Getting Started With Ham Radio

A few months ago I got my Ham Radio License, since then I have had several people ask for advice on getting their licence so here goes.  This is kind of train of thought theater so hopefully I get it somewhat organized in a decent fashion.

  1.  There are 3 levels of license: Technician, General, and Extra… each of these is progressively harder to achieve but each one gives more frequencies to use.  NOTE THERE IS NO MORSE CODE REQUIREMENT FOR ANY TESTS.
    1. Technician – This is the basic license and gets you on the air with mostly local communications (Mostly VHF and UHF)
    2. General – This is a huge step up (you get rights on ALL the amateur bands), yet the test is only slightly harder and mostly the same information as the Tech test.  This will get you talking worldwide with the right radio. (and money)
    3. Extra – This test is significantly harder than the general (so I’ve been told) and really gives you limited benefits above General… Once you get in the hobby you will figure out if this step is right for you.
  2. How to get licensed
    1. Licensing is easy and cheap.  Tests are offered all around the country all the time and cost in the range of $15.00 .  If you pass your test you can take the next level test FREE during the same session.  If you fail and want to try again, plop down another $15.  Again if you pass a test the next one is free to try.  In theory you could take all three tests for $15.
    2. Find a local test by going to http://www.arrl.org/find-an-amateur-radio-license-exam-session and looking in your area.
  3. Ok here is what you need to do to get licensed, trust me it isn’t hard.
    1. Download the following 2 PDF files, one is for Tech and one is for General (trust me get both, I’ll explain in a bit) http://www.kb6nu.com/wp-content/uploads/2010/06/2010_Tech_Study_Guide.pdf and http://kb6nu.com/wp-content/uploads/2007/09/2011-No-Nonsense-General-Class-License-Study-Guide.pdf
    2. Read the Tech guide (NOTE LINK FOR TECH GUIDE IS ONLY GOOD TILL JUNE 2014, check the kb6nu.com website for updates once new test questions get released).
    3. Go to QRZ.com and register, then go to http://qrz.com/hamtest/ and take some practice tests.
    4. Repeat steps 2 & 3, 3 more than 2… once you start getting 80-85% or so on the  Tech Test figure out when you can schedule a test.  If you have time read through the General guide (Don’t neglect the Tech stuff, just add some General in the middle.)
    5. Take the Tech exam, once you pass try the General… the first time I took the general I hadn’t even looked at the questions and I only missed passing by 2 questions.  If I had looked through that document once or twice I would have probably gotten it first try.
  4. BEFORE GOING TO TAKE A TEST PLEASE READ WHAT YOU WILL NEED TO BRING!!!! – A calculator is a good idea, pencils, PHOTO ID x2, they may only take cash so send an email or read if they have posted what you will need, it would suck to have to drive back home and get a bunch of crap.  If you are upgrading you may need to bring your current license.
  5. Ok now you have a license (in a week or two anyway, government processing and all), how do you get on the air?  Well let me tell you……
    1. Get a radio.  Now there are plenty of opinions as to which way to go here… Right now we are going to focus on VHF and UHF radios as all licenses can use these.
      1. Some will say get a HT (aka walkie talkie or handy talkie) this is a handheld radio.  HTs are lower powered but can be much cheaper.  PLUSES – Cheaper (some examples for $35 or less), more versatile.  MINUSES – Can me more complicated to program, low power (~3-5w), could frustrate a user due to low power and bad antennas.
      2. Others will say go with a base station/mobile unit as they tend to be easier to use and their power gives them better reach.  PLUSES – all the power you will ever possibly use for VHF or UHF (10-100 watts usually 40-50 watts), Tend to be easier to program and use, better antennas.  MINUSES – Cost (Starting at $150, but more likely $300+), must be mounted in a house or car, additional equipment needed (antenna is extra, some test equipment needed, power supply for home use)
    2. I am going to post Amazon links for all the radios.  But please also check http://www.universal-radio.com for pricing as well.  I am not at all affiliated with Universal Radio but I have yet to find better pricing on new radios that them (NOTE, the price is on the LEFT HAND SIDE OF THE PAGE, all the pricing under the product is for accessories… it gets me every time).  They however don’t sell Baofeng radios, go to Amazon for those as they are super cheap and the return policy for Amazon is Stellar (I do get Amazon kickbacks, full disclosure)
      1. OK for HT radio I suggest the BAOFENG UV5R, and only the UV5R… There are easily 6000 different model numbers and 5Rplus or 5RA… NO just the UV5R.  All the models are functionally the same inside but the case makes getting accessories difficult, the UV5R is the most common model and almost all accessories are made for this case only.  This radio is SUPER CHEAP (as of 11/30/2013 it is $29) and very decent especially considering the price.  Here is the link, don’t bother looking anywhere else as you won’t find it cheaper AMAZON BAOFENG UV5R.
        1. IT IS IMPERATIVE THAT YOU PICK UP THE PROGRAMMING CABLE!!! Here is the link (It’s like $7, trust me get it) AMAZON UV5R PROGRAMMING CABLE
        2. Download CHIRP Programming software (FREE) at this link CHIRP PROGRAMMING SOFTWARE
        3. Read the following website, it is the  UV5R BIBLE!, The most comprehensive site for the UV5R by FAR!  MIKLOR UV5R WEBSITE
        4. The Baofeng UV5R radio is a Dual Band (2m & 70cm) FM only handheld radio.  It is capable of TRANSMITTING AND RECEIVING on Police/Fire, Ham, FRS/GMRS, and MURS frequencies.  You are probably only licensed to TRANSMIT on 2m and 70cm… so if you program police/fire or whatever into the radio make sure transmit is disabled on those channels.  This radio has the capability to RECEIVE commercial broadcast FM radio stations as well as NOAA Weather Radio transmissions.  It also has a scan function that sucks bad so don’t bother with it.  Eventually you will want a better antenna for this radio but get familiar with it and the MIKLOR website and figure out how you want to proceed.
        5. There are other brands (Yaesu, Kenwood, and Icom) which are great and much better radios, but the price difference is what really gets me.  If you have the money to spend feel free to get a better radio.  I may do so in the future but I will always have a few of these on hand as backups/handouts.
      2. Alright, as far as mobiles/base stations are concerned I am speaking on research only, I do not currently have a mobile… I want one bad….
        1. This decision depends entirely on the bands you need.  Usually the bands in your area represent what your local fire/police used/use (UHF or VHF), therefore most repeaters in the area will be in that band.  In my area 2M (VHF) is the most common, although there is plenty of 70cm (UHF).  For me a 2M would do 85% of what I want but a dual band would be nice.  Check the repeater directories for your area to determine the best setup for you.
        2. For 2m only radios the Yaesu FT-1900r or FT-2900r are about the best deals out there (currently ~$150 with rebates and stuff at Universal Radio)
        3. For Dual Band the Yaesu FT-7900r and FT-8800r are pretty standard rigs in the $350 range.  Or you could move up to the Yaesu FT-8900 and add the 6M and 10m bands to get some real range… for not much more in price over the 8800. Again Universal Radio usually has the best price.  Added benefit of these is a detachable faceplate, so you can mount the heavy part in the trunk or whatever and have a thin easily mountable faceplate on your dash.  This makes mounting much easier.
        4. There are plenty of options for these radios, but beware…. Yaesu, Kenwood, and Icom are the gold standard and very stable radios.  Other off brand radios may be a little cheaper but quality and service may suffer.  If the difference is 20% or less in price for equivalent radios go with the name brand.  Saving $50 on a $350 radio isn’t worth it if the cheap one is a pain in the butt to deal with.
        5. You will need to buy an antenna and SWR test meter for any of these radios.  Also if you are planning to use this in a building vs a car you will need a 12v power supply as well.  Antennas go for $10-$100+ depending what you are looking to do, but this discussion is way too long for this post.  Suffice it to say a decent mag mount car antenna should run you $20-$40 or so.  SWR meter $40-$100.  PLEASE get a SWR meter, this could save your radio.  Check Amazon for better pricing here, especially with antennas.  Be aware you may need to tune your antenna, hence the SWR meter.

Well for now that is the lot of it.  This guide should get you started, you will learn much more in the study guides so I didn’t include a lot of information about repeaters and whatnot and almost nothing on HF (long distance) Ham activities.  Perhaps a future post.

 

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3 Responses to “Getting Started With Ham Radio”

  1. Siddhartha says:

    You should add a mobile antenna for the car for roughly around $10 for the car to go with your Baofeng and another good antenna for BaoFeng because the one it comes with leaves a little to be desired. Great post!!!

  2. […] UV-5R Ham Radio – Check out the intro to HAM radio post HERE to learn more… this is the cheapest and best VALUE in HAM radios.  There are better radios […]

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