by Nick Meacher
Updated 2020-12-26: updated links and references
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:
§97.527 Reimbursement for expenses: VEs and VECs may be reimbursed by examinees for out-of-pocket expenses incurred in preparing, processing, administering, or coordinating an examination for an amateur operator license.
Different teams can charge different amounts. Some charge per attempt, i.e., if you fail and want to take it again there may be another fee. Check with the team you plan to test with so you are aware of what you might have to pay.
You have to answer a certain amount of questions correctly to pass each licensing test, which is listed below (§97.503 Element standards):
- 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 through their website.
There are 14 VEC’s. The three largest VEC’s are the Amateur Radio Relay League (ARRL), Laurel and W5YI. The Laurel VEC started with the Laurel Maryland Amateur Radio Club and is the only group that doesn’t charge for exams. In fact the Laurel VEC submits the most exams to the FCC after the ARRL. Local clubs or test teams affiliate with a VEC. Test teams list exams on local ham club web sites and at some of these websites:
Not only does HamStudy provide a great training resource and practice exams for ham testing, but they also have the commercial licenses available. Teams will lists their tests on the site and those doing remote exams will list here as well (look for those listed as “online”).
Online (remote) exams
Since COVID many teams are still unable to provide “in person” exams due to local restrictions.
Examtools, the testing side of Hamstudy, has developed their computer based testing and grading program, that was available pre-covid, with the capabilities of providing online exams.
Each VEC has to give approval for any team to conduct online exams. All those conducting online exams are listed on the hamstudy web site by selecting “online”. This link directly searches for online exams.
Please note, hamstudy.org does not provide the exams, they provide the tool so VEC’s and their teams can provide the exams.
Any questions you have about the specific requirements of an exam should be directed to the sponsoring team.
This is their blog article with specific information on the online process.
If you want to view a video presentation about the online exam process this is an excellent presentation done by Marcel Stieber AI6MS for the QSO Today Virtual Ham Expo 2020.
There are some slightly different rules for the different teams, set by the VEC, and teams also have their own policies. Laurel teams do not charge for 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.
The FCC rules 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.
STUDYING FOR THE EXAMS
There are a number of websites that offer free study material and sample tests. Textbooks 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:
www.kb6nu.com (very good reading material)
There are several videos available on YouTube:
ARRL Technician study https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CPyidvTGJ9Y&ab_channel=BogdanGewald
Gordon West Technician study https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gljU__v09Hs
VIDEO CLASSES for ALL THE TESTS By David Casler (these are very good)
Several clubs also offer classes and a lot of those have transitioned to online classes recently. So check out local clubs to see what they might be offering.
I’M READY TO TEST
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.
Some teams require pre-registration and some allow walk-ins. If they ask for preregistration it is strongly suggested that you pre-register. 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 check to see how they want you to pay the test fee.
When you go to the 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.
I PASSED! WHAT DO I DO NEXT?
You will receive a Certificate of Successful Completions of Examination (CSCE) when you pass 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.
HOW DO I GET ON THE AIR?
Getting your license is the first step to becoming a ham. 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 the 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. See our article on how to get some ideas on what radio you might want to by.
Also look under the Amateur Radio, Communications Knowledge Library, Communications References menu and other pages on the COMMUNICATIONS section of this site as well as the RESOURCES menu as I’m always adding more information.
FIND A LOCAL CLUB or ‘ELMER’
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. For emergency, disaster and preparedness communications this is a capability you should obtain and practice with, including with the digital mode capabilities (there will be a future article with more on this topic).
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.