Amateur Radio - What it is...
In a nutshell it's long range walkie-talkies or CB that can talk anywhere from across the room to around the world. Some people have specific goals in "contests", others just like to chat with other interested people for the sake of chatting. Some people are into it for emergency prepardness and join groups such as ARES/RACES. There is no set "one thing" that it is. For a more in-depth explanation check out the ARRL website "What is Ham Radio".
The licensing process...(for USA)
Getting licensed is a fairly easy process, though it can be intimidating if you don't know where to begin. This was the problem I had, and on this page I hope to explain the things I wished I knew or understood years before I had anyone to talk to or ask questions of.
Here are the steps required to become licensed: (additional reference info will be at the bottom of this page)
- Determine which level of the 3 license levels (also called "classes" of license) to study for -- people starting out will be studying for "Element 2 Technician Class". The intermediate level is "Element 3 - General Class" and the highest level is "Element 4 - Amateur Extra Class". There is no longer any morse code requirement and there is no Element 1 currently so you don't need to worry about that - it starts with Element 2.
- Study the material. This could mean searching the internet, reading documents, watching video-lessons, buying books, or finding a local culb and seeing if they offer a class. Not every club offers classes and they aren't on any schedule so you will have to search for clubs in your area and contact them yourself. Most are very friendly and will have members who are eager to assist perspective hams and provide information to assist you even if they don't have a formal class.
- Once you have studied some of the material, then I suggest taking some practice tests. The question pool for the real test is public information so the practice tests are made from the SAME pool of questions as the real exam, they just pick a random sub-set of questions and swap the order of the answers (so you can't just memorize letters, you have to know the words of the question and answer). When you are consistantly passing with better-than 85% on at least 5 practice tests in a row you will have an extremely good chance of passing the real one.
- Locate an exam session - many of them allow walk-ins but some request you to call ahead. The ARRL exam session finder website is probably the best place to look for an exam session unless you are working with your local club in which case they may be offering an exam following a class or something. Since the exams are run by volunteers they may not follow a set schedule, if there aren't any sessions near you then I suggest also searching for exam sessions near where you work as well as near friends/family or other places you might visit. Also check the site periodically because some sessions get added with fairly short notice depending who is running them. Most exam sessions charge about $15 although there is at least one group which does exams for free. From experience I recommend bringing cash because I have discovered very few people take credit/debit cards (though a few exist that do) and I also recommend bringing smaller bills in case they don't have enough change.
- Gather your supplies for the exam session - look at ARRL's list of what things to bring to an exam session. Specifically note for the calculator you can NOT use your cellphone calculator function, you need a proper calculator with memory erased. Some exam sessions have a very limited number of spare supplies but it is not guaranteed so you should read thru the list and come prepared. To speed up the process, I also suggest registering for a FCC FRN prior to going to the exam session, this will take the place of your social security number on the forms (which is good for your security). The ARRL page I linked earlier in this paragraph has directions and a link to the FCC getting started website (or direct link to registration).
- When you show up for the exam you will check in with the "staff" (they should have signs or people at the door giving direction) and they will help you filling out whatever forms may be needed and answering any questions you may have throughout the testing session. While the test is only 35 questions (50 for Element 4) remember that it takes time to fill out the papers and for the test to be graded - even if you can finish in 5 minutes you still have to wait for the answers to be graded.
NOTE: As a VE, one of the most common reasons I see people fail by 1-2 questions is because they changed 3-5 of their answers (and I can still see the erasing marks). Don't change your answers unless you are absolutely positively 100% certain! So many more people would pass if they just went with the thing they picked first. We even tell people not to change answers if they aren't 100% sure because most people change right ones to wrong ones...and they still do it.
- If you pass: Congratulations! Assuming you didn't just complete the Extra-class exam (which is the highest level), and time permits, the examiners will usually offer you the chance to try the next level exam. If they offer it, there's really no reason not to - you can't "lose" what you already passed and it costs nothing extra (you pay per-exam-session not per-test-level). When you have finished your testing and they know which element exams you have passed you will get a certificate that indicates what you received credit for. This doesn't mean you are licensed yet, you still have to wait for a callsign to be issued and show up in the FCC ULS Database. This can take anywhere from a few days to a month depending on how much of a back-log there is in processing, holidays, etc. The people running the exam will probably be able to give you a better idea of when to expect your license to show up based on their prior experience with how long it takes.
- If you fail: Don't worry - it's really not that big of a deal. They can't tell you exactly which questions you got wrong but typically the examiners will give you some idea how you did (e.g. "you were 2 questions shy" or "not at all close"). If you don't pass but are extremely close they may suggest getting back in line to check in and start over as a "new customer", due to the random selection of questions making up the test it is likely if you are only 1-2 questions short a different version of the test may let you pass. Remember though, since you need to start over as a new customer that means paying again in most cases. Another option, if the exam session is running long enough you may wish to find a place to sit and study a bit more before trying again to increase your chances. In any event, failing simply means you need to study and make another go at it, there isn't any penalty.
After you pass and your license shows up in the FCC ULS Database you're ready to get on the air! The FCC no longer sends paper licenses so if you really want a hard-copy you will need to log into (or create) your FCC ULS account and download/print the official copy PDF. I recommend having a copy of it on hand at least if you are traveling by air in the event anyone asks what your radio is for you can explain and present a copy of your FCC license. It's not required since the online database is the "official" record but might simplify your life.
Recommendations for a radio...
There are a ton of radios out there, both new and used. The answer of "what to get" will vary drastically based on what you want it to do, how much you want to spend, where you want to use it, etc. Some people like the cheap Chinese "clones" which are available for as little as $20-$30 new for a 5-watt handheld VHF-UHF radio, others insist you need a "Big Three" (name-brand ICOM, Kenwood, Yaesu) radio with high power output. Realistically they all serve different purposes and certainly you can eventually upgrade in the future. Many people like to get used radios to save money and that can be a good option but I have had mixed results being "burned" by things not as they appear both on eBay and hamfests when I started out.
I like the idea of starting with a handheld radio personally because it allows lots of flexability using it at home, in the car, and outside. Others argue that you should get a base/mobile radio because they are higher power and you have a better chance of talking to more people if you can talk farther away. The ideal, in my opinion, would be getting both a handheld and a second base/mobile radio to get the best of both worlds but this is probably outside most people's price range when they are just getting started.
Here is a list of radios I personally think are worth considering for starting out, largely due to their low cost and portability.
- HamRadio.com Yaesu FT-60 - around $140 new for a high quality durable 2m/70cm dual band radio, good all the way around. I keep one in my car glove box "just in case" and it's always worked when I go to use it, I try and top off the battery every copule months or after any use.
- Amazon TYT TH-8000D - around $70 new for a decent quality 2m/70cm dual band radio, this one I is higher power than most and I would not recommend using 10W with it in your hand but on low-power (5 watt) it's a good handlheld. When combined with a small mag-mount antenna putting it on high-power (10 watt) it makes a nice entry level radio for mobile use too.
- Amazon TYT TH-8000E - around $80 new, this is the "newer" replacement for the TYT TH-8000D that I have, personally I can't tell what they changed.
- Amazon Baofeng UV5R - $25 new; many people consider these "junk", others swear by them. My experience is they don't do well in the city because they are easily "overloaded" by strong signals and then you hear lots of garbage nomater what frequency you tune. People who live in more rural areas seem to have better success with them. At $25 I consider it to be "disposable quality" and I have to admit they do seem to work well for some people.
Also, a few notes my personal non-scientific opinion about some of the brands that are out there...
- Yaesu - This is what I started with, they seem slightly cheaper of the "Big Three" name brands and have good quality. I haven't had any complaints, I now have 5 of them between mobile and handheld units and they all function as good as the day I got them.
- Kenwood - Very good quality but I find many of them don't match up with the features I want in my price-range when I've been shopping for radios. I've had one and it was very nice and worked extremely well but ultimately wasn't what I wanted.
- ICOM - Very good quality, seems to have a slightly different set of features compared to Kenwood. I've currently got one of their radios and it seems like a nice balance of features for what it cost.
- TYT - Acceptable quality, the receiver seems to be on a par with my Yaesu radios. I currently have 3 different TYT handheld radios and they are all good sounding although the physical build quality and user-interface are not nearly as good as the name-brand radios. In spite of this, I am extremely impressed so far with the quality of the receiver and reports I get for my transmissions are very good. I think TYT is in a very nice sweet spot of being high quality for audio, transmit, receive and cutting corners on the physical case and software-interface. This is a really excelent balance of "bang for your buck" as long as you don't physically abuse it too hard.
- Baofeng/Pofung - Usually the cheapest but also seems (in my experience) to be the lowest quality. The units I have had suffered from poor sensitivity and selectivity being easily overloaded by any nearby strong signals making it useless. I gave mine to a friend and he seemed content with it and it seems to work slightly better where he lives. Personally I don't think I will get another but time will tell. The SMA connector also seems "backward" compared to any of the other brands I've seen meaning you need adapters to use the same antennas.
Resources & Links...
Useful/Relevant non-Ham Radio resources