Amateur Radio

What is “amateur radio”

“Amateur radio” — also known as “ham radio” — is a hobby that exists because ham radio operators provide public service radio communications, disaster communications, and technical expertise in radio communications and design.

Amateur Radio operators MUST BE LICENSED. 

  •  Amateur Radio is regulated by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) under the Communications Act of 1934. It is also subject to numerous international agreements.

  •  All Amateur Radio operators must be licensed. 

  •  In the U.S. there are three license classes.  Each successive level of license comes with an expansion of privileges. Your entry into Amateur Radio begins with a Technician Class License.

Earning each license requires passing an examination. Although regulated by the FCC, license exams are given by volunteer groups of Amateur Radio operators. Operating under organizations called Volunteer Examiner Coordinators, volunteers administer and grade tests and report results to the FCC, which then issues the license. U.S. licenses are good for 10 years before renewal, and anyone may hold one except a representative of a foreign government.

What Amateur Radio licenses are available?

Technician Class License. You can get an entry level Amateur Radio Technician license by passing a 35-question multiple-choice examination. No Morse code test is required. The exam covers basic regulations, operating practices, and electronics theory, with a focus on VHF and UHF applications.

Technician Class operators are authorized to use all amateur VHF and UHF frequencies (all frequencies above 50 MHz). Technicians also may operate on the 80, 40, and 15 meter HF bands using Morse code, and on the 10 meter band using Morse code, voice, and digital modes.  No Morse code test is required.

General Class License. The General Class license offers a giant step up in operating privileges. The high-power HF privileges granted to General licensees allow for cross-country and worldwide communication.

Technicians may upgrade to General by passing a 35-question multiple-choice examination. The written exam covers intermediate regulations, operating practices, and electronics theory, with a focus on HF applications. You must successfully pass the Technician exam to be eligible to sit for the General class exam. No Morse code test is required.

In addition to the Technician privileges, General Class operators are authorized to operate on any frequency in the 160, 30, 17, 12, and 10 meter bands. They may also use significant segments of the 80, 40, 20, and 15 meter bands.

Amateur Extra Class License. The HF bands can be awfully crowded, particularly at the top of the solar cycle. Once you earn HF privileges, you may quickly yearn for more room. The Extra Class license is the answer. Extra Class licensees are authorized to operate on all frequencies allocated to the Amateur Service.

General licensees may upgrade to Extra Class by passing a 50-question multiple-choice examination. No Morse code test is required. In addition to some of the more obscure regulations, the test covers specialized operating practices, advanced electronics theory, and radio equipment design.

More detailed information about the privileges of each license class and requirements for licensing can be found at

Amateur radio and Morse code

Notice that in the paragraphs describing the three levels of license, there is a comment for each license grade that “no Morse code test is required.”  For many years, there was a Morse code requirement for an amateur radio license.  When I was first licensed, the testing requirement was a written exam and a Morse code test in which the person who wanted a license had to receive Morse code at a specified speed:

  •  Novice license (no longer used):  5 words per minute (WPM)
  •  Technician license:  5 WPM
  •  General and Advanced license:  13 WPM
  •   Extra class:  20 WPM (I passed this test in 1992)

The Morse code requirement was eliminated in February 2007.  HOWEVER — many amateur radio operators still use Morse code — it’s called “CW” which stands for “continuous wave,” a technical description of the transmitted signal.  In fact, there are so many operators who use Morse code that certain frequencies are set aside for Morse code use only.

What are those letters and numbers?

Note that I identify myself as W4HH.

Each amateur radio operator is issued a dual license — an operators license and a station license.  The station license has a call sign — a group of letters and numbers that identify your specific station — no one else has your call sign.  Amateur radio call signs are similar to the call signs of radio and TV stations.

I have held call signs KN4FPT, K4FPT, and W4HH

  •  The first letter — K, W — indicates that I am located in the US.  (Canada is VE; Mexico is XE; Great Britain is G; etc., etc.)
  •  The number — in my case, 4 — identifies the part of the US in which I am located.  Call area 4 is the states of VA, NC, SC, GA, KY, FL, AL, and TN. Other call areas are 0, 1, 2, 3, 5, 6, 7, 8, and 9.
  •  The last letters are assigned at random by the FCC when the license is issued.

Here’s a link to a site that describes US and foreign call signs:

If you know an amateur radio call sign, you can look it up and see who the person is who has that call sign.  For example, most states allow an amateur radio operator to have special automobile license plates with his/her call sign on the plate.  Look up call signs on this site:    Go to that site; you’ll see a small search box in the top left corner; enter the call sign and click the SEARCH button.  Also on that site is a Name Search function — if you know someone’s name and want to look up their call sign — click on the Site Menu button; that takes you to a page that lists everything on the site; look down the page and find the Name Search link.

What do amateur radio operators do?

That depends — the hobby means different things to different people.

We carry on basic communications

In the first place, because an amateur radio operator is licensed to operate a radio transmitting and receiving station on several different frequency  bands — some of which can be used for world-wide communications — the one thing that all hams do is COMMUNICATE.  We communicate with each other using Morse code, voice, radio teletype, TV, and various other communications methods.  And what do we communicate about?

  •  In some cases, we exchange, name and location, describe our station equipment, talk about the weather, then sign off.
  •  In other cases, ham operators who have been friends or acquaintances for years meet on the air on a regular schedule to talk about whatever it is that old friends talk about.

We provide emergency and public service communications

Because ham operators can communicate on several different frequency bands, and because we have the technical knowledge to put together a station under any circumstances, ham operators provide an important source of communications in disasters or emergencies.

Amateur Radio operators set up and operate organized communication networks locally for governmental and emergency officials, as well as non-commercial communication for private citizens affected by the disaster. Amateur Radio operators are most likely to be active after disasters that damage regular lines of communications due to power outages and destruction of telephone, cellular and other infrastructure-dependent systems.

Many radio amateurs are active as communications volunteers with local public safety organizations. In addition, in some disasters, radio frequencies are not coordinated among relief officials and Amateur Radio operators step in to coordinate communication when radio towers and other elements in the communications infrastructure are damaged.

This is a link to real-world stories of how amateur radio operators provided life-saving communications during various natural disasters.

We operate contests

Almost every weekend on the amateur radio bands you can find a contest of some kind going on.  In contests the objective is to make as many contacts of a certain type as possible.  For example, two of the most popular contests are worldwide “DX” contests sponsored by amateur radio organizations.  “DX” is an abbreviation used on Morse code that means “distance” — a “DX station” is a station in another country, so, during a “DX contest” the objective is to contact as many stations in as many different countries as possible.

Other contests are sponsored by clubs in a single state or county.

In the ARRL Sweepstakes contest, stations in the US try to contact as many other US stations as possible over a 36-hour period — one weekend is for Morse code contacts and one weekend for voice contacts.  For this contest, the US is divided into 70 “sections” — each section is a state or part of a state — and in addition to contacting as many stations as possible, operators try to contact as many sections as possible.

Here’s a link to a page of contest calenders.

We experiment with radio communications

Amateur radio operators are permitted to build and operate our own equipment.  Many hams are engineers who design and build experimental equipment, or, who use the amateur radio bands to try out experiments with equipment, antennas, or communications methods.

There are numerous example of technical breakthroughs that have been the direct result of experimentation by amateur radio operators.

The American Radio Relay League

The American Radio Relay League — ARRL — is a nationwide organization of amateur radio operators.  The ARRL conducts many activities to support amateur radio:

  •   Monthly magazine — QST.

  •   Lobbying presence in Washington, D.C, to monitor legislation and regulations and to represent the interests of U.S. amateur radio operators.

  •  Training and educational materials for all levels of interest and capability.

If you are interested in amateur radio, I recommend you visit the ARRL Hello, Radio site:

Links to sites with info on amateur radio

Go to this page for links to websites that contain information about amateur radio.

A history of amateur radio

Here’s a link to a history of amateur radio — this is a LONG article but it’s quite interesting.