It’s such a classic hobby, and one that so many of us have enjoyed tinkering with and perfecting over the years. I’m sure this whole concept is throwing you back to the days when you fiddled with needlessly complex tech in order to talk over VHF and UHF frequencies. For a while, it became a hobby that was looked down on as geeky and silly.
Guess what? Our childhood dreams came true; it’s cool to be a geek now. There are over 2.5 million hams in the world just waiting to get in touch. So, whether you’re new to the amateur radio game or you’re going to dust an old one off, this guide is the place to be. Everything is here, from what a ham radio is to the kind of licensing you need.
Ham Radio Basics
How it Works and What it Does
Getting Licensed to Use One
Communities and Support
Ham Radio Basics
For the radio newbies out there, this chapter focuses on the basics of the ham radio. Everything from what they are to what they cost, laid out clearly for you to see. You’re about to learn what makes a ham radio so great, as well as a fun hobby.
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What is a Ham Radio?
You may also hear it referred to as an amateur radio, which is the official term for it. It’s a hobby whose popularity has started to climb again in recent years, and it really allows you to explore electronics and communications skills. They are used to talk to people in other towns or cities, as well as across the world.
You can even use them to send signals into space, and this works without using the internet or mobile devices. As well as being a fun, and even educational, pastime, it can also be lifesaving when stuck in remote areas of the world. It can be set up absolutely anywhere, from fields and forests to the comfort of your own home.
Why is it Called a Ham Radio?
It’s funny, because the term ham actually refers to someone who is a poor operator. Essentially, an amateur who does not fully understand the way in which the signals work. There’s a little bit of history behind this that I am eager to share with you.
The ham radio started its journey in 1901, and since then has been subject to licensing laws and regulations. However, in the beginning this form of communication was used by landline telegraphers who have left their offices in order to man coastal stations or had been sent to sea. As this was quite early on in the life of the ham radio, it used a broad spark signal that occupied every station.
This meant that government stations, ships, coastal stations, and amateur operators were all competing for signal time and priority on the waves. The issue with this is that the stations being used by amateurs were incredibly powerful, meaning that they could easily jam all the other operators in the area.
The commercial operators, becoming increasingly frustrated by this, would refer to those causing the interference as hams. The amateur radio users took this term and applied it to themselves, despite not fully understanding the meaning of it. As time has gone by, the full meaning of this phrase has been lost entirely.
There is another theory that the word ham comes from a shortened version of amateur, but I feel like this one is a lot less fun. The idea of the word hams coming from amateur radio hobbyists disrupting government signals is more exciting and, in my opinion, the more likely of the two.
How Much Does a Ham Radio Cost?
There are various costs with ham radios, and it really depends on how good you are with electronics. If you are pretty handy in the area, then you can probably get a lot of the materials needed to build one for free or super low prices. However, if you aren’t quite that savvy, you’ll be looking at a fair bit more.
The cheapest ham radios start at around £100, sometimes a little under if you get lucky. These do the job, but they lack the finesse and classic feel of a good quality machine. If you want to experience this, then you are going to need to fork out more like £300-£500, but I can assure you that it’s worth the cost. After all, you want a quality setup to really make the most of your hobby.
On top of this, you are also going to have the license fee. This is actually a lot cheaper than the radio itself, but you absolutely need one if you want to use it for any reason. That’s something I’m going to take you through later on in this article though.
If you are interested in looking at some useful tools for your ham radio then we suggest to take a look at the very informational Red Pitaya and there products.
How it Works and What it Does
Before you can actually use a ham radio, you should probably get a better understanding of how it works and what it does. You already know that the basics involve transmissions between radios across the country, or the world, but we can take an even deeper look. This chapter delves into how a ham radio works as well as how far it is able to transmit.
How Does a Ham Radio Work
The ham radio works using frequencies, and it can operate via a range of them. It’s even possible for those who are considered non-hams to listen in to the frequencies when using a radio scanner or receiver of their own. The frequencies that hams are able to use, because of the broad spectrum, are allocated by the FCC for amateur use.
This means that hams are able to operate from just above the AM broadcasting band to the microwave region, in the gigahertz range. You will find that the majority of ham bands, as they are called, are found in the frequency that goes above the AM radio band (1.6MHz) to just below the citizen's band (27 MHz). However, the time of day can also have an impact on this.
During the daylight hours, 15 to 27MHz is an excellent band if you are looking for long-distance communications. If you are in search of the same at night, the best band for you to be using is 1.6-15MHz. Historically, they are known as shortwave bands – as in shortwave radios. This is where things get a little more interesting.
The classic FM bands that we are used to hearing on standard and car radios travel via line of sight, and therefore are only transmitted 40-50 miles. The same goes for TV stations that use this frequency, and it can be quite limiting in this regard. Shortwave frequencies, on the other hand, bounce off the ionosphere from the transmitter to the antennae of the receiver. The higher the frequency, the shorter the wavelength will be.
The thing that really separates the ham radio from an FM or AM one, however, is the communication style. When you are listening to a radio broadcast from a station hosted by a DJ, it is being sent out to thousands of people who can only listen. The ham radio focuses on two-way conversations with one or more hams; either locally or across the globe.
The way this works is through what is known as VHF FM wavelengths, which are transmitted through the ham receivers. They transmit on one frequency, and receive on another using FM repeaters which have been set up by radio clubs in the area. In turn, these clubs will take antenna space from TV stations on mountains and high buildings in order to both extend the range and broadcast signals.
The repeater will then receive each signal one at a time while simultaneously rebroadcasting it on another frequency. This is what extends the range, and you’ll find out how far the transmission can go in the next section. If you want to get really funky with your ham radio, you can even transmit using the amateur radio satellites, which have faster speeds and higher wavelengths for transmissions.
How Far Can a Ham Radio Transmit?
This can depend on the power of your radio; the more power it has, the further it can transmit. Those with lower levels of power may find themselves restricted a good distance before they hit 50 miles, whereas the most powerful radios can travel thousands. This is why you are able to communicate with those in other countries if you invest in the tech to produce more power and higher frequencies. Essentially, it is down to how much you invest in your ham radio.
What About Transmitting on the Same Frequency?
The thing is, may hams can be on the same frequency, and there is nothing wrong with that. It all depends on the transmission. When using a VHF or a UHF frequency, they are line of sight; meaning many hams can be on the same frequency within that allotted area. Handheld radios on this tend to use channelled communications, which uses selectable fixed frequencies.
When you move onto shortwave bands, things are a little different. These have what is known as a variable tuning frequency, which allows you to move your signal. Now, the transmission signal itself can only be moved in very small increments (and I mean very small), but that is all you really need. There are so many frequencies to choose from, after all, so tuning the frequency should lead you to the one you are looking for fairly easily. A little practice and you’ll have the hang of it in no time.
Getting Licensed to Use One
Yes, you heard right, you need a license to use a ham radio. I can hear the frustration of those who thought that this was a hobby without restriction, but I am afraid it is not. Getting a license isn’t too expensive, though, and it is certainly one of the easier processes out there. This chapter takes you through it all.
Why Do You Need a License?
With great power comes great responsibility. Never have truer words been spoken. When you are operating a ham radio, you are representing your country, your locality. You need to make sure you know what you are doing and that you are running a clean space; one with no interference. You also need to ensure you are following both national and international rules when using your device.
There are unlicensed bands out there, but these have exceptionally low power and are heavily regulated so that you can’t do very much. Think of them as test wavelengths that you can fiddle with before you get your license and move onto the big leagues.
You also need to think about the number of people that are using these frequencies to communicate. How are you going to keep track of it all without a license? Once you have one, your station will be assigned a callsign so that you can be recognised on the air. It makes finding friends easier, but also ensures you are known by the local authorities that run the airspace so that they know you are allowed to be communicating.
In short, you need a license for the following reasons:
How to Get a License
First, you need to locate your national radio service. For example, the UK has the RSGB, and these are the people that orchestrate the process as well as provide licenses. Once you have got in touch with them, you can ask about the specific details for getting a license, but the basics are as follows:
#1 The Course. You will first need to take a course in amateur radio. This is actually really handy because it will teach you the ins and outs so that you fully understand your new device. You will usually be able to take it at a local club, and it is a hands-on experience for a really practical feel. There is likely to be a small section on electronics, but this is for your own safety and to ensure you can make necessary repairs and maintenance as needed. This takes between 10 and 12 hours.
#2 The Exam. Yes, sadly, there is an exam with this license. However, if you struggle with exams as I do, there is no need to worry. You are given just under an hour to answer 26 multiple choice questions based on the course you just took. Most of the time, you can do it online or on paper, and you will get your results immediately. If you fail, you can retake it as soon as possible.
#3 The Results. Once you have passed, you will have to wait around six working days before you can move onto the next step. This is because you will be waiting for your official certificate and paperwork to arrive in the post. When you have received that, you can then apply for the license online and complete the process.
When all of this is complete, you can choose a callsign and make your first transmission. Pretty awesome, right? It doesn’t take a huge amount of time to complete, and it is so worth it in the end. Global communication will be at your fingertips in a whole new way.
How to Get a License in the USA
The process is similar to the UK if you are in the USA in that you’ll need to take a course and an exam. However, there are also three tiers of radio license that you are able to apply for. They are as follows:
Below, you will find all the information you need about what each of the tiers include, as well as how you can apply for them.
Technician. This is classed as an entry-level license and is the easiest to get. Therefore, it is the perfect choice for those who are new to the hobby. It gives access to wavelengths above 30 megahertz, and it requires you to take an exam with 35 questions in total. You will be able to communicate locally, and within North America. There are also limited international privileges.
General. This is the next level up, and once you are used to your ham radio you can upgrade from a technician. Again, the exam is only 35 questions, so it doesn’t take a massive amount of time. Once you have passed, you will be able to communicate all over the world. You will also have some privileges on all radio bands and operating modes. You must have passed the technician band to be able to apply for this one.
Amateur Extra. The final tier, it is important to note that you must have passed the previous two tiers in order to apply for this license. It is a little harder than the others, with an exam consisting of 50 questions. When you achieve this, however, you will be granted access to all operating modes and radio bands available to the U.S. Amateur Radio users.
How Much Does the License Cost?
If you want to get an amateur radio license, you are looking at two fees; the exam and the license itself. This will vary between countries and organisations, but you will find a rough guide of the costs below:
It’s really quite inexpensive, and that is part of what makes ham radios so appealing; you might need a license, but at least it is affordable. The course itself may also cost money, but this is hugely dependant on your circumstances, the course, the providers, and your area.
How Long Does the License Last?
The great news is that your license will never expire once you get it. So, the course, exam, and extra costs are definitely worth having the permanent ability to use your ham radio. Just remember to validate your license first so that you know you are using it legally. You will need to reconfirm your details with your local authority every ten years to ensure your license remains valid.
The license can be forced back if you break any laws or abuse your ham radio powers, and the governing body has every right to do this. If you have been found to be misusing your license, you may also surrender it voluntarily to avoid any further conflict. There will always be a specific process for revocation that you can check with your local authority.
What are the Uses of a Ham Radio?
Reasons You May Want a Ham Radio at Home
There are quite a few reasons why you should at least consider having a ham radio at home, and the ones I have selected below are just some of the best. See if you’re still not convinced after reading these interesting uses.
#1 Being aware of local emergencies
These can be big or small. It could be that a local ham has a handset in their car and is able to update you on the latest traffic issues in order to help you avoid them. There might also be a warning of thieves in the area so that you are all able to keep watch and look out for one another. However, the weather services are also connected to ham radios a lot of the time.
This means you will be updated when there are changes in the forecast, which can be a useful daily thing. It also ensures that severe weather warnings reach you, something that can be lifesaving in remote areas with very little mobile or internet connection. It keeps you in the loop, and a part of your local community.
#2 Stay connected when disaster strikes
Hurricanes, tornadoes, power outages, storms. These are all things that can leave our modern tech useless, but that a ham radio powers through. They can be run on batteries alone, making them indispensable during times of crisis. If there is a natural disaster, you can still reach emergency services as well as send word out to your local community to stay in touch and get updates.
For those that want to be prepared for every situation, it has been argued that in a war or apocalyptic scenario, the ham radio would be a prime form of contact. It relies on none of the tech we have today, and would remain strong throughout disaster scenarios of every form. If you want to be ready for anything, a ham radio should be at the top of your list as a vital communication device.
#3 Skill to learn
This is part of what makes it so great; it’s a new skill that you can learn. Not only that, but one you grow and maintain as the years pass and you continue your hobby. As I mentioned previously, you need a license to use a ham radio, and that requires you taking a course so that you can learn every detail of the art. It might only take 12 hours, but you will discover so much.
It keeps the mind occupied, and also opens you up to new avenues of technological exploration. You will learn some handy electronics skills, as well as more about how the frequencies work. There are laws to learn, guidelines to follow, and a wealth of knowledge at your feet on the subject. It’s not expensive, and the license will last you a lifetime of fun and excitement.
#4 Join the community
It’s a social activity as well. When you pick up the ham radio for the first time and start using it, you are reaching out to others who love the hobby as much as you do. Think of them like pen pals, but using a faster form of communication. You get your own callsign that is used to identify you, and you can then record those of the friends you make for future reference when scanning frequencies.
While you will meet many of your amateur radio friends on the wavelengths, there are also plenty of events in real life that you can attend. Festivals celebrating the ham for what it is, communities where you get together and really explore the potential of the waves. The local clubs are great for gathering tips and tricks on better radio operation as well so that you can hone your skills.
The ham community is a good one, full of great people that just want to help others share in this wonderful hobby. They are awesome people, and you can find out more about the various events and communities in the next chapter. I know what you’re thinking, that this is super geeky. It is, it’s amazing, and once you embrace it, you will absolutely love it.
5 It’s cheap
The price is such a big part of this. There are not many hobbies that can be classed as cheap, but ham radios are certainly one of them. While the radio itself can be expensive if you go all-out, that’s the point. You don’t have to go big in order to take part and have a good experience. You can start out with something low in price and slowly evolve over time if you want to. It’s affordable, practical, and fun.
You might be thinking that five reasons are way too few to convince anyone, but it’s all I needed. The ham radio opens you up to new skills, communities, and ways to access emergency services or communications should disaster strike. They are exceedingly useful, and a piece of kit you will never regret investing your time and money into. Trust me; I’m a ham.
Communities and Support
With the wide world that the internet provides us with, finding a ham community should prove pretty simple. This chapter is dedicated to them in all shapes and forms in order to help you find some fellow hams to talk to, and maybe even set a little radio group up with.
Across the world, you will find events that have been affectionately nicknamed “Ham Fests”. These are festivals or meetings where amateur radio lovers gather to sell gear, share their passion, and raise money for charities and other causes. You can usually find some great deals on new or used radios, as well as a lot of handy advice and useful tips for your own ham adventures.
Here is a couple of great “Ham Fests” in the UK:
Here are some excellent databases for events that are taking place in the USA:
If you are searching for the actual societies themselves, you will discover that there are quite a few. For the UK, the most well-known and reputable of these us the Radio Society of Great Britain (RSBG). It is both national and regional, making it a comprehensive website and one that you can use for every form of radio news.
For those in the USA, you are best taking a look at the American Radio Relay League (ARRL). They source news and events from across the country so that you are able to check up on the latest happenings within your state. There’s a lot of great information there for you to browse through, and it is easy to access.
Of course, social media is a fantastic tool. A simple search on Facebook for “Ham Radio Groups” will bring up a whole load of results for amateur enthusiasts around the world. You can find likeminded people within your country, or take things on a global scale to really test your communication range. It’s nice to find a community for shared interests, and social media is one of the best ways to do this.
You may also be able to find local groups in your area that are interested in amateur radio and host evenings or events. Usually, these kinds of advertisements are found in local newspapers, bulletins, and newsletters. The search can be aided by social media and the internet, and will likely make it easier to find local groups that you can physically hang out with as opposed to online ones.
Ham radios are a whole lot of fun; you have to agree. They are interesting pieces of machinery, and able to aid you in a host of situations that more modern tech might not be able to. For those who say the amateur radio is dead or out of its time, this guide should be enough to prove them wrong.
Whether you want to use your ham radio as a regular communication device for your hobby, or you want to set it up for emergencies, this guide is the perfect companion for beginners and old pros alike. It’s wonderful to see this hobby coming back into the spotlight, and one that I am sure many will start picking up once more. With millions of enthusiasts and active users around the world, you are sure to pick someone up on your frequency.
What did you think of my ham radio guide? Was it able to answer all of your questions, or are there some that are still left hanging? I love hearing your thoughts, so feel free to leave a message in the comment section below.
References and Resources List