Introduction To Ham Radio (US Edition)

What Is Ham Radio:

The ARRL describes Amateur Radio as follows:
“Amateur Radio (ham radio) is a popular hobby and service that brings people, electronics and communication together. People use ham radio to talk across town, around the world, or even into space, all without the Internet or cell phones. It’s fun, social, educational, and can be a lifeline during times of need.”

You can set up a ham radio station anywhere!

On a beach…
On The Beach

…in your overland rig
In Your Rig

…or at home.
In Your Home

Although Amateur Radio operators get involved for many reasons, they all have in common a basic knowledge of radio technology and operating principles, and pass an examination for the FCC license to operate on radio frequencies known as the “Amateur Bands.” These bands are radio frequencies allocated by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) for use by ham radio operators.”

What Are The License Classes:

In the United States there are three classes of Amateur Radio Operator Licenses (Ham)

  • Technician Class
  • General Class
  • Extra Class

Each Class license increases your privileges on the air.

Primarily the Technician Class license is for VHF/UHF communications, which work well for regional contacts. VHF (2M) and UHF (70CM) are the two most common forms of mobile ham radio communications equipment. Simplex these operate line of sight, which is to say 5-10 miles over flat level terrain.

The General Class license opens up 90% of the HF bands for you. These bands work for around-the-world communications, even with low power and modest antennas. As an example, while driving on Hwy 71 in Austin, Texas, I was able to carry on a conversation with a HAM outside Moscow, in Russia.

Finally the Extra Class license gives you the last small piece of the pie. Primarily these are edges of the bands which more closely overlap with other nations band allocations opening up more opportunities to talk to HAMs from other countries.

How Can You Get Licensed:

Ham Radio Clubs across the country offer testing sessions every month. The ARRL (Amateur Radio Relay League) provides a tool to help you locate Amateur Radio License Exams in your area. TEST FINDER

Tests cost around $15 to take. If you pass the Technician the testing site will let you take your General test in the same sitting for free. If you pass your General test, they will let you take the Extra for free in the same sitting. So with proper preparation it is possible to go from unlicensed to Extra in one day.

Once you pass a test, your license is good for 10 years, at which point you renew your license for free. You do not need to take any further tests.

Training/Study Materials:

There are books from Gordon West to help you prepare for the tests. I found Gordon West’s teaching style in his AUDIO CD Programs to be very compatible with my learning style.

You can take Practice tests for all three license classes here: (free registration required)
Each requires a score of greater than 70% to pass. If you are regularly scoring around 85% on practice tests, you are ready for the real thing!

FCC Law & VHF Radios (Race Radios)

I would like to thank Crom from Tacomaworld for taking the time to write this post, reproduced here with his permission.

This is just and FYI for those that may not know. And the bottom line first…

You may not use a VHF radio in the United States without a valid FCC-issued license or Amateur radio license. Use of VHF radios in Mexico is allowed during the SCORE Baja race, and subject to local regulations.

Here is an example of VHF itinerant/business band frequencies commonly used in the Baja Races. Operators of the frequencies are licensed. If you transmit on frequencies you’re not licensed for, then you are operating a pirate radio station, and are subject to fines and equipment confiscation. 🙁

I have observed a trend of individuals buying ham radios and modifying them to transmit outside the ham bands. That in of itself is not a problem. But if you key up outside the ham bands–that’s illegal, and you put yourself at risk for fines and confiscation (more on that below). Also problematic is buying business band radios and operating them on frequencies without the requisite license.

Some people think the FCC enforcement is a toothless tiger, and nothing bad will happen to them, and maybe that’s all true. But people should know that there are risks involved. And that’s why I took the time to write this, as to inform people. I don’t care what you do in the desert as long as it doesn’t hurt or interfere with other people.

Also, I think it’s incredibly foolish for people to post in a public forum the date, time, and place of a future meet and the illegal frequency they’ll be communicating on. :laugh:

If you have questions about Race radios, I have found this shop to be very helpful. PCI Race Radios. As it turns out they are the itinerant and properly licensed operator of the Weatherman frequency.

Additionally, if your not a properly licensed amateur operator please stay off the 2M & 70cm ham bands, i.e. 144-148 & 430-450 Mhz. 🙂

Finally, WB4CS a licensed amateur radio operator wrote the FCC asking a question and the answer is relevant to the topic here.

Here is what the FCC wrote:

FCC response per WB4CS said:
As you note, “The rules are clear that in order to use Part 90 or 95 spectrum, the operator must have the correct licensing and certified radios to use those services.” The debate you are referring to, therefore, comes down to “How can we get around the rules?” The answer is, “You can’t.” We will be happy to relieve you of thousands or tens of thousands of dollars and your amateur radio license if you transmit on channels you are not licensed to transmit on.


FCC Wireless Telecommunications Bureau

For example:

  1. CB
  2. FRS
  3. Licensed GMRS
  4. MURS
  5. Licensed Amateur radio (HAM).