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What is Ham Radio or Amateur Radio?

Introduction to Amateur Radio

The puporse of this article is to help those who want to know how to get into ham radio. What is a ham radio? What is a ham radio license?

If these are your quesitons, please read on...

Since we first posted this overview and description of amateur radio ("ham radio "), we've received many compliments about the article as a resource.
Many ham radio clubs and ham radio organizations have requested permission to link this page from their site ("backlink ").
We're happy for anyone who finds this intro to ham radio useful. Please post it and use it with attribution back to Ham Radio Deluxe.
Please get in touch with us if you find any errors or want content added. We want this to be the most complete description of ham radio on the Internet.

A General Overview of Amateur Radio

We live in a digital age.
The transfer of information is immediate, and the power to communicate lies in the palm of our hands.
But in a world of smart cars, smart homes, and smartphones – the error-resistant, terror-resilient, cell-tower-independent technology relied on by emergency first responders and The National Weather Service (not to mention 3 million recreational participants worldwide) has been around for over a century.
This article provides a general overview. All countries have Federal agencies that regulate the licensing and use of ham radio. For example, some countries have only a 10-meter radio license. In this article, we'll be as general as we can. But our frame of reference is the United States.

Amateur Radio

Amateur Radio, also known as “Ham Radio,” is both an amateur radio service and a hobby. It is a wireless method of communication connecting individuals from every corner of the globe, regardless of location or circumstance.
Licensed operators use radios varying from hand-held and base-station radios to dashboard mounts and remote shacks to communicate with other “hams” across the street and worldwide. Many theories exist, but no one agrees about why amateur radio operators are called hams.

WA9PIE Operating Satellites with Yaesu FT991A

Dr. Carper (WA9PIE) in QSO Through the International Space Station (ISS) Using Satellite Tracking and Yaesu FT991A

The Demographic

Ham radio operators come from many backgrounds, professions, nationalities, and income levels. They are men and women, young and old. Astronauts. Royalty. Even celebrity.
Eagles guitarist Joe Walsh recently delivered a series of PSAs for the American Radio Relay League. Actor Tim Allen, inspired by his ham radio experiences on "Last Man Standing, " tested for his license in 2014.
These hams connect on 29 ham radio bands with frequencies ranging from 135.7 kilohertz to 250 gigahertz (plus all frequencies above 275 gigahertz). Some frequencies allow radio communications around the globe and even to satellites in space.
Hams are licensed to operate by the FCC and assigned a call sign by the International Telecommunication Union.
In the United States, License classes include Technician Class, General, and Extra Class licenses. Each advancing license class opens up additional radio spectrum and operating privileges. We'll get into that a little later.

What is Ham Radio Used For?

Ham radio, also known as amateur radio, is a hobby and a service that involves radio communication for personal, non-commercial purposes. It is a hobby allowing individuals to communicate using radio frequencies. Ham radio operators can use their equipment to talk to fellow enthusiasts worldwide, engage in emergency communications during disasters when other forms of communication are unavailable, provide assistance in public service events, participate in contests, and experiment with new technologies. It offers a unique way to connect with people, explore the world of radio communication, and serve the community in times of need.
Here are some common uses of ham radio:
  • Emergency Communications: Ham radio operators play a vital role in emergencies by providing reliable communication when other systems fail. They assist during natural disasters, severe weather events, and other emergencies, often serving as a lifeline for affected communities.
  • Interpersonal Communication: Ham radio allows individuals to communicate locally, nationally, and even globally with other amateur radio operators. It fosters connections and friendships among enthusiasts, providing a means for social interaction and exchanging information.
  • Experimentation and Innovation: Ham Radio provides a platform for experimenting with ham radio equipment, ham radio antennas, and various transmission modes. It allows operators to explore and innovate in digital communications, satellite operations, weak-signal propagation, and more.
  • Public Service: Ham radio operators volunteer their skills and equipment to support public service events such as marathons, parades, and community gatherings. They provide communications assistance to ensure the smooth flow of these events and contribute to their overall safety and organization.
  • Education and Learning: Ham radio offers opportunities for individuals to learn about electronics, radio technology, and communication principles. Many operators pursue licenses and engage in ongoing education to enhance their skills and knowledge in these areas.
  • DXing and Contesting: DXing involves contacting and confirming radio contacts with as many countries or geographic regions as possible. Contesting is participating in competitive events where operators attempt to make the most contacts within a specified time frame.
  • Satellite Communications: Ham radio operators can communicate through amateur radio satellites orbiting the Earth. Satellite communications provide a unique and exciting aspect of the hobby, allowing contacts over long distances via these satellites.
  • These are just a few examples of the wide range of applications and interests within the ham radio hobby. Ham radio operators enjoy the flexibility, technical challenges, and opportunities for public service that it offers.

Activities Involving Ham Radio

Emergency Communication & Response

In instances of crisis and natural disaster, the grid can become a gridlock. We saw it on 9/11 when emergency calls overloaded the networks and when a blackout swept through North America in 2003.
Ham operators were critical in these fragile moments, never more so than when over 1,000 cell sites were offline during Hurricane Katrina in 2005 when cell phones were inoperable, and just as many operators traveled to the Gulf Coast to provide emergency communication assistance.
The amateur radio is cell tower and electricity independent, and batteries can be charged and stored or rejuvenated using solar power.
Handheld 2 meter radios are both portable and sturdy, and repeaters are reachable from states away and have proven significantly more reliable than cell towers. Many of these "HTs" ("handy-talkies") also provide access to other VHF or UHF bands like 220 MHz and 440 MHz).
For these reasons, emergency-response organizations like the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and the Red Cross turn to amateur radio operators when times are dire and communication is impossible.
Hams have a phrase regarding emergency communications, “When All Else Fails.” Emergency communication is a valuable public service.


Contesting is a common, shared hobby among ham enthusiasts wherein amateur radio organizations (think clubs and magazines) define criteria, and participants make as many contacts within these constraints as possible.
The parameters for these events often fall within a specific geographic area, define the mode and band for contact, and require a particular piece of information logged in the QSO (name, age, etc.).
While there is an element of competition, no professional "contesters, " and awards are limited to a certificate acknowledging the accomplishment.
Hams are competitive by nature; in the world of contesting, participants seek to contact as many stations as possible in as many "entities " as possible.
Entities include countries, US States, CQ or ITU Zones, geographic grids, US National Parks, and many more. In some cases, scores are tabulated in real-time on Internet sites.
The contest sponsor defines the rules about power limits, days of operation, frequency bands, and under what conditions contacting the same station are allowed.
Some contesters establish a presence on a given frequency, intending to benefit from being on the air at a given frequency; is called "run. "
Other contesters will tune around various frequencies looking for "multipliers " that will increase their score; this is called "search and pounce. "
One of the most popular contests is called "Field Day. " For many hams, this contest was their first exposure to being on the air - even before obtaining a license.
The contest promotes community outreach, emergency preparedness, technology, and competition. Many field day sites are held in public areas, like a shopping center parking lot.
It's always a good time to get out the food and share some good times.


What started as a gauge for transmission success in the early 1900s grew into a popular hobby by the 1930s and continues to amuse tens of thousands of ham operators today.
DXing (said to stand for Distance Unknown) is conducting two-way communication with remote radio stations from long distances that is generally inaudible at a given frequency.
High frequencies on the HF bands are DXing's most common frequency bands. But DXing happens at VHF and UHF frequencies as well.
Some bands propagate globally during the day (generally, 20 meters and above). Other bands propagate globally at night (160 meters, 80 meters, and 40 meters).

There are three main components to the exercise:

1. DXpeditions

For the sake of the contact, ham radio operators collaborate and organize voyages to remote and exotic locations wherein they provide highly sought-after contacts with islands, countries, or grids that would otherwise be unreachable due to location, population, or regulation.

They take the gear, electrical generators, and antennas, then transmit around the clock – often making more than 60,000 QSOs (contacts) within days.

DXers also participate in contesting, where they attempt to contact as many hams as possible from as many distant places as possible.

2. DX Awards

The Amateur Radio Relay League (ARRL) sponsors several awards programs.

The DX Century Club (DXCC) is one of these and focuses on rewarding operators for their DXing performance.
Operators who have confirmed contacts with more than 100 entities are eligible for one of 16 awards based on the mode and band of contact and, when won, earn a certificate commemorating their success and all the bragging rights that come with it.
A contact is confirmed when the destination station sends a QSL card or alternative electronic confirmation through automatic upload and download to an online confirmation system like Logbook of the World (LTOW). There are various degrees of difficulty awards, from expert to ham radio for beginners.

3. Chasing DX

Aside from DXpeditions and DX awards, DXers find working with new countries, continents, grid squares, and ITU or CQ Zones fun.
DXers share information about DX on "DX Clusters. " This is a form of "crowd-sourcing " where DXers post the callsign and frequency of DX stations; called a "DX spot. "
Some DXers use high-power towers and large antennas. Others will use low-power (QRP) and "stealth antennas. " You will want a software-based logger to help you track these things.


Amateur radio clubs are local organizations constructed to promote ham radio.
Some are broad, covering a variety of interests. In contrast, others focus on a specific niche, such as emergency response or DXing.
Many host events like contesting weekends or “hamventions,” and most are accredited by the ARRL.
The most effective method of identifying a club in your area is the ARRL website under “Get Involved.”


Hamfests combine a ham radio trade show and a technical flea market.
Equipment manufacturers like Icom, Yaesu, Elecraft, Kenwood, Timewave, FlexRadio, and others come to show off their latest gear.
Ham radio retailers - or dealers - set up a store on-site to enable hams to buy the equipment they see.
Hams set up their tables to sell their own used gear.
Hamfests often include forums and presentations to provide new information and educate hams.
Licensing exam sessions are proctored to allow hams to upgrade or as a way for unlicensed individuals to take a shot at passing the test.

Transmitter Hunting

Transmitter or "Fox " Hunting is the amateur radio equivalent of geo-caching. It is trendy among high school and college clubs.
A designated participant hides one or more radio transmitters within a designated area, then the wider group ventures out in hot pursuit. The sport's nuances are many, but the primary goal is to identify the transmitter's location before the rest of the group, often using the 2-meter band.
Fox hunting is commonly considered a purely recreational activity, but its uses are handy, and quite a few.
Prime examples include:
  • Search and rescue operations.
  • The location identification of weather balloons and other scientific devices.
  • Even the tracking down of repeater jammers in situations such as war.
Additionally, the practice teaches map reading, equipment operating, triangulation, and orienteering, making it a popular hobby among young groups of hams.

APRS - Automatic Packet Reporting System

I've often heard this referred to as an "automatic position reporting system. "
Based on the AX.25 implementations of packet radio, the "automatic packet reporting system " is used to communicate position information (longitude and latitude) to other ham radio stations; this tracks everything from vehicles traveling across the country to balloons launched by ham radio operators.
Originally implemented with external hardware, many handheld and mobile VHF radios are equipped with a GPS and the software necessary to report position.


It’s a small world, and that popular sentiment rings especially true for ham radio operators. From the comfort of their cozy desk chairs, hams introduce one another to new cultures and ideas through radio conversations that bridge continents, philosophies, and generations. And that’s not all.
The ham radio hobby is an especially social one. When operators aren’t chatting with one another from their homes, shack, or car, they’re gathering at clubs, venturing expeditions, and educating one another at conferences and conventions.
The conversations are constructive, the competition is friendly, and the community is truly universal.

Amateur Radio Licensing

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) governs the amateur radio service through "Part 97 ". The FCC is the sole issuer of amateur radio license grants within the US.
There are three classes of licenses, each of which requires an exam, and these licenses require renewal every ten years.
The exams are organized by volunteer examiner coordinators (VECs) and proctored in person by volunteers examiners (VEs) and, upon completion, entitle the new operator to a call sign assigned by the FCC within the range given by the International Telecommunication Union (ITU).
Like license plates, these call signs can be replaced with vanity signs.
The license classes are as follows:
Technician: Technician licensees are entry-level operators. They pass a 35-question examination that covers radio theory, regulations, and operating practices. Their license gives them access to the data portion of the 10-meter band and all Ham Radio frequencies above 30 megahertz – covering most of North America and some limited international contact.
General: General Class licensees acquire some operating privileges (frequencies) on all amateur radio bands and in all modes. The exam is 35 questions and can be taken the same day as the Technician license if you're feeling especially ambitious. HF privileges become very accessible with this license.
Extra: Extra licensees have earned all operating privileges on all amateur radio bands in all modes. They passed an intensive, 50-question examination and the Technician and General exams before the accomplishment. This exam can also be taken on the same day as the other exams.

Modes of Operating

Methods or “modes” of operating are how amateur radio operators convey their messages to one another, and they are as follows:


Voice communications, also known as “radio telephony” or “phone,” can be broken down into the subcategories of analog and digital.
Analog voice comprises voice signals detected by a microphone and carried across wave signals. The most common forms of voice communication are amplitude modulation (AM), frequency modulation (FM), and single sideband (SSB). Single sideband uses either the upper portion of the AM signal (USB) or the lower part of the AM signal (LSB).
Digital encodes these voice signals into a data stream before transmitting. The digital signal is decoded and reproduced at the receiving end as audio that the human ear can understand.

Morse Code

Morse code is a mode of communication called “Continuous Wave” or “CW.” It was developed by the American artist Samuel F. B. Morse in 1836.
It is the long and short keying of sound representing the letters of our alphabet.
While it has declined in popularity over recent years, it is still considered one of the most efficient means of communication across all bands.
The practice was once required to earn General and Extra licenses. Still, the criteria were removed with the development of digital modes to encourage more hobbyists to advance their license classes.

Digital Modes

With a few exceptions, transmitting digital modes involves using a computer sound card and software to encode an analog signal and modulate an SSB signal onto a given frequency, where it can be decoded by software running on another computer. Essentially, this is “keyboard to keyboard” communications.
Many modes use this method. They include PSK31, MFSK16, Olivia, Contestia, AFSK (a soundcard form of RTTY), JT65, JT9, and FT8. In recent years, FT8 and other WSJT-X modes (like FT4, Q65, etc.) have become very popular - particularly for weak signal strength conditions.
AFSK is RTTY encoded and decoded by a sound card. FSK is RTTY encoded by the transmitter or a terminal node controller (TNC). Quite often, a soundcard is still used to decode the FSK signal.

How are Ham Radio Licenses Structured? How Do I Get a License?

There are three license “classes.” In this context, don’t consider “class” when enrolling in an educational course.
In this context, the FCC provides three “levels” called “license classes.” These are Technician, General, and Extra.
The Technician class is the entry-level license. It provides access to all frequencies above 30 Mhz, some access to the 10-meter band for voice and data, and some Morse code privileges on the 80, 40, and 15-meter bands.
The General class license expands privileges on all those bands and adds some privileges on all other ham bands.
The Extra class license provides unlimited access to ham bands within the rules of FCC Part 97. [Caveat - in the past, five license classes included the Novice class at the bottom and the Advanced class license between General and Extra.]
Ready for your license? That’s excellent!
Step one is to pick up a study guide of some variety - they come in a textbook or pdf. Some applications for your cellular device allow you to take practice questions whenever you find yourself with a few extra minutes.
Local ham radio clubs often provide classroom instruction to assist prospective hams in passing the exams.

You’ll find a schedule of local testing opportunities on the ARRL website located here:


What Equipment Will I Need? Is it Expensive?

To a certain degree, the license class and particular interests drive the type of equipment needed. For reference, this article will cover the cost of new equipment.
Handheld radios, which hams refer to as "handi-talkies " or "HTs, " can be obtained for a price range from as low as $35 for HTs imported from China (Baofeng) to $500 for HTs with advanced capabilities, a built-in GPS to communicate position as APRS data, and digital voice.
Mobile radios are often installed that enable communications from 160 meters to 23 centimeters. These radios fall into two categories.
One category includes all frequencies and modes from 160 meters to 23 centimeters. The range of these radios is from about $550 to $1,100. Some radios are for 2m and 23 cm. These radios range from about $150 to $500. Mobile antennas range from just under $100 for VHF/UHF to almost $1,000 for an HF ham radio antenna.
Radios that hams use from inside their homes are called "base stations. " The price range of these radios goes from a modest $800 to almost $13,000. Towers and yagi (beam) antennas can cost thousands of dollars.
Here's a video we enjoy that does a great job of explaining ham radio.

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