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What is amateur radio?

Have you ever heard of amateur radio and wondered what it meant? Much to the surprise of some enthusiasts, amateur radio isn’t just another name for the local stations or smaller broadcasts in your town or city. 

Otherwise known as “ham” radio, US amateur radio bands offer a unique form of communication to people all across America. 

With an amateur radio license, you can get involved with a popular technical hobby – one that has millions of fans around the world.

Amateur radio also gives you the freedom to communicate with a wide range of people through voice or in Morse code

Depending on what you want to get out of your amateur radio experience, you can use the latest technology to contact people across the globe, compete in international competitions, and even experiment with the possibilities of radio waves.

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There are even people out there using amateur radio to connect with satellites and the International Space Station! 

So, what is amateur radio, and what is it for?

Let’s find out. 

What is amateur radio? An introduction

Amateur radio is a crucial part of radio history

At the turn of the 20th century, not long after the father of radio, Guglielmo Marconi, sent some of the first transatlantic signals through radio, demand for radio technology began to accelerate. 

Military groups and governments started to rely on radio for wirelessly broadcasting messages to the frontline.

After World War 1, amateurs in the radio landscape started to experiment with the unique technology that Marconi had discovered.

Amateur radio practices emerged as a way to find out what different high and low-frequency broadcasts were capable of in different environments. 

Over the years, the passion for exploring amateur radio bands started to grow. Groups have used this technology to provide emergency communications through natural disasters like floods and hurricanes. 

Others have unlocked the potential of amateur radio for creating crucial connections between isolated communities and the rest of the world. 

In the US, amateur radio operators are subject to various international and federal regulations. 

There are multiple types of amateur radio license available, and anyone experimenting with the technology must submit to a regular amateur radio license renewal. 

Though some people see radio waves as complicated pieces of technology, ham operators and professionals look at them from a different perspective. 

There are currently more than 750,000 licensed people on the US amateur radio bands today. According to some estimations, there are a total of more than 6 million amateur radio lovers world-wide too. 

What is amateur radio used for?

So, what is amateur radio for?

One of the most common places to see amateur radio equipment, is in the home of a survivalist or prepper. That’s because when all electrical and cellular networks fail, ham radio continues to work. 

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There are a lot of tools out there that even come with extra features, like solar panels for charging when an outlet isn’t available, or hand-cranks. 

However, people don’t just get an amateur radio license because they want to be prepared for anything. The popularity of this community comes from the versatility of ham radio

Some amateurs use their sets to speak to other radio lovers on other sides of the globe, all without having to use their phone or the internet. 

Many people agree that amateur radio communities are an excellent place to make likeminded friends from all over the globe. 

Countless professional groups are reliant on amateur radio frequencies too. The International Space Station uses amateur radio bands to keep astronauts connected wherever they are. 

Elsewhere, the government and military groups across the globe often take ham radio devices with them on missions, just in case they can’t get any other signals. 

As technology continues to evolve, the answer to “what is amateur radio for?” grows with it. For instance, computers and data communications are emerging as a popular part of amateur radio now. 

Many professionals enjoy linking their radio gear to their computers so that they can send other forms of media over the airwaves. 

You can use certain ham radio devices to transmit pictures and files, rather than just voice and sounds. 

On top of that, the flexibility of the amateur radio environment also means that there are various technology experts out there who enjoy designing and building their own sets. 

Professionals frequently take part in competitions and contests to see who can get the best amateur radio range with their equipment, or who can make the most connections with people overseas. 

There’s a lot more to amateur radio than emergency broadcasting from companies like the Red Cross and FEMA. There have been countless instances over the years where radio amateurs have even contributed to the transformation of scientific studies. 

Experts often agree that radio is one of the most innovative forms of technology we have. Learning how to use amateur radio frequencies properly helps to change the way we live and communicate. 

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US amateur radio bands and frequencies

Amateur radio operators work within the world of electromagnetic radiation and frequencies. The radio wave spectrum is an essential part of that electromagnetic environment, responsible for delivering information and communication in a multitude of ways. 

Scientists have split the world of radio wavelengths into several different bands, ranging from lower-frequency solutions, to ultra-high or extremely-high frequency bands. 

For instance, EHF, or extra-high frequencies are the wavelengths that satellites use to connect with the earth. 

So, what are the amateur radio frequencies that you need to be aware of? Are there any US amateur radio bands that everyone learns when they’re getting started with the technology? 

The first thing you should know is that amateur radio has frequency bands allocated throughout a wide range of the radio frequency, from medium, all the way to ultra-high frequency environments. 

That means that you can find amateur radio bands on the 1.8-2 megahertz frequencies, as well as 1300 megahertz and more. 

However, it’s also worth noting that the majority of amateur radio frequencies exist on the higher frequency areas of the short wave spectrum. These allocations are open to radio waves from around the country. 

Within the high-frequency amateur radio bands, there are a total of nine different frequencies that ham radio lovers can access around the globe. These bands usually remain the same regardless of which country you’re in, although there are some slight variations. 

The US amateur radio brands in the HF spectrum are:

  • 160 – 1.800-2.000
  • 80 – 3.500-4.000
  • 40 – 7.000-7.300
  • 30 – 10.100-10.150
  • 20 – 14.100-14.350
  • 17 – 18.068-18.168
  • 15 – 21.000-21.450
  • 12 – 24.890-24.990
  • 10 – 28.000-29.700

US amateur radio equipment and range

Now you know a little more about the kind of US amateur radio bands you might use. However, before you start investing in equipment for your new hobby, it’s worth taking a look at the reality of amateur radio ranges. 

The trouble with range in this environment, is that there’s no one answer to how far you can reach with your amateur radio equipment. 

There are tons of variables to consider, including the quality and size of the antenna you’re using, and how far that antenna is away from the ground. 

You might also need to consider if there are any structures in the way of your transmission, such as if you’re in an urban area. On top of all that, it’s easy for amateur radio frequencies to suffer if there’s bad weather to consider too. 

Unforeseen problems like solar flare can mess up your range instantly. 

In most cases, you can achieve up to 2 miles of range with a ham or amateur radio. However, there are many people out there experimenting with ham radio who have learned how to bounce signals in a way that allows them to spread their range much further.

In general, flat, and rural areas deliver much better scope with range than urban environments. The more structures you have in the way of your radio signals, the more issues you’re going to deal with. 

Another major factor to consider is your amateur radio equipment. 

For instance:

Scanning receivers give ham enthusiasts the technology to listen to channels on the US amateur wave bands. You can find a wide selection of different kinds of amateur radio equipment online.

Some options are hand-held, intended for use on the move. Other solutions are bulkier, desktop-style pieces of technology.

When you’re just getting started, it’s often best to start with something that’s reasonably basic. Too many features could leave you disoriented and confused. 

You need the right software on your PC to help you fiddle with amateur radio bands. It also helps to have an internet connection so that you can find forums online of people who can give you support and guidance.

Remember, the research you do on the web will come in handy when it comes to getting your amateur radio license. 

Your antenna is the main piece of equipment that will make or break your radio experience. Although most amateur radios come with an antenna built-in, it’s usually not good enough to deliver the most reliable experience.

Having a secondary antenna that you can use to expand your range will be essential as you develop your skills. 

How to get an amateur radio license

There are a lot of misconceptions in the world of amateur radio. One of the most common is that anyone can buy an amateur radio online and start playing with wavelengths. 

While it’s true that you can buy an amateur radio from almost anywhere these days, you can’t use it legally without a license. 

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Your amateur radio license dictates what you can do with your new radio. 

You can learn more about the licenses available by visiting the Amateur Radio Relay Legal website, which is a forum for amateur radio enthusiasts. 

Alternatively, you can visit the FCC website. The FCC is the group responsible for issuing certifications. 

Your amateur radio license proves that you know enough about the radio waves, electronics, and other specialist things involved in radio broadcasting to experiment in this area. Each country has different conditions to consider when you’re applying for your license. 

The good news that many countries are becoming more lenient with their requirements. 

In the US, you don’t need to pass a test on Morse code to get an Amateur radio license anymore. Plus, the price of applying for your certification is a lot cheaper than it used to be.

This opens the door for more people to make their way into the FCC community. 

There are different levels of amateur radio license available depending on what you want to do. 

Here are three of the most common licensing options:

Designed for people who are just making the first steps into the landscape, the technician license has 35 questions to answer. You need to demonstrate your knowledge of all the US amateur radio bands, and frequencies.

It’s also important to show that you understand the rules on what you can do with your new radio, and what you can’t do. Once you finish your test, you’ll be able to communicate over certain amateur radio frequencies, but not others.

The more advanced your license, the more frequencies you can use.

General licensees are the most popular in the amateur radio community. These certifications mean that you can communicate over more high frequency bands. However, you still won’t have access to certain sub-bands that are reserved for specialists.

General licenses are a little tougher to get than the Technician option. Although there are plenty of resources online that can help you get through the test. 

This is one of the more complex amateur radio frequencies available, and it takes a lot of studying to acquire. You’ll need to answer more than 700 questions to be approved.

If you’re just looking for a fun hobby to test out from time to time, you probably don’t need to take your journey into ham this far.

If you do pass the extra test, however, you will have more freedom to explore various frequencies that aren’t open to other members of the public. 

Interested in getting started with amateur radio?

Amateur radio probably won’t be the right technical hobby for everyone. You really need to have a passion for the history and future of radio to get started in this landscape.

People who just use their radios to listen to the latest hits or news need not apply. 

On the other hand, if you have a passion for experimenting with wavelengths and communication frequencies, and you like the idea of playing with advanced technology, this could be just the place for you. 

Amateur radio experimentation and operation is fun – that’s why millions of people do it on a regular basis. What’s more, amateur radios offer peace of mind when you can’t communicate with people any other way. 

In times of crisis, when you need to find out what’s happening in the world around you or reach out to a group that can help you out of a jam, amateur radio is crucial.

Many people throughout the US keep an amateur radio handy and get their beginner’s license just so that they feel properly prepared. 

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Amateur radio operators in the US are innovators and forward-thinking people. These groups have helped to support some of the world’s most important discoveries.

In fact, without amateur radio, we never would have discovered the communication features of shortwave radio

Competitions in amateur radio are still discovering new ways that we can use radio frequencies to change the way that we live.

Before the internet, ham radio operators were the first people who started to break down the walls between countries and show us just how small the world could be. 

The wonderful world of amateur radio

Amateur radio is more than just a crucial part of radio’s history. Radio hams still contribute to an incredible worldwide community, full of experimenters and innovators. 

One of the best reasons to get involved with amateur radio is that it’s a chance to connect with people you would never encounter in your day-to-day live. 

Here at Radio Fidelity, we believe that radio’s ability to bring people and communities together is one of its most amazing features.

If you’re thinking of getting involved with amateur radio, check out some of the reviews that we have on the leading equipment in the US today. 

If you’re interested in learning more about radio and amateur radio, but you don’t want to get involved yourself, we’ve got you covered.

Check out some of the other articles here at radio fidelity for a behind-the-scenes scoop on what’s possible with all different kinds of radio

Radio Fidelity: For the love of radio.

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