Your guide to getting a ham radio license in the USA

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Ham radio is an interesting part of the radio landscape. Learning how to use ham radio means that you will be able to communicate with other radio hams. Instead of just listening you will be able to transmit as well, so let’s find out how to get a ham radio license!

Throughout the United States, many radio enthusiasts take part in the fascinating and educational ham radio hobby. 

These licenced radio amateurs, as they’re officially called, use many radio frequencies to find new friends and communicate with other hams around the world. 

If you want to become one of the many masters of shortwave radio that exist in the ham community today, the first step is getting your ham radio license. 

To ensure that the radio bands aren’t jammed up with people using ham radio incorrectly, the US government requires people to have a ham radio license in order to transmit. Fortunately, getting one of these licenses is easy enough. 

Let’s take a closer look.

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What is a ham radio license?

A ham radio license is proof that you have the knowledge to experiment with shortwave and VHF (Very High Frequency) and above radio equipment alongside your peers. Once you get your license, you will also receive a unique callsign that’s all yours. 

You can use that callsign to communicate with people all over the globe. Your callsign also comes in handy when you need to renew your ham radio license. 

Ham radio is a very diverse hobby, licensed ham operators can become involved in the many uses of radio technology from emergency communication to natural disaster aid, it makes sense that there are different kinds of license available. 

A ham radio license grants a lot of power and functionality to hams who know how to use it correctly. There are radio amateurs out there that know how to bounce signals off the moon and back down to earth. 

Some professionals even sign up for competitions where they can show their skills

The organization responsible for distributing ham radio licenses in the USA is the ARRL. The American Radio Relay League uses volunteer examiners to test the skills and knowledge of everyone who wants to transmit on the allocated shortwave, VHF and UHF (Ultra High Frequency) bands.

What are the different ham radio licenses?

Whether you’re a complete beginner in ham radio or you’ve got a deep-seated interested in amateur radio, you need a license. Using a ham radio without it will get you into a lot of trouble. 

The good news is that you can choose the license that’s right for you, based on your skills and your goals. If you’re new to ham radio, you’ll need to pass the Technician Class licensing test first. This is the most basic exam for American radio amateurs. 

The more you develop your skills and knowledge, the more confident you’ll feel upgrading to a higher level such as the General Class license, or the Extra Class license. 

Here’s a closer look at what the different kinds of amateur license allow you to do:

Technician license

The technician license is the first option that allham radio operators need to earn. Once you successfully get this license, you’ll be able to transmit and listen to signals on all UHF and VHF radio bands. 

The Ultra High and Very High Frequency bands let you connect with radio-to-radio systems a few miles away. You can also use internet linked radio repeater systems to connect with people around the world with just a handheld radio.

General license

The general license is the next upgrade from the basic ham radio certificate. Acquiring this accolade means that you can transmit on multiple shortwave (High Frequency) radio bands, as well as UHF and VHF. 

Experts can bounce their signals over the horizon using charged particles in the atmosphere. This allows for long-distance communication.

Extra license

This is the most advanced license that you can get for ham radio in the USA. With a full “extra” license, you’ll have further transmitting privileges on all the HF radio bands. There are a handful of unique bands that only the people with the highest licensing certificate can use. 

How hard is it to get a ham radio license?

Getting your ham radio license isn’t as complicated as you might think. There are plenty of groups and forums on the internet where you can start searching for information. 

These communities are great for beginners, as they often provide videos, guides and example examination papers to teach you about ham radio and how it works in preparation for the examination. 

Even the regulatory body responsible for the ham radio license can help you out. The ARRL and other organizations frequently publish guides and studying manuals. While some of these guides are expensive, others are available for free. 

Back in the earlier days of ham radio, people took their licensing exams in the closest available ARRL office to their city or town. Now, although the ARRL is still responsible for granting your license, the examinations are available from volunteers and radio clubs. 

These volunteers often have their own Extra Class license, so they have a wealth of knowledge and experience in the hobby. 

Most of the time, you’ll be able to find a licensing exam center available within driving distance. Many volunteers host these exams at schools, clubs, or even in their own office or home. 

You only need a few things to take your exam, besides that all important training. Must-have requirements include a US mailing address, and a taxpayer identification number. 

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How do you renew a ham radio license?

Like amateur radio licenses in the UK, ham radio licenses in the US don’t last forever. You’ll need to renew your certification every so often. Fortunately, ham radio licenses in the US only need renewing every 10 years. 

Licensing terms and renewal rules are different in other countries. 

When you first get your ham radio license, you won’t have to worry about renewal for quite some time. The FCC will also send you a message when your ham radio license renewal is due.

Fortunately for the forgetful amongst us you get a grace period to renew after your license expires. Even if you forget to renew straight away, you’ll have two years that you can use to file for reinstatement. 

Both renewal and reinstatement within the grace period is a pretty straightforward process. There’s no need to take a secondary test.

Additionally, there’s no cost for your renewal either. You don’t even need to prove that you’ve been active using your shortwave radio to renew. This was a necessity back in the older days of ham radio. 

Applying for renewal is as simple as visiting the FCC ULS website here. If you feel nervous about your renewal for any reason and you need some help, you can also find specialists there that will handle the process for you. There will also be friendly help available at your local radio club.

These renewal services do come with a fee, unfortunately. 

When you renew your ham radio license through the FCC, you should get your updated ham radio license quite quickly. Your status with the new expiration date will show up on the ULS database. If this license expires, don’t transmit until you see a new expiration date. 

Try not to wait too long to start your renewal. If your 2 year grace period runs out, the FCC will cancel your license. If you lose your call sign this way, you need to pass your exam again to get re-licensed.

Where can you get your ham radio license?

Applying for your first ham radio license in the US is a pretty simple process. 

Once you’ve sent your application forms in online, you’ll wait for a letter to come in the post. This letter will tell you that you can take your test with an FCC accredited volunteer. You will be able to find local volunteers in your area by checking the ARRL website. 

For most people, the easiest option for taking an exam will be to use a local ham radio club. See if there are any available clubs for your exam with the ARRL exam search page. They may even have courses available too.

These exam sessions are held by friendly people experienced in ham radio – they’ll do everything they can to make you feel comfortable. 

If an in-person examination hall or location isn’t available near you, you’re not out of luck. The ham radio license board has updated to join the digital era. You can now take your exam online with a VEC that offers this service. 

These remote exams follow a similar process to standard exams. The only difference is that you answer the questions online with a timer. 

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Once you’ve passed your ham radio licensing exam, there are only a couple of things left to do. You need to make a note to renew your license in ten years – or keep an eye out for an email. 

Additionally, we strongly recommend joining that ham radio club or society, they will be delighted to open your eyes to the many aspects of the hobby.

Popular communities like the ARES amateur radio club make it easier for you to find new radio technologies to explore. Joining a group also means that you’ll have a chance to connect with people all around the world that share the same interests as you. 

If you’re feeling altruistic, you can even join an amateur radio group that helps people in times of crisis. These groups focus on getting vital messages to people during natural disasters.

Take your ham radio knowledge to the next level

Getting a ham radio license and experimenting with amateur radio won’t be everyone’s idea of a great time. Some people prefer to use their home radio for listening to talk radio, music, and nothing else. 

However, if you’re one of the many people who find shortwave radio and radio technology interesting, you might find a new passion with ham radio. 

Amateur radios give people a unique insight into the world around them, and a different way to connect with other human beings worldwide. 

If you’re a huge fan of the radio world, it feels great to earn your own callsign, it is a considerable achievement. There are plenty of ham radio enthusiasts out there who frame their license certificate. 

To learn more about ham radio and amateur radio, check out our other articles here on Radio Fidelity. Or browse through our blogs for an insight into some of the most exciting parts of radio history. 

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