About Amateur Radio

Amateur radio has been around since the earliest days of wireless communication, and many of the advances in radio technology and our understanding of propagation (how radio signals travel) are due to amateurs. The traditional picture you may have of an old guy sitting in front of a bunch of equipment sending Morse code to someone in Uruguay still happens, but these days people do amateur radio using lightweight portable radios while hiking or on top of mountains, send signals through satellites, or bounce them off meteor trails. Some amateur radio operators build their own equipment or station accessories, and many find that making a distant contact using a radio you’ve built yourself is very satisfying.

Many “hams” are also active in emergency preparedness or volunteer at public service events. The Boston Marathon uses about 200 amateur radio operators every year.

To do all this you need a license. There are three levels of amateur radio license in the United States: Technician, General, and Amateur Extra. The first two have a 35-question multiple-choice exam, and Extra has a 50-question multiple-choice exam. You have to pass Technician before you can take the General, and General before Extra, though if you’re prepared you can take all three in succession in one day. You have to score 75% to pass. You no longer have to take a Morse code test for any license.

Technician gives you full privileges on all amateur frequencies from 50 MHz up and some very limited privileges below that. General adds privileges in the ‘HF’ (high frequency) bands below 30 MHz; these are the traditional shortwave bands that support worldwide communication. Some portions of the HF bands are reserved for Extra license holders. There’s a good summary of all this here.

You can search for classes on this page. In the Boston area, New England Sci-Tech in Natick regularly offers classes both in-person and on Zoom. The Whitman club also has regular training sessions. In addition to classes that last a few weeks, there are also boot-camp style classes that offer a full Technician class and an exam in one day. They’re usually held in conjunction with hamfests and conventions in the spring and summer. The Technician test is fairly easy—middle school students and people without a technical background pass it—so you may find it quicker and simpler to study on your own.

For book learners, there are study manuals available from both the American Radio Relay League and ones by Gordon West, WB6NOA. You should be able to find these on Amazon or at the ARRL store. Always buy new manuals, not used—the ‘question pools’ from which the exams are constructed are changed every few years. If you already know a lot about electronics and radio, the “No Nonsense” guides at from Dan, KB6NU are free to download in PDF format.

Good online courses that you can go through at your own pace are offered by HamRadioPrep.com. Use the coupon code ‘bostonarc’ for a 20% discount.

There are practice tests at HamRadioPrep.com, and also hamstudy.org and hamexam.org. A good strategy is to shoot for a consistent 85% on practice exams before you try the real one. You want a little bit of extra room in case of nervousness or bad luck.

The Boston Amateur Radio Club offers exams at 7:30 pm on the second Monday of January, April, July, and October, at Artisans Asylum in Allston, and we ask that you make an advance reservation, which you can do by contacting Joe, NV1W, at joechapman@alum.mit.edu. If you want to get your license before our next session, the MIT exam team offers exams on the penultimate Wednesday of every month; more information is here. A good site for searching for exams is here.

The test fee is $15, and the FCC will charge you $35 to issue the license once you pass. The license is good for ten years, and very easy to renew.

For more information, or if you have any questions, contact us at w1bos@arrl.net.