Why You Should Get Your Ham Radio License Now
And announcing the Unprepared ham radio challenge! Enter to win a KM4ACK antenna kit.
Communications play a key role in preparedness. It’s not as important as food, water, and shelter, but being able to call for help or contact loved ones in an emergency is important. You can’t always count on Internet connectivity or cellular service, and your most reliable option for talking to others over a distance is ham radio.
What’s great about radio is it has very few dependency loops. If you have a radio, an antenna, and a power source, you can make contact with other people, even if the entire grid is down. There’s an entire radiosport dedicated to making ham radio contacts in the middle of nowhere, called Parks on the Air.
But what discourages many people from ham radio is the license requirement, and to get a license, you have to take a test — actually, multiple tests depending on the level of license you want.
Unfortunately, the FCC is adding another hurdle: as of April 19th, 2022, you also have to pay a $35 fee to obtain an amateur radio license. Previously, you didn’t have to pay the FCC directly, though there was usually a nominal fee from the testing team to cover expenses, usually about $15. So if you want to obtain a license before that April 19th deadline, you better start studying now. That may seem impossible, but I studied for both the Technician and General exams in two weeks and passed both at once.
In the grand scheme of things, a $35 fee isn’t a big deal. That pales in comparison to the price of radios, antennas, and other accessories. Plus, the license lasts ten years. But it’s still annoying since amateur radio is defined as a public service, and why should you have to pay a fee to perform a public service?
The good news is that the $35 fee does not apply to existing ham radio operators who upgrade their licenses. So if you’re already a Technician and want to upgrade to General, there’s not as much of a rush unless you want to earn a chance to win that KM4ACK antenna. More on that later.
The other good news is that the fee for GMRS licenses — which have always required a fee but no test — is being halved from $70 to $35. As a resilient individual, you want both licenses, since you want access to as many communication methods as possible. Plus, the GMRS license covers your entire immediate family for ten years. The NotARubicon has a great guide to navigating the FCC system to buy your GMRS license. Buy it after April 19th to get the lower $35 price.
Let’s talk about why you’d want these licenses, what you can do with ham radio, the different levels of ham radio licenses, and… we have a special ham radio challenge for you. There is a prize involved! Plus, I have some tips on passing the exam.
Why You Want Licenses
Many preppers eschew licenses because they don’t want to be in a “government database.” I have terrible news for you: you’re already in a government database unless you were born at home and your parents didn’t enroll you in Social Security.
What is worrisome is that the FCC licensee database is public and includes the address on file. However, you can use a PO Box or a private mailbox (like from a UPS Store) to guard your privacy. And the reality is there are all sorts of online data brokers that have probably already published your home address online, like People Finder and Spokeo.
The main reason to obtain amateur radio and GMRS licenses is because that’s what the law demands, and there are stiff penalties for transmitting on those frequencies without a license (other than a handful of unlicensed GMRS frequencies). The reality is that the FCC doesn’t enforce this stuff as much as you would think, and a lot of people get away with breaking the rules. But you also don’t want to be randomly selected to pay a $10,000 fine as an example.
The other part of having a license is you get a callsign, and you get different callsigns for ham radio and GMRS (I’m KO4EMJ on ham radio and WROJ823 on GMRS1). If you talk to another operator, the first thing they’ll ask you is your callsign. If you don’t have one, they’re not going to be pleased to talk to you. You could make one up, but a smart ham will figure out your fraud pretty fast. You could steal a callsign, but then you’d be committing identity theft.
While studying for the ham exams is a pain, you learn valuable stuff in the process, like the national calling frequency (146.52 MHz), how radio signals propagate, etiquette, basic safety information, etc. So when you get on the air, you won’t be totally clueless. Every ham operator has a baseline level of knowledge, even if they don’t remember everything they studied.
The most important tool in your resiliency toolbox is knowledge, and basic radio operation skills should absolutely be in that toolbox.
GMRS vs. Ham
GMRS is short for General Mobile Radio Service. There is no test required, simply a fee, and a single license covers everyone in your household. So if you own a GMRS license and have kids or a spouse who has little interest in radio, you can hand them a GMRS radio when you’re taking a hike or at an amusement park and you’re in the clear.
Compared to ham, GMRS is simpler but more limited. You can’t tune into a specific frequency on a GMRS radio. Instead, you’re limited to 22 channels. A GMRS radio can’t transmit any higher than 50 watts, while even a ham Technician (the lowest operating class) can transmit at 200 watts. The higher the wattage, the stronger the signal.
However, some GMRS radios share one of the neater features of ham radio: the option to use repeaters, which are automated stations, usually installed in high places, that take a signal and “repeat” it over a longer distance. There are an additional 8 GMRS channels set aside for repeaters.
GMRS radios are readily available. They even sell basic models at Walmart. Many people unwittingly use them without a license, because you’ll only find that requirement in tiny print, buried in the instruction manual.
The ham world is more complex. There are essentially two types of ham radio: VHF/UHF, which are similar to GMRS in that they’re fairly short range and allow for repeaters, and then there’s HF, which is what most people think about when they think of ham radio. HF signals can reach all over the world, though there are many “ifs, ands, buts, and maybes” there. Because of HF’s range, HF repeaters are not a thing.
As far as real-world differences: GMRS operators are more casual and rougher around the edges. Ham operators are more formal and disciplined. Some say GMRS people are friendlier than ham people, but that isn’t necessarily true. For instance, ham repeaters are generally open to any licensed operator unless they’ve been explicitly banned for bad behavior, but many GMRS repeaters are invite-only or even require a fee.
The GMRS community, such as it is, largely revolves around families and off-roading clubs. Ham radio is a much tighter-knit community, with special ham-only websites like QRZ and in-person ham radio clubs. I personally belong to the Macon Area Ham Radio Society. I highly recommend seeking out your local club because it can be an invaluable resource for experienced knowledge and help with your ham radio projects, like installing antennas.
Some hams won’t be happy that I’m recommending GMRS alongside ham radio. But our goal in preparedness is to have multiple communication options. GMRS is handy for inter-family communication. Ham is more useful in contacting the outside world. They each play a role.
Note that GMRS and ham require separate radios. There are some ham radios that can transmit on GMRS frequencies, but ham radios aren’t type approved for GMRS. You can probably get away with it, but it’s not strictly legal.
What You Can Do With Ham Radio (That You Can’t with GMRS)
Both GMRS and ham licenses cost the same, so why go through all the trouble of studying for the ham exams when you can obtain a GMRS license without the hassle? We already mentioned the additional transmitting power and the availability of far-range HF bands that are exclusive to ham radio.
There are two emergency services based around ham radio: the civilian Amateur Radio Emergency Service (ARES) and the government-sponsored Radio Amateur Civil Emergency Service (RACES). In an emergency, you can help out… or call for help yourself.
In my opinion, the most interesting aspect of ham radio for preparedness is the digital modes, where you connect a computer to a radio for things like text chat and email. Yes, I said email. Three services I’m especially fond of on the HF bands:
WSPR: One of the most common questions new hams have is: “Can anyone hear me?” WSPR answers that question by automatically sending out small data packets at regular intervals. Internet-connected receiving stations listen for your signal, and when they hear it, they report it to the WSPR website, which creates a map of all the stations that hear your signal, so you get a clear picture of who you can reach.
JS8Call: A newer digital mode, JS8Call is like a ham radio chat room. What’s especially cool is that JS8Call can tap into the APRS network to send text messages to any cellphone, if you know the right codes.
Winlink: Probably the most frustrating but most rewarding mode. Winlink lets you connect to a Radio Mail Server to send and receive messages to or from any email address. You can also request news and weather reports.
What’s great about JS8Call and Winlink is they let you contact anyone. That’s extremely useful in situations like the bombing of the Nashville AT&T building on Christmas Day, 2020, which took much of Tennessee’s communication network offline.
Types of Ham Licenses
There are three classes of ham radio license: Technician, General, and Amateur Extra. Each requires a different test. You can take all three in one go if you wish. Very broadly speaking, here is why you would want each license:
Technician: To earn permission to transmit on VHF and UHF frequencies and get started with ham radio.
General: To gain access to transmit on HF frequencies.
Amateur Extra: To help your local ham club with giving ham radio exams, since only an Amateur Extra can be a volunteer examiner for the General and Amateur Extra tests.
Technicians have limited access to some HF frequencies and Amateur Extras have some special HF frequencies only they can access, but generally speaking, this is why people put in the effort for these licenses.
I strongly encourage you to study to obtain both the Technician and General licenses at the same time:
A Technician license will get your feet wet but is limiting. There may not be many people to talk to on VHF/UHF, but operating on HF with a General license opens up the whole world.
The General test is much harder than Technician, but it builds on from the Technician material, so it’s easier to study for both at once rather than spacing them out.
Ham radio clubs typically charge a fee per testing session, not per test. So if you take both at once, you save a little money.
If you pass Technician and General, most clubs will give you the Amateur Extra exam as well. You might luck out and pass! I got very close.
Book your exam date today and start studying! HamStudy has listings of ham radio exams. Most are in-person, but some are conducted remotely over Zoom so you can test from your home. The ARRL also has a searchable database of ham exam sessions. If all else fails, contact your local club and see if they’ll squeeze you in.
The Unprepared Ham Radio Challenge
To encourage you to get your license, we have a challenge for you. A while back, Jason Oleham, callsign KM4ACK, sent me one of his fabulous EFHW antenna kits just because. This is an HF antenna, so you’ll need a General or Extra license to get the most use of it. There is a little soldering involved, but it’s a great beginner project with an excellent instructional video. This antenna is small and light enough to slip into a go-bag and will let you work the most popular HF bands.
And I want to give this antenna away. They only cost $39, but are in very high demand and are regularly out of stock. This particular kit has a BNC connection for portable HF transceivers, and Jason tells me it’s much easier to build than the SO-239 kit I built. You can use adapters to switch between connector types in any case2.
Here’s how to earn your chance to get it:
Subscribe to Unprepared. Either a free or paid subscription is fine. No purchase is necessary.
Obtain your General or Amateur Extra license between now and June 6, 2022. This can be a new license or an upgrade, but it has to be earned within that timeframe. So if you’re a Technician and upgrade to General, you’re eligible. Or if you’re a General who upgrades to Amateur Extra, you’re also eligible. But if you got your General license a year ago and don’t get an upgrade within the window, you’re not eligible. And of course, if you’re unlicensed and obtain a General or Amateur Extra license, you're absolutely eligible.
Join our Discord server, say hi, and post a copy of your license in the #unprepared channel. If you’re uncomfortable with that, you can DM the copy to me directly.
After June 6, 2022, I will randomly choose one winner and send them the antenna. We will announce the results in Unprepared and contact the winner directly via email. If no one takes up the challenge, I’ll donate the antenna kit to the Macon Area Ham Radio Society.
Tips for Acing Your Ham Radio Exams
The single best thing you can do is cram. Go ahead and schedule your test for a week or two out in the future. Don’t say, “Oh, I need six months to study.” No, you’ll meander through the material forever. Give yourself a firm deadline, study intensely, and brain dump the test.
Good news: every single question and answer is public record. Which questions you get on your test is up to luck of the draw. Also note that the Technician question pool is changing in July 2022, so if you start studying now, you want to pass the exam before the question pool changes. The General question pool won’t change until 2023 and the Amateur Extra pool changes in 2024.
The Technician test is pretty easy, especially if you have any familiarity with electronics. The General test is much harder. Focus on memorizing the answers over learning theory. That may seem contrary to how you like to learn, but the reality is, you only learn ham radio by doing it, and you have to pass the test to start learning. Plus, the question pools are full of trick questions, especially at the General level. There were many questions I could only answer correctly because I brute-force memorized the answers.
That’s why many test prep books like Craig Buck’s Technician Class: Pass Your Amateur Radio Technician Class Test - The Easy Way explain the topics in a narrative format, but bold the exact answers you’ll be expected to give on the test. You will absorb important concepts through osmosis as you memorize the answers. The rest you can look up later after you’re licensed.
I used Buck’s book to study for Technician, but I was overwhelmed by his General book. With only a week until my scheduled test date, I signed up for HamTestOnline. It’s not cheap, and the site looks like it hasn’t had a redesign since 1996, but it’s a very effective program that drills you on the answers while teaching you relevant theory so you understand what you’re learning.
The other half of cramming is practice tests. Take them relentlessly. Drill, baby, drill. HamTestOnline is good for that, and it notes your weak spots and regularly drills you on them. But HamTestOnline isn’t the most mobile-friendly app. Buy the HamStudy.org app and spend your free time doing practice tests.
Book a test date in the near future. Force yourself to study.
Dedicate all of your free time in that period to studying for the tests.
Books are fine, but HamTestOnline will help you get through tough subjects when others fail.
Good luck! I know you can do it.
It helps to use a label maker to make stickers with your callsign and attach them to your radio to identify your equipment and prevent confusion.
Sorry for all the connector jargon, but it’ll make sense after you study for your licenses.