Ham basics #3: How do I become a ham?

Oh, that’s easy. Just put on your best Shakespearean English accent, and belt out, “To be, or not to…”

Wait. Not that kind of ham? Oops. Sorry. :)

(Note: Most of the information that follows is specific to the United States. If you’re seeking to be a ham in a country other than the U.S., please follow the procedures for your particular country.)

Just like when you learned to drive, you had to pass an exam to get your license or learner’s permit. To prepare for it, you had to know the rules of the road, what the road signs mean, what to do if you start skidding, etc. Because amateur radio gives you such power, there are rules of the airwaves that you need to follow. Like, for instance, when you have to transmit your callsign when you’re on the air (every 10 minutes, and at the end of your transmission).

You also need to demonstrate some basic knowledge of how radio transmission works. Continuing with our driver’s license analogy, you didn’t need to know what an exhaust manifold or PVC valve was to get your license. You just needed to know a few basics. For instance, it needs gas to run. You need to put in oil in and change it every so many months. And if you try to run your car without spark plugs, ya ain’t goin’ nowhere. To get your ham radio license, you’ll need to know some similar things. You’ll need to know what voltage, resistance, and current are; you’ll need to know some electrical safety. Enough that you can operate a radio transmitter safely.

And the best thing about it? You have access to the test questions themselves, and the answers.

In some states, the question pool for your driver’s license test is public. In Hawaii, an orange Driver’s Manual is sold in general merchandise stores throughout the islands. In the same way, the entire question pool of 396 questions, divided into 35 sections, is available through a variety of ways, including the Internet. All you really need to do is learn the questions and answers. Your exam will consist of 35 questions, one from each section.

It’s not as hard as you think. Give yourself several weeks if you’re doing it by yourself, and learn a few questions a day. In about a month you’ll have most of the questions under your belt.

Try these study guides:

  • AH0A’s Technician Study Guide: This guide lists all the questions in the pool, but the answers are written in sentence form.
  • The ARRL Ham Radio License Manual: A comprehensive textbook explaining all the concepts on the exam. Includes the entire question pool. (Note: Get the 2nd edition. The 1st edition is out of date.)
  • ARRL’s Tech Q&A: By the same author of the license manual, except just the questions and annotated answers.

For practice exams, I recommend hamexam.org. It learns your mistakes and gives them to you more often so you can really nail down your weak points.

When it comes time for you to take your exam, make arrangements with a volunteer examiner team to take your exam. (The FCC doesn’t administer exams – teams of accredited volunteer hams administer and grade exams for the FCC.) There are three VE teams on the island of Oahu. Each organizes exams about once every two months on average.

Good luck on your exam! We hope to hear you on the air really soon! And if you’ve passed, go on to the next page.

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