I got my “ticket” in the late 2000’s. Starting with the Technician level I was brought into knowledge and interest via online forums and sites. I forget exactly what I was looking at or viewing, but something struck a chord.
There are currently three levels or tiers of licenses here in the U.S. – Technician, General, and Extra.
Technician allows you to get your feet wet in the core concepts but is mostly limited to VHF/UHF frequencies (above 30mHz). While there are some HF privileges, it primarily allows the operator to work local repeaters and simplex communications. With this level of licensing, you can work local and, well, not so local comms. You can work amateur radio satellites and even the International Space Station. When conditions are good, as a Technician you can jump on 6 meters and potentially work the world, or even a small portion of the 10 meter HF band.
I was first licensed as a Technician in 2009. After working local repeaters, I found myself really wanting more since most everything I read (that interested me) in the hobby was activities in the HF realm.
Time to upgrade.
In 2011, I upgraded to General. This is where (for me) amateur radio suddenly opened up. I want to first say that many hams live mostly in the VHF/UHF world quite happily and find the hobby fulfilling. That is the great thing about this hobby – there is no single way to do it. More privileges, however, allow you to try out as many options as possible and discover where your passion lies.
General Class opens up MF/HF bands of frequencies. This means expanded frequency blocks (bands) that run from as low as 137.7kHz up to 29.700mHz. While the upgraded privileges allow for greatly expanded sets of frequencies for the operator, it doesn’t cover everything. That is reserved for the highest class of license.
Extra Class is just that – extra. The full range of each band of frequencies is available to Extra Class holders, and that is where many of the prized contacts operate. By “prized contacts” I mean those rare contacts in areas of the globe that you might need for that particular pursuit. DXCC for example.
As a General Class holder, I sometimes will monitor the CW QSOs in these areas with envy – many more DX contacts are happening there than I hear in my portions of the bands. As such I am currently in the progress of studying for an upgrade that is long overdue.
How to Get Licensed
Each license level requires an exam that shows knowledge of operation rules and procedures, radio technologies, and being a good radio citizen. Exams must be taken in order; Technician (35 questions) -> General (35 questions) -> Extra (50 questions), though you can take all three at the same time. This means that you can walk in the room without any license at all and, assuming you’ve passed all three exams, walk out a fully licensed Extra Class operator. You cannot, however, take the Extra exam without having also taken the previous two levels.
Exam questions are randomized from large pools that are openly available for study prior to testing. These question pools contain at least 10 times the number of questions than are actually on the exam, so becoming knowledgeable about the full set is important before going in.
The ARRL has links to the current question pools, and publishes books that walk the reader through all the concepts needed in order to pass the first try.
If you’re nervous about getting licensed, the youngest licensed ham radio operator that I could find was 5 years old!
There are also multiple online resources, as well as many smartphone apps that provide practice opportunities as you’re preparing for the exam(s). One of my favorites is Hamstudy. They have both online and device apps so that you can study anywhere, any time.
Once you’re ready you can search your local area for exam locations and times. Those that administer the exams are volunteers and are also licensed hams.
They may change a small exam fee to cover their expenses.
Since COVID-19 hit, exams are now increasingly offered online as well, though you will have to meet the examiner’s requirements to prove that you are not cheating somehow. This often includes having two devices on the online meeting session to show different views of you taking the test so that your actions can be monitored.
Cheating in an amateur radio licensing exam is something that only hurts you – the questions and answers are available beforehand so there will be no surprises.
Study the material and you’ll pass! Take the practice exams again and again until you can pass them 100% of the time.
You will not have to wait to find out if you pass or not – once you’ve handed in your test it will be graded and you’ll know before you leave how you did. If you pass, the volunteer examiners will send your results to the FCC and they will issue a callsign to you if you’re new, or upgrade your privileges if you’re already licensed.
Once your new callsign shows up in the FCC database, you’re all set and you can get on the air.
Assuming you have a radio of course. 😉