How to become an Amateur Radio Operator

If you are interested in becoming an amateur radio operator and need help of any kind, the Voice of Idaho (VOI) amateur radio club is very willing to help you. We have an Elmer bureau (a group of hams who are interested in helping others) that will be glad to assist you with any aspect of amateur radio. We can answer questions or provide assistance where needed.

Be sure to visit our page on FCC Testing.

1. Register with the FCC

The FCC requires that anyone who holds a radio license be registered with them. Your FCC registration number will be required for various tasks throughout your amateur radio career such as license upgrade paperwork, changing information in your ULS database account, etc. To register for a FRN click here then click on “Register” and enter the required information. A Social Security Number is required for the FRN registration process. At the end of the registration process you will be given your FRN. Be sure to write down your FRN, password, and security question answer, and keep this info in a safe place.

2. Study for the test

There are three possible classes of amateur radio license in the U.S: Technician, General, and Amateur Extra. It is assumed that you will be taking the entry exam(the “Technician” exam). The exam will consist of 35 multiple-choice questions selected from a pool of about 400 questions covering the FCC rules, radio operating procedures, terminology, and technical aspects of Ham Radio.
You must correctly answer 26 of the questions to pass the test.

It is important to note that CW(morse code) is NO LONGER a license exam requirement.

There are two schools of thought on how to study for the test:

  1. One concept says to just memorize the test questions, pass the test, and learn the details of Ham Radio operations later. This is OK if you intend to follow up by getting involved with Ham Radio people, clubs and activities. There are many things you should know about Ham Radio operations, and the test questions aren’t really designed to teach you anything about radios or how to operate them. But, if you intend to dig into Ham Radio and learn about it, this method is fine.
  2. The other concept is to attend a class which will teach you the 400 questions and explain the background behind some of the questions. Attending a class should give you a beginner’s level of knowledge regarding many of the aspects of Amateur radio. If you do intend to only gain your Technician class amateur radio license for emergency communications purposes only then attending a class is the recommended course of action. This is because there are some aspects of amateur radio that are practically a requirement for properly communicating during an emergency.

2a. Studying methods

The memorization method requires that you study on your own, and then, when you feel that you are ready, go take the test. There are really two ways to get proper exam preparation materials.

  1. Through books and PDFs
  2. Websites

Books

Books are a common way to study for amateur radio exams. The ARRL produces studying materials for the technician, general and extra exams. Studying materials are also produced by other organizations, such as W5YI and KB6NU.

Websites

Another common method that people use to study for the exams are websites. Websites such as Hamstudy.org, The ARRL, and QRZ offer online practice exams. It is to be noted that practice exams are NOT real amateur radio exams however they will show you the questions that could be on your exam.

As you start to take the practice exams you may miss a lot of the questions during your first few exams. But, as you take more and more practice exams you should gradually see all of the questions in the pool multiple times and, eventually, you will start to remember the correct answers to the questions by heart.

When you are consistently scoring 85% or above, you are ready for the real thing.

Attending a class

The class method usually requires that you find and attend a in-person class to study with. Some local amateur radio clubs may offer classes periodically throughout the year. You will need to contact them to find out if there is an upcoming class, and the details about attending. You will need to do some googling and asking around on your local repeaters or simplex frequencies to find your local clubs.

3. Taking the exam

The FCC allows certain licensed amateur radio operators to administer license exams to applicants via the “Volunteer Examiner (VE)” program. Be sure to visit our page on FCC Testing.

A few things should be remembered when going to a exam session:

  1. A FRN is REQUIRED in order to take any amateur radio license exam. Register for your FRN ahead of time!
  2. Some exam teams charge for examinations. Some do not. Most exam teams do not charge more than $15 for exams and, in a lot of cases, if you pass the technician or general class exam then you will be allowed to take the exam for the next higher class of license for free. If you happen to take an exam, and fail said exam, then you will be required to pay the fee required by the exam team if you choose to retake the exam(once again, some exam teams charge for each administered exam, some do not).
  3. If you are a person who likes to use materials such as scratch paper and pencils or calculators to make calculations then it is recommended that you bring those items from home. Some exam teams only bring what they need to administer the exams. Some exam teams will bring what they need to administer the exams aswell as scratch paper and other materials for their applicants to use. Each exam team is differant. Contact the exam team BEFORE you go to the exam to learn what their preferences are.

4. Get on the air!

If you passed your technician class license exam: Congratulations! If you already have a radio then the urge to press that PTT button can be quite extreme but you need to remember that you are REQUIRED to wait until your callsign has been posted in the FCC’s ULS database BEFORE you start operating. Once your callsign has been posted in the ULS database you’re free to operate using your technician class license privileges.

If you upgraded your license class to General or Amateur Extra: Congratulations! If you already have a HF transceiver and antenna configured then you are allowed to start using your new General or Amateur Extra class HF privileges by adding “/AG”(for upgrades to general) or “/AE”(for upgrades to Amateur Extra) to the end of your callsign when calling CQ.

After passing your exam, it usually takes at least a week for your license paperwork to be processed by the FCC. Applicants who pass exams will need to check the ULS database throughout the business week(Monday through Friday) to see when their new callsign or license upgrade is posted.

Purely listening to the local repeaters and simplex frequencies for awhile is recommended to get a sense of how people conduct themselves on the air, so you won’t be nervous the first time you call someone on the air.
Doing further research into proper amateur radio operating procedures is recommended aswell.
So the resources for you to learn more are huge. Take advantage of this wealth of information to continue to gather knowledge, and get on the air to refine your radio operating techniques. Make some new Ham friends to help you with the questions you will have. Learn the NATO Phonetic Alphabet for accurately relaying call signs, spelling, abbreviations and numerals. Join one of the Ham Radio clubs near you and go to their meetings. And have fun!