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How to Get a Ham Radio License in the USA?

Transmitting over a ham radio in the US requires a license. You will not need a license if you want to use a ham radio only for listening. So, how do you get a license? It is a simple process. Before you learn the process of acquiring a ham radio license in the USA, you must be aware of the different types of licenses available and their associated privileges.

Let’s learn…

Get a Amateur Ham Radio License in the USA
to Get a Ham Radio License in the USA?

Types of Ham Radio Licenses

In total, there are six different classes of ham radio licenses. Out of these six, the Federal Communications Commission or the FCC now issues only three classes.

Those who had acquired the now-defunct licenses classes before FCC stopped issuing those licenses continue to enjoy the associated privileges.

Three Classes of Ham Radio Licenses Currently Issued by FCC

1. Technician License

This is the basic license you need to acquire today to operate a ham radio. The exam that you need to take is the ‘Technician Exam.’

Once you acquire this license, you can operate a ham radio in the Very High Frequency (VHF) band, the Ultra High Frequency (UHF) band, and anything beyond that.

You will also get some privileges in the High Frequency (HF) band. However, HF privileges are minimal.

If you have the Technician license, you can operate in the 2-meter band at 144 MHz to 148 MHz frequencies. You can also use the 70-centimeter band at 420 MHz to 450 MHz frequencies.

This license allows both mobile and base operations in the vicinity. Of course, the area or the range of operation can increase if you use repeaters.

Apart from the bands mentioned above, the Techs (people holding Technician license) can also operate in the following bands (and frequencies):

  • 6-meter band between 50 MHz and 54 MHz frequencies.
  • 1.25-meter band between 222 MHz and 225 MHz frequencies.
  • 23-centimeter band between 1240 MHz and 1300 MHz frequencies.

The 6-meter band often goes by the name ‘magic band,’ because it will allow you to talk to other ham operators who are located several states away from you. Unfortunately, this band remains relatively quiet most of the time.

Techs can also operate in shortwave of HF bands, but with limitations.

The HF bands allow worldwide communication depending on the band in use and its current propagation. For instance, people with a Technician license have the permission of voice communication on the 10-meter band within the frequency segment 28.3 MHz to 28.5 MHz.

Using this 10-meter band, Techs can communicate with people across the world. This particular band allows transmissions of up to 200 watts PEP. PEP stands for Peak Envelop Power.

Apart from the voice communication, the Techs can also use a narrow segment of frequencies over the 10-meter band, 15-meter band, and 40-meter band to communicate using CW or Morse Code, Radioteletype (RTTY) and data.

When and why to go for the Technician license?

A Technician license is for anyone who wants to talk around the town. That’s all! Communicating outside the town is using the Technician license is not allowed.

2. General License

After the Technician license, we have the General license. The General license has more HF privileges than the Technician license. Of course, they have access to VHF, UHF, and beyond.

If you want to acquire a General license, you have to take both the Technician and General Exams.

In the case of a General license, the Generals (people with the General license) can transmit with 1500 watts PEP on the HF bands or shortwave. That’s 1300 watts more than what the Techs are allowed to use.

Once you acquire a General license, you will get access to two additional longwave bands below the AM broadcast band. In the shortwave, you will get 10 HF bands that allow worldwide communication in different modes.

For instance, you can get access to an HF-based email system known as the Winlink, once you have the General license. Winlink will allow you to communicate anywhere in the world.

If you have a General license, you will have access to all the amateur bands, but not all amateur HF frequencies.

When and why to go for the General license?

People who are very interesting in emergency communications are the ones who go for the General license.

Most of the time, emergency communications are local, but that’s not necessarily true. For instance, when Hurricane Katrina made landfall and caused devastation, it became almost impossible to communicate within the affected areas.

This led emergency responders to communicate by relaying messages from stations outside the affected areas using HF frequencies.

It is true that during emergencies, you are free to use any communication method you can lay your hands on. You don’t need a license for that. Cops won’t come knocking at your door.

However, if you have to communicate during emergencies, you have to know how to communicate. To learn that, you need to practice. To practice, you need a license. You cannot practice without a license. If you do, you will find yourself in serious trouble.

Also, the General class license is for people who are interested in talking to people all around the world on SW or Shortwave.

Again, some people live on boats. If they want to stay connected to the world using ham SSB (single-sideband), they will need the General class license.

3. Extra License

The ‘Extra’ license is maximum that you can reach. It gives all the privileges that the Generals get when it comes to using HF or shortwave. The Extra class licensees also get a few additional segments within the HF band.

When and why to go for the Extra license?

There are several reasons why people go for the Extra class license. Those reasons are:

  • Sometimes, it is only the prestige of holding the highest class license that drives people to get the Extra class license.
  • Getting the Extra license is often the stepping stone for obtaining the Certified Broadcast Technologist certification. This is particularly true for broadcast engineers.
  • Some people want to become volunteer examiners for all exam levels. For that, they will need the “Extra” license.
  • Sometimes people want the privilege of full reciprocal operating capabilities while they travel in CPET countries. CPET stands for the European Conference of Postal & Telecommunications Administrations. Countries like Israel, New Zealand, Australia, European countries, etc. belong to CPET.
  • Some people want their college application or resume to stand apart from the crowd. That’s the reason why they go for the Extra license.
  • Some people simply want complete access to all ham frequencies, including the Extra and Advanced portions of the bands. These extra frequencies are some of the best for DXing.
  • Some people only want to learn more about this exciting hobby.

The Three Classes of Ham Radio Licenses No Longer Issued

The three classes of ham radio licenses that are no longer issued include the following:

  • Novice license.
  • Technician Plus license.
  • Advanced license.

The Novice License

It was the license that one had to acquire before getting a Technician license. It had minimal privileges.

The Technical Plus License

As the name suggests, it was issued after someone acquired the Technician license. So, the Technical Plus license was between the Technical license and the General license. It had precisely the same privileges as the Technical license of today.

The Advanced License

This was between the General license and the Extra license. It has all the privileges of the Extra license with some additional frequencies in the HF or shortwave band, but less than what was given to people with Extra license.

What is DXing?

DXing is a hobby in which people listen to faraway radio stations, usually foreign stations. Listening to home stations is never called DXing. However, listening to similar stations in far off locations that are thousands of kilometers away, which usually stay outside the normal coverage area is referred to as DXing.

DX is an old telegraphic term in which D refers to the distance, while X means unknown. DXers usually prefer the night time for hunting far off signals. That’s because at night, the ionosphere, in the absence of sunlight, reflects radio signals back to earth.

Ham Radio License License Exams & Fees in USA

To get a ham radio license in the United States of America, you will need to take exams. In case you want to use Morse Code only, you don’t need a license at all. Many people use Morse Code, and you are always welcome to join the party.

However, if you want to talk, passing the exams is mandatory.

Types of Ham Radio License Exams in USA

There are three different written exams. Interestingly, all exams will cover the same topics, but with increasing levels of difficulty. The three different exams are:

  1. Technician exam [referred to as ‘element 2’]: This is pretty simple. There will be 35 questions selected from a pool of 400 questions.
  2. General exam [referred to as ‘element 3’]: This exam is moderately complex. There will be 35 questions selected from 500 questions.
  3. Extra exam [referred to as ‘element 4’]: This is the most challenging exam. You have to answer 50 questions from a pool of 700 questions.

The topics covered in the exams include regulations, electronics, operating practices, antennas, propagation, and safety.

Who Administers the Ham Radio License Exams in USA?

There is no unique body or organization for administering these exams. There are volunteer examiners (known as VEs) who administer these licensing examinations.

These VEs are friendly hams from local clubs.

Licensing exam sessions are organized regularly across the USA. Anyone with physical disabilities can request the VEs for special arrangments. They happily do that. For instance, if a blind person wants to take an exam, the VEs will provide Braille options that will not include any figures.

If someone has a reading problem, the VEs will read out the questions along with answer choices loudly.

How Much It Costs to Write an Exam?

USD 15 is what you need to pay. The most exciting thing to note here is that you can take all three exams in a single sitting, and all that you pay is $15.

But there’s a catch, you can keep taking exams until you fail in one. So, if you start with the Technician exam and you pass it, you can take the General exam. If you fail, you will not be allowed to retake the exam in that session.

You have to take the exam in another session and pay $15 again. However, if you pass the General exam, too, in the first session, you will be allowed to take the Extra exam. If you pass, it’s excellent! You get the Extra license by paying only $15.

If you fail the Extra exam, you will have to wait until the next session, pay $15 again, and take the Extra exam.

So, if you pass all three exams in a single session, you save $30!

Will You Get All Three Licenses If You Pass All Three Exams?

It is normal to think so, right? However, that’s not the case. If you pass only the Technician exam, you will get the Technician class license. If you pass both the Technician exam and the General exam, you will get only the General license.

In case you pass all three exams, that is, Technician, General, and Extra, the only license you can hold is the Extra license.

There is no deep secret here. Holding a higher class license automatically means that you have passed the exam for the level below that.

Which Exam Do You Need to Take?

There are different situations with different rules. Pay close attention to whatever you read below.

Situation: You never held a ham license before.

In a situation like this, the only option that you will have is to take the Technician exam. Only after you pass the exam, you can move forward and take the General exam. Pass the General exam to finally take the Extra exam.

Situation: You have a ham license that has expired in the past two years.

If you face a situation like this, you can renew your license. There is a 2-year grace period that FCC offers to renew an expired license. During this grace period, you can transmit anything.

In case you want to upgrade to a higher class license, you don’t have to renew your license (provided it is within the 2-year grace period). All you have to do is to present the expired license to the VEs in the exam session.

You will get the credit of holding a license, and the VEs will allow you to take the exam. However, if the grace period is about to expire, you should get your license renewed just in case you fail in the exam.

Situation: You have an expired Technician ham license that was issued before 1987.

If you have an expired Technician license that was issued to you before March 21, 1987, you will get a ‘grandfather’ credit from FCC. This credit will allow you to take the General class exam.

However, to take the General class exam, you have to do the following:

  • You have to pass the current Technician class exam.
  • You have to provide proof to the VEs that you held a Technician license that was issued to you before March 21, 1987.

In case you don’t have a copy of your license, you need to find your name in an old Callbook magazine issued in Fall 1967 or later. If you cannot find a call book, you can find the scanned copies here. On that website, you can search using your name, call sign, or address.

Situation: You have an expired General or Advanced license.

If you hold any of these two expired ham licenses, FCC will give you partial credit only for the General class exam. You can get a General class license by:

  • Passing the current Technician class exam.
  • Presenting proof to the VEs that you held the General or Advanced license.

Situation: You have an expired Extra class license.

For this too, FCC will give you partial credit for the General exam and Extra exam. You can move on to get the Extra license by:

  • Passing the current Technician class exam.
  • Presenting proof to the VEs that you held the Extra license.

Situation: You have a Novice license within the 2-year grace period, or the license has not expired.

In a situation like this, you will not get any credit from the FCC. You will be considered as a person with no license at all. You have to proceed with the Technician license and then work your way up.

Situation: You hold a pre-1987 Technician license – either expired or within the 2-year grace period.

In case you have a Technician license that was issued to you before March 21, 1987, you will get the ‘grandfather’ credit from the FCC for the General class exam.

In case you have continuously renewed your pre-1987 Technician license every 10 years, and it never expired, you don’t have to pass any exams. You will get an automatic upgrade to the General license.

However, to get that automatic upgrade, you have to attend the VE session and provide proof of the following facts:

  • You once held a pre-1987 Technician license.
  • You currently hold an unexpired pre-1987 Technician license.

If you provide both the proofs, the VEs will give you the General license.

Situation: You have a post-1987 Technician license that has either not expired or is within the 2-year grace period.

In this situation, you will get credit for the Technician exam, giving you permission to take the General exam.

Situation: You hold a Technician-Plus license that has either not expired or is within the 2-year grace period.

In this situation, you will be treated as a person with a Technician license. You can take further exams to get higher class licenses.

Situation: You hold a General license that has either not expired or is within the 2-year grace period.

You will get the credit for Technician and General exams. The only thing left will be to take the Extra exam and get the Extra class license.

Situation: You have an Advanced license that has either not expired or is within the 2-year grace period.

In this case, you will get credit for the Technician and General exams. You can move on to tet the Extra class license by taking the Extra exam.

Situation: You have an Extra license that has either not expired or is within the 2-year grace period.

There is nothing more to do! You have gone as far as the law allows. Congratulations!

Situation: Any other ham license that has expired.

Consider these scenarios:

  • You have crossed the 2-year grace period, but you never held a technician license that was issued before March 21, 1987.
  • You don’t have an expired General license.
  • You don’t have an expired Advanced license.
  • You don’t have an expired Extra license.

What happens in a situation like this? You will be considered as if you never held a license because the following will not give you any credit:

  • You have a Novice license.
  • You have an expired Technician license that was issued to you on or after March 21, 1987.
  • You have an expired Technician Plus license.

Where to Take the Ham Radio License Exam in the USA?

You need to find a place nearest to you where an exam session is scheduled. You can find the nearest amateur radio license exam location here at ARRL.

How to Prepare for Ham Radio License Exam?

You need to prepare for the ham radio license exams. It is not possible to pass any of the three exams without studying. No matter how intimidating it may look, smartly preparing for the exams will let you pass.

You need to remember the following things:

  • A lousy memory doesn’t mean you will fail.
  • A learning disability doesn’t mean you will fail.
  • If you are bad at math, you will still pass.
  • Irrespective of your age, you can still pass.

There are situations where you have to study hard, and there are times when you have to study smart. If your argument is that you are lousy at math, you need to remember that less than 10% of the exam questions involve calculations. You need to score 74% to pass the exams.

That means you still have 26% left that you can skip answering. You can skip that less than 10% of mathematical questions!

On top of that, the exams are not subjective. They are objective, which means that you will have multiple choices for a single question. You can easily score 25% by merely guessing.

Here are some quick tips that will help you with the preparation:

Present yourself a challenge

If you think that you will lose the motivation for studying if the exam dates are far, it is wise that you choose a session that in only 2 to 4 weeks away. This will keep you motivated.

Now, make a study schedule – an aggressive one. Remember the following:

  • Usually, 10 hours of study is enough to pass the Technician exam.
  • You can pass the General exam with 20 hours of study.
  • You will need 30 hours of study to pass the Extra exam.

If you have a lousy memory, you will need slightly more time. So, plan your time accordingly.

Going by the numbers above, you will need approximately 60 minutes of study time per day! In the case of poor memory, you can increase the study time to 120 or 180 minutes a day.

Keep track of your study hours. For some reason, if you fail to study for a day, make up for the lost time in the days that follow.

Avoid the zero-progress zone

Depending on your memory, there is always a minimum threshold (about 10 minutes to 20 minutes of study a day) where the rate at you forget things is the same as the rate at which you relearn things!

Ensure that your study time is always above that minimum threshold. Usually, 60 minutes of study will keep you away from the zero-progress zone. But, if you need more, invest more time!

Always remember that there is no such thing as “overstudying” or “very long study hours.”

If studying for long hours allows you to stay away from the zero-progress zone(that is, the study time threshold where the rate of forgetting equals the rate of relearning), then study for long hours.

The study sessions that are very close to your exam session date are always the vital ones. It is not unusual to forget things that you studied weeks ago. On the contrary, it is easy to remember things that you recently studied. So, concentrate your study time close to the exam date.

Focus on the topic

Did you ever see a Wikipedia page where you landed to find the size of the teeth of a T. Rex? You will notice that the page tells you everything from history to naming to what not!

You don’t need all those things. You need the length of the teeth! So, you focus on that segment only.

The story is the same with ham radio license manuals. Don’t focus on unnecessary things. You will find a lot of things there that you will never need for the exams.

You should focus and stay on the topic.

Practice exams are not helpful

Just study, study, and study! Maintain the study mode instead of giving in to the urge to take a mock test! Unless you are the type of person who gets anxiety attacks during exams, there is no point in checking your exam readiness.

Instead, complete the course and repeat it as many times as possible. This will ensure that you have covered everything.

The more time you spend with mock tests, the more time you lose from your study hours. So, first, finish the study phase. Once you are done, you can take a mock test.

Invest time in non-mathematical questions

If mathematics is intimidating, skip them! They make up less than 10% of the questions. You will have plenty more to pass the exam with flying colors. Invest your time more in studying other things.

Invest more time in the last two days before the exam session

The last two days before your exam session are vital. All you have to do here is to study harder. Keep repeating what you have studied. Study for longer hours. Finish the whole study and repeat it again.

What you study in the last two days will stay fresh in your mind.

Don’t forget, the world is waiting for you

All through your study session, do not forget that the entire world is waiting for you. Once you have the license, the Extra class license, you can talk to anyone with a ham radio anywhere in this world.

You can make new friends, learn new things, but only if you have a license. This should be enough motivation to keep you going!

That’s all! Passing the exams is not difficult! What matters most is how you plan your study hours. Play smart and then, talk free!

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