Getting your Amateur Radio license

Want to get into Ham Radio? You need a license. No, wait! Don’t run away just yet, it’s not as bad as it sounds.

Getting your ham radio license is not any harder than getting your driver’s license, really. We’re just dealing with radio operations and regulations, electrical and RF safety, some basic components, and equipment know-how, rather than speed limits, stopping distance, following the lines, and knowing how to read signs. And you’re getting your exam graded by other licensed volunteers rather than those cheery folks at the DMV. So, how do you get started?

I should preface this by saying the following instructions are for US citizens living in the US. While I realize that Ham Radio is an international hobby, I only know how my little corner of the world works. At least in this case.

First, you need to find some study materials for your exam, and that first exam is the Technician’s class license exam. You’re exam is going to be 35 multiple choice questions sort-of-randomly picked from a pool of about 350 or so. Here are a few places to get that knowledge:

  • The ARRL Technician Class Training Course (video) – This video is about 6 hours long, so don’t try to take it all in one sitting. There’s a little bit of video corruption around the 10 minute mark, but it works itself out. The video is a few years old, but is still spot-on and very in-depth. I recommend you start here.
  • (interactive) – If you’re an interactive-flashcard-type learner, this site will work out well for you. Flashcards will have you choose your answer, will keep track of your progress, and will offer explanations on the questions and answers. There are even practice tests. This site includes study material for the General and Extra class licenses, as well as some commercial licenses.
  • KB6NU’s study guides (PDF) – KB6NU has put together a PDF with the questions and answers explained in paragraph form. If you’re a reader, this one is for you. KB6NU also has study guides for the General and Extra class licenses.
  • Classroom-based learningIf you prefer the classroom, and don’t mind paying for a class, this is an option. Most people find self-study to be sufficient, and they like the fact that it’s much cheaper and more flexible than classroom-based study.
  • A local radio club – While this isn’t a direct learning resource, a local radio club of already-licensed hams can be great for answering questions. “Elmers,” or Ham mentors, are often ready and willing to help newcomers.

Between these resources, you can absolutely pass your license exams. If something doesn’t make sense, or you’re having a hard time with something, shoot me an email. I may be able to help. Don’t worry too much if some concepts seem daunting or unfamiliar at first. Some people prefer the hands-on approach that usually comes only through use.

If the sound of General and Extra make you think “Oh man, there’s more than 1 exam? I don’t want to do this anymore,” relax. The Technician class license will get you on the air and access to plenty of operating privileges, and you can take the upgrades any time you feel like (or never, if you fancy.) I’ve known Ham operators that have been licensed for decades and haven’t yet taken either of the upgrade exams. They’re completely optional.

If, on the other hand, you’re an over-achiever and think “I see something about an Extra class license, I’ll just skip this other nonsense and go straight for the gold!”, slow down. The Technician-class license is required of all new Ham radio operators. You must pass it before you can take the upgrade to General, and you must pass the General before you can take the upgrade to Extra. You could take all 3 tests on one sitting if you want, but if you don’t pass the Technician exam, you won’t get a license.

So now you’ve soaked up all that knowledge and are ready to take your exam? Well done!

Before you do that, take a quick break for a pit stop at the FCC CORES website and register for an FRN. You will use your FRN in place of your Social Security number on your exam paperwork, and this will give you the chance to set your security questions and answers as well. Plus side: You’re not writing your SSN on any paperwork, and the only people who have it are the people who need it. Smart idea all around.

Got that done? Great!

Now, there are several Volunteer Examiner Coordinators (VECs) that administer the exams throughout the United States. Here are the main two. Check each website to find an exam session in your area:

So now you’ve found an exam session that fits your schedule. What to do next?

  • Email the exam contact to open a dialog. Introduce yourself. Confirm the date and time of the class. The last thing you want is to show up for a class that isn’t taking place. (This happened to me).
  • Also confirm the exam fee and payment method. (Most sessions take cash or personal check, but not credit cards.)
  • If you have a disability and require assistance, state that in the email, and ask about the accommodations that you need. You don’t want to show up and find that they can’t accommodate you, or that there are accessibility issues.
  • Ask for a phone number where you can reach the contact if you have trouble finding the test location.

While there are some variations between exam sessions, here’s what you should be prepared to bring:

  • Current government-issued photo ID such as your license, state ID, or passport (or two forms of positive non-photo identification, such as a birth certificate, utility bill, library card, etc. Check with your exam contact ahead of time to make sure you have acceptable documents)
  • Minors should have a library card, school ID, report card, proof-of-address, or something else with their name on it. (Life tip: You can get a state ID for your child at your local DMV for a few bucks. It is a valid photo ID, keeps your kids information on file in case of emergency, and is very inexpensive.)
  • Your social security number or FRN
  • Payment for the exam fee (Exact amount is appreciated. The examiners may not be able to make change)
  • Two sharpened #2 pencils with erasers
  • A calculator (You must clear the memory, and you cannot use your cell phone. Seriously. Don’t try it to find out.)
  • Blank paper if you want something to scribble on. (You can make notes and use scratch paper to do math, but you can’t show up to the session with any notes.)
  • If you are upgrading, bring your current license (PLUS a photocopy), AND any CSCEs from recent exams (PLUS photocopies), as applicable. If you’re going for your first-time license, this doesn’t apply to you. (The examiners have to see the originals and keep copies, and there aren’t usually copiers around for the examiners to use)
  • If you are bringing a child, please bring something to keep them quietly occupied if they finish while others are still testing.
  • Show up on time. These guys aren’t getting paid to sit around and wait for you to show up. They’re volunteers, remember?

Your exam will be graded while you’re still there, and you will know right away if you’ve passed, or if you need to study some more.

The most frequently asked question(s) following an exam session, ever:

  • Q) I am a new ham and just passed my Technician exam. How long does it take my license to appear in the FCC ULS database after passing an exam session? When can I start operating? When will I receive my paper license in the mail? I just upgraded, when do my new privileges take effect?
  • A1) If you are a new licensee, you cannot operate until your callsign appears in the FCC ULS database. Although it may be faster in some cases, the average seems to be about 10 business days (not including weekends or holidays). If your license hasn’t appeared in the ULS database at the end of 10 business days, contact the VEC that administered your exam session (typically W5YI or ARRL). The CSCE you received on passing your exam is valid for one year, so you have ample time to resolve any license issues without having to re-test, but be sure to do so before it expires. Try to be patient. You can start operating on the air as soon as your callsign appears in ULS. If you would like a paper copy of your license, you may download and print an official copy of your license from the FCC ULS system. Under most circumstances you do not need to physically hold your license or have it displayed while operating. For more information on obtaining a paper license, please visit 
  • A2) If you are upgrading an existing license by passing a new exam element, your CSCE gives you immediate upgraded operating privileges, provided that you use the the appropriate suffix at the end of your callsign when identifying. Use suffix “/AG” after your callsign, spoken as “stroke A G” or “slash A G” (for General, meaning “acting General”) or “/AE” (for Extra, spoken in the same manner as General). You do not have to wait for your license upgrade to appear in ULS, which usually takes about 10 business days, but can be faster in some cases. Your CSCE is valid for one year, so be sure that your license upgrade appears in ULS before your CSCE expires. 

Here’s an important note about your privacy:

  • Amateur licenses are public record, and your name and mailing address are displayed as part of that record (but not your telephone number or email address). Keep in mind that you don’t have to use your home address; it can be any address that you receive mail at, such as a PO Box, relative’s place, or a work address (with your employer’s permission). If you provide an invalid address, or any mail the FCC mails to that address is returned, your license may be cancelled. You can update your address at any time online by using the ULS system or by mail using FCC Form 605

Once your callsign appears in the FCC ULS database, you can not only start operating, but you can print an official copy from the FCC ULS system and frame it. You also get a wallet card too. Congratulations!