How to Talk to Someone Using Ham Radio

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Introduction: How to Talk to Someone Using Ham Radio

About: I live in Massachusetts and I enjoy flying airplanes and gliders. When I'm not flying, I'm building things! I particularly enjoy soldering and electronics kits, radio controlled boats and aircraft, FPV flyin...

Ham radio is cool, but it can be very nerve wracking to talk to someone using it. Talking to someone using ham radio is commonly known as a 'QSO' or a 'contact'. Although it can seem really scary at first, you won't regret a moment of it. And after a few 'contacts', you'll be wanting to make more and more. There are many ways to make a QSO, some of the most common being through morse code (CW), phone (voice communications), and data (RTTY, teletype).

So, how exactly do you make a QSO using ham radio?

Well first, you must pass an exam and get a license...

If you are from the UK, you may consult M0HIZ for questions about the exam process as this Instructable is structured around the US process of licensing.

Step 1: Licensing

First off, you must get be licensed to operate on ham radio frequencies. It requires some basic knowledge and studying, but can easily be accomplished. Children as young as 8 years old have gotten licensed, or as hams say, got their 'ticket'.

How do you get a license, or 'ticket'?

First, you must purchase study material. There are different forms of studying material, and you should use whichever you feel most comfortable with. I, myself have studied using both online programs and books. There are different types of licenses. Each type gives you a certain amount of privileges. These are the different types:

Technician
Allows you to operate on a limited range of frequencies. You can transmit using no more than 100 watts.

General
Allows you to operate on a much larger range of frequencies. You can transmit a maximum of 1500 watts.

Extra
Allows you to operate on all ham bands and frequencies. You can transmit a maximum of 1500 watts.

What are the frequencies each licensee can transmit on? Click here to see what frequencies each licensee can transmit on.

For you to make a QSO, all you really need is a Technician class license. With the proper equipment, you can talk to people very far away using way less than 100 watts. But General and Extra licenses offer much more frequencies to transmit on and more power. The General and Extra frequencies often are better to use to make a contact with someone farther away. Why? Unfortunately there is only so much I can write in this how-to. However, you don't need more than 100 watts to have a QSO with someone anywhere in the world (as long as the conditions are good or the skip is in!).

What do you mean when you say 'conditions are good' or 'the skip is in'. Are you talking about the weather? Well, yes. However, I don't mean that when conditions are good, it's partly cloudy and the temperature is 80°F. It refers to the atmospheric conditions. If the skip is in, you could probably make a contact with someone across the globe using way less than 100 watts! And that is a huge accomplishment.

What are these study materials you talked about earlier?

There are many different programs and authors, but here are some of the most popular:

Online Programs: http://www.hamradiolicenseexam.com/ , http://www.hamradiolicenseexam.com/ , http://www.hamradiolicenseexam.com/

Literature (Books and Online Literature): http://www.arrl.org/shop/Licensing-Education-and-T... , http://www.arrl.org/shop/Licensing-Education-and-T...


I've studied and taken the online practice exams. What now? Now, you take the real exam. Where? The ARRL (Amateur Radio Relay League) website has a whole section that advertises ham radio exams in your area. There are no online exams, so you must drive to the nearest place where there is an exam. ALWAYS email the examiner before going, because sometimes they cancel without notice. You can find the nearest one to you here: http://www.arrl.org/find-an-amateur-radio-license... .

What do I bring to an exam? You should always bring 2 sharpened pencils, a pen, ~$20, legal photo ID (such as a passport or driver's license), but if you have no legal photo ID, you may bring two of the following items: Social Security Number, birth certificate, library card, or a utility bill.

Great! I passed, now what? Now you must get the proper equipment to make a QSO...

Step 2: Equipment

Already have the proper equipment? Skip this step! 

What equipment do I need? Unfortunately, there is no 'one big machine' that will do it all. There are a few items you will need, but, don't let this deter you, it is actually much easier than it seems, especially when it is put in a list for you like this one! You will need:

-A Transceiver
-A Power Supply 
-An Antenna 
-An Antenna Tuner 
-Microphone or Key 


That is the basic equipment you need to make a QSO. There are many retailers that sell this, and beware of some places like Radio Shack! They overprice cheap items that you could otherwise get for a cheap price. 

Transceiver: A transceiver is a combination of a receiver and a transmitter. They are a better option than getting a separate transmitter and receiver, especially if you are inexperienced. Depending on frequency range and power output, they can cost from a range from $100-$10,000! However, you can get a good quality one for around $200-$600. Fortunately, they are probably the mot expensive item you will get, and pretty much all of the other items are way below $100. Some trusted brands are Icom, Yaesu, and Kenwood. However, there are much more. To combine shipping and decrease the cost, you can get just about everything from Ham Radio Outlet (hamradio.com). You could also opt for building a kit. However, the kits usually only produce less than 5 watts, but they are extremely fun as long as you like to solder. However, if you are operating VHF (Very High Frequency) which is most commonly thought of as talking to people using repeaters, then you may only need a small mobile handheld transceiver that has all of the listed components listed above. A local ham gave me a VHF repeater for free when I first started (like I said, older hams really like helping out new hams), but most people can get them for around $70-$200. 

Power Supply: A power supply is what powers the transceiver. Most power supplies cost less than $100. But be careful, you have to make sure they are compatible with your transceiver. If you buy one that puts out too little volts, your transceiver will be greatly under-powered and may not turn off, but if you buy one that puts out too many, you could blow your fuse, or seriously damage your radio. Remember: If you aren't sure, CONSULT AN EXPERIENCED HAM! If you sent me a message, I would be more than happy to help. 

Antenna: If you find the right one and use it right, you can get a good quality antenna for $30. However, you can also get a good quality antenna for $300. I, myself have a $30 antenna and have made a QSO with countries like Argentina and Germany. When you think of an "antenna", you probably think of a metal tower. Those antennas are called vertical antennas, but are not the only option. There are yagi's, dipoles, and many more. A good antenna that you could string off the side of your house is a G5RV: http://www.mfjenterprises.com/Product.php?productid=MFJ-1778 . They work just as well as a vertical antenna, and can sometimes be a huge money saver. Always remember, Check with your town zoning laws before putting up an antenna. Often times your town may have restrictions on the type of antennas you can put up. 

Antenna Tuner: This one is a bit complicated. Basically, you need this "tuner" to be able to, in plain words, "match" your transceiver to your antenna. If you have them mismatched, a lot of the power you transmit on your transceiver could end up severely damaging your transceiver or blow a fuse. There are two types of tuners: an auto tuner and a manual tuner. A decent manual tuner can be found here: http://www.mfjenterprises.com/Product.php?productid=MFJ-971 and auto tuners can vary depending on brand and other factors. A manual tuner is recommended for inexperienced hams. For the sake of cutting down on a bunch of words, you can learn how to use it by going here: http://www.hamuniverse.com/tuner.html . 

Microphone or Key: This will be how you communicate. Depending on the mode you use, you need a key to send Morse code, and a microphone to send SSB (voice). Many transceivers have different microphone jacks, but fortunately, many transceivers come with a compatible microphone. Morse code keys usually don't however. And there are many different types such as a straight key or bug. Since you are probably a inexperienced ham, you might want a straight key as it is more simplistic. Most Morse code keys have two different jacks. If you have a key you want to buy, email the seller or talk to him in person about which you should get. 

Extra Cables: You will need extra cables usually around 1-5 feet long to connect all of your equipment together. CONSULT WITH A HAM OR YOUR RETAILER FOR INFORMATION ON WHICH ONES! Usually, you will only need one type.

Remember! Never let yourself become frustrated or deterred because there is so much you may not know. Just email the seller/retailer, send ME a message, or talk to your local ham radio club, because they all will be more than happy to help you learn to be a ham. It is quite simple once you understand everything, and surprisingly, there isn't a whole load you will have to know. Just the basic skills. 

Now, you're ready for your QSO...


Step 3: The QSO

Now it's time...

Turn on your radio and find an open frequency. Using the antenna tuner, tune your antenna to as close as 1:1 as possible. Check again to see if the frequency is not being used by someone. Just because you can't hear them, certainly doesn't mean they can't hear you. If you aren't sure, send "QRL" which means "Is this frequency in use?". If you're on voice, just say "This is [Your Callsign], is this frequency busy?". Ask twice. Get a response? Then move to another frequency. If you still hear nothing, then you're on!

On CW, you make a call to anyone on the ham band by sending the letters "CQ" as one word. To try to talk to someone, you must send "CQ" and hopefully another ham will hear your CQ and answer it. Don't be surprised if you don't get an answer. Try for about 3-4 minutes before changing frequencies.

How exactly do I send CQ in morse code? A normal CQ call would go as follows: "CQ CQ CQ DE [Your callsign] [Your callsign] K". The "K" means "Back to you". In this case, "you" is anyone who is listening. "DE" means "This is". And obviously, "your callsign" is the person sending CQ. In this case, that'd be YOU. Always send it twice in case the person trying to copy you didn't hear it quite right. If you are on phone, you want to use phonetics when saying your callsign so they can tell a D between a B and so on. A CQ on phone would go like this: "Hello CQ CQ CQ this is KB1WMR. Kilo Bravo One Whiskey Mike Romeo. KB1WMR calling CQ 20 meters. Hello CQ CQ CQ this is KB1WMR. Kilo Bravo One Whiskey Mike Romeo. KB1WMR calling CQ 20 meters and standing by for a call." Remember, don't say it too fast or too slow. You want to speak clear and slow enough they can copy what your saying, but not so slow they lose interest.

Someone just answered me! What do I do now!? Stay calm, this is usually when you get a, what I like to say, "brain fart". Your brain freezes and you can't think of what to say. What I did was print out a template for what I should say and ask him so if I ever forgot what to say, I'd just look on the template and remember. Don't make the template to extensive or you will get confused. Make it short and simple so you can say "Oh right! I remember now!"

What should be on the template: In this "normal response", your callsign will be KB1WMR, and the person you're talking to will be K1AUB. The normal response in CW goes like this: K1AUB DE KB1WMR FB FER CALL BT UR RST 599 599 BT NAME ETHAN ETHAN BT QTH NEAR BOSTON, MA NEAR BOSTON, MA BT HW CPY? K1AUB DE KB1WMR K. The normal response goes like that. After he says his information, you can usually proceed to tell him about your radios and antenna and the power your putting out, your age, etc. Just have fun. Ask him how the weather is. In CW, you say weather as "WX". But DEFINITELY, tell him you just got licensed or that he is your first QSO, because he will be ecstatic and more understanding if you are sending code nervously. Just make conversation.

I want to say goodbye, how do I do that? There is a certain way of saying goodbye. Here are a few words that you can say:

73- Goodbye
88- With Love
SK- Signed off (last thing you send)
GL- Good Luck
CU- See you
AGN- Again
HPE- Hope
GM- Good Morning
GA- Good Afternoon
GD- Good day
PSE- Please
HNY- Happy New Year
UR- Your or you're
FB- Fine Business
OM- Old Man
YL- Young Lady or any woman who is unmarried.

(These are some of the most used terms and are internationally recognized by hams).

Sometimes, you just don't want to talk to the person anymore. You usually just don't say "I don't want to talk to you anymore", but be more kind and say something like "Have to walk dog now" or "Wife just called for dinner". By the way, XYL is Wife.

If you are using phone (voice), you basically say the same thing, except don't say things like GL, because you can afford the time and say Good Luck. However, you do typically say "73".

Great! I finished my QSO! I'm done right? Not always... most people log their contacts and even said a "QSL card" to the person they made a contact with (traditionally by mail). It can be sent using online logging websites and by mail. By mail, you get a card by them, and many people such as myself enjoy collecting them. Click next to see how to get and send one...

Still a bit unsure on what to do? Look here: http://www.electronics-radio.com/articles/ham_radio/qso/hf-ham-contact.php

Step 4: Send a QSL Card

You've just finished your QSO. You're glad you finished talking, but even more glad you did it! So what now? Now, you log your contact. 

How do I log my contact? You can log your contact in two different ways, or both! By logging it online, or by logging it in a booklet. Both work. Some online logging websites are www.qrz.com and http://www.eqsl.cc/qslcard/Index.cfm. 

After you finished logging, you fill out a QSL card and send it to the person you made a contact with. If you do it by mail, you must get his home address. You can find it by going to www.qrz.com and creating an account, then searching his callsign. If you do it online, simply fill out the QSO information, click save, and your done! This way you can save the memories and details about your QSO forever. 

Thank you very much for reading this how-to make a QSO, and I hope I help as many people as I can with it. Don't be afraid to send me a message if you have questions. 

-Ethan
KB1WMR

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    60 Discussions

    US Amateur Transmitter Power Limits

    At all times, transmitter power must be the minimum necessary to carry out the desired communications. Unless otherwise noted, the maximum power output is 1500 watts PEP. Novice/Technicians are limited to 200 watts PEP on HF bands. Geographical power restrictions apply to the 630 meter, 70 centimeter, 33 centimeter and 23 centimeter bands.

    You need to review your instructions. I've been a ham since 1993 and the power limits has always been 1500 watts for Tech's. As shown above from ARRL.

    73's from W4DJD

    I have had my Tech ticket for a year and I still get nervous about making contacts, trying to work on that. Nice instructable tho. Studying for my General and Extra tickets. Notice to all future HAMs, try to find a Laurel VEC location near you, they do the test for free

    73 de KG7YTS

    1 reply

    Thank you KG7YTS!
    I found a location a couple of towns away. At $20 a pop, my family and I would have paid $100 on testing.

    Hah! I can use that on equipment. Much appreciated!

    Hi; I recently passed my Tech exam and will be taking my General in about a week. We purchased an IC-718 and I stumbled on your article. This was very helpful. I noticed some of your recommendations, and I think I'll continue with the same setup that you have (IC-718, SEC-1223 samlexpower). Based on your recommendation, we purchased the G4RC antenna. I haven't yet purchased the keyer or the manual tuner... but we will purchase that in the next couple weeks. I don't want to connect anything unless I know that I won't cause any damage to our devices due to ignorance. I was wondering if you have any instructions on setup and how to protect my devices? Also, since these was all purchased online (no stores nearby), do you have information on programming/tuning that may assist us? We really appreciate your help.

    Is there any way someone with a ham radio license can contact a former co-worker of mine, if I send them their call sign? I just want this person to contact me, I lost touch with them.

    If anyone can help me out, I would be so grateful.

    jay@jaydavis.com

    1 reply

    QRZ.com is considered the "white pages" of ham radio. At the very least, you should find your friend's postal address there. It's also possible that he or she may have recorded their email address on QRZ.com.

    Hi! I got a Tech license because of a search and rescue requirement. However, I am very interested doing more than being able to communicate while out on a search. I am looking into getting equipment, so thank you for your recommendations. A list really simplifies things! In the meantime, I was wondering if I can use my handheld radio for now? I have programmed in my local repeaters, but that is as far as I have gotten. I have a Baofeng UV 82c.

    Kim KC3SAR

    I can't tell you how much your article helped me! I just got my license and was so scared to use it that I just kept studying and taking the other tests. I ended up with an expert and no radio, no experience, nada. Too scared. So finally I called some local hams and just like you said - they were super nice, lent me a radio and walked me through my first contact.

    1 reply

    sorry, I'm very obviously not an "expert" at anything! I'm just excited! It's an extra class. I'm more excited about my contact than I was about passing the test.

    Nice to see such a thorough, well written and researched article. I got my first license in 1975, and at that time it was CW or Code only on High Frequency. I started with a wire antenna made from a design in one of the magazines, and a very, very old radio I bought for $25. Later on, I built several low power or QRP (under 5 watts) radios, and have talked to amateurs in about 159 countries. I studied for my Advanced ticket, which at the time had a much faster code requirement, and after that I was also able to use voice. It's a great hobby, fun at any age, and you don't need a lot of money to get started. Most hams are generous to newcomers, and will help out with the loan of equipment, or point you in the right direction to get some good second-hand gear. I've also been involved in several real emergency operations, where amateur radio was the only line of communication. It's been quite a while since 1975, and I'm still finding new projects to build, new people to meet both on the air and in person, and new ways of enjoying the hobby. With the Internet, we are incredibly fortunate in that so much excellent material on every aspect of amateur radio, from material needed to study for a first license, to plans for new projects and activities. One of the neatest is that many of the astronauts on the International Space Station are also amateurs, and it doesn't take much by way of equipment to chat with them. Thanks for a really good piece.

    2 replies

    Would also be nice to see an accurate reply. The general class license has always allowed voice on hf. You did not have to get an advanced license to operate voice. The general license required a written test and a 13 wpm code test. The advanced class license has been done away with. In 1975 there was a novice level license and there were voice frequencies on hf for them also. One thing that will get you ostracized on the Ham frequencies is repeating false information. Nobody minds mistakes, all make them, but all also like educated conversation. By the way for the "nice" police...this is nice.

    Your information is correct for the United States' licensing requirements and classes at those times. The license classes and exam requirements differed considerably when I received my first license, and have changed at different times and in different ways than those in the United States in the intervening years. When I was first licensed, there were only two classes of license in Canada, both requiring CW. A third, VHF-only class was added later, but it was ahighly technical examination with no CW. My information was not "false", but it was different, as I was licensed in another country with rules that did not mirror those in the United States. I think you will find that even now, both exams and licensing are different in our two countries. Canadian regulations and exams have changed at least 3 times since I received my license, and the examination is now much easier and is multiple-choice. Exams are now administered by experienced Amateurs who are "Designated Examiners" rather than by the Department of Communications.

    With greatest respect, the information I gave was neither false nor mistaken for the time of which I spoke. Certainly they have changed a great deal in the intervening 41 years, but exams and rules in the U.S. and Canada are still not mirror images. 73, VE6FD.

    does anyone know if operating a ham radio in europe is illegal? or can a license be obtained. also, are their two-way radios that operate on both FRS/GMRS and PMR446 frequencies? Or is it one or the other?

    Thanks!

    Very informative - DW7LFQ

    Great Information. Thanks. - N3VPP

    I tried to communicate on a Wouxun handheld using my GMRS call sign and had a guy telling someone I was trying to make contact with not to talk to me because I was an "unlicensed ham". I used the call sign when I keyed in so they heard it. I'm trying to figure this stuff out and this is the greeting I get. Not a very friendly bunch. And BTW I paid the FCC $90 for the GMRS license not the $15 it takes for a Technician Class so don't go getting all uppity on me about that. I tried to do things on the up and up and get flack. Having second thoughts about whether I want to pursue the Technician license now.

    1 reply

    SteveM111: GMRS and Amateur Radio are two completely different services.

    I'll try to explain as best I can, and by no means do I intend to sound "uppity" so please don't take it that way.

    The FCC service rules for the GMRS are located in 47 C.F.R. Part 95 Subpart A. More info can be found at:

    https://www.fcc.gov/general/general-mobile-radio-service-gmrs

    The Amateur service is governed under 47 C.F.R. Part 97 Subparts A thru F. More info on part 97 can be found at:

    http://www.ecfr.gov/cgi-bin/text-idx?SID=c1f1e71065a11f57c1b77147b302e541&mc=true&tpl=/ecfrbrowse/Title47/47cfr97_main_02.tpl

    GMRS is restricted to 25 separate channels between 462 MHz and 467 MHz whereas amateur radio spans several bands from just above the AM broadcast band up into microwave frequencies. Each of these services require separate licenses, licensing procedures and costs. There is no single license that "covers it all"

    If you have any questions related to ham radio please feel free to contact me. I hold an extra class license and am an instructor for our local club as well as an accredited volunteer examiner thru the ARRL.ORG

    Sorry I got long winded but I felt a thorough explanation was in order. Good Luck & keep 'ibling...FN...

    A couple of things-

    1- While Morse is certainly a good thing to know, you don't _have_ to know it to get your ham license. It's no longer on the test.

    2- You certainly don't have to _purchase_ a study guide. There a tons of free study guides and practice tests online. I used hamexam.org and some books from the library.

    3- You can get a brand new, very serviceable beginner handheld ham radio for less than $50, including a better antenna! It may not reach around the globe, but it's perfectly adequate for regional coverage and getting the hang of amateur radio. Plus, you can use it to assist in case of emergencies, something hams are justifiably proud of.

    I just got my technician ticket a week ago, and am looking forward to learning more about ARES and emergency communications.

    Mark KG7NZQ

    2 replies

    I bought a Baofeng HT a year ago and haven't deciphered the Chinglish manual yet...spent $20 more for a Yeasu FT 60R (needed new battery pack) on Craigslist and figured it out myself (not referring to the manual) in 5 minutes!!!

    Yes, the pamphlet that passes for a manual on the earlier BaoFengs is rubbish. There's a ton of information on the web, though. Best source for info on most of the inexpensive Chinese radios, including BaoFeng, is found at www.miklor.com, including a much better manual for the UV-5R.

    The newer BaoFengs, like the BF-F8 or UV-82, come with excellent, completely rewritten manuals, as well as better build quality and antennas. I still highly recommend them.