Your guide to getting a ham radio license in the USA

Ham radio is an interesting part of the radio landscape.

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Learning how to use ham means that you can tap into radio broadcasts that other people never get to hear. Some governments and other leading groups still use amateur radio for broadcasts today. 

Throughout the United States, tons of radio enthusiasts still love the idea of ham radio. 

These radio amateurs, as they’re often called, use the shortwave frequencies to find new broadcasts and communicate with people 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 airwaves aren’t clogged with people using shortwave technology incorrectly, the US government requires people to have a ham radio license to broadcast.

Fortunately, getting one of these certificates is easy enough. In this concise guide we’ll explain precisely how to get a ham radio license in the US.

Let’s begin…

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What is a ham radio license?

A ham radio license is how you prove that you deserve to experiment with shortwave radio alongside your peers. Once you get your license, you will also receive a call sign, that’s all yours. 

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

Since ham radio is a diverse technology, useful for everything from emergencies, to natural disaster aid, it makes sense that there are different kinds of license available. 

Ham radio grants a lot of power and usability to the people 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 AARL. The American Radio Relay League uses volunteer examiners to check the skills and knowledge of everyone who wants to broadcast via shortwave. 

What are the different ham radio licenses?

Whether you’re a beginner in ham radio or you’ve got a deep-seated interested in amateur broadcasting, you need a license. Using a ham radio without certification could 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 licensing test first. This is the most basic exam for radio amateurs. 

The more you develop your skills and knowledge, the more confident you’ll feel applying for things like the general license, or the extra 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 all ham radio operators need to earn. Once you successfully get this license, you’ll be able to broadcast and listen to signals on all UHF and VHF radio bands.

The Ultra High and Very High frequency waves let you connect with radio-to-radio systems a few miles away. You can also use radio repeater systems to connect with people around the world. 

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 high-frequency bands, as well as UHF and VHF.

Experts can bend these frequencies across 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. With a full “extra” license, you’ll have further transmitting privileges on several 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 come with videos, guides, and other resources to teach you about ham radio and how it works. 

Even the regulatory body responsible for the ham radio license can help you out. 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 AARL is still responsible for granting your license, the examinations are available from volunteers. 

These volunteers often have their own “extra” license, so they know how everything works. 

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 knowledge of radio). 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. A lot of organizations will also send you a message when your renewal is due. You can look for messages in your email inbox or your postbox. 

Another good thing about ham radio licenses in that 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 (unless the guidelines of the exam have changed). 

Additionally, there’s no cost for your renewal either. You don’t even need to prove that you’ve been active on shortwave 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 that will handle the process for you. 

These renewal services do come with a fee, unfortunately. 

When you renew your ham radio license through the FCC, you should get your updated certificate 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 a 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 should be able to find local volunteers in your area by checking online. 

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

Most of these exam sessions are held by friendly people also interested 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’ time – or keep an eye out for an email. 

On top of that, it’s worth looking for a group or community that you can get involved with. 

Popular communities like the ARES amateur radio club make it easier for you to find new broadcasts 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 club that helps people in times of crisis. These groups focus on getting valuable 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 radio for listening 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. 

If you’re a huge fan of the radio world, it feels great to have your own call signal. You could even look into broadcasting some of your own messages and news around the world.

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. 

Radio Fidelity: For the love of radio.