how to get a ham radio license

How To Get A Ham Radio License

Getting a ham radio license is a big milestone for any aspiring ham. With a ham license, you get to do much more than just sitting and tuning into channels. You get transmission privileges which allow you to communicate far and wide.

Do you really need a ham radio license though? Well, that depends on how you intend to operate the ham radio itself. You can legally use a ham radio without a license. This means you can listen to FM radio or emergency weather radios. However, it would be illegal to broadcast any message without a license.

Technically, you can still broadcast a message without a license, but you can incur heavy fines if found guilty. The one effortless way to get a ham radio license is to take the amateur radio license exam. You would need to know which license you intend to get first though.

Types of Ham Licenses

There are three main types of ham licenses that you can get. They include:

  • Technical licenset
  • General license
  • Amateur extra license

Technician License

It is the introductory license which you need to earn first in case you are new to ham radios. A technician license gives you transmission privileges on the VHF and UHF bands and limited privileges on the HF band.

You will need the license for direct radio communications or communications that will involve repeaters. With a technician license, you can communicate with the International Space Station (ISS).

To get the license, you’ll have to sit for an exam consisting of 35 questions. Ideally, it tests your knowledge on basic radio theory, the regulations around ham radios and also operating practices. Score at least 26 of the questions right and you will have passed the exam.

General License

A general license, on the other hand, grants additional transmission privileges on multiple high frequency radio bands. It allows operations in the HF band. 

While it is not the ultimate license, most people are normally contented with what they can do with a general license and thus never proceed to the next license. In fact, you are likely to find many hams with this type of license.

To get the general license though, one would have to pass the technician written exam.

Amateur Extra License

The amateur extra license is a top-tier license. It gives you operating privileges on all bands and modes. For you to get the amateur extra license, you would need to have passed all previous exams and then pass a thorough 50-question examination.

You will be expected to provide detailed explanations for all the questions and generally show your mastery of the subject. You equally need to have a firm grasp of the FCC rules.

How to Study for The Exam and Take the Test

The next stage after knowing which license you are interested in is studying for the exam. Ideally, a 10-12-hour study of focused material on the radio topic will be sufficient. Finding this information is not difficult too as the ARRL website has several study guides that can help you get started. Your local library may also be a great place to look for material to help you prepare for the exam.

Once you are ready to take the exams, it would be a good idea to go through some of the online tests that are still available on ARRL’s website. These tests will help you understand the kinds of questions you can expect in the exams so that you will be more confident when answering. If you are in the U.S., you should remember that it isn’t totally necessary to study Morse code as it is no longer a requirement.

It is also worth mentioning that while the license is free, you will have to part with $15 for the test. Nowadays, the FCC hardly administers the examinations but continues to grant ham radio licenses. Volunteer examiners have in the recent years stepped up to administer exams and even file the results with the FCC. This has made the whole process of getting the license faster.

What to Bring on The Test Day

There are different things required depending on the license you wish to get at the end of the day. Here are the basic things to get regardless of the license you are after:

  • Two forms of identification. These can be either a driver’s license or an employee identification card
  • Social Security Number
  • Two No. 2 pencils with erasers
  • Calculator
  • Exam fees

In case you are going for the general license or the amateur extra license, you should consider getting the following as well:

  • Your current original license along with a photocopy
  • Your Certificate Completion of Examination (CSCE) and a photocopy
  • Your FCC Federal Registration Number (FRN) in case you lack an SSN

Most people finish the exam in under an hour, so you will have plenty of time to go through all the questions carefully and answer them correctly. In case you do not succeed in an exam, you have the option of taking it again whenever you feel you’re ready.

In fact, many hams had to take more than one attempt to pass the test, so you should not feel too pressured when you’re going to take the test.

It is also worth noting that in the U.S., ham radio licenses remain valid for a period of 10 years from the date they were issued or renewed.


All in all, it is technically possible to use a ham radio without a license. However, having one will allow you to legally do much more than someone who lacks one. There are three licenses to choose from. However, for you to get a license like the amateur extra license, you will need to have both the technician license and the general license. 

You would only need to study for the exam then take a test locally from an amateur radio license class. This is far easier nowadays because of volunteer examiners since they have made the entire process quicker than it was a few years back.

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