I sat for my first ham radio license yesterday as of this writing. I passed with a score of 34/35. Although it’s a pass/fail thing, I’m happy to see that my efforts studying weren’t wasted. Soon I’ll be able to practice with my new to me Yaesu FT60R. I do have a Baofeng UV5R purchased a number of years ago, but the Yaesu is easier to program, and since I bought it from a local ham, it came with the local repeater frequencies pre-programmed.
I did this because ham radio works in an emergency when the cell phone towers don’t. The Cajun Navy used ham to coordinate rescue activities post-Katrina. They’ve moved on to social media since then but can always fall back to ham if necessary. They’re credited with saving 10,000 lives post-Katrina. Bob Griswold used a ham radio to save a life during a bike race.The fact is that ham radio works where cell phones do not.
But I’m here to tell you: this isn’t the easiest skill to learn. Therefore, it seems better to me to learn it BEFORE I need it. Read on to learn about my journey, strategy, and the resources I used to get my Technician license.
How I decided to jump into ham radio
I’d been thinking about this for a while, mostly due to reading articles here on tOP and hanging out in the preppersphere. Our First World society relies heavily on technology. All it takes is a good hurricane, tornado, or attack on the local cell phone network to take that stuff out, leaving us without a reliable means to communicate. How do we contact our family? How do we gain the information we need in order to survive, not only immediately post-collapse but after death has cleared out the suckers?
(Other reasons to learn about ham can be found here.)
The first thing I needed was learning material.
Many people, including myself, can read a book, but I freelance in the publishing industry. I get paid to read until my eyes are falling out, so reading more isn’t my first choice when I log off for the day. There are a number of online platforms for studying ham radio, though, and I eventually settled on Ham Radio Prep.
The video format suits my learning style, they have many games, practice quizzes, and full practice exams, and the price was good. Buying the full package also includes a “Baofeng Basics” course, which I needed because the Baofeng user manual isn’t terribly user-friendly. I also acquired both of Aden’s manuals as study aids.
The first of Aden’s manuals provides an excellent overview of the various forms on radio, including ham, GMRS, FRS, and MURS. The language of physics is translated into a very readable form there, too. The exam book uses picture aids to help retain the information.
The Cartoon Ham Exam Handbook is now available in paperback on Amazon. Go here to find out how you can get a free gift for buying it this weekend!
There are over 400 questions in the pool that the test is drawn from randomly.
The more I studied, the better I felt.
However, I soon noticed that Ham Radio Prep was very much teaching to the test. All of the information is there, but their method helps memorize the answers more than learning the information. That’s a bit sloppy IMO. I’d rather understand how to do stuff.
A bit more research led me to https://hamexam.org/. This site is free to use and offers flashcards, more in-depth and difficult practice exams, and the question pool for perusal. They also have phonetic alphabet flash cards! If you create an account, you’ll have access to statistics that are broken down by lesson. (Ham Radio Prep does this, also.)
Lastly, I downloaded the American Radio Club practice exam app from the App Store. So, I had three sources for practice exams. My study strategy was simple: I went through all of the lessons on Ham Radio Prep, then started taking practice exams. Whichever section I flunked out the worst on, I went back to that lesson and reviewed the material, then took another full practice exam. I went on in this vein for perhaps two weeks, 30 minutes or so every evening, until I was scoring well enough on the practice exams to feel ready for the real one. This translates into an average score of 85% on my practice exams. 74% is a passing grade, and the exams are multiple-choice. At that point, I had to find an exam.
(Getting involved in ham radio is a great way to learn how to starve the beast. You can learn more tips on how to do that by reading our free QUICKSTART Guide on the subject here.)
Here’s where the real fun started!
There are two basic options for taking a ham exam: in-person and online. Since I don’t drive, online sounded pretty good, so I started looking around for one. I used the ARRL site, and, yes, got my FRN# and CORES registration squared away.
It turns out there are a number of viable options for an online exam, and since the closest in-person exam I could find was 150 miles away, I dug a bit more into their requirements. Let me summarize, and if you don’t believe me, check out these proctors. Click on any of their websites to learn their procedures. It’s instructive, to say the least. That is how I found HamExam, in fact. A lovely representative sample of online exam requirements is here.
To summarize the procedure for an online ham radio exam very shortly:
- The applicant is advised to take the exam in a closet or bathroom. Home offices aren’t really preferred.
- The applicant will remove all posters, waste baskets, books, hats, wristwatches, and anything else that could even remotely be construed as helping with the exam.
- The applicant will require two devices with Zoom running: the computer for the exam and a cell phone or tablet set such that the VECs can see you at all times. No virtual backgrounds are allowed. You’ll also use that device to show them the entire room, including pulling back your shower curtain.
- Your eyes will not leave the screen, and there can be no other applications open on your computer during the exam session.
- Phone calculators are not allowed, but the calculator app on your computer can be opened and should be positioned on your screen upper left. Shrinking my browser to fit would make it really difficult for me due to my peculiar vision problems, but that’s the demand. I resolved to take this on my backup computer since they didn’t want study materials anywhere nearby, and Aden’s books are PDFs.
- Pets or people entering the exam room during the session will invalidate the exam, and a new session will be required. No refunds for the $15 fee.
And the more I read about online exams, the less I wanted to deal with them. Surely there’s a better way! I went sleuthing.
One of the benefits of my job is that my Internet sleuthing skills are well-honed.
The ARRL search function has its quirks, so I started Googling local ham clubs in my area. Sure enough, I found one! As it turns out, they’re not in the ARRL database for in-person exams since they don’t really schedule those according to ARRL advertising requirements. This club does them on more of an on-demand basis.
Would I be willing to come to the VECs house? I was told they’d travel in certain circumstances. Eventually, my exam was scheduled for January 7. We didn’t feel that doing this over the holidays was particularly favorable, and this turned out to be true. I was shoveling snow in -34 F on Christmas Day. That’s not good weather to drive in.
A few days before my exam, I was asked to come earlier to a different location, the local college, where they held their meetings. That suited me fine, and as it turned out, there was another guy taking his technician exam as well. The VECs were friendly and helpful. They weren’t interested in my shower surround, nor did I have to remove my wristwatch. I was even allowed to bring a bottled soda into the room! Luxury!
All I had to do was fill in the answers while they yakked up a storm in the background. No big! I came, I sat, and I passed. One of them had an old radio for sale that I liked and purchased, cash. He had also informed me that Uber is much cheaper than a cab these days, which it turned out to be, so my ride in wasn’t the stiff poke in the wallet it might have been. Turns out that he made good money last year driving for Uber, to the point of having to pay in taxes at age 67.
I listen to old people. They know stuff. And here I am, a newly minted Technician license! As soon as I’m in the FCC database, I can transmit and start making connections. Until then, I’ll just listen and learn how to work my radio. That’s not the kind of thing I want to be fiddling with under the stress of an emergency.
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So there you have it! My journey to my ham radio license in a nutshell.
It wasn’t that hard. I’m not a physics nerd. I had to take college chemistry twice in order to pass, in fact. So if I can do it, you can do it! Go for it!
Do you have your ham license? Share thoughts, tips, and experiences in the comments below!
About Amy Allen
Amy Allen is a professional bookworm and student of Life, the Universe, and Everything. She’s also a Master Gardener with a BS in biology, and has been growing food on her small urban lot since 2010.