Getting Started in Amateur Radio

A while back I posted about the ARRL Field Day event which is a great introduction to the world of Amateur Radio. Also known as “HAM Radio”, this exciting hobby is very broad, despite the preconceived notions, or media impressions you may already have. Amateur Radio encompasses local, wide area, and even world-wide communications across multiple methods. It has been quite a few years since I have really been into the hobby, and I can tell you there have been lots of changes! (Mostly all for the better!)

I Can Set The Record Straight

amateur radio field dayLet me debunk a few impressions you might already have of Amateur Radio and tell you a few things that might interest you and convince you to give it a try. First and foremost, almost everyone has an impression of a HAM radio operator. Lets face it, we generally don’t get positive screen time in movies and TV shows and are portrayed as folks with social issues that operate from our parent’s basement. Remember the movie “Phenomenon” with John Travolta? His buddy was portrayed as a fairly crazy ham radio operator trying to reach out to Diana Ross on his radio. While that image can be true in some cases, that crazy logic can hold true for any hobby, not just amateur radio. I have met many hams throughout the years, and most are fairly typical every day hard-working folks. Some have engineering backgrounds, some have no electronics or communications backgrounds at all. Ham radio operators come from all walks of life. If you ask around, you would be surprised who has enjoyed the hobby at one time or another.

So now that we have the social part out-of-the-way, another myth that I want to clear up is that you need to know morse code in order to operate or obtain an amateur radio license. You know, that final scene in Independence Day where the secret to defeating the aliens is out of the bag, and they use low tech morse code to send the message out to the world? Yes morse code, is widely used on the air, but is no longer a requirement to learn. It’s a good thing because I just don’t have the tolerance to deal with dots and dashes. Some folks enjoy it and it’s one of the farther reaching modes of communication.

Amateur? As opposed to a professional broadcaster? Amateur can be a bit of a misnomer, as many ham radio operators are seasoned technical experts, although you don’t have to be in order to enjoy they hobby. Hams come from all walks of life, but one thing is for sure, they are professionals at communications! One reason why they are known as “amateurs” is because they are specifically forbidden by law to make money with the hobby. That’s not to say you can’t sell radio equipment, or charge for a great ham radio product, it just means you can’t directly get paid for being an amateur radio operator. You also can’t charge to pass traffic, send message ect.

The last untruth I want to clear up is that amateur radio equipment is costly, and it’s a very expensive hobby to break into.  FALSE! While this may have been true in the past, when I recently started to get back into the hobby I have found and used some really great equipment that is available for under $50! Years ago, it was costly and the equipment was clunky and even hard to use in a small space. You would be surprised just what you can buy for a few bucks that will get you on the air and leave you without an antenna farm in your backyard.

Why become an Amateur Radio Operator?

amateur radio field dayA question that I get asked often is why? I mean, Amateur Radio is outdated right? We all have cell phones, wi-fi and email, why on earth would you want to go backwards? Well it’s not really backwards if you think about it. And amateur radio even helped pave the way for many of the modern communication systems you use today. If you think about it, your cell phone is nothing more than a two-way radio, and your wi-fi router is the same. In addition to commercial operations, amateur radio operators helped test out, construct, and work on pretty sophisticated digital networks and radio projects that helped launch our digital revolution. In fact, an older method of communication known as Packet Radio is very similar to how the internet works today, except it was wireless. The original Wi-Fi you might say!

So yes, I believe amateur radio is still relevant. I use it as a backup method of emergency communication when I’m out and about, and use it to have meaningful conversations when I feel like talking with someone. As a teenager in the hobby I had a great time, and today many families enter the hobby together. Many use it as a way to communicate amongst themselves as well as others. I have also found that it mixes well with other hobbies. As you low we love the outdoors, and it’s nice to be able to quickly talk with someone if there is no cell signal. It’s pretty cool to be able to talk to friends and family over the radio and not have to use a phone.

First Steps

Amateur Radio Public Domain ImageSo how do you get started and what will this set you back? How about $15? It doesn’t get any cheaper than that! To become a FCC licensed amateur radio operator, you must obtain at least a Technician Class license. This class of license allows individuals to talk on many local bands which can go surprisingly far! Testing sessions are offered by local Amateur Radio clubs and the cost is $15. On test day, I would recommend bringing exact cash to keep from having any payment issues. Once you pass the 35 question test, the Volunteer Exam Coordinator will send your information to the FCC to issue you your license and call sign. Your call sign is how you are identified in the amateur radio community and is a combination of letter and numbers. Do you remember WKRP in Cincinnati? WKRP is an example of a call sign. Amateur radio call signs contain both numbers and letters. If you don’t pass, don’t worry you can always attend another testing session at your leisure. To find one of these exam sessions, the ARRL (Amateur Radio Relay League) has set up an awesome search tool available on their site.

Ok so what do you need to know to pass your first test? WARNING: Don’t let the next few paragraphs scare you off! For a technician class license you must pass a 35 question exam that covers an array of topics. Hint: You only need to answer 26 questions correctly! This includes topics of basic electronics, radio waves, antennas, safety, procedures, yes even rules. Don’t worry though, it’s not at bad as you may think and it’s very educational. Some of it I would dare to say is common sense, but other topics may require some memorization and study. Although it’s uncommon, the youngest ham radio operator I have ever heard of is a 5 year old girl with amazing reading and comprehension skills. Ages 8-10 seem to be a great age to really get the younger members of your family involved, but it all depends on their learning level.

Well it wouldn’t be Frugal Florida Fun if you had to pay lots of money for review classes, books, and examination preparation would it? While there are plenty of books on the topic, and online courses are available, I also have some FREE online resources to share as well. First though, you may want to see if there is a local amateur radio class coming to your area. These range in price and are usually hosted by local amateur radio clubs. They can be invaluable to the learning process! When I started when I was 14 or so, it was great to be able to learn in a classroom environment from hams that have been in the hobby for years as well as actually see and hear demonstrations of equipment, electrical principles. Not to mention you will get to know many of the folks that will become your amateur radio peers. If you want to find a class, the ARRL also has a class search available on their site as well. Not all classes are listed on the ARRL site, so you may just want to google “Amateur Radio  YOUR AREA HERE”. Odds are you have a local amateur radio club that puts them on a few times a year.

So on to the FREE resources! Amateur radio is one of the few hobbies that I have found where once you’re a ham you do almost anything you can to get others involved. This includes coming up with FREE training materials!  Dan (KB6NU) has written some really great study materials that is geared  for someone just entering the hobby. He offers FREE PDF versions of his study guides as well as Kindle and Nook versions for a slight charge. Checkout his site and you can start learning right away! Your local library probably has at least a few book on the subject. If you get a library book to  help you study, make sure it is structured for the changes in July of 2014. Some of the material has changed.

Amateur Radio Public Domain ImageWhat if I said you could cheat on the test? That’s not family friendly! Well, you can’t cheat, but I can tell you exactly every question on the test! Or at least every question that could be asked that is. In order to standardize the tests, the FCC approves a pool of questions and you are asked a certain number from each section. That way, lets say you’re just not understanding a particular topic, you can still potentially pass the test. It’s an old school pencil and paper test, and they aren’t adaptive like the crazy certification tests you may have taken professionally. If you want to know what you’re in for, check out the NCVEC website. While the questions are available, you’ll need to look up the answers!

So you think you are ready to take your test? Help prepare yourself with a variety of practice tests. HamStudy.org is a free online practice test site that not only helps you zone in on what Amateur Radio topics you need to study up on, they also offer flash cards with the question answers! There are a ton of sites that offer free practice exams, I’m sure you’ll find one that matches you style.

So now you know what’s involved in getting your amateur radio license or “ticket”, get your family involved and start studying! Hope to hear you on the air soon!

Amateur Radio Links Mentioned Above

Find An Amateur Radio Class

FREE Amateur Radio Study Guides

Amateur Radio Question Pools

HamStudy Practice Tests

Find An Amateur Radio Exam / Testing Session

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