Ham Radio Licenses: Which is right for you?

By Ham Radio Prep

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By Ham Radio Prep

In the U.S., amateur radio licenses are issued by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC). There are three license classes: Technician Class, General Class, and Amateur Extra Class. To obtain an amateur radio license, you must pass exams administered by Volunteer Examiners, who are licensed radio amateurs authorized by the FCC to give the exams. Which license class is right for you? Well, it depends on what you want to do with amateur radio and how much you want to learn about the technology.

In this guide:

Technician License

The Technician Class license is the license that most newcomers to the hobby obtain first. This license is the easiest to obtain, but it has the fewest privileges. Because it was originally meant to encourage experimentation, Technician Class licensees have full privileges in the amateur radio bands above 50 MHz. You can operate any mode at power levels up to 1,500 W! Below 30 MHz, privileges are more limited. Technicians can operate CW on 80 meters, 40 meters, and 15 meters and CW and SSB on 10 meters, with a maximum power output of 200 W.

The Technician License Test

To get a Technician Class license, you must pass an exam with 35 multiple-choice questions. On this exam, you will be asked questions about basic electricity and electronics, radio-wave characteristics, radio operation, operating procedures, and the rules and regulations that govern amateur radio. While the exam is not easy — especially for those without any technical background — it’s not rocket science, either.

The questions on the test are written so as to ensure that you’ve been exposed to some of the basic concepts of amateur radio. To answer the questions on basic electricity and electronics, for example, you’ll need to know Ohm’s Law, how to calculate power, and something about schematic diagrams and the component symbols that you find on them. Knowing these things will help you choose the right equipment, deal with problems that arise, and, in general, be a more successful amateur radio operator.

Technician License Privileges

Even with less than full privileges, Technicians can do a lot of cool things, including:

General License

The General Class license is for those who want to do more in amateur radio. General Class licensees can do all of the things that Technicians can, but they are given more HF privileges, most notably, can operate digital modes and SSB phone on the HF bands below 28 MHz. Generals can also operate at full output power of 1500 W, on most of the HF bands.

The General License Test

The General Class exam is also a 35 question test, but answering the questions correctly requires more in-depth knowledge. For example, some questions ask you to calculate the power in an AC circuit. To answer the questions correctly, you must understand the concept of RMS voltage and how to calculate the RMS value of an AC waveform. Other examples include questions on digital logic and components, such toroidal inductors.

General License Privileges

In addition to doing all of the cool things that Technicians can do, Generals get to:

Amateur Extra License

The Amateur Extra Class exam is for those who want to do it all in amateur radio. Amateur Extra Class privileges include all of the privileges given to Technician Class and General Class licensees, plus the use of all frequencies and modes on the HF bands. But, you get more than just privileges. The knowledge gained by studying for the Amateur Extra Class test gives you the background you need to experiment with antennas and electronics with more confidence.

Amateur Extra License Test

The Amateur Extra Class exam is a 50-question test and to pass the test, you’ll need some in-depth knowledge of electronics and radio phenomena. For example, some questions ask you about the differences between different types of logic devices. Other questions ask you to analyze and answer questions about antenna radiation patterns and the Smith Chart. This is not a test that you can pass by just memorizing the answers.

Amateur Extra License Privileges

In addition to doing all of the cool things that Technicians and Generals can do, Extras can:

Which license is right for you?

A Technician Class license will meet the needs of many amateur radio operators. As they gain experience in the hobby, many will choose to pursue a General Class or Amateur Extra Class license and get the privileges associated with those licenses. It all depends on what you want to do in amateur radio. Whatever class you choose, the most important thing is to have fun.

ClassExam QuestionsPrivilegesVE privilegesTypical activities
Technician35All privileges above 50 MHz. CW, SSB on 10 m, CW on 80 m, 40 m, and 15 m.Cannot administer amateur radio exams.- VHF/UHF repeaters
- Emergency communications
- Weak-signal VHF/UHF communications
- Satellite communications
- Drones
General35world-wide communicationsAll Technician Class privileges, plus CW, phone and digital on selected portions of all the amateur radio bands.Can only administer Technician Class exams.- DXing
- Contesting
- HF digital modes
- Award chasing
50All amateur privileges.Can administer Technician, General, and Extra Class exams.- DXing
- Contesting
- Experimenting
- Volunteer exam administration

Grandfathered Licenses

The Novice and Extra Licenses

If you search the FCC license database, or consult a frequency allocation chart, you’ll find that there are still licensees with Novice and Advanced Class licenses. The FCC allowed these operators to keep their license after they quit issuing new ones. As long as they keep renewing the licenses, these hams will have the privileges they were given when they obtained those licenses.