The Guide to Ham Radio: Introduction & Frequently Asked Questions

   12.19.22

The Guide to Ham Radio: Introduction & Frequently Asked Questions

Whether you’re hiking, camping, overlanding, or even hunting in a remote blind, communication is king. Emergency comms can be critical, too – you never know when a simple mistake or misstep could mean you need rescue. But what if your cellphone has no signal? It’s more common than not to have a poor connection (or none at all) when you’re in the back country. Amateur radio, however, can travel up to hundreds of miles. This is your introduction to the Ham radio. In this multi-part guide, we’re covering the common questions about amateur radio, how to obtain your license, and setting up the most popular handheld radio with basic and advanced programming.

The 5 Parts to this Guide

What is Ham Radio?

You’ve heard the phrase before: “Ham radio” is jargon dating back to 1909. The truth is that nobody knows how the nickname came to be. Today, it just means “amateur radio.” It refers to the collection of radio frequencies and bands that allow licensed individuals to transmit, receive, and communicate with others. It also refers to the transceivers. This is the hardware that operators use to broadcast and receive. Lastly, it refers to the user itself. Most amateur radio operators call themselves “hams.”

What Frequencies do Ham Radios Use?

Hams operate across a broad spectrum. The FCC has allocated bands as low as 3 MHz, and as high as 3 GHz. Those ranges are categorized as:

  • High Frequency (HF), 3-30 MHz
  • Very High Frequency (VHF), 30-300 MHz
  • Ultra-High Frequency (UHF), 300 MHz to 3 GHz

What are Radio Bands?

Bands are ranges of frequencies. There are 27 amateur sub-bands within the HF, VHF, and UHF bands. These sub-bands have corresponding channels to make them easier to remember. For example, CB radios have 40 channels in the Citizen Band. It occupies the 26.96 to 27.41 MHz range.

Amateur Radio Bands include these Ranges:

  • HF, 80 meters, 3.5 – 4.0 MHz
  • HF, 40 meters, 7.0 – 7.3 MHz
  • HF, 30 meters, 10.1 – 10.15 MHz
  • HF, 20 meters, 14.0 – 14.350 MHz
  • HF, 17 meters, 18.068 – 18.168 MHz
  • HF, 15 meters, 21.0 – 21.450 MHz
  • HF, 12 meters, 24.890 – 24.990 MHz
  • HF, 10 meters, 28.0 – 29.70 MHz
  • VHF, 6 meters, 50 – 54 MHz
  • VHF, 2 meters, 144 – 148 MHz
  • UHF, 70 centimeters, 430 – 440 MHz

How do Ham Radios Transmit and Receive?

There are three modes that Ham radios use:

  • Simplex: Radios communicate directly with each other on the same frequency. Users must take turns transmitting and receiving, with no repeater or other station in between.
  • Duplex: A radio station receives signals on one frequency, and transmits signals on another frequency. This is how repeaters (range extenders) work.
  • Half duplex: While operating on duplex, the radio must either transmit or receive. It cannot do both simultaneously.
  • Full duplex: While operating on duplex, the radio can simultaneously send and receive.

How Far can a Ham Radio Go?

Typical handheld radios have 1 to 10 watts of power. When operating on VHF or UHF, they can transmit between 1 and 50 miles in open terrain. Urban environments severely reduce range to a few miles, at most. Base stations and home setups with high watt outputs can reach as far as 4000 miles without a repeater. Repeaters – antennas that relay radio signals – can allow even a simple handheld unit to transmit hundreds of miles, regardless of obstacles.

How Do I use a Ham Radio?

If you’ve ever used Walkie-Talkies, you’ve already used one type of amateur radio. Most two-way radios have preprogrammed channels, which rely on dedicated frequencies. They operate between 136 mHz (VHF) and 900 mHz (UHF).

Do I need a License to use a Ham Radio?

Short answer: Yes. Long answer: Not when it’s an emergency, and not when using certain frequencies. The FCC allows unlicensed users to transmit without a license during disasters or life-threatening situations. But using amateur radios require practice. To practice legally, you need a license.

(OK, You still don’t Always need a License)

Many two-way radios you can buy at sporting goods outfitters use a band of frequencies called “MURS,” or Multi-Use Radio Service. They operate between 151 and 154 mHz, and allow any unlicensed operator to transmit at any time. The MURS frequencies provide good range and can be used for both emergencies and practice.

How do I get my Ham Radio License?

To operate on other frequencies, you must pass a test, administered by a Volunteer Exam Coordinator (“VEC”). After passing, the VEC notifies the FCC. You’ll then receive an operating license. VECs can be individuals, local radio clubs, or larger organizations. The FCC governs three Ham radio tests to obtain one of three Ham licenses:

  • Technician License. This beginner’s license is issued after passing a basic knowledge test. Technicians are restricted to using only VHF and UHF frequencies. Most new Hams obtain this license, first.
  • General License. The General license requires passing a more thorough test and allows for use of VHF, UHF, and HF frequencies.
  • Extra License. An extended test is required to obtain the Extra License. It provides extra benefits, like using restricted HF frequencies, transmitting at high power (up to 1,500 watts), and acquiring a shortened callsign.

Is the Ham Radio Test Difficult?

The Extra exam is considered advanced, but the General and Technician tests are relatively straightforward. Each requires answering 35 questions, with 26 correct answers needed to pass. Plenty of websites (like HamExam) provide flash cards, practice exams, and the question pools that VECs will pick from when administering your test. The National Association for Amateur Radio (ARRL) offers in-person classes with instruction from licensed operators. Tthey can also administer an online or in-person exam when you’re ready.

How does the Ham Radio License Work?

Ham licenses provide you with a unique callsign that you must use when transmitting. Licenses are good for ten years. Renewing your license does not require re-testing if renewed within two years of expiry.

Why Should I Buy a Ham Radio?

Handheld radios have saved countless lives in the wilderness by allowing those in need of rescue to transmit on emergency frequencies, which are monitored and used by rescue services. In a disaster, Ham radios provide reliable communication between family and friends across vast distances. In short, Ham radio is the ultimate form of survival communication.

I Want to Get Started! What Do I Need?

Follow Part 2: Basic Radio Setup With a UV-5R to get started. Other handheld radios operate similarly to the UV-5R. Many of the steps and concepts discussed in these guides apply to other units.

Ham Radio

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Travis is a retired Joint Fires NCO, firearm collector, and long-range shooter with a penchant for old militaria. He reviews guns, knives, tactical kit, and camping and hiking gear.

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