Since I have been asked about ham testing at both of the DAGR meetings I've
attended, here is a quick and dirty guide for those interested!
In the US there are three levels of amateur radio / ham license:
- Technician: full privileges at 50MHz and higher, narrow privileges below.
- General: additional privileges at HF.
- Extra: all privileges on all bands. Full automatic reciprocity with much
of the world.
Morse code requirements were dropped in 2007, so you only learn this if it
sounds like a fun adventure.
Tests are multiple choice. Online study guides and practice tests (with
actual test questions) are abundant. Anyone who has a decent memory of high
school AP physics should be able to get a technicians license after some
flashcard work on the legal and operating questions. "Studying to the test"
is not uncommon, but people are encouraged to go beyond this.
If you pass a test at one level you may immediately test for the next level
for no additional charge. (If you plan to do this you should check with the
examiners ahead of time to ensure they have a comfortable margin on the
Here are the upcoming publicized test sessions in the metro area:
Why get a license:
- You're allowed to use much higher power with (generally) no restrictions
on gain antennas (contrast with unlicensed/ISM)
- FCC acceptance not required on equipment
- DIY, research, and experimentation are explicitly encouraged
- Access to vast stretches of interesting and quiet spectrum
- Access to a large group of people who also think RF is interesting
- The hobby depends on mutual trust, openness, sharing, and education,
which mostly works out well (sound familiar?)
- The hobby is being rapidly reshaped due to the work that you and groups
like you are doing
- You may find all sorts of new-to-you activities to get excited about
- Two new LF (<300 kHz) allocations are on the horizon and are just
begging for novel uses and new protocols
- Ham radio is still the easiest way to call for help if you break your
leg in the mountains
Downsides, such as they are:
- Licensees are held to a higher standard of behavior, and doing something
bad enough to actually draw the FCC's attention may get you barred from any
- All communications must be readily understandable by other hams and
meaning may not be obfuscated; this is generally interpreted to bar
encryption although the finer points of this are actively debated
- Commercial activity (defined as any participant having any financial
interested) is not allowed
- There are some vocal hams who still "do radio" like it's 1965 and think
everyone else should too (but they're generally easy to avoid)
- Your name and mailing address becomes public record (a PO Box alleviates
That should cover most of the high points, and I'm happy to answer any
questions on- or off-list, or over beer!
Director, Rocky Mountain Ham Radio