Lesson 3

Operating Internationally

It’s fun to take your amateur radio mobile, and that includes operating on ships and planes. With some special rules of course. 

What do you need to do to operate a ham radio station aboard a ship or aircraft? Its operation must be approved by the master of the ship or the pilot in command of the aircraft.  In simple terms, the captain of the cruise ship must give their OK. 

For U.S.-registered vessels in international waters the licensing is easy. Any FCC-issued amateur license can be used on a US ship or plane. The US registration kind of makes it US territory, so the FCC rules apply. The control operator must be a US eligible ham as well. Physical control of a station on a vessel or craft documented or registered in the US must be by any person holding an FCC issued amateur license or who is authorized for alien reciprocal operation.

This is different for non-US registered vessels. Just like US rules apply on US registered ships, if you are on a ship registered in another country, that countries rules apply. Taking a cruise on a ship registered in Panama? You are under Panama’s ham radio rules until you get back to land.

So let’s get into reciprocal licensing for international operation.

Where and how you can operate once you leave the US depends on the country. The license methods you will encounter include:

  • Reciprocal licensing – which means if you can operate here, you can operate there. 
  • CEPT permit. This requires you to bring along a little more supporting documentation.  
  • IARP, which is a preregistered permit you obtain before you go.
  • Direct licensing with the country.
  • Or, no options at all.

Let’s start with Canada. The United States and Canada have a direct reciprocal agreement. Bring your FCC license and an ID with you. You then identify yourself with a call sign suffix and location: “This is AA1RC/VE1 in Glace Bay, Nova Scotia.”

This is reciprocal because Canadian hams can operate in the United States following similar rules. When in the U.S., a Canadian amateur has privileges that are equal to the operating terms and conditions of the Canadian amateur service license, not to exceed U.S. Amateur Extra Class license privileges.

The CEPT agreement also is a reciprocal license agreement. CEPT covers with more than 40 European countries. You can operate there and they can operate in the U.S. by following a few rules.  In addition to your license, you need to provide credentials in English, French and German. This means to be allowed to operate in a CEPT-supported country, you must have a copy of FCC Public Notice DA 16-1048. We have a link to that in the text version of the course. Also for CEPT, there is a minimum requirement of a General class license. 

The IARP is a permit that allows U.S. amateurs to operate in certain countries of the Americas.

This is a more formal document. Consider it a “license passport.” In 2024 there was a $15 charge for processing and mailing. It is issued by the ARRL in the U.S. It takes a few weeks to secure, so apply in advance if you want to avoid rush fees. This one covers 13 countries like Argentina, Brazil and Panama.  

The last scenario you may run into is direct licensing. Some countries will accept your qualifications if you provide them with a copy of your current license. They will issue you a unique country-specific call sign, like ZF2JS for the Cayman Islands. Or in China you can get a visitors permit, but have to use an existing station when operating there. 

Mexico is one of the places you just can’t operate as a foreign ham. There is no reciprocal agreement, so you can’t use your U.S. amateur license there. Also, Mexico does not allow foreign nationals to be licensed as radio operators in their country. 

When you travel, don’t forget every country has a unique band plan!  They are not all the same as the United States. So, spend some time looking up operating guides before you go. 

VE and RACES Groups

As an Amateur Extra you may work with several different amateur radio groups. Let’s explore them.

You should be familiar by now with a Volunteer Examiner Coordinator. A VEC, is an organization that has entered into an agreement with the FCC to coordinate, prepare and administer amateur operator license examinations.

All ham radio examinations are done by hams. Part 97 of the FCC rules gives the power to the VECs to maintain the pools of questions for all U.S. amateur license examinations. There are 600-plus questions on the Amateur Extra exam. They were put together by VEC teams to reflect the knowledge required by FCC rules. 

You need people on the ground to conduct the exams. The VECs are required to have a certification process to bring in new Volunteer Examiners, or VEs. To be accredited as a Volunteer Examiner, a VEC must confirm that the VE applicant meets FCC requirements to serve as an examiner.

VEs and VECs are limited under FCC Part 97 in the expenses they can charge for exams. They can only collect for preparing, processing, administering and coordinating an examination for an amateur radio operator license. Only those types of out-of-pocket expenses are allowed for reimbursement.

When you become a VE, you’ll have a set of rules to follow to conduct examinations as part of a team. Each administering VE is responsible to the others. This includes the proper conduct and necessary supervision during an examination session.

Some of the key rules and procedures to know:

  • A candidate must comply with the examiner’s instructions during an examination. If they don’t, a VE should immediately terminate the candidate’s examination. This falls under things like using a phone during an exam.
  • Don’t administer an exam to any relatives of the VE as listed in the FCC rules.
  • There is cross-confirmation once a candidate passes an exam or exams. Three VEs must certify that the examinee is qualified for the license grant and that they have complied with the administering VE requirements.
  • If the person taking the exam does not pass, the VE team must return the application document to the examinee.
  • When a successful exam session is completed, the paperwork must be done. The VE team must submit the application document to the coordinating VEC, according to the coordinating VEC instructions.

A VE who doesn’t comply with the rules can lose their ham license completely. Any VE who fraudulently administers or certifies an examination is subject to revocation of the VEs amateur station license grant and the suspension of the VEs amateur operator license grant. 

Don’t let that get you down though. Volunteering as a VE is very rewarding! It’s a great experience to see people’s faces when they pass. They are realizing the successful achievement of a goal they were pursuing.  You’ll experience that when you pass Extra. So consider helping as a VE, if you can.

The Radio Amateur Civil Emergency Service, or RACES. It’s a  cross-functional group of hams who are also trained in communications for help during civil emergencies. 

If you’re working with your local civil defense group, any FCC-licensed amateur station certified by the responsible civil defense organization for the area served may be operated under RACES rules.

You don’t get special band privileges with RACES. An amateur station is authorized to use all amateur service frequencies authorized to the control operator. This would mean that you are restricted to the frequencies your license allows. For instance, General class operators could not operate in Extra band segments simply because they are working with RACES.

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