Getting Started With Ham Radio

© 1996 Frank E. Fogg -- All Rights Reserved


  • What's Ham Radio?
  • Who's a Ham?
  • License Types
  • Getting A License
  • Getting On The Air - Basics
  • Transceivers
  • Antennas
  • Feedlines
  • Accessories
  • Operating Technique
  • Sources of Information
  • Some Final Thoughts



Ham radio is the nickname for the amateur radio service. From its earliest days, hams were on the cutting edge of technology by designing and testing new communication equipment and techniques. Much of the technology we take for granted today such as radio, television and computers owes its existence to contributions made by hams.

Hams are licensed by the government to operate radio systems for their own personal enjoyment. Amateur radio operators do not use their radios for any commercial purpose or financial gain. Hams often assist with emergency communications during times of crisis or disaster, and also provide public service by contributing their services for major public events.

Many people unfamiliar with radio operation think that hams communicate exclusively with Morse code, however, hams engage in a wide variety of activities using their radio systems. They may talk using the code, voice, teletype, video or computers. They may be talking point to point, through a satellite, via a repeater, or they may even be bouncing their radio signals off the moon.


There are over one million ham radio operators in the world today. Hams come in all sizes, ages, sexes and races. Some hams enter the hobby while in primary school while others are just starting late in life. They may be located just down the street from you, halfway around the world, or even on an orbiting space shuttle or space station. They may be students, doctors, homemakers, engineers, accountants or astronauts. One thing they all have in common is their love for the hobby of ham radio.

It is not difficult to start enjoying the hobby of ham radio. No license is required to listen and many hams first started out as scanner or shortwave radio enthusiasts. This is one way to become more familiar with the hobby and radio operating. A wide variety of radios is available to listen to ham radio transmissions. Shortwave style receivers are used to listen in to hams communicating around the world, while scanners are used to hear the popular VHF and UHF bands that provide line of sight communications.

Some hams also build some or all of the equipment they use themselves. Antenna design and construction is very common. Transceivers and accessories are also built by some hams. Kits are also available that contain all of the parts to build a complete state of the art radio.


There are 6 different ham radio license classes in the United States. Each class of license permits the ham to operate radio equipment throughout the radio spectrum. The license tests are designed with increasing levels of difficulty as additional frequency privileges are granted.

Ham Radio license classes in the United States include Novice, Technician, Technician Plus, General, Advanced and Extra.

  • Novice Class: This license class allows the limited use of amateur frequencies throughout the spectrum. Novices are allowed limited power output and a small range of frequencies on which to operate.
  • Technician: This license class has the use of all amateur frequencies above 30 MHz. This includes the VHF and UHF ham frequencies that are very popular.
  • Technician Plus: This license includes all of the privileges of the technician class license and in addition grants additional privileges equivalent to the Novice license below 30 MHz.
  • General: This license class has the use of many frequencies and operating modes.
  • Advanced: This license class has the use of most frequencies and modes with several minor exceptions.
  • Extra: This license class has full use of all amateur radio frequencies and modes.


Amateur radio licenses are granted by the Federal Communications Commission in the United States. Testing is currently administered by a group of volunteers. All of the test questions and answers for each license class are available in convenient study guides. These guides are available nationwide at electronics and radio retailers. Purchase a study guide appropriate for the desired license class. For the license classes requiring code proficiency, study tapes are also available to develop skills in Morse code. A practice key is also necessary to develop Morse code sending skills.

Once you are sufficiently prepared, contact a local volunteer examiner group. Examinations are usually held at hamfests and conventions. A list of local examination locations will also be available inside ham radio magazines available at your local library. The examinations are also announced in advance at local electronics and radio retailers.

A list of examination dates and sites may also be obtained by clicking HERE.


There are several important things to know about equipment to get your ham radio station on the air. The basic categories are transceivers, antennas, feedlines, and accessories. The most important thing to remember as you are assembling a ham radio station is S-A-F-E-T-Y. Many dangers await those who do not heed this warning. Dangerous voltages lurk inside transceiver and power supply cabinets. Many ham antennas are located high above ground and falls are possible. Improper grounding may result in electrocution or lightning hazards. Always read and follow the manufacturers' safety warnings when setting up and using amateur radio equipment.


Most ham radios sold today are transceivers. Transceivers are a combination of the transmitter and the receiver into one cabinet. The antenna is switched between the transmitter and receiver when the microphone button or Morse code key is pressed.

Many modern ham transceivers include receivers that allow the user to receive frequencies in addition to the ham bands. For the HF frequency spectrum this includes the broadcast shortwave bands. For the VHF and UHF bands, access to police, fire, business, aviation and weather frequencies may also be possible. The ham transmitters are limited to operation within the ham bands only.

There are different types of radio signals. The types of signals are called "modes." For ham radio operators, the most common modes include:

  • CW (Morse code)
  • FM (frequency modulation)
  • SSB (single sideband)

In addition to these basic modes there are also some more specialized modes that are used for ham radio communication including:

  • AM (amplitude modulation)
  • FAX (facsimile transmissions)
  • PACKET (a type of radio teletype similar to a computer BBS system)
  • RTTY (radio teletype)
  • SSTV (slow scan television)

The availability of these modes for ham radio usage depends on the frequency being used and the license class of the operator. When selecting an amateur transceiver, be sure that it has the capability to operate as many of these modes as possible with or without additional accessories.


There is a wide variety of antenna system designs used by radio amateur operators. Some antennas are specialized to suit a particular purpose while others can be used for several different bands or types of operation. Some of the more common types of antennas include dipoles, loops, verticals, quads and yagi beams. Antennas can be categorized as directional (radiation occurs in a specific directional pattern) or omni-directional (radiation occurs in all directions equally).

All antennas have certain "radiation patterns" that impact their performances. Antennas are "polarized" vertically, horizontally or circularly. Selection of an antenna type should be based upon the desired performance, space available and safety factors. Vertical antennas are popular since they usually require less space. Horizontal antennas are also popular and for many hams, this will be their first antenna. Circularly polarized antennas are usually used for communications through satellites and moon bounce.

Be careful when placing and erecting an antenna. The antenna should be located so that no contact can be made to electrical or telephone wires. A lightning arrestor should always be used to minimize the damage of a potential lightning strike. The antenna must also be located in an area that does not allow human contact. Dangerous voltages exist along amateur antennas, occasionally when no transmitter is even attached! Inspect antennas regularly for potentially dangerous damage or mechanical failure. Additional regulations may apply in the city where you live. Always contact your local building department so that all regulations are observed.


Feedlines connect the transceiver to the antenna. There are a number of popular feedlines used in ham radio operation. These include coaxial cable, open wire feeders, hardline and waveguides. Each of these major types has a variety of subtypes.

Coaxial cabling is used extensively by hams. It consists of a center inner wire, some insulation, a braided, wrap-around wire outer jacket, and plastic coating. The radio signal is carried by the inner conductor while the outer wire jacket provides shielding and impedance matching. Although popular and easy to use, coaxial cabling allows much of the radio signal to "get away." In other words, it is "lossy" or inefficient. This effect is more pronounced as the operational frequency is increased.

Open wire feeders consist of two wires separated by spacers. The most common example of this type of feeder is the "twin lead" TV wire used for television reception. The radio signal is carried by both conductors out of phase. Although this type of feeder is a little more difficult to work with, its main advantage is that it is less lossy than coaxial cabling. Therefore, more of the transmitted signal is actually radiated by the antenna.

Hardline and waveguides are used in operating at VHF frequencies and above. They are very important when extremely long distances are encountered between the transmitter and antenna. These types of feeders have extremely low loss, but are expensive and difficult to install and maintain.


There are a number of accessories that enhance ham radio operation. Some of the most common or basic accessories will be covered in this section.

  • Balun - A matching transformer to convert an unbalanced coaxial feedline to a balanced antenna system.
  • Computer - While not a "standard" ham radio accessory, much software, shareware and freeware is available to assist the ham radio operator. Training programs for both the written and Morse code sections of the ham radio tests is common. Logging (keeping track of the stations talked to) programs are common and highly useful. Special add on circuit cards and software allow the use of the computer as a teletype, packet, FAX or TV system in conjunction with the transceiver. Programs are also available for designing and evaluating antenna systems.
  • DSP Filter - Now commonly included in the design of modern transceivers, external audio DSP filters can also be added to older systems. DSP filters can be adjusted to remove most types of noise that prevent listening to a distant or weak signal.
  • Grid Dip Meter - A grid dip meter is used to discover the resonant frequency of an antenna, feedline, or other resonant circuit. The meter can be used in conjunction with an SWR meter for adjusting the antenna system.
  • Headphones - Unlike your home stereo system, communications headphones are monaural (not stereo). Select a pair that is comfortable to wear for long periods and provide adequate fidelity.
  • Morse Code Key - Select a key that is comfortable to use. Many hams start out with a "straight key" or "navy key." Once faster Morse code operation is desired, "bugs" and other types of automatic keys are available.
  • Phone Patch - This accessory connects the transceiver to a standard telephone line.
  • Power Supply - The power supply converts standard 120 VAC home electrical power for the transceiver. Most modern systems convert to 13.8 VDC for use by mobile transceivers in the home.
  • Speaker - Speaker systems designed for use with ham radio have different design parameters than home stereo speakers. Most communications audio is between 2,000 and 5,000 Hz in frequency. A well-designed communications speaker system will optimize audio in this frequency range. Most radios have a matching speaker system that is designed for the particular unit and matches its performance and looks. Some systems will have additional features such as headphone jacks or filtering units.
  • Station Monitor - These monitors provide a graphic representation of the station transmitter parameters including output power, percentage of modulation, and center frequency. They are usually designed to work in conjunction with a specific transceiver model.
  • SWR Meter - This meter measures the standing wave ratio of an antenna and feedline. It can assist in properly adjusting the antenna system for peak efficiency. Many SWR meters can also function as a field strength meter as well.
  • Tuner - An antenna tuner can be used to electrically adjust the antenna and feedline so that they are properly matched to the transmitter. Tuners are rated for the amount of transmitter power that they can safely handle.
  • TVI Filter - This is a special filter that reduces interference to television receivers located close to the transmitter. It is connected permanently inline between the transmitter and antenna.


Besides having the proper license and equipment, it is also necessary to develop good operating technique. Ham radio is similar to a giant party line telephone. No user has exclusive access to a particular frequency or band. Instead, these resources are shared by all amateur radio operators.

Operating technique is considered so important, it is included as a major part of the license examination. Luckily, most of it is common sense once understood.

The most important rule is also the simplest; LISTEN FIRST. You may not always be able to hear both sides of a ham radio conversation. When changing to a new frequency, pause to listen for an existing conversation. If you think the frequency is unused, simply ask "Is the frequency in use?" Then if no answer is detected, you may begin transmitting.

The next important rule is; LISTEN FIRST. Is a conversation in progress? Do you have anything to add? While most hams will be happy to talk with you once their conversation is complete, they may not like being interrupted during their conversation. Listen to see how other hams in your area respond to this situation.

Another important rule is; LISTEN FIRST. Is a "net" in progress? A ham radio net is a large group of operators on the same frequency. A net control operator directs each party in turn to talk. If a net is in progress, wait until your area, group or station is called before interrupting.

The last important rule to remember is; LISTEN FIRST. A station that is "breaking" or requesting an interruption in the conversation may have emergency communications that require immediate attention. Always allow a station with emergency information to use the frequency on a priority basis and never interrupt or interfere with this type of transmission.

Always use the least amount of power necessary to conduct the conversation. This helps to reduce interference to other hams and radio services.


The best source of information about ham radio is another ham. Many hams will be happy to assist you in getting the information you need to pursue the hobby of ham radio. They can be invaluable resources for important information and are familiar with current developments.

Another good source of ham radio information is the local library. There are several good monthly ham radio magazines that most larger libraries carry. A number of books on the subject are also readily available.

There are also ham radio related resources available via internet. Some of these are included below:

Ham Radio Organizations:

Ham Radio Equipment Dealers


I have been licensed as an amateur radio operator for over 20 years now. The hobby has provided thousands of hours of wonderful entertainment and I have met many lifelong friends. It has given me the opportunity to design and build my own ham radio equipment and accessories and actually operate them under real conditions. Ham radio has been one of the greatest "armchair adventures" possible.

Ham radio operators are an important resource in times of emergency and disaster and have provided important life-saving communication services over the years. Amateur radio operation can be enjoyed by young and old alike. It is a hobby that can last a lifetime.


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