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.
I’m considering taking the test. Thanks for making it seem less intimidating.
You’re welcome! The Technician test really isn’t that hard. Study and you’ll do just fine!
Greetings and salutations. Congrats on achieving your desire to become a licensed ham radio operator. If you can, go on to become a general class operator, it will open up the world for you. Enjoy your radios, the FT-60 is a good choice for getting to know the ins and outs of the radio world.
I am considering that very thing in fact. I’ve been making some contacts both locally and via Echolink, and it’s fun! Especially if it’s too cold out and I’d enjoy someone to talk to.
Welcome to the Ham world! A few years back several of us Seniors grouped up to get ham licensed. We felt the need to provide real-time emergency information (gathered from scanners and a variety of sources) to our community during wildland fires. Our cell service is spotty and our landlines unreliable. Plus our area experiences frequent power outages. A local, more experienced Ham, gave free classes for our little group. The subject matter was somewhat daunting when none of us had any real radio experience. I am happy to say all our over age 65 age group passed, first time tested. We practice weekly/monthly as a group. We’ve also encouraged many in the community to get handheld radios to ‘listen in’, and that works reasonably well. One thing we have learned, is that when all other forms of communications fail, Amateur Radio works. If it’s on your Prepper to-do list, then get started and don’t quit. Plus, if you plan to move into a more rural location, Ham radio can be a real door-opener into the local community as you become an instant asset as a licensed Ham. Here’s an example of Ham radio folks saving a life: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EDwKfqExDz4
Oh yeah! I stumbled on to the local ARES business meeting last week, and it was interesting. After the meeting I called CQ and received some instruction on hitting repeaters a few hundred miles away. I’m also making a few contacts via EchoLink. At the very least it helps cure the lonelys! And yes, the more skills I can offer the more of an asset I’ll be to a group. I’m thinking to study and sit for my General in Spring.
Amy, my experience was similar though slightly different. One of the local Ham clubs offers a crash course/same day testing. I didn’t have access to the book, and went in sight unseen for the material. I do have a strong electronics background, so some of the material was just common electronics knowledge.
I do have to say, the Instructor knew the material backwards, forwards and upside down, and would spend a portion of the breaks helping those having trouble with sections.
I bought our radios several years ago as well (Baofeng UV82HPs), primarily for use with the Community Emergency Response Team we organized. HAM radios offer a little more frequency security than Citizen Band units.
Since then we’ve moved, and where we are at now, I’m going to need to set up a better antenna and signal amplifier than just the radios themselves are capable of ( even though the 82HP’s have higher wattage than the regular UV82’s).
Congratulations on passing, and maybe once I get a better Amp/Antenna array going we’ll have a chat.
KILO-FOXTROT-OUGHT-HOTEL-INDIA-YANKEE (KF0HIY) signing out.
Indeed, who’s to say? See you on the airwaves! Forgive me that I don’t want to publish my call sign here. 73 and clear.
Welcome to the Ham world. I got my General about 3 years ago. Not alot of women in the field. I was 65 years old at the time.
Indeed, there seems to be mostly older men. With all of the digital technologies there doesn’t seem to be much use for ham. Until an emergency, that is. And it’s definitely better to learn how to do it BEFORE you need it. Lots of buttons on those radios!
The Amateur Radio Club of the National Electronics Museum ( ARCNEM ) offers online / zoom classes periodically. They also record the classes and save online so you can rewatch as many times as you like.
Here is the link: • https://www.k3nem.org/
I took the Extra class through them and that is really the only way I could have passed. Very knowledgeable people.
QSL (Message received) Congratulations! I took the tests from my tech and general last Dec. I found QRZ.com online and they had a jumpstart program that gave away a bunch of free radios to anyone who had passed their test in the last month. I got their handheld radio, programming software, videos online to show me how to program the radio using my computer, and free membership in QRZ for a month. You can setup a webpage if you like and log all your calls there. Like you, I had a cheap Baofeng handheld radio that I didn’t know how to use or how to program in calls. The tech test taught me how to use my radio and learn how repeaters work so it all started to make sense. After I got the QRZ radio and programmed my radio, I learned how to program my other radio with CHIRP, a free online software. All I had to do was do the same thing I watched on youtube. You have to be careful not to mix your radios up and try to program one radio with the program for the other one or you could lock up your radio. Now I have several radios and can pass them out in case of an emergency with instructions that they can only be used in an emergency situation unless they get licensed. Transmitting a message using a ham radio in emergencies can be done by anyone. Anyone can listen anytime. Once licensed anyone can do all the other fun things anytime they want and there is a lot you can do. It’s amazing what a radio for under $25 will do. Using repeaters I contacted Australia, across the Pacific. That’s not bad.
73 (regards) QRZ
Thank you so much for this article and info!!!! I have been interested in learning ham for a couple of years, but there are no ham organizations within a 300 mile radius of where I live, according to the ARRL site. Will definitely be looking into the online options!!!
Thanks for a great article and references.
Would be nice to comply a list of prepper frequencies,call names , locations as well as extremely popular websites . Ex sgt report , x22 report ,and we know , etc.
Congrats and welcome to ham radio, Amy!
Older folks who may have been tempted to become a ham “way back when,” but were intimidated by the requirements for licensing, should take another look. I know what it was like back then, as I’ve been licensed since 1975 and got my General ticket “the hard way.” Getting the “Technician” license is NOT HARD. The theory and rules part of things have been simplified. There’s no more Morse Code requirement. A couple of 2-hour weekend classes, a little studying, and a test are all that are standing between you and your ticket.
I’ve talked to many people who buy VHF/UHF handhelds with the attitude of “When the S hits the F, all bet are off, and I can use the radio as I wish.” That may or may not be true. You may be able to get away with this, but two things will come into play. For one, there will be many hams on the air. The repeaters will be busy, and they WILL be controlled. You may be able to make yourself known on the repeater in an emergency, but you will NOT be recognized otherwise. You will be asked for your call sign. If you don’t have one, you’ll be shown the door. If you use a fake one, it will only be minutes before you’re found to be lying, and will again be ignored. For another, there is more to using ham radio than turning it on and keying up. IT’S NOT CB!!! It is WAY BETTER to get licensed, get on the air, and figure things out when everything’s more or less normal than it is to try to communicate with your stress, the situation, and the congestion of the repeaters factored in.
Take the test. Get the license. Get on the air!
…And that Yaesu FT-60R is a GREAT radio for everyday use! It’s tough, reliable, and fairly cheap. I have three of them and they’ve served me well for YEARS. Get at least one spare battery. That way you can use one battery for a week and then swap it with the other. The battery will last longer this way. The Baofeng radio is a good choice if you’re not sure how committed you are to ham radio, or simply can’t afford a Yaesu, Kenwood, or Icom. I’m not being a radio snob here. I have a few Baofengs as well. They WILL get you on the air.
Just know this going in; when you pay $35.00 for a radio, you’re not going to get a $175.00 radio. You’re going to get a $35.00 radio. They are NOT very tough. They’re not friendly to program, and the “manual” is USELESS. They can be touch and go on reliability. In fact, if you’re going to go with one of these, TRY IT upon receipt to be sure it WORKS! A common experience is that it’ll either work great out of the box, or it won’t work at all. Like I said; I’m not being a snob here, but the Baofeng radios are what they are. One way or another, GET ON THE AIR NOW!!!