Getting Your Ham Radio License: The Ultimate Guide for 2021

Table of Contents


Introduction

The time has finally arrived: you’re ready to get on the air, for one reason or another. You’ve got your equipment ready (visit our online store if you don’t), but there’s one final hurdle: the ham radio license test.

You might be wondering why you even need a license in the first place. It’s a valid question, but here’s the answer: getting a ham radio license is a great way to educate yourself on all the ins and outs of amateur radio, from knowing the tech to following the etiquette. If you’re looking to take the exam, then you probably already have some background knowledge on amateur radio. 

Look at it this way: having a license is proof positive that you know what you’re talking about and have the chops to back it up. Not that you have anything to prove, but hey, people respect the badge.

If you're looking to start with DMR (or digital mobile radio), you will also need to get yourself a DMR ID. You can find out how to knock that out quickly by signing up for our quick 3-step DMR guide below. (It's free!)


How Do I Qualify for the Exam?

You will need the following:

  • US mailing address
    • To qualify for an amateur radio license, you’ll need a valid US mailing address. This could be either your home address, or a P.O. box in case you’d rather keep some distance
      • A valid Taxpayer Identification Number, like a Social Security Number (SSN) or FCC Registration Number (which you can find out more about here.)

      Chapter 1: How to Choose Your License Level

      What license level do I need?

      The first step when trying to get your ham license is to figure out which license level you need. There are three different levels, each described below.

      Technician

      The Technician License is the first level license, which gives you basic access to VHF and UHF. This is a great option when you’re starting out with handheld radios for the first time.

      What can I do with a Technician license?

      A Technician class license is perfect for the casual amateur radio operator. If you’re looking to connect and chat with other hams, you’ll be fine with just a Technician license.

      So what’s on the technician level exam?

      It comes to 35 total questions (from a pool of 400 possible questions) about radio theory, regulations and operating practices. There are plenty of resources out there for the specific topics you’ll be tested on, like these free amateur radio license test study resources on our website. 

       

      General

      The General class license opens up access to many HF (high-frequency) bands, enabling you to engage in nationwide & even worldwide communication. 

      What can I do with a General license?

      A General license is an excellent choice if you’re interested in emergency communications, or EMCOMM. You can learn more about EMCOMM (and the best equipment for it) by watching our short video on the topic. Basically, a General license guarantees that you have the expertise to be prepared for emergency communication over HF bands.

      It’s a lot of work, but it’s very worth it.

      Emergencies aside, a General license is also what you’ll need if you’re interested in talking globally over shortwave radio.

      Like the Technician level exam, the General exam comprises 35 questions, but chosen from a greater pool of 500 possible questions. You can review the question pool here, along with flash cards and a practice exam.

       

      Amateur Extra

      The Extra license is the highest offered class by the FCC.

      What can I do with an Extra license?

      It gives you access to ALL frequencies allocated to amateur service, including additional HF frequencies previously unavailable.

      Some other perks of an Extra license include:

      • A shorter call sign
      • Full operating privileges when travelling to CEPT countries
      • The ability to volunteer as an examiner for all ham license exam levels
      • Excellent on resumes and important for obtaining a Certified Broadcast Technologist certification
      • An opportunity to master a hobby and obtain the prestige that comes with it! 

      The Extra ham license test presents you with 50 questions out of a possible 700 question pool, so you’ll want to know your stuff before attempting it. As with the others, check out our study resources so you can begin broadcasting where you please.

       

      So how do I know which license I need?

      That’s entirely up to you! But know that if you want to pursue a General or Extra amateur ham radio license, you’ll need to acquire the Technician level certification before you can move on to higher certifications. Likewise, you will need a General before you qualify to take the Extra.

      Think of each license as a stepping stone to the next, and before long you’ll have reached true Elmer status. 



      Chapter 2: How to Prepare for the Ham Exam 

      How do I study for the ham exam?

      Take an online class

      When we tell you there are tons of online courses to help you with this exam, we aren’t joking. From free flashcards and practice exams to paid courses, you’ll have resources and experts by your side the entire time.

      Read the literature

      If you’re less inclined to learn online, there’s plenty of physical material out there to get your hands on. For those looking to start studying right away, check out the KB6NU License Study Guides by Dan Romanchik. You can download the Technician Guide PDF for free in the product description. Simply download the PDF and hit the print button at the top right of the page to get your hands on it with no hassle. While you're there, the General and Extra Guides are available for less than $10 total (on the same page!)

      Also, there are free mobile apps!

      For learning on the go, Ham Radio Prep offers a free mobile app for Android and iOS that serves as a wonderful studying tool to add to your repertoire of resources.


      How much should I study for a ham license?

      Naturally, this depends on which license you’re trying to get. The Technician exam is considered relatively simple and should only take around 10 hours of study to be able to pass. The General exam kicks it up a notch with a recommended study time of 20 hours, and the Extra exam will have you studying approximately 30+ hours before you’ll be prepared to tackle it.


      Chapter 3: You’ve Got This

      Am I ready to take the ham license test?

      Let’s review. You’ve been studying hard for the past week or two (or three, depending on the license you’re aiming for). You’ve memorized your flashcards and you can pass the practice exams with flying color codes. You’re ready. But wait, hold on. Where do I even take the ham exam?

      Where to take it

      You have several options.

      The easiest way to take the test is by simply doing it online. You can choose from a long list of options on the ARRL website here.

      You can also take the test in-person, but the coronavirus pandemic has limited your options temporarily. Some exam sites remain online-only, but more are beginning to open up with social distancing measures in place. You can search for areas to take the test near you by visiting this page on the ARRL website and providing your zip code.

      What do I need to bring with me to the ham license test?

      When attending an in-person exam, you will want to bring at least two forms of identification, including at least one photo ID. A driver’s license or employer identification card will work just fine. You will also need your Social Security number. Aside from the IDs, bring a couple of pencils, a calculator, and some scratch paper (just make sure it’s blank).

      The exam proper will take somewhere between 15 minutes and an hour to complete, though if you’re shooting for the Extra license it could take longer. Thankfully, there is no time limit, so there’s no need to stress about finishing in time.



      Conclusion

      Congratulations on your new ham radio license!

      You’re finally ready to hit the airwaves. Or, hit the airwaves across the world, depending on where you’re at in the process. Regardless of whether you’ve become a Technician or achieved an Extra license, it’s an accomplishment to be proud of, one that’s recognized by the ham community at large.

      We hope this guide was helpful in getting you there, one way or another. For any more questions about amateur radio, contact our team. Our in-house customer & tech support is always available to help you get on the airwaves as soon as possible.

      If you now find yourself with a license but lacking in tech, we welcome you to check out our online shop and start upgrading your rig to match your new title.

      Welcome aboard, captain. 73.