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How to Obtain Your Amateur Radio License

when-all-else-fails-2This article will provide you some information on how to study for, and obtain, your Amateur Radio license.


The Amateur Radio (aka “ham”) licenses are issued by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) and are issued in three classes; Technician, General, Amateur Extra (usually just called Extra).  Each license class brings increasing privileges of frequencies that can be used.  There are three grandfathered licenses classes called Novice, Technician Plus and Advanced.  The Novice license was issued to those who passed the (old) 5 word per minute Morse code test, but not the written test for the Technician.  The Technician Plus was issued to Technicians who passed the 5 wpm Morse test.  The Advanced was a class between the General and Extra.  There is no longer a Morse code test for any of the license classes.



Testing for the FCC license is conducted by at least three volunteer examiners, otherwise known as VE’s.  VE’s submit test results through a Volunteer Examiner Coordinator, also otherwise known as VEC’s.  The VEC is an organization that creates and administers tests based on FCC guidelines, and submits test results to the FCC.  The FCC authorizes the VEC’s to charge a fee for administering exams, currently up to $15.  The fee is per sitting of the exam, in other words if you pass the Technician you can take the General for the same fee.  In fact you could take all three exams for $15 if you pass the preceding one. However, if you fail one you have to pay an additional fee to retake it the same day, if the team allows retakes (with the exception of Laurel VEC as noted below).  You have to answer a certain amount of questions correctly to pass each licensing test, which is listed below:

The Technician exam is 35 questions, you need to get 26 correct to pass.

The General exam is 35 questions, you need to get 26 correct to pass.

The Amateur Extra is 50 questions, you need to get 37 correct to pass.

The license is good for 10 years.  If you wish to renew you simply apply to the FCC.

There are a number of VEC’s, the two most commonly known ones are the Amateur Radio Relay League (ARRL) and W5YI, Laurel is another VEC that started with the Laurel Maryland Amateur Radio Club, Laurel is the only group that doesn’t charge for exams.  Local clubs or test teams affiliate with a VEC.  Test teams list exams on local ham club web sites and at some of these web sites:

There are some slightly different rules for the different teams.  Laurel teams, because they don’t charge, can allow you to retake a test you fail several times (if they have time and have different copies of the exams).  Non-Laurel VE teams usually charge for each attempt at the same exam.  Once you pass an exam at one level you can take the next level exam.  Laurel allows you to take any exam in any order.  However, if you pass a General exam but not the Technician you will not be issued an Amateur call sign until you pass the Technician.

If you need assistance with exams, such as having someone read it to you, contact the test team ahead of time.  There are provisions for accommodation but usually a team needs notice to set this up.



There are a number of web sites that offer free study material and sample tests.  Text books are also available, with ARRL and W5YI (Gordon West) being the most common ones.  Ham Radio Outlet (HRO) is a ham store that is in a number of major cities, I suggest that if you have one nearby you look at the different books and see which one suits your learning style the best.

Some web sites with study material include:  (very good reading material)

There are several videos available on YouTube:

ARRL Technician study

Gordon West Technician study

VIDEO CLASSES for ALL THE TESTS   By David Casler    (these are very good)



First of all if you have never held a FCC license (such as for a GMRS license) you need to obtain your FCC registration number) FRN.  This is your unique number for the FCC database.  PRINT A COPY OF YOUR FRN.

Next, go to one the VEC sites listed above and look for tests in your area.  Some teams require preregistration, some allow walk-ins.  If they ask for preregistration it is strongly suggested that you preregister.  In many cases this helps the teams ensure they have sufficient space and exams.  Some teams use software and this allows them to import your information, making the test process much quicker.  If the team is not a Laurel VE team make sure you take cash in dominations to pay the test fee.

When you go to test you are allowed to take a calculator, but you will be required to show that the memory is empty.  Also take along several #2 pencils and a government issued ID.  I strongly suggest you leave your cell phone in your car.  In most cases you are not allowed to have your cell phone on while the test is being conducted.



You will receive a Certificate of Successful Completions of Examination (CSCE) when you take your test.  You may begin using your new Technician privileges as soon as your name and call sign appear in the FCC database.  If you tested with a Laurel team your information is submitted electronically to the FCC on the next business day and usually your call sign is assigned within hours of the submission, meaning you will be able to get on the air almost immediately.  You do not need your license in hand to begin using your Technician privileges, it just has to appear in the FCC database.  The FCC no longer issues paper licenses so you can go online and print from their database.  You can check the FCC database here. 

If you previously had a Technician or General class and upgraded you can begin using your new privileges as soon as you pass.  The bottom of the Certificate of Successful Completions of Examination indicates the actions you need to take to correctly identify your station until the upgrade appears in the FCC database.



Getting your license is the first step to becoming a ham, there is much more to learn and many hobbies within the hobby.  Understanding how repeaters work, linked repeater systems, digital mobile radio, D-STAR, Echolink and IRLP, all of which may be in the area where you live.  This will be subject of a future article.

Selecting a radio can be a challenge, if you ask 10 hams what to buy you will get 15 different answers.  Most new hams start with a handheld, and right now usually a Baofeng as they are cheap.  Radio selection will be subject of another article in the near future.



A web search should reveal clubs in your area.  You will probably find they have a repeater, or several.  You should not have any trouble finding an “Elmer” – an experienced ham who is willing to give you advice.  Your Elmer can help you program radios and may give you advice on what to look for in a radio including the different radio (repeater) systems that are in your area.  A local club might also run classes for licenses.



Don’t stop learning.  As I mentioned earlier your Technician license is just the beginning, there are many aspects to ham radio.  You can get into digital messaging, support public service events, support community emergencies, talk long distance on HF radio with no other infrastructure, bounce signals off Amateur satellites as well as the moon and a number of other hobbies.  Don’t stop with just your Technician license.  Getting your General license gives you access to HF bands, giving you the ability to talk within your state, state to state and worldwide with just your radio equipment.  This is an essential skill in an emergency to be able to keep CPT’s in touch with state leadership, and state leadership in touch with other states and national leadership.



Your state CPT may have established programs for comms.  Colorado has developed a 3-tier comms program.  In level 1 we teach basic radio using the simple Baofeng radios, team comms, how to program and the difference between simplex and repeater use, what frequencies you can use with and without a ham license and how to get your ham license.  At are levels 2 and 3 we teach HF digital comms, antennas for different applications and how to pass messages digitally.  We also teach how to send messages securely, using encryption techniques that can’t be broken, although these cannot be used over FCC controlled frequencies.


This article was intended as a ‘primer’ to get you started with your Technician license.  I hope you have found this useful.  Good luck with obtaining your Technician license and I hope to catch you on the air sometime.



The Author has over 36 years in the public safety environment, including law enforcement and 27 years as a paramedic and instructor. His communications experience includes tactical communications, interoperability and cryptology. He has developed communications plans for numerous planned and unplanned events and operations as well as response and continuity of operations (COOP) plans. He is experienced in planning and conducting exercises to evaluate emergency plans. He has been a licensed Amateur Radio operator for over 20 years As a law enforcement officer he was a specialist in public disorder events, including part of a special response team and police tactical medic, and responded a several large riots. As a paramedic he has taken courses in wilderness and tactical medicine and technical rope rescue. He has worked in urban and remote settings and was a member of a mountain search and rescue team in Alaska. He is an experienced instructor and has taken & taught numerous levels of medical courses. He has developed courses in wilderness first aid and survival and tactical medicine for different levels of providers. He has developed the CPT medical, communications and preparedness courses for Colorado Oath Keepers. He is currently the state training coordinator for Oath Keepers of Colorado.



  1. I have been presenting this topic at Hamfests and Conventions the past 15 years here in Arizona.
    It is well attended and does help those who are becoming involved with Ham Radio for the first time. What else is needed are ambassadors that mentor newly-licensed Hams and connect them to activities and organizations they can enjoy and expand their interests.
    de: W7RAP ARRL Asst. Section Manager , AZ Section

    1. Our VE team provides them a lists of local clubs and we also run a very informal net Monday evenings, right after they would have received their license. Some of our VE’s ‘elmer’ the newbies as they are affiliated with a club and/or our VE’s are from a wide area so usually there is someone local.

  2. Follow Comm-Medic and his guidline, thanks, best i’ve read, even for an old timer. Since 1966, vast changes. The world of HAM radio… is the WORLD. One can speak to someone in Australia as easily as jawjacking over the fence to a neighbor. For any group, commo is a must, be a part of it, at any level you can. A thrilling challenge. One thing i’m wrestling with now is up dating with FCC. It’s bad enough advertising yourself by way of your equipment, (modified 100 ft. “sky raker”) let alone giving yourself away to the government. Leaves a bad taste. Would appreciate thoughts on this. Thanks again
    — .. .-.. – DO DAH DO DAH

    1. Can’t do much about the antenna unless you go ‘stealth’ but not always the most efficient. Obviously when SHTF stealth is the way. IMO a long wire I can throw one end up a tree quickly with a pulley, pull it up, transmit then take down. Or up at night, down by day.

      As far as the FCC goes – get a PO Box and use that address. The rule is ‘somewhere you can regularly get mail.’

      1. I know I am going to take a lot of “heat” for this statement, but I do not want to give the FCC ANY info about me! What “they” don’t know won’t hurt them!

      2. I understand your reluctance, however, we need to follow the law as it stands. With that in mind it is also essential to practice, there are skills to being able to program a radio, pass messages in a clear and concise manner so that you don’t have to repeat messages, and there are skills in being able to talk on HF and use some of the digital modes that work even when the atmospheric conditions prohibit voice communications.

        If you get on any ham frequencies without a license you will be very quickly identified. The ham community policies their frequencies, and because of this they are not like the CB channels. The ham community is very good at direction finding. Once someone is found the FCC is very quick to take care of illegal transmitters.
        If you don’t want to get a ham license then you are limited to 1/4 watt FRS radios which are good for about 1/2-1 mile in ideal conditions.

      3. Well now, getting a PO box number does deflect attention from your home address. Of course, in a SHTF scenario, all bets are off.

  3. PLEASE HELP!! I know absolutely nothing about this sort of thing. When the SHTF, What do you do? Maybe a couple of Gov. controlled out lets on or maybe not. DO I just need a good short wave radio and batteries stored away in a Faraday cage and dial in all short wave on my radio? OR? K.I.S.S. thanks.

    1. Waiting for SHTF is not the way to go. As with any preparedness skill you need to learn and practice BEFORE you need it.
      A good short wave radio and a good scanner will provide you intel but will not allow you to communicate with your local CPT or others around your county, state, the country or the world.
      You can follow the steps above or if you are really stuck as to where to start you can message or email me at and I’ll help you find a local group where you live.

  4. Great Article. Keep ’em coming. I have not taken the plunge yet, but I am thinking about it. Thanks

  5. Thanks People, i like the up by night, down by day. Going horizontal was very troublesome. There is an “old” method of commo, like our subs were using, “long wave” FM, however that would require a whole different set of equipment but if done with a handful of people spread out, no way would anyone intercept, you would be transmitting through the earth, works unbelievably well. Maybe a little late for that. Thanks for the advice.

    1. What I think you are referring to is ELF, extreme low frequency. This is around 3mhz or 160m ham band. This requires a very long antenna to work well. For SHTF this has the advantage that it is one of the few bands that will work when most others are unusable due to atmospheric interference, including solar flare and EMP. While somw short wave can be picked up by a good short wave radio I’m not aware of any then work down to 160 meters and there would be very few people in that band listening.
      In the case of the E4’s and subs they trail an antenna wire our for 3 to 5 miles behind them and it’s the only band that will penetrate water.

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