Introduction: Getting Started With Ham Radio
As a recently minted ham licensee, I want to pass along the process I took to get into ham radio. I was enticed by the self-reliance aspect of the hobby, giving folks a way to communicate when other methods are disrupted. But it's also rewarding to apply real science and get to meet actual humans in the process. I hope this guide helps you if you are interested in getting started in ham! And if you have more advice for beginners, please leave it in the comments below.
As my collection of ham goodies grows, I'm adding them to my Amazon list all about ham radio. So far here are the things that got me started:
- Technician Class manual
- Technician Q&A book
- Baofeng radio
- Antenna upgrade
- Programming cable
- General Class manual
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Step 1: Study
Since I’m already familiar with basic electronics, some of the concepts were easy to grasp. Other topics were completely new to me, like ham etiquette and the laws and regulations of radio. Wave behaviors stood out as particularly fun and novel to me– and I found an awesome old AT&T video about wave behaviors that helps illuminate the subject beautifully (embedded above).
Take practice tests online, which will help prep you for the balance of questions offered, since they are categorized and you'll only receive a certain number of questions from each category in your exam. For some of the harder questions, it will help to study the material but also to practice the specific questions that trip you up.
Step 2: Get a Radio and Listen In
I picked up a portable radio that I’ve seen commonly recommended as a first radio: it’s a BaoFeng UV-5R (3rd generation) (with upgraded antenna). I looked up the times and frequencies of some nets in my local area and tuned my radio to listen in. I found it helpful to pick up a programming cable, so I could program my local repeaters and stations into my radio’s memory. Listening to traffic nets made for a great backdrop for study sessions, as it provided motivation. To check in myself, I'd have to pass my test first!
Step 3: Take the License Exam
One important thing to know about filing for a license: the address you use to apply will be published in the FCC database, so use a PO box if you don’t want to make your home address public.
I took the exam in Brooklyn, in the conference room of a hospital admin building. Five proctors lead the exams, which they scored using templates made from punched out pieces of plastic. I sat next to a pre-teen boy taking a more advanced level test.
I paid a $15 fee in cash and a proctor checked my ID and checked that my calculator was cleared if it was capable of being programmed (no smartphone calculators are allowed). The certificate form was an old-school carbon copy document with three layers. I filled out another form and also the info box on my answer sheet. Scrap paper for calculations was offered to us, but I had brought my own like the website instructed me to. A proctor distributed the test booklets and asked us not to write on them. We recorded our answers on the answer sheet, coloring in pencil to cover up the letter corresponding to the selected answer.
I passed the test! My call sign is KD2SSU. If you pass, you receive the opportunity to take the next level exam right away. I didn’t pass, but hey, I didn’t study or pay extra, either. But now I’ve got the General class manual and am studying for the next level exam myself, which will unlock some HF bands.
Step 4: Socialize
I talked about my studies on Twitter and Instagram, and found an outpouring of friendly support, call signs, and 73s. I was surprised how many of my friends have their licenses, so maybe you will be too!
So far, from my house, I can only communicate with my closest repeater if I go outside on the roof. So I’m already making plans to put an antenna up there and run the cable inside, so I can make better use of my license in less than ideal weather. I recommend checking in to a local net to practice using your new call sign.
Step 5: Learn More
If you’re already a ham, please let me know your call sign in the comments below!
Here are some other resources that may be useful in your ham learning journey:
- National Association for Amateur Radio (ARRL)
- How to Talk to Someone Using Ham Radio
- Program your BaoFeng radio with your local stations
- NYC local area VHF and UHF nets
Thanks for reading along! If you like this guide, you may be interested in some of my others:
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- Soldering Clean Wire Splices
- 3 Beginner Arduino Mistakes
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