About Amateur Radio

"I am often asked how radio works. Well, you see, wire telegraphy is like a very long cat. You yank his tail in New York and he meows in Los Angeles. Do you understand this? Now, radio is exactly the same, except that there is no cat." --- Albert Einstein

Amateur radio, often called ham radio, is both a hobby and a service in which participants, called "hams," use various types of communications equipment to communicate with other radio amateurs for public services, recreation and self-training. Amateur radio operators enjoy personal (and often worldwide) wireless communications with each other and are able to support their communities with emergency and disaster communications if necessary, while increasing their personal knowledge of electronics and radio theory. An estimated two million people throughout the world are regularly involved with amateur radio.

The term "amateur" reflects the principle that amateur radio and its skilled operators are committed to helping communities without financial compensation; whereas commercial radio operates for profit. Ham radio is different from Citizens Band (CB), Family Radio Service (FRS), and the General Mobile Radio Service (GMRS), which only allow local communications using strictly limited modes and frequencies (although some CB operators do manage to talk fairly long distances using illegal linear amplifiers).

By comparison ham radio operators are allowed to use to every mode of communication: AM, FM, CW, SSB, RTTY, SSTV, ATV, Packet, and a hundred others you’ve probably never heard of. We have privileges all across the radio spectrum, from shortwave to microwave.We routinely talk to other hams across the globe, from Antarctica to Greenland, from Afghanistan to Zimbabwe, all without breaking a single law.

Ham radio is also polite radio, usually without the crude and foul language of CB, probably due in large part to its licensing requirements.

Although its origins can be traced to at least the late 1800s, amateur radio, as practiced today, did not begin until the early 1900s. The first listing of amateur radio stations is contained in the First Annual Official Wireless Blue Book of the Wireless Association of America in 1909. This first radio callbook lists wireless telegraph stations in Canada and the United States, including eighty-nine amateur radio stations. As with radio in general, the birth of amateur radio was strongly associated with various amateur experimenters and hobbyists. Throughout its history, amateur radio enthusiasts have made significant contributions to science,engineering, industry and social services. Research by amateur radio operators has founded new industries, built economies, empowered nations, and saved lives in times of emergency.

Amateur radio operators use various modes of transmission to communicate. Voice transmissions are most common.

Communication satellites called OSCARs (Orbiting Satellite Carrying Amateur Radio) can be accessed, some using a hand-held transceiver (HT), even, at times, using the factory "rubber duck" antenna. Hams also use the moon, the aurora borealis, and the ionized trails of meteors as reflectors of radio waves. Hams are also often able to make contact with the International Space Station (ISS), as many astronauts and cosmonauts are licensed as amateur radio operators. Amateur radio operators use their amateur radio station to make contacts with individual hams as well as participating in round table discussion groups or "rag chew sessions" on the air. Some join in regularly scheduled on-air meetings with other amateur radio operators, called "nets" (as in "networks") which are moderated by a station referred to as "Net Control". Nets can allow operators to learn procedures for emergencies, be an informal round table or be topical, covering specific interests shared by a group.

In all countries that license citizens to use amateur radio, operators are required to pass a licensing exam displaying knowledge and understanding of key concepts. In response, hams are granted operating privileges in larger segments of the radio frequency spectrum using a wide variety of communication techniques with higher power levels permitted. This practice is in contrast to unlicensed personal radio services such as CB radio, Multi-Use Radio Service, or Family Radio Service/PMR446 that require type-approved equipment restricted in frequency range and power. In many countries, amateur licensing is a routine civil administrative matter. Amateurs are required to pass an examination to demonstrate technical knowledge, operating competence and awareness of legal and regulatory requirements in order to avoid interference with other amateurs and other radio services. There are often a series of exams available, each progressively more challenging and granting more privileges in terms of frequency availability, power output, permitted experimentation, and in some countries, distinctive call signs. Some countries such as the United Kingdom and Australia have begun requiring a practical training course in addition to the written exams in order to obtain a beginner's license, called a Foundation License.

Amateur radio licensing in the United States serves as an example of the way some countries award different levels of amateur radio licenses based on technical knowledge. Three sequential levels of licensing exams (Technician Class, General Class and Amateur Extra Class) are currently offered, which allow operators who pass them access to larger portions of the Amateur Radio spectrum and more desirable call signs.

Many people start their involvement in amateur radio by finding a local club. Clubs often provide information about licensing, local operating practices and technical advice. Newcomers also often study independently by purchasing books or other materials, sometimes with the help of a mentor, teacher or friend. Established amateurs who help newcomers are often referred to as "Elmers" within the ham community. In addition, many countries have national amateur radio societies which encourage newcomers and work with government communications regulation authorities for the benefit of all radio amateurs. The oldest of these societies is the Wireless Institute of Australia, formed in 1910; other notable societies are the Radio Society of Great Britain, the American Radio Relay League, Radio Amateurs of Canada, the New Zealand Association of Radio Transmitters and South African Radio League.

Upon licensing, a radio amateur's national government issues a unique call sign (W1WH for example) to the radio amateur. The holder of a callsign uses it on the air to legally identify the operator or station during any and all radio communication. In certain jurisdictions, an operator may also select a "vanity" call sign although these must also conform to the issuing government's allocation and structure used for Amateur Radio call signs. Some jurisdictions, such as the U.S., require that a fee be paid to obtain such a vanity call sign; in others, such as the UK, a fee is not required and the vanity call sign may be selected when the license is applied for.

Call sign structure as prescribed by the ITU, consists of three parts which break down as follows, using the call sign ZS1NAT as an example:

ZS – Shows the country from which the call sign originates and may also indicate the license class. (This call sign is licensed in South Africa).

1 – Gives the subdivision of the country or territory indicated in the first part (this one refers to the Western Cape).

NAT – The final part is unique to the holder of the license, identifying that person specifically.

Many countries do not follow the ITU convention for the numeral. In the United Kingdom the calls G2xxx, G3xxx, and G6xxx may be issued to stations, these are Full License Holders. Additional licenses are granted in respect of Foundation Licensees M3xxx and M6xxx, Intermediate Licensees 2E1xxx and 2E0xxx and Full License Holders M0xxx and M1xxx. In the United States, the numeral indicates the geographical district the holder resided in when the license was issued. Prior to 1978, US hams were required to obtain a new call sign if they moved out of their geographic district.

Also, for smaller entities, a numeral may be part of the country identification. For example,
VP2xxx is in the British West Indies (subdivided into VP2Exx Anguilla, VP2Mxx Montserrat, and VP2Vxx British Virgin Islands), VP5xxx is in the Turks and Caicos Islands, VP6xxx is on Pitcairn Island, VP8xxx is in the Falklands, and VP9xxx is in Bermuda.

Anybody can look up who a specific United States call sign belongs to using the FCC's license search database. Information may be available for other jurisdictions on websites such as Callbook.

Unlike other RF spectrum users, radio amateurs may build or modify transmitting equipment for their own use within the amateur spectrum without the need to obtain government certification of the equipment. Licensed amateurs can also use any frequency in their bands (rather than being allocated fixed frequencies or channels) and can operate medium to high-powered equipment on a wide range of frequencies so long as they meet certain technical parameters including occupied bandwidth, power, and maintenance of spurious emission. As noted, radio amateurs have access to frequency allocations throughout the RF spectrum, enabling choice of frequency to enable effective communication whether across a city, a region, a country, a continent or the whole world regardless of season or time of day. The shortwave bands, or HF, can allow worldwide communication, the VHF and UHF bands offer excellent regional communication, and the broad microwave bands have enough space, or bandwidth, for television (known as FSTV) transmissions and high-speed data networks.

Although allowable power levels are moderate by commercial standards, they are sufficient to enable global communication. Power limits vary from country to country and between license classes within a country. Lower license classes usually have lower power limits; for example, the lowest license class in the UK has a limit of just 10 W. Amateur radio operators are encouraged both by regulations and tradition of respectful use of the spectrum to use as little power as possible to accomplish the communication.

When traveling abroad, visiting amateur operators must follow the rules of the country in which they wish to operate. Some countries have reciprocal international operating agreements allowing hams from other countries to operate within their borders with just their home country license. Other host countries require that the visiting ham apply for a formal permit, or even a new host country-issued license, in advance.

Many jurisdictions issue specialty vehicle registration plates to amateur radio operators who provide proof of an amateur radio license. The fees for application and renewal are usually less than standard plates.

QSL Cards
QSL cards are a ham radio operator's calling card and are frequently an expression of individual creativity — from a photo of the operator at his station to original artwork, images of the operator's home town or surrounding countryside, etc. They are frequently created with a good dose of individual pride. Consequently, the collecting of QSL cards of especially interesting designs has become an add-on hobby to the simple gathering of printed documentation of a ham's communications over the course of his or her radio career.

Normally sent using ordinary, international postal systems, QSL cards can be sent either to an individual’s address, or via a country's centralized amateur radio association QSL bureau, which collects and distributes cards for that country. This saves postage fees for the sender by sending several cards destined for a single country in one envelope, or large numbers of cards using parcel services. The price for lower postage, however, is a delay in reaching its destination because of the extra handling time involved. In addition to such incoming bureaus, there are also outgoing bureaus in some countries. These bureaus offer a further postage savings by accepting cards destined for many different countries and repackaging them together into bundles that are sent to specific incoming bureaus in other countries.For rare countries, that is ones where there are very few amateur radio operators, places with no reliable (or even existing) postal systems, including expeditions to remote areas, a volunteer QSL manager may handle the mailing of cards. For expeditions this may amount to thousands of cards, and payment for at least postage is appreciated, and is required for a direct reply (as opposed to a return via a bureau). Recently, the Internet has enabled electronic transmission as an alternative to the need for mailing a physical card. These systems use computer databases to store all the same information normally verified by QSL cards in an electronic format. Some sponsors of amateur radio operating awards, which normally accept QSL cards for proof of contacts, may also recognize a specific electronic QSL system in verifying award applications.

The International Telecommunication Union (ITU) governs the allocation of communications frequencies worldwide, with participation by each nation's communications regulation authority. National communications regulators have some liberty to restrict access to these frequencies or to award additional allocations as long as radio services in other countries do not suffer interference. In some countries, specific emission types are restricted to certain parts of the radio spectrum, and in most other countries, International Amateur Radio Union (IARU) member societies adopt voluntary plans to ensure the most effective use of spectrum.

Get licensed!
In the United States, Amateur Radio is regulated by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) under the Communications Act of 1934. It is also subject to numerous international agreements. All Amateur Radio operators must be licensed. Again, in the US there are three license classes—Technician, General and Extra. Each successive level of license comes with an expansion of privileges. With only 3 License Classes, getting started in Amateur radio has never been easier.

How to Become a Ham

Amateur radio is the premier high-tech hobby. It's enjoyed by people from all walks of life from around the world. The rules for becoming an amateur (ham) radio operator vary from country to country around the world. It's never been so easy to get into ham radio. All ham radio operators must be licensed before they can legally operate. This differs a great deal from the CB (i.e. truckers) and FRS (i.e. dimestore walkie-talkie) services which require no licenses.

Amateur radio operators must be licensed because they are given transmitting privileges on a wide variety of frequencies and are allow to use just about any equipment imaginable, even home built radios. Amateurs are allotted not single specific frequencies but usually whole ranges (bands) of different frequencies to operate on. These frequencies and methods of transmission are are specified by FCC rules and so it is therefore necessary to be generally familiar with your operating limitations in order to transmit lawfully.

In order to qualify for an amateur radio license in the United States, you must pass certain tests to determine that you have the required knowledge. Fortunately, the tests are not terribly difficult for most people. There are three license levels (known as classes) where each class grants greater privileges to the individual. There is a single written test for each license class.  Again, the United States license classes are:

Technician Class - this is the entry level license. It gives privileges on all amateur frequencies above 50 MHz and is the most popular. It requires only a written test.

General Class - this is the mid-level license. It enables privileges on most amateur frequencies below 50 MHz and includes global HF (shortwave) communications. It has its own written test.

Extra Class - this is the highest level license. It grants privileges on all amateur frequencies. It has its own written test and requires that you also have passed all of the Technician and General class written tests.

The first thing you should do to get started is to obtain the home study materials to prepare you for the test. These will give you the background that you'll need to understand the gist of what the tests are about. You can even order study materials online.

Need additional help?
The American Radio Relay League is the leading national association for amateur radio operators in the United States. Check out the ARRL's website or call the ARRL’s toll-free number at 1-888-277-5289 and request an informational Amateur Radio prospect package.