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Go Get Your Ham Radio License!

I'm pleased to announce that this past weekend I took (and passed!) the Extra Class licensing examination, granting me full amateur radio operating privileges.  I'm particularly proud of this accomplishment, as the Extra Class material (for me) was challenging to digest.  I started and stopped studying for the Extra Class element a few times over the last several years; but this time I was determined to buckle down and learn the material.

I've often encouraged readers of this website to consider getting a ham radio license; and if you are already licensed, upgrade!  It's not as daunting as you might think, and it opens your opportunity to legally experiment with radio in a wide variety of ways.

No morse code required!

The testing procedures to obtain a ham radio license have changed a lot over time.  Back many decades ago, you would need to travel to your nearest FCC office, where (I assume) a few FCC agents in suits would administer your test.  Flash forward to modern times, and testing is administered by hams who volunteer as Volunteer Examiners (VE's).  The testing environments are usually quite friendly and welcoming.

One of the most significant changes in recent time, was the dropping of the morse code requirement for all license classes, which continues to be a hotly debated topic in amateur radio.  To be completely honest, if the code requirement still existed, I might not have ever gotten my Technician Class ticket (in 2009), and I would have been missing out on a hobby that I have truly grown to love.  The funny part is that when I first started out, I had no interest in learning code, but now I am making a push to finally learn it well enough to operate CW proficiently on the air.  Operating CW is yet another rewarding challenge, in a hobby filled with rewarding challenges.

And, that's one of the best parts about ham radio;  it's a technical hobby with a wide array of niche areas, where it's hard to not find something you are interested in; and it's hard to get bored, because there is always something new to learn.  My personal areas of interest are: building/experimenting with radio equipment and circuits, HF operation - a.k.a the shortwave radio bands, QRP - a.k.a. low power operation, and digital modes.  But, others like VHF/UHF operation, repeaters, nets, high power operation, a variety of different operating modes, beacons, public service, etc. etc. etc.  Trust me, if you are technically inclined, there is something that will interest you.

Getting your license

I am only knowledgeable about how amateur radio licensing works in the US.  I believe the process is similar in most countries, where you take an exam and upon passing receive a license grant.  I'll leave it up to you to determine the procedures for your particular locale.

If you are unlicensed, you would first start out by studying for a Technician Class license.  For most people, this should be a relatively straight forward procedure.  The material isn't too difficult, and you ultimately would need to take a 35 question multiple choice test out of a total question pool of around 400+ questions.  Did I mention that all the questions and answers are published for study?  You need a score of 74% or better to pass, or 26 out of 35 questions correct.  I recommend the ARRL License Manual for study, although many amateur radio clubs offer classes if that's more your style.  I personally obtained my Tech license within 1.5 weeks after I purchased the ARRL manual. 

Another excellent resource is, which I used extensively while studying for my Extra Class upgrade.  There are a bunch of other online resources and apps that you can use to study.

Make sure you study with the latest edition of the material!  The question pools are updated every several years, so you need to make sure you are working with the latest material.

The ARRL has a website that will show you all upcoming testing sessions in your area.  Chances are there are many.  Around Pittsburgh, where I live, there are usually multiple sessions each month, hosted by different amateur radio clubs.  My advice, is to obtain your study materials, and pick a goal date for when you want to take your exam.

Upgrading your license

General Class is the mid-level license in the US.  I encourage everyone to at least upgrade to General Class.  The material is a bit more meaty (and interesting!), and passing will give you some (not full) operating privileges on all HF bands.  You can take the General Class exam after you have passed the Technician Class exam -- including immediately after you have taken and passed the exam.  In fact, you can take Tech, General, and Extra Class all on the same day if you desire.  I personally spaced my exams out a bit; upgrading to General Class in 2010 about a year after obtaining my Tech license.  It took me about 2 and a half weeks of evening study to digest the General Class material (again using the ARRL manual).

Extra Class for me was a different story.  I originally planned to take my exam sometime in the winter of 2011.  As I mentioned earlier, I started and stopped a few times while studying for Extra Class.  The material can be difficult at times to get through.  I suspect that people with engineering degrees may have an easier time with the material, but for someone like me who has a background in computer science, there is virtually no overlap.  Nothing in the material is terribly difficult, but there is a lot of it (question pool of around 700, and 50 question test), and some of it can be dry, to be honest.  But, there is also a wealth of interesting information, some of which I had learned over the years just through reading and experimentation.

I've spoken with other hams, who have expressed the same thing to me about Extra Class.  In the end, you need determination for Extra Class -- and perhaps a bribe.  I bribed myself with an Elecraft KX3 tranceiver, which I'll likely be purchasing in a few weeks.  Yea!

The study method that worked for me was a combination of the ARRL Extra Class manual, the ARRL Extra Class Q&A book, and drilling questions on  The Q&A book combined with was of particular help, as if I didn't know an answer, I could research it in the Q&A book quickly.

Ultimately, this is a hobby, and if you aren't having fun you aren't doing it right.  I can't say that every moment of studying for Extra Class was fun, but learning a lot of new things about the hobby and filling in some of the mental blanks was fun.  But most of all, the experience was rewarding, with much more fun yet to come!

Posted: Aug 12, 2014

Keyword tags: ham radiolicensing