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Help for Prospective Hams from CQ Magazine

by Richard S. Moseson, W2VU, Editor, CQ magazine

Welcome to ham radio, the world's most fascinating hobby!  We're glad you're interested and will be pleased to help answer your questions and point you in the right direction for more information.  Since many prospective hams ask similar questions, we'll try to address some of the most common here.

Ham radio is many different things to many different people.  But even if you already have some idea already of what it's about, you may not have the "big picture."  That's because ham radio--known formally as "amateur radio" -- is actually several different hobbies folded into one.

There's the "talking with people in faraway places" hobby; the "keep me company while I'm commuting" hobby; the "put your computer on the air" hobby; the "public service and emergency communications" hobby; the television hobby, the satellite hobby and so on.  All of these hobbies-within-a-hobby share certain things in common: 1) ham radio is basically about people -- people using technology to make contact with other people; 2) Amateur radio is for personal communications only; business use is prohibited; 3) it's a LOT of fun!

CQ Communications offers a broad-brush introduction to the people and activities of ham radio in an award-winning video titled "Ham Radio Horizons" (now part of our "Ham Radio Welcome Pak" DVD). It will expand YOUR horizons about our hobby, and it's available from our online store.

You'll hear lots of stories about why amateur radio operators are called "hams," but there is no proof for any of the competing claims, and the simple truth is that no one knows for sure.  What we do know is this: regardless of its source, the "ham" label is worn with pride by radio amateurs around the world.

Worldwide, amateur radio operators number in the millions.  There are over 600,000 licensed amateurs in the United States, and more than 25,000 in Canada.  Each one has a unique "callsign" issued by his/her government.  No two hams share the same callsign.


In order to operate a ham radio, you need an Amateur Radio license.  Each country has its own rules and procedures regarding amateur licenses.  In the United States, ham licenses are issued by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), and the following information applies to the US only:

There are three amateur radio license classes available in the United States, the entry-level Technician Class, the mid-level General Class, and the top-level Extra Class. Ham licenses are earned by passing fill-in-the-blank and multiple-choice exams, which are offered regularly by volunteers across the country. There is no longer a Morse code requirement for any level of U.S. Amateur Radio license.  The "pools" of questions from which the exams are made -- along with their correct answers -- are printed in virtually every license manual.  Even so, you'll need to study in order to pass.

Why are licenses needed? Radio signals travel great distances and improperly-adjusted transmitters could cause interference to other radio services. It's important that hams, who are permitted to transmit with high power, understand the basics of how radios work and how radio signals behave. Hams are also encouraged to design and build their own gear (although there's plenty of commercially-built equipment available if that's not your thing), and again, it's important to have a basic knowledge of electronic circuits before trying to design a radio! Don't worry, though, the tests start out quite easy.

The Technician Class license is the most popular way to start.  It gives you full access to all ham radio frequencies and activities above 50 MHz (the VHF & UHF bands), as well as limited access to the high-frequency, or HF, bands below 30 MHz.

Things you can do on VHF and UHF include FM repeaters (automatic relay stations), computer-to-computer "packet radio," on-air contests, amateur TV, amateur satellites and even things like "moonbounce," microwave and laser communications.  Long-distance communications, also called "DX," may be "worked" on satellites and the 6-meter band.

A Technician license also gets you voice privileges on part of the 10-meter band (28.3-28.5 MHz), plus Morse code privileges on the 80, 40, 15 and 10 meter bands. Passing a 35-question test to upgrade from Technician to General Class will give you operating privileges - including voice - on all amateur frequency bands. Another written exam for Extra Class gives you all privileges on all ham radio bands.

Many radio clubs and other groups offer licensing and upgrading courses, and a variety of study guides are commercially available.  (Two of the most popular guides, the ARRL's "Ham Radio License Manual" and Gordon West's "Technician Class 2006-2010" guide, are available from CQ and from many ham dealers.)  The ARRL also offers licensing guides on videotape.

Ham radio license exams are given by trained volunteers across the country.  These Volunteer Examiners (VEs) work under the umbrella of one or more Volunteer Examiner Coordinators (VECs), who actually prepare the exams and submit your completed paperwork electronically to the FCC.  Licenses are issued by the FCC itself, usually within a few weeks after you pass your license exam. Your license is valid as soon as it appears on the FCC's online database. You do not have to wait for your paper license to arrive before operating as long as your callsign is listed on the FCC database.

VE sessions are held at convenient times and locations in every state.  Most are in the evenings or on weekends.  Special sessions may also be arranged for test candidates with special needs who may be unable to get to a regularly scheduled sessions.  Many examiner groups hold monthly or bi-monthly sessions.  There is a nominal fee for taking the exam, which is set each year by the FCC.  The 2008 fee is $14.00.

Lists of upcoming test sessions in your area are available on request from the American Radio Relay League (ARRL) at 1-800-32-NEWHAM or by e-mail to ead@arrl.org. Ask for their Prospective Ham Package and be sure to include your name and mailing address. (If you live near a state line, request listings for the adjacent state, as well.) The package is free.  In addition to the exam lists, the ARRL package will include a list of ham radio clubs and registered instructors in your area. You may also search online for upcoming exams in your area on the ARRL website at <http://www.arrl.org/arrlvec/examsearch.phtml>.

The ARRL (American Radio Relay League) is the major national organization of ham radio operators in the United States, with more than 160,000 members, a nationwide volunteer "field organization," public service and emergency networks, Washington representation and much, much more.  Every active ham should belong to the ARRL.

One of the ARRL's goals is to promote the growth of amateur radio.  Providing free information packets to prospective hams is one part of those efforts.


CQ Communications, Inc. is a major publisher of magazines, books, videos and other materials for the ham radio and hobby communications markets.  We also want to do our part to encourage growth in ham radio, and to help inform and educate our readers and viewers.  A brief description of our major publications & products follows:

CQ: THE RADIO AMATEUR'S JOURNAL CQ has been serving amateur radio since 1945.  CQ's primary focus is on ham radio operating activities, although it also includes technical articles, construction projects and ham radio news, as well as two regular columns focused on the new ham. We believe CQ is the most readable, most interesting, ham magazine in print today.

THE CQ LIBRARY - CQ publishes its own books and DVDs on ham radio. For a guide to the current selection, see our online store.  More information on CQ products is also available by calling our toll-free order line at 1-800-853-9797 (US only; elsewhere, dial direct: 516-681-2922 / fax: 516-681-2926); or by e-mail to cq@cq-amateur-radio.com.

For a FREE SAMPLE COPY (mailto: cq@cq-amateur-radio.com) of CQ Magazine, simply click on the link and send us an e-mail message with your name, callsign and mailing address, along with a request for a free sample, and we'll put a recent issue in the mail to you. Only one sample magazine per person, please.

We hope this has answered some or all of your questions about ham radio.  If you have other, more specific, questions, you'll find plenty of experts online or in your local radio club.  Good luck and  "73" ("hamspeak" for "best wishes"),

The staff of CQ Communications

CQ COMMUNICATIONS, INC., 17 West John St., Hicksville, New York 11801 USA,

CQ - 'The Authority on Amateur Radio' for more than 70 years.

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