Why Do I Need A Ham Radio License, Anyway?

Marc Stern
January 14, 2019

Do you remember last year’s significant fires in California? Day after day and home after home, the blazes wreaked havoc on the lives and plans of hundreds of thousands. Did you feel helpless as you watched the images roll across your TV screen? Did you wonder if there was something you can do? Believe it or not, there is something you can do that doesn’t require a large investment of time and which can put you in the front lines where your expertise is valued.

Canyon Fire 2 Wildfire in the Anaheim Hills area of Orange County, CA. Oct 2017

When disasters like this one occur, cell phone / internet often becomes slow or goes out completely because it is dependent on the infrastructure that is owned by large companies and the government. All it takes is a ham radio license, and you are on your way to helping out. That’s right, an Amateur Radio license is all that you need – and some radio equipment, of course – to leave an indelible mark on your community or communities around yours or communities hundreds, even thousands of miles away. That mark can begin and start to grow as soon as you pass your license test.

Your Ham Radio Adventure Starts Here

As you might expect, nothing is free. We estimate that your license will cost you $40 (How Much Does a Ham Radio License Cost?). If you pass the test, you’ll find a whole new world of vistas opening for you. Indeed, let’s pique your interest before we move on to the how, when, and why.

Imagine a hurricane coming up the coast toward your area. Public safety interests are warning you to evacuate the area due to the storm’s dangerous surge, high wind, and rain. The weather forecasters promise lots of rain, on the order of 10 inches or more. In the face of this, there is little more for you to do but try to get out of the area. Failing that, you hunker down at a local shelter and wait.

Meantime, as the storm approaches your area, you begin to wonder what you, as an individual, can do to help out. If you were a part of volunteer police or fire unit and had a ham radio license, they would probably put you to work! However, since you are not licensed now, there isn’t anything you can do.

However, you wonder, how can you obtain ham radio license (also called amateur radio license)? If you want the quick answer, check out this article: Get Your Ham Radio License in 3 Simple Steps. What do you have to do to get your ticket (ham slang for license)? Can you gain your privileges online? If there is a test involved, where do you get the study materials? Why do I need study materials; isn’t it true that I can get a radio, plug it in and talk?

We'll answer all of the questions and more. Let's start by clearing up a few myths about ham radio.

The Biggest Myths About Ham Radio

Myth #1: If there's an emergency, I don't need a license anyway

This is the worst myth of all, but it is one we see on Facebook and online forums over and over. This is a hard myth to tackle, because it is actually true that if shit hits the fan and it is life or death, you of course will pick up a radio and try to communicate. The problem is that ham radio is not as easy as just dialing someone up on the phone. You need to know what frequency to use and how to program your radio to that frequency. You also need to have knowledge of other nearby stations or repeaters and if your transmitting signal is strong enough. The only possible way to use ham radio is practice, and you can't practice until you have a license. So really this is just an excuse from people that are too lazy to study or take an online class. In an emergency situation, you won't have time to take a class or watch videos, and you won't be able to just "figure it out." This is a fantasy. You need to get licensed and get practice.
Myth #2: Ham Radio Is Out Of Date And Is No Longer Important

There is a feeling out there among first responders and even many in your community that Ham Radio is no longer relevant or important. Those who believe in this particular myth also think that Hams are people who spend their time talking endlessly with friends discussing things “the good old days. Indeed, they consider Hams irrelevant.

Is this true? No, it is not. In the United States, there is not only a Memorandum of Understanding between the American Radio Relay League, perhaps the major umbrella organization for radio amateurs, and several emergency response groups. The groups include the American Red Cross, the Salvation Army, and Volunteers In Service, another umbrella NGO (Non-Governmental Organization) that assists in disaster. As you can see, then, Ham Radio is not only crucial to NGOs and local government (many local police and fire departments regularly use Amateurs and may even have their Memorandums of Understanding to provide services and to set roles for Hams.
Myth #3: Amateur Radio Operators Are Just A Bunch of Old Fossils who waste radio by just talking about the heyday of Morse Code

There is only one word to answer this assertion – wrong. For starters, many young people are joining the ranks of Ham Radio operators right now. For example, there are youth nets actively using local radio resources across the country. They help folks with not only the technical aspects of things but also with some of the social issues as well.

Meantime, the are ranks of adult Amateur Radio operators are still growing, though the pace has slowed since the last major national crisis in 2001. Meantime, the more local nature of natural disasters such as the California forest fires and Hurricanes Katrina (2005), Harvey, Irma, Michael, Jose, and Maria, raised local awareness of the value of Amateur Radio thus opening a new set of doors to Ham Radio.
Myth #4: Today’s computer technology has made Amateur Radio redundant

As has always been the case, Amateur Radio is still at the forefront of technology development. For example, from the earliest explorations into FM radio in the 1920s and 30s with Maj. Armstrong and radio, itself, with Gen. Sarnoff in the period from 1915-25. Then there was the development of television in the 1920s. Indeed, the earliest images sent from a camera to a receiver occurred from 1918 to 1921. The first important national political convention was broadcast television as early as 1922 with full coverage of 1928. You probably thought that the development of video was a lot later than that, but, no, it was a century ago now. The development of tube technology was responsible for the first diode and triode tubes.

Take any significant electronic development of the last century, and you will find it likely had its start in Amateur Radio. For example, police and fire departments today are linked to digitally controlled networks that allow cruisers or engine companies to talk with dispatch while using only small amounts of radio spectrum for each conversation. The conversations, by the way, are usually completed on small walkie-talkies that send each communication to a repeater box and then onto the station or out to another unit miles away. The amateur world was part of the development of the repeater radio systems that today are regularly communicating as part of public safety radio. Indeed, amateurs are using the same technology and further developing it so, for instance, more transceivers are in the same slice of spectrum. Then there are fully digital radio modes like JT8, FT8, and JS8, among other automated modes that allow systems on the shortwave bands to communicate with a minimum of power and a maximum of reliability.

Whether it is FM radio, VHF frequencies and communications (at one time, folks thought that it was not possible to communicate above 100 MHz, they were wrong, and today we have satellite radio systems). Over-the-horizon radar, which uses a phenomenon found by Amateurs that bends a signal to follow the earth – against commonly held belief – so that major radar systems can latch onto and carry messages. These systems are essential for the nation’s defense.

Real Ham Radio Stories In Recent Hurricanes

After Hurricane Irma churned its way through the Caribbean, dealing destruction as it moved along, a weak Amateur Radio station signal was monitored from a damaged island asking for assistance in contacting a person on the mainland. The operator of the station needed help. And, so other stations assisted him in getting in touch with the person he was seeking and putting together the transportation to get the operator off the island and into a mainland hospital.

In the wake of Hurricane Maria which devastated not only Puerto Rico but several other small Caribbean islands, the interest in How to get an Amateur Radio license was intense on one island. Before the hurricane, there was one active Ham operator. However, after the storm, the number of operators doubled to two. Meantime, others had expressed interest in getting their licenses as well, so, the two Hams contacted the American Radio Relay League. Quickly the arrangements were set for an exam session and VE team. At the end of the testing, the number of hams on the island jumped to 25 and others were interested.

A Little Ham Radio License History

It used to be way harder to get a ham radio license.

Until the 1980s, a person who was seeking a Ham Radio license was required to travel to the nearest Federal Communications Commission (FCC) field office to take a test. The program was quite similar to private pilot licensing testing.

At the FCC tests, usually held in a classroom with poor acoustics and interruptions as FCC personnel came into talk with the examiner, as many as 50 people struggled to hear Morse Code tests as 20 words per minute (one of the test portions at that time) tests. Coming from low-end tape players with the tinniest playback speakers imaginable you were expected to either copy the message that was being played or answer seven of 10 questions correctly. The questions were just one way to pass. The other way was, as noted, taking down the words of the message properly with fewer than five mistakes copying the text.

Then came the written test, which is much the same as today, which was a combination of fill-in-the-blanks, true-false, multiple choice, and yes-no. If you passed the test – you could only drop five of 25 to 40 questions, depending on the license class – then it was entered directly into the FCC system for grading and license class awards. It usually took five to six weeks to get the results by mail. Yes, it was a slow system, but it was the only one available.

If you lived in a major city, you were in much better luck than if you lived in the country. Usually, there was an FCC field office in a major city like New York or Boston or Chicago. In turn, they usually held a particular set of license exams every month. One month it might have been for the Technician Class and Generals. The next month it might have been for the Advanced Class and Extras. The reason that they were limited is that there were logistics involved in doing the FCC tests.

If you lived in the country, things were much more complicated as you had to find a local office where the tests were scheduled, and then you had to make an effort to get to the test. If you missed it, you had to wait for the FCC to reschedule the exam. It did complicate things. But there is good news coming for those who want to get their license.

The ARRL and Others Start Making Changes

As you can see, the system didn’t make it easy to obtain your Ham Radio License, but there were possibilities (the author of this story was a product of the FCC era in Ham Radio licensing. The biggest challenge he had was moving up to Amateur Extra from Advanced Class. It took him 10 full tries on 10 different dates to pass the Morse Code test. Indeed, the day he did pass the Morse Code test he breezed through the multiple guess test with none wrong. He changed his call from N1BLH to WA1R after this test).

In the early 1980s, the National Association for Amateur Radio (or ARRL as they are called, ARRL Website) was interested in helping get more citizens licensed. They approached the FCC and asked if they could update and speed up the system of Amateur testing. The FCC happily accepted because they didn't want this particular responsibility anyway, so the agency leaped at the chance to divest the test program from their regular administrative chores. If you want to learn more about the FCC (the guys who regulate ham radio), you can check out the FCC website.

In 1983, the ARRL sent out a notice inviting various major Amateur groups to become test program administrators with their programs. One of the keys that the ARRL gained from broadening the program was the pool of test questions became much more diverse as each group submitted its issues. This was the key to the entire program. Because each Administrator trained and used similar systems, the questions were of vital importance.

This is why every year or two the Test Administrators get together and develop new questions for each test. At first, they were rather long and involved meetings because there were five categories of Ham Radio licenses.

That was quite a load to undertake. But, the Test Administrators did it (and continue to do so today).

The License System Improved

In 1984, the new testing system was tested and then opened to Ham participants as “Volunteer Examiner (VE).” At that time, the term for VEs was two years, which was administratively nightmarish for each primary Administrator, but, they coped. The first system was to last for 12 years, when the FCC agreed to change that allowed VEs to hold their positions for the terms of their license, allowing the renewal as a VE automatically on license renewal, as well.

To conduct a test, you need a three-person team with one of them an Amateur Extra (though most teams do consist of at least one, most have two or three). The rest of the team could be General or Advanced Class. At first, Generals could only administer Novice and Technician testing, while Advanced and Extra could conduct all testing.

Like the FCC system, prospective Hams had to take a Morse Code portion and then a written or test portion. There were three categories of Morse Code test, Novice, General, and Extra at five, 13, and 20 words per minute. There were five classes of “written” test as the Morse Code test covered Novice and Technician (five), General and Advanced (13), and the Extra (20).

At the end of the test, each candidate receives a certificate of successful completion for each exam element that they have passed. For example, if the candidate achieved success on an exam element, he was given credit for that particular part of the test. You would have received a CSCE marking the success. Indeed, it was one less item for a candidate as the person received credit and a CSCE for passing.

In early 1991, the FCC dropped Morse Code requirement for Technician Class Licensees. And, by 2008, the Morse requirement had quietly disappeared for all radio classes. Also, the number of license classes had already changed from six to three.

Today’s Amateur Radio: It’s Not Your Granddad’s, Believe it

Today, ham radio licenses are more streamlined than ever. For starters, there are only three Ham Radio classes, much like the rest of the world.

The 3 Ham Radio License Classes

  • Level 1: Technician Class License
  • Level 2: General Class License
  • Level 3: Extra Class License

It is also what is known as a progressive system where you gain more privilege as you upgrade, though each class is pretty generous. Indeed, except Space operation – yes, there is such a category, though it is somewhat esoteric – the General Class gives you everything you need.

To obtain a license, you have to pass an FCC exam, administered by three Volunteer Examiners (VEs), who are Amateur Operators. Since there is no further requirement for Morse Code, the number of elements that you have to pass is three. You can obtain Ham Radio license materials online.

You get full recognition for each license module that you pass. For example, if you are trying to get your Extra in one sitting but only get to General, you still walk out of the session as a General. It’s true that you have to wait until you have your callsign before you can transmit, but, it doesn’t take nearly as long today as it did just a few years ago. For the most part, you will find out your new license category a couple of days after the test. The FCC is caught up in providing this information. Indeed, it takes about eight days to receive your callsign. Then you can begin your Amateur Radio career.

If this caught your attention and you want to study to get licensed, you can start studying right here on on Ham Radio Prep.

Enjoy the new adventure and challenge of ham radio.