Becoming a Ham Operator


6-5-09;  Updated 2-13-15


What is Amateur Radio?

What is Amateur Radio, what do radio amateurs do? Do I have to buy expensive commercial equipment, or can I build my own? Will I need massive antennas? What kind of antenna can I put up in Sun City? What kind of license do I need? How do I get one? Do I need to pass technical exams and Morse code tests? Where do I start? It can all seem a very overwhelming task at first, but the Sun City Amateur Radio Society is here to help you, so read on, and start to enjoy a very fascinating hobby.


Amateur radio is not a "CB". Operators are strictly licensed by the FCC and enjoy many more privileges than do "CB" operators. It allows millions to communicate worldwide using speech, computer data, and Morse code, just to name a few. Radio Hams can transmit and receive using satellites, and can send TV pictures also. Some even 'bounce' their signals off the moon. Radio Amateurs have contributed to the advances in technology that we all enjoy today.

Some astronauts are also amateur radio operators, and they often take amateur radio equipment with them on space shuttle missions and talk to earthbound amateurs from space.

Amateur radio is a community of people that use radio transmitters and receivers to communicate with other Amateur radio operators. The things that amateur radio operators do with their radios are as diverse as the people themselves. Amateur radio operators are often called ham radio operators or simply "hams." There are about 600,000 hams in the United States. There are currently over 80 hams in Sun City.

How to become an amateur radio operator

The Federal Communications Commission licenses all hams in the United States. The requirements and levels of licenses have changed many times over time. Here in Sun City most of our Amateur Radio “hams” are over 55 years of age. Consequently, our members currently hold various levels of ham licenses. Some have obtained them while in the military, through interest developed from job requirements such as a fireman or law enforcement, or through personal interest. Your pursuit here and now will be a purely personal one. You will need to be self motivated in your own efforts in this educational pursuit. The level of difficulty will depend on your own abilities and the level of license you will be trying to obtain.


There are many ways to go about preparing for and taking your ham radio license test.

  • Local Clubs - For those that like a structured approach, some clubs organize meetings and classes to teach the basic skills of radio operation and prepare people for their ham radio license test. At the end of the classes, a test is given. If you pass, you're a ham! Williamson County Amateur Radio Club has offered this approach in the past. Check their web site to see if any classes are now being offered.

  • Elmers - An “Elmer” is the ham equivalent of a "Yoda." Many new hams are taught by other hams. Helping people is a common thread throughout the ham radio hobby. An Elmer knows the stuff you need to pass your test and will help you prepare. While an Elmer can not give the FCC examination, he or she will be in touch with other hams in your area and know where public examinations are held. More on this later.

  • Self-study – There are numerous books, software, and “ham web sites” that are available to assist you with your studies. This method can also be tied in with an elmer from our Club. You have the most control over this type of learning, but this will require self-discipline on your part.

 Your quickest method to get your first license, the Technician Class, is with “self study” and help from Sun City & Williamson County ham elmers.

Studying for your license

Most new hams enter the hobby at the Technician level. An amateur radio "Tech" has full access to all the ham bands and communition modes above 50 MHz. All current beginners will start off first at the Technician level. See the different licenses “levels” on the next page.


Ham Radio License Manual Third Edition is probably the most popular study guide for learning about Amateur radio. It's published by the ARRL (American Radio Relay League, the national association for amateur radio). Reviewing this book will help you see what it takes to be a Technician and that it is within your reach.

Don't be scared. .. There is a little bit of electrical theory that you have to know, but not very much. There are maybe 5 or 6 formulas that you'll have to memorize and some electrical components that are not any more complicated than resistors or batteries. Most of what you have to understand are safety considerations and the basic rules and regulations that the FCC applies to amateur radio operators. This is a bit of memorization, but you ought to be able to do it in a few short weeks. When you have a good understanding of the book, you're ready to start practicing to take your test.


This practice is the key to self-study method and passing the Technician Test.

Practice, Practice, & Practice

There are a number of free computer programs that give sample ham tests. These programs make up sample tests by random selection from the question pool. Run the program and take the tests until you pass them every time. The questions that the volunteer examiners ask you will be exactly the same! They are not allowed to change the wording of the questions or answers, but they can rearrange the order of the multiple-choice answers. There are also several commercial products you can purchase to help you learn how to pass your first test. Whether you just review the book test or web site test, practice is the answer, over and over until your practice scores are as good as they are going to be. On-line practice sites are listed at the end of this document.

Different levels or classes of Amateur Radio License

In the past, there have been different requirements and different levels of Licenses hams could obtain. The past is in the past, what you need to know now is what is current. The FCC requirement for Amateur Radio licensing privileges is passing a written multiple choice 35 or 50 question exam relevant to the Element 2, 3 or 4 license. No Morse code is required at any level. The three levels are as follows:

  • Technician – Technician licensees have full VHF and UHF privileges granted to higher-classed licensees and limited HF privileges. You can earn this license by passing only a single 35-question written exam covering basic Rules, operating practices and basic electronic theory. This is called an Element 2 exam.

  • General – Upgrading to a General class license is a more advanced 35-question written exam. The General class license includes privileges on the nine medium and high frequency bands. This is the Element 3 exam. Passing Element 2 is also required for this level of licenses.

  • Extra – The third and final step on the Amateur Radio license ladder is the Amateur Extra class license. To earn this license, with full amateur privileges on all amateur bands, you will have to pass an additional 50 question written exam. This exam covers the finer points of the FCC Rules as well as more advanced operating practices and electronics principles. This is the Element 4 exam. Passing Elements 2-3 are required before you take the test for this level of license.


You are ready to take the Technician Test

Where do you take the test?

If you have a computer, you can find your nearest location and when they will be offering the tests. ( )

If you don’t have a computer then ask your Elmer or anyone in our Ham Club and they can assist you. Most exam locations will take ‘walk-ins’, but be sure to be early or at least on time.

You'll need two things with your name and address on them, such as a driver’s license and a water bill, and copies of them in case the examiners need to keep them. Take pencils, scratch paper and a calculator too. Oh yeah, take money, it costs about 15 bucks for each exam. All the requirements are listed in the Ham Radio License Manual 3rd Edition.

You will be told at the end of the session if you passed or not. You will not be told your score. If you did not pass the test, don’t worry you can retake next time. At some sessions, you can retake the exam immediately for another fee. You will remember the ones that you didn’t know, start studying that section again and practice some more again. You will pass in the long run.


You passed your test - Congratulations!

It typically takes four to eight weeks to receive your license from the FCC.

You can go back to and look under Test results, or . Your new license will be posted with your new “call sign”. Your license is valid as soon as it is posted in the FCC database. You are now an amateur radio operator and the FCC will send you a nice looking piece of paper you can put up on your wall and one for your wallet.

Getting a radio

If you got your Tech license, you'll probably want to get either an HT (Handy-Talkie: an amateur radio version of a walkie-talkie) or a UHF/VHF mobile radio.

You need to spend some time searching the net, learning which radios are which. Talk to the members here at Sun City about theirs. Your selection will depend on how you intend on using them and of course, cost too. Read, read, ask and ask before you buy.

Your first radio conversation

Two of the things that the exams don't cover are how to operate your radio and what to say once you've got it working.

Read the instructions ... don't even think about operating amateur radio equipment until you know what you're doing. If you got an HT or UHF/VHF mobile radio, these are usually very easy to operate. Basically, there's a button that's labeled PTT for `push to talk' and that's what you do. Still, you have to know what frequencies are in use in your area and what they're used for. The basic rule is listening first.

Different areas will have different protocols for determining how to take turns using a frequency and what to say when you want to join into an on-going conversation. If you wait to figure out what other people are doing, you'll blend right in.

Have fun!

Amateur radio can provide a lifelong avenue of education, it can be a tie that binds friends together, it can save your life or help you save others and it's something that you can take joy in sharing with others.

Whatever your interest in amateur radio is, rest assured that there is no reason to "go it alone." If you are having trouble or worried that there is some reason that you won't be able to get your license, come to our coffee at What-a-Burger and we will be happy to help you through it.

Even if you are not sure whether or not you want or can be a ham, I would recommend that you purchase Ham Radio License Manual 3rd Edition and read it. It will answer most of your technical questions, including “ How can I learn to be a ham radio operator”?

Another good information source is H am Radio for Dummies, Second edition, by Ward Silver. The book is available in bookstores and online. No joke, this is a good book!

This book is design to help you learn what Ham Radio is and to help you answer the question, "Is Ham Radio for me?" You can order this book at any book store by giving them the title and author. These two are a good pair to start with.

Contributing Resources from:


Self Study Resources

The Book for Beginners

Ham Radio License Manual 3rd Edition ! All you need for your first Amateur Radio License, Third edition by ARRL (ISBN: 978-1-62595-013-0)

Here's absolutely everything you need to know to ace your FCC license exams! Each manual contains all the learning material in bite-sized chapters. As you study, you'll review with the actual questions that appear on the tests.

Each book includes:

  • Friendly, easy-to-understand theory and rules

  • The entire question pool with answers and page references

  • Valid illustrations and photos


Want more Information? Contact ARRL web site or e-mail them your questions:


Free Practice Exams


These sites are intended to provide practice for the US Amateur radio examinations required to obtain an Amateur Radio License.