odd policy without consulting our local community first:

  3. I am an Electronics & radio engineer and have been interested in HAM since i was a kid. I’m well versed in radio tech but my knowledge of the rules and radio etiquette is not up to snuff.
    A couple of years ago i took the plunge and bought all literature needed and started to hang on the national ham forums to learn how to get a license.
    The tone of the old guard were so dismissive. “The new ones doesn’t even take the Morse test”, ” When I was young we built our own machines, today is too easy. They’ll never will learn anything.”, “Radios today are too cheap, you have to work for your gear” and so on and on and on.
    They were so grumpy and dismissive, it felt like they didn’t want any new people at all.
    The taste in my mouth was so bad so i put the literature in a box and carried it down into my cellar storage. No way i will join such a sour bunch of geezers that don’t want me there.

    The big problem is that the old guard is the ONLY guard. There’s almost no fresh blood coming in and the current people are starting to get into their 70s or even older. New interested people gets scared away fast. I fear that HAM as a hobby will die with the old guard.

    Was i wrong to imagine something in line with the scouts where you share knowledge and stories, collaborate on projects and just have some silly fun or was I foolish to think that?

    1. “They were so grumpy and dismissive, it felt like they didn’t want any new people at all.”
      They probably didn’t. People like that are a thing.

      “The taste in my mouth was so bad so i put the literature in a box and carried it down into my cellar storage.”
      Aww, sorry to hear that. It’s interesting that you took it to your cellar though as opposed to throwing it away. I guess you haven’t quite 100% given up have you. That is good.

      “The big problem is that the old guard is the ONLY guard. ”

      Nonsense! In the last 10 years I’ve watched the local ham club where I live grow to about tripple the size it was. When I got there most of the members were old, retired and well past their “healthy” years. Now most of the newcomers seem to be 10-20 years younger than I am. Ok, part of that is me being 10 years older now but hey, I was around 30 at the start of this story so I’m not even talking about being anywhere near retirement age here.

      I’ve also noticed the various hamfests I travel to around the northern midwestern US. Don’t get me wrong, the population at a hamfest is still of a significantly higher average age than the cities they take place in but what used to be a nearly unbroken sea of white hair is now filled with a lot more variety.

      Of course, this is my experience in my neck of the woods. Your local area may vary. From what I gather talking to others mine is a pretty common experience. So is yours. It’s a matter of luck, both who is in your local area, some are different from others and which members of the local ham population you meet first.

      Remember, the really cranky, unwelcoming people are the ones that are going to stick out and make the strongest impression. It isn’t just a ham thing. It only takes a small percentage of awful people to wreck any group! It’s best just to ignore those types.

      “Was i wrong to imagine…”
      No. That exists. It’s not every ham as a rule. It’s a small subset.

      1. Of course i won’t give up. I’ll just wait for the worst offenders to die off, can’t be that long. :-P
        Also there’s knowledge in those books and you can’t throw knowledge in the trash.

        I live in Sweden and the HAM scene is a lot smaller here. The national registry shows around 12500 licenses but many of them are dead or inactive. Average age is 60-65, only 10% are under 40. 50% is older than 65. There is as many below 40 as over 80.
        In the whole country there’s only around 100 new licensees every year.
        It’s surely dying here.

        1. Sadly, when those geezers go, they take with them a lot of practical, real-world experience. It’s a pity more of them didn’t take to mentoring the next generation rather than sitting on the porch yelling at them to get off of the lawn. That’s not to say every old ham is a grouch, of course, but it’s sad that more of them aren’t paying it forward.

          YMMV, of course. I’ve been surprised by how civil and just plain friendly the hams in North Idaho are, and how enthusiastic they are to share their experience. I think part of that is just the general culture here versus back East where I spent the first half-century of my life. People there are far less willing to open up – unless, of course, when they feel compelled to share their opinions of your driving; then they’re quite expressive – so it stands to reason that more hams will tend to the taciturn there. People here are far more pleasant and friendly, and the attitudes of the hams reflect that to some degree.

          All that said, may sure you wear steel-toed shoes to your next hamfest, lest you get your feet smashed by all the mobility scooter wheels…

    2. thedryparn: Don’t give up so easily! Although every hobby has its old coots that deride anything that isn’t exactly like “the good old days”, there are still lots of hams out there (of all ages, the number of licences issued is actually growing) that love to work with new people and aren’t stuck in the past. Software defined radio, sophisticated digital modes that pull weak signals deep out of the noise, satellite communications, kit-built transceivers (like the uBitX) and many other areas are filled with creative, friendly hams that love to work together to solve problems. If you can’t find a local group with people you like, check into ham radio groups on Facebook and While some of them are like the groups you described, many of them are friendly and helpful.

      Jon, K0ARG

      1. Yeah i know there are a ton of cool stuff and i want in on all that but i think the scene is a lot bigger in the Americas than here in Sweden. You have a more cultural view on radio than us. Here the only ones pictured in media who use radio are all police and over at your place there are a lot of recreational radio use pictured in media.

    3. I almost did that, but other old hams convinced me to stick with it and I’m glad I did. I realised there are just a lot of old coots who should be thoroughly ignored! But most people at clubs won’t be like that, so every time someone starts the whole “you don’t know CW” story I say to them “Do you know how to program an FPGA and build your own SDR though?”. Shuts them up real quick ;)

      1. I never met the nice ones. Hah here they are not young enough to know what FPGA is. The radio news bulletins regularly writes about the death of the hobby but no one does anything about it. Last time i checked the average age of licensed people here in Sweden was over 60.

    4. “There’s almost no fresh blood coming in”

      If mobile comm is the goal, cell phones are the way to go. If worldwide comm is the goal, the internet can be used for free and cell phones at low cost. Just comm is no longer a draw to amateur radio. Instead, the technology involved must be the draw, but there are many competing hobbyist technologies that are easier than RF electronics and far more popular and readily available. So, things like amateur satellite comm and/or telemetry reception and decoding, and the challenge and fascination of doing worldwide DX using cheap, low power equipment should be emphasized to draw in new hams.

      1. For me the technology is what interests me. I work mostly with developing mobile systems like 3G, 4G and 5G, mostly RX and TX stuff, not that much on the digital side. I want to learn but old people here in Sweden seems to not care.

        1. If you work with RF you have most of the knowledge you need, just study the few Q codes you need to know and the other Ham specific stuff and go do the test.
          I’d be happy to be you Elmer if you want. I live in South Sweden.
          I run my own Ham centric RF company since a few month back. If you want to take me up on the offer you can contact me from my web page

          //Harry -SM7PNV

    5. Dryparn, I write and produce ham license programs, so my wife and I are at most of the major hamfests, spending all day talking with hams. About once a day, we get that “It’s all been downhill since they got rid of the code” guy in front of the table. Other than that, the vast majority of hams at the shows and in our local club are pretty much exactly what you were hoping to find in the hobby. The trick to finding those people is get out with the real people and stay away from the “internet hams” who tend to be not only unpleasant but veritable treasure troves of misinformation.

    6. Mate, ham / amateur radio is is exactly as it says on the tin, it’s either performed in a “ham-fisted” way or its done in an amateur environment, either way it should be fun and enjoyable, the old smokes that claim you have to use Gucci gear or build your own are what’s killing the hobby, your best bet is ( in my eyes) get your first licence, cut your teeth on 2m and gain some experience ( protocol, terminology etc), which with a cheapy baofeng can be very cheap or for the sake of it a ft-25 is not that expensive @ about £70, use it and gather some experience, you can make reasonable qso’s even just off the standard aerial ( I’ve done over 60 miles just off the “duck”), but depending upon your landscape you might want an external ant, then progress your licence up to the next level, then you can either keep playing on 2m or look at getting an HF rig ( my mistake was I rushed it and bought loads of HF multi bands, where I’d have better off slowing down and buying one good rig), while I say modern rigs are the “nuts”, I also must stress the fact that you can get some older rigs which ( in my opinion) have better control/s than modern rigs, and cost a shed load less such as my old 2m Trio set ( bought for about £100 and out performs my 897 & 857 on 2m ssb) yet only kicks out 25w, but I’m digressing, fact remains if you’re licenced, get what you can afford ( don’t rush it on the more expensive stuff), be mindful and enjoy the hobby ( it’s a social hobby not dragonistic, “respect” & “encourage”

      73’s and great respect and wishes

    7. You are looking at the “wrong” old guard.
      There are LOTS of older Hams out there who are dedicated and proud to mentor (aka Elmer)
      Go to YouTube and see Ham Nation. It’s a weekly show. And also AmateurlogicTV (also found on YouTube.) All the Best! 73 DE W8LV BILL

  4. If you can get through the “crust” of some of the old-timers you’ll find they have some wisdom to impart. It doesn’t mean that you have to do it “their way”, but you may find some good advice that can be put to good use.

    I’m an old-timer myself yet realize that this is everyone’s hobby, not just my own.

    1. I have a lot of old-timer engineers at my work-place and they teach me things daily. They may not know all the modern stuff that good but when you want to design a 2,7GHz amplifier from a tuna can and a hair dryer they are the go to guys. Strange that this attitude is lost on the HAM old-timers here.

  5. thedryparn,

    Don’t let the old guard bother you. They’re a dying breed. I’m one of them but don’t feel the same way. I had to take my test in front of the FCC, there was no question pool to memorize from, and you had to learn the Morse code. But why should we feel that others have to qualify under those restrictions/conditions? The ARRL helped us move on to bring newer people into the ranks because we would eventually have lower and lower numbers of hams as we older hams die off. That was really a good move on their part, even if it was partly to keep the organization running for many more years because of an increasing number of hams coming into the hobby after the changes.

    The one thing I wish for the newer ones is that they learn some fundamentals of antennas as they could save themselves a lot of money either building their own antennas or making good choices when buying a commercially made one.

    I started with tube equipment and got my novice class license in 7th grade. Everything is solid state now but learning about solid state was interesting for me.

    You’ll probably find that once you are up and operating, there will be few hams who belittle you for not going through the same rite of passage as they did. Yes, there will be a few, but that’s true in any hobby. I’ve seen it in a couple of ham forums on Yahoo, but I’ve also seen other hams come to their defense.

    As a general rule, we hams are trying to increase the number of hams by having classes at some of our radio clubs and even testing to help people like yourself get licensed. Most classes actually teach you principles of radio and FCC rules and regulations, so it’s better than trying to memorize hundreds of questions and answers. You actually will come away with some knowledge of ham radio when you take a class. These classes are, I believe, free. The licensing exams have a fee, I believe, of perhaps $15, but that’s affordable for almost everyone, and if I knew the fee was keeping someone from taking the test locally, I think we would chip in and pay for his or her fee.

    There are some crabby old men you’ll hear on the airwaves on 75 meters, but most are friendly and courteous. Local activity on VHF and UHF repeaters will probably be always a positive experience, especially in rural areas.

    I can’t speak for everyone, but I think you would find it worth the effort to join us, and that most older hams would welcome you. I’m 63 years old and got my Extra class license in the early 1980s, and did it the hard way, but thankfully you don’t have it as hard. But I would recommend applying yourself to learning more about the hobby than what you need to get a license. If you join a local club, you might find someone there who has the time and is willing to help you learn more by helping you set up your own home-built antenna(s), fix your equipment, build your own equipment if you want to, and more. They’re referred to as “Elmers” (I don’t remember the history on why they’re called that) and can take some of the anxiety out of learning new things if you’re one to worry about whether you’ll blow something up by doing it wrong.


  6. Charles,

    I doubt that the FCC will prevent anyone from using those cheap Chinese VHF/UHF radios, and your converted taxi cab radio should be perfectly legal. You’re allowed to build your own equipment, and you’re also allowed to modify commercial equipment to work on the ham bands. I started out on 2 meters with a converted GE progress line transceiver (an old car phone from the 60s or 70s). It had been converted before I bought it and all I had to do was to add crystals for the repeaters I wanted. I think I had places for two crystals, so I was quite limited, but it was fine. Nowadays, cheap handhelds are easy to come by so you don’t need to mess with crystals.

    If you do buy an under $50 handheld radio, I would recommend the Baofeng over some of the other lesser known brands. I do recommend reading product reviews on Amazon before you buy to get an idea of how difficult a radio is to work with, if they’re reliable, etc.

    I won a no-name Chinese brand dual-band handheld at a local hamfest that is nearly impossible to program repeaters into it, so it’s sitting in the original box on a shelf and I will probably never use it. I already had a Baofeng and an older Radio Shack 2M handheld, so I didn’t need it.


  7. Dan, thank you for this article. Although I must say I’m a little disappointed.

    From my experience the 2m / 70cm bands are not very popular, at least in Russia where I live. There are no live repeaters and thus you can make a QSO only to local hams that happen to listen to 2m band (which they don’t do most of the time). I believe it can discourage someone to do ham radio if he or she decide to follow your article.

    All real fun happens on HF bands – 20/40/80m, also 17m is currently quite alive. Even just listening to these bands using RTL-SDR with a build-in upconverter (or WebSDR, which is free) is more fun than playing with Baofeng. Finally you can visit a local amateur radio club and make a few QSOs using club radio. Feel free to use these ideas in your next articles :)

    73 de R2AUK

    1. I agree that there’s more to be done on HF in terms of contacts, but 2-m and 70-cm are the gateway drug into that world, IMHO. It’s the place to learn the lingo and get a feel for the culture of the club you’re joining, which in my experience is at least 80% of the learning curve. Once you know what people expect from a QSO by listening to two other hams do it, it’s easy to replicate that yourself. And it mostly applies to HF. I’ll absolutely be doing HF projects for this series, including a homebrew rig of some sort.

      Where we disagree is on the state of the VHF/UHF bands. I guess it all depends on your location, but here the repeaters are pretty lively. Less so during work hours, for obvious reasons, but the drive times to and from work are generally hopping, and the local ham club has a net every single night of the week with 20+ check-ins. I keep an HT on during the day to monitor, and while I’d like to hear more use of the repeaters, they’re still pretty active.

    2. I suspect your problem is cultural and not something Dan really had to think about. In the USA we have 60-70+ years of ham “culture” so we have repeaters up all over the place from the 70s and 80s. Russia was still in the middle of communism and didn’t have a very large amateur radio community, they had pretty limited equipment (and I believe the government wasn’t very supportive).

      So I suspect we in the US have a bit of “ham privilege” to appropriate a mainstream term. Lol

  8. N3KEX here…CB, ok 11 meters opened the door for advanced electronics training while in the military and kept me employed after my discharge. My apartment (it’s actually a radio shop and shack with a bed and kitchen) is filled with project radios and scanners. Anyone
    remember the J.I.L SX 200’s????? One’s on my bench now….Driving home last night I thought of old school technology, analog and different digital modulation methods, but I remain fascinated by and how the human voice (including background noise from defendants while monitoring PD frequencies) can go so far, so fast and be recreated with exceptional clarity (FM for the majority of voice comms) emitting from the speaker. Personally, I enjoy working on the crystal controlled rigs…I actually get to use my frequency counter and “net” my crystal’s exact transmitting and receiving frequency within tolerances, something once seen on FCC commerical and amateur exams. Some guys have a ’68 Mustang on blocks in the garage, me, it’s radios. Enjoy monitoring the HF spectrum and managed to catch some Euro pirates in the 4Mhz maritime band. Not bad for a end fed antenna in the attic. Receivers are Icom R9000 and Galaxy R530.

    Get in the hobby and try out 6 meters. Ignore the old croakers, remember every 10 years our society changes and these fellows eventually become Silent Keys (SK, rip). And join the ARRL, stay out of politics. The membership fee is $50.00 yearly, but the technical knowledge one will gain is priceless.

    Finally, I highly suggest the originator of this topic go back and read older (1950’s and above) to firmly understand the hobby and the pride in emitting a clean signal, with spurs well within tolerance. Understand the philosophy before you publish your opinion. And while the fifty dollar limit is fine, you do get what you pay for. Lots of quality late model equipment out there and guys like me enjoy cleaning them up and putting them back into service.

    And with that, 73’s and enjoy your weekend.

    N3KEX Ed

  9. Ed (N3KUX), well said mate, there’s a lot to be said for using the older gear, and it normally out performs the new stuff, I love my old ft-290 and my old Trio 2m set’s ( especially the trio) with the filtering etc, and let’s face it if you can’t get about 200 miles on 2m ssb then your doing something wrong , plus it’s a great band to “cut-your-teeth” on

    73’s and great wishes

  10. Chirp will let you set TX and RX limits on the feng radios. My current ht is an htx-202 that I got on Craigslist for $10. I’ve added a 10aa battery pack, with 10 2800mah aa batteries and a telescoping 1/2 wave antenna. I can hit the repeater the next town over, inside my house. HF was always my main interest in ham radio though. Looking forward to your coming articles. I too wish to build a vhf kit radio, or perhaps something from the arrl handbook. 73’s

  11. You might also want to mention the µBITX from HF Signals at $129. It is a hackers delight.
    A general coverage, 10 watts HF SSB/CW transceiver kit with features you NEED for operating ease, convenience and versatility. It works from 3 MHz to 30 MHz, with up to 10 watts on SSB and CW, with a very sensitive receiver. It features digital tuning, dual VFOs, RIT, CW Keyer and more.
    Check it out at:

  12. Oh, I fully understand the need for a clean signal and the craftsmanship behind it, and it’s absolutely what every ham should strive for. But does that mean that new hams mustn’t get on the air until they’ve mastered all the skills that go into that? Isn’t it better to get on the air with a reasonably clean signal to learn the ropes, and then figure out how to clean up your act? Realistically, the spurious emissions from Baofengs are not likely to cause anyone major headaches anyway – the article I linked above shows the harmonics aren’t that far above the limit. Yeah, having a spike at 436 MHz with a fundamental at 146 MHz is bad, but even then it’s only about 5 dB too much. Not sure that’s enough to get one’s knickers bunched up over.

    1. Hi, fully understand your thoughts and well written post. The technical issue of emitting a “reasonably clean” signal indicates the OP is ok and tolerant of radiating spurious (spurs) signals. As long as those spurs are well within FCC limits, then fine. It’s those dirty spurs exceeding those accepted limits which do cause a significant threat to legitimate users higher up in frequency. One would be amazed at how far a weak signal can propagate.

      True story here, I will confess that years back while in the military, (not licensed then) I installed a homemade RF amplifier for 11 meters in my car with a hot (not stolen) 11 meter AM rig and a good gain antenna. Think the final signal to the antenna was about 30 watts. Had a blast with it! I was assigned to a unit on Cairns Army Airfield at Fort Rucker Alabama back in the early 80’s. Lots and lots of aircraft there! One morning while air ops were going on, numerous UH-1 helicopter pilots had voiced compliments to ATC due to hearing my dirty signal! Nothing like being confronted at work by several high ranking officers and civilians ordering me to immediately cease and desist from further operation.

      Fortunately, my embarrassment was punishment enough and went down in history as one of those stories which gets passed around and never dies. As a radio tech I should have known better and just ignored the advice (and rf knowledge) of my co workers.

      Just sayin’.


    2. It’s unfortunate that the spec is in dBc, instead of an absolute power or field strength level. Your chance of interfering with other communications depends on the field strength, not how “pure” your signal is. -60 dB is 1/1,000,000, so if you’re transmitting 5 W, a -60 dBc spur would be 5 microwatts. Even if your transmitter is 10 dB over the limit, that’s still only 50 microwatts of spurious signal you’re generating. You’re not likely to even be detectable a block away.

  13. for the love of god can you stop recommending baofengs to people?

    1.5 watt spurs on frequencies amateur operators are not licensed for is immensely annoying to others, especially when those frequencies are in the 300 MHZ aeronautical allocation.

    its especially fruitless when there are plenty of decently built transceivers for a benjamin or less, like the new FT-4XR by yaesu.

    being annoying to others and making enemies to the hobby as a whole sounds like a bad trade to save 75 dollars.

        1. Oops .. math. The third harmonic of a square wave is 1/3 the voltage of the fundamental. But since power is proprotional to voltage squared, the amplitude is 1/3 ^2, or 1/9 the fundamental, or in the case of a 5 Watt transmitter, 0.56 W.

  14. I don’t have time to read through 85 replies; however, I’d like to put 2 cents into this conversation.

    I was an active ham for 10 years between 1990 and 2000. At that time, an entry level 2m radio cost $259 + accessories. I was in for about $400 for a single band, feature-lite 2m rig from RadioShack. The RealHams with Kenwood, ICOM, and Yaesu gear, looked down at me the same way the same guys look down at Baofeng owners today.

    But that’s not my point. On a whim, I decided to take the tech exam to get my license back after a 20-year hiatus. I had no particular desire to talk to anyone but something pulled me back in just the same. I searched amazon and found the ubiquitous UV-5R for $23 and change.

    I figured this was a mistake of some sort so I kept looking. There are a number of dual band (2m/440) handheld transceivers available for under $100 so I kept adding stuff to my cart. I ended up with 3 different Baofeng rigs, two dual band and one tri-band, all for under $200.

    Sadly, that’s about where the fun ends.

    These radios are hot garbage. Every single one of them.

    I programmed them all for the local repeaters and I’ve yet to hear anything on any of them.

    I’ve found post after post about Baofeng radios that work fine in simplex on Frequency mode but won’t receive audio from programmed channels.

    I may as well have thrown this money in the trash.

    I would urge anyone serious about ham radio to hold off and save $150-200 and buy a name-brand radio from a company that puts quality first. Like Yaesu… they have a couple decent dual band HT rigs for under $200.

    It will be worth it in the long run.

  15. What bugs me is the price of HF radios. I’m not talking about vintage collectable Collins or Hammerlund stuff, but radios as simple as the Icom 706 MK2 G. I bought a couple brand new when they came on the market for $500 each, now they can be seen at hamfests or on Ebay for $800-$1000!! Why? Even old gear that wasn’t that good when new, like an old Icom 730 is priced like a rare family heirloom. How are new hams on a limited budget able to afford pricing like this – and I’ve noticed this trend for at least the past 25 years or so. I’ve seen sellers smash up GOOD radios after a swap meet rather than lower their price!! I welcome the lower cost, and (every now and then) good quality NEW gear from China. I’ve been a ham since the 70’s and it’s changed a lot. Yes there are still decent folks willing to help new hams, but the majority seem to be gatekeepers, judging whether a newcomer is worthy or not… it’s kind of sad really. I still do what I can locally to encourage the hobby and help folks with the technical aspects of things. Doing so makes me feel like I’ve accomplished something.

  16. In the bottom-quality bottom-price range, but for HF and SSB/CW, there is the uSDX open-source project

    You will find a ton of variants on Aliexpress for $130 shipped, but mind to pick the 8-band version instead of 6-band.

    One good radio is better than ten bad radios,
    but a bad radio for 4 years then a good radio is better than no radio for three years then a good radio.

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