How to Listen to Ham Radio

The most important part of successfully putting a contact, also known as a QSO, in your ham radio logbook is listening — or, in the case of the digital modes, watching what the computer displays. (QSO is a Q-signal.) In fact, your ears (and eyes) are the most powerful parts of your station.

The ham bands are like a 24-hour-a-day party, with people coming and going all the time. Just as you do when you walk into any other big party, you need to size up the room by doing two things for a while before jumping in:

  • Tuning the band (receiving on different frequencies to assess activity)

  • Monitoring (listening to or watching an ongoing contact or conversation)

By doing so, you discover who’s out there and what they’re doing, what the radio conditions are like, and what the best way for you to make contact is.

How to listen to ham radio on different bands

You can listen on the following bands:

  • HF (high frequency) bands cover 3 MHz to 30 MHz and are usually thought of as the shortwave bands.

  • VHF (very high frequency) bands cover 30 MHz to 300 MHz.

  • UHF (ultra high frequency) bands cover 300 MHz to 3 GHz.

  • Microwaves are considered to start at about 1 GHz.

The shortwave or HF bands have a different flavor from the VHF bands. On the HF bands, you can find stations on any frequency that offer a clear spot for a contact. Up on the VHF bands, most contacts take place by means of repeaters on specific frequencies or on channels spaced regularly by a few kHz. How are you supposed to figure out where the other hams hang out?

As a Technician licensee, you’re likely to listen on the VHF and UHF bands at first, but don’t miss an opportunity to take in what’s happening on the lower-frequency HF bands, which have a completely different flavor.

Repeaters are radios that listen on one frequency and retransmit what they hear on another frequency. Repeaters usually are located at high spots such as hilltops or tall towers so that they can pick up weak signals well, and they have powerful transmitters so that their signals can be heard a long distance away.

Repeaters allow weak portable and mobile stations to communicate over a wide area. Repeaters are most useful on VHF and higher-frequency bands.

On both HF and VHF, hams engage in specific activities and tend to congregate on or near specific frequencies. Digital fans who use the popular PSK31 mode, for example, usually hang out near 14.070 MHz. No rule says that they must operate on that frequency, but they gather there routinely anyway.

That kind of consistency provides a convenient way for you to meet others who have similar interests and equipment. To continue the party metaphor, it’s like when a fellow partygoer tells you, “A group is usually talking about jazz at that table in the corner.”

Whenever groups tend to congregate at particular frequencies, those frequencies are known as calling frequencies. When a frequency becomes known as a spot on the band where you can find other hams using similar modes or operating styles, it’s a calling frequency.

Basics of sub-bands and band plans for ham radio

In the United States, regulations specify where each type of signal may be transmitted in a given band. These segments of the band are called sub-bands. Below the sub-bands for the 80 meter band. The American Radio Relay League (ARRL) offers a handy chart of U.S. sub-bands.

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Outside the United States, regulations are much less restrictive. You’ll probably hear Canadian and overseas hams having voice contacts in a part of the 40 meter band where American hams don’t have phone-transmitting privileges. (Phone is an abbreviation for radiotelephone, which includes all voice modes of transmission.) How unfair!

Because of the number of American hams, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) long ago decided that to maintain order, it was necessary to segregate the wide-bandwidth phone signals from narrow-bandwidth code and digital or data signals. That’s just the way it is. So close and yet so far!

Beyond this segregation of the amateur bands, hams have collectively organized themselves to organize the different operating styles on each band. Not all amateur users can coexist on the same frequency, so agreements about where different types of operations occur are necessary.

These agreements are called band plans. Band plans are based on FCC regulations but go beyond them to recognize popular calling frequencies and segments of a band where you usually find certain operating styles or modes.

A band plan isn’t a regulation and should be considered to apply only during normal conditions. When a lot of activity is going on — such as during emergency operations, a contest, or even a big expedition to a rare country — don’t expect the band plans to be followed. Be flexible and work around the activity, or jump in and participate.

A good source of up-to-date U.S. band plans is ARRL Band Plan.

Be aware that band plans may be different outside the United States. Europe and Japan, for example, have substantial differences on certain bands.

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