How to Get Licensed to Operate a Ham Radio

To become licensed and receive your “ticket” to operate a ham radio, you’ll need to do a little studying, and you have plenty of opportunities to practice. Then you’ll take your exam, administered by volunteer hams who were all in your shoes once upon a time. After you pass, you’ll receive a call sign that is yours and yours alone: your radio name. Ready? Let’s go!

How to study for your ham radio license exam

ARRL and other organizations publish study guides and manuals, some of which may be available through your local library. Also, online tests are available, listing the actual questions that are on the test. Take advantage of these materials, and you’ll be confident that you’re ready to pass the exam on test day.

The pool of questions for the examinations changes every four years. Make sure that you have the current version of study materials, containing the correct questions and any recent changes in rules and regulations.

How to take the ham radio licensing test

In the Olden Days, hams took their licensing tests at the nearest FCC office, which could be hundreds of miles away.

Nowadays, although the FCC still grants the licenses, it no longer administers amateur radio licensing examinations. In the United States, ham radio license exams are given by Volunteer Examiners (VEs); some VEs even file the results with the FCC. This process enables you to get your license and call sign much faster than in the days when the FCC handled everything.

The tests are usually available a short drive away at a club, a school, or even a private home. As of early 2013, it costs $15 to attend a test session and take an exam for any of the license elements.

Volunteer Examiner Coordinators

A Volunteer Examiner Coordinator (VEC) organization takes responsibility for certifying and coordinating the Volunteer Examiners (VEs) who run the license exam sessions; it also processes FCC-required paperwork generated by the VEs. Each VEC maintains a list of VEs, upcoming test sessions, and other resources for ham test-takers. It can also help you renew your license and change your address or name.

The VEC with the most VEs is the group run by the American Radio Relay League (ARRL-VEC), but 13 other VECs are located around the United States. Some VECs, such as ARRL-VEC and W5YI-VEC, operate nationwide; others work in only a single region.

You can find a VEC near you on the NCVEC website.

Volunteer Examiners

VEs make the system run. Each exam requires three VEs to be present and to sign off on the test paperwork. VEs are responsible for all aspects of the testing process, including providing the meeting space and announcing the test sessions.

VEs are authorized to administer (proctor) license exams for the same class of license they hold themselves or for lower classes. A General class VE, for example, can administer Technician and General exams but not Amateur Extra exams.

If they incur any expenses, such as for supplies or facility rental, they’re allowed to keep up to $7 per person of the $15 test fee, if they want; the remainder goes to the VEC to cover its expenses.

General, Advanced, and Amateur Extra class licensees can become VEs by contacting one of the VEC organizations and completing whatever qualification process the VEC requires. The ARRL-VEC, for example, provides a booklet on the volunteer licensing system and requires applicants to pass a short exam. VE certification is permanent as long as it is renewed on time with the VEC.

VEs are amateurs just like you; they do a real service to the amateur community by making the licensing system run smoothly and efficiently. Don’t forget to say “Thanks!” at the conclusion of your test session, pass or fail. Better yet, become a VE yourself. It’s fun and rewarding.

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