Types of Ham Radio Operator Licenses

Three types of licenses for ham radio operators are being granted today: Technician, General, and Amateur Extra. By taking progressively more challenging exams, you gain access to more frequencies and operating privileges.

After you pass a specific test level, called an element, you have permanent credit for it as long as you keep your license renewed. This system allows you to progress at your own pace. Your license is good for ten years, and you can renew it without taking an exam.

License Class Privileges Notes
Technician All amateur privileges above 50 MHz; limited CW, Phone, and Data privileges below 30 MHz
General Technician privileges plus most amateur HF privileges
Amateur Extra All amateur privileges Small exclusive sub-bands are added on 80, 40, 20, and 15 meters.
Technician class

Nearly every ham starts with a Technician class license, also known as a Tech license. A Technician licensee is allowed access to all ham bands with frequencies of 50 MHz or higher. These privileges include operation at the maximum legal power limit and using all types of communications.

Tech licensees may also transmit using voice on part of the 10 meter band and Morse code on some of the HF bands below 30 MHz.

The test for this license consists of 35 multiple-choice questions on regulations and technical radio topics. You have to get 26 or more correct to pass.

Morse code was once required for amateur operation below 30 MHz because of international treaties adopted when a great deal of commercial and military radio traffic — news, telegrams, ship-to-ship, and ship-to-shore messages — was conducted with the code. Emergency communications were often coded, too. Back then, using Morse code was considered to be a standard radio skill.

Morse code still makes up a great deal of amateur operations, from casual ragchewing to passing messages, participating in contests, and providing emergency operations. Its efficient use of transmitted power and spectrum space, as well as its innate musicality and rhythm, make it very popular with hams. Also, it’s easy and fun to use.

General class

After earning the entry-level Technician license, many hams immediately start getting ready to upgrade to a General class license. When you obtain a General class license, you’ve reached a great milestone. General class licensees have full privileges on nearly all amateur frequencies, with only small portions of some HF bands remaining off limits.

The General class exam, which includes 35 questions (you have to get 26 right to pass), covers many of the same topics as the Technician exam, but in more detail. The exam introduces some new topics that an experienced ham is expected to understand.

Amateur extra class

General class licensees still can’t access everything; the lowest segments of several HF bands are for Amateur Extra class licensees only. These segments are where the expert Morse code operators hang out and are considered to be prime operating territory. If you become interested in contesting, contacting rare foreign stations (DXing), or just having access to these choice frequencies, you want to get your Amateur Extra license — the top level.

The Amateur Extra exam consists of 50 multiple-choice questions, 37 of which you must answer correctly to pass. The exam covers additional rules and regulations associated with sophisticated operating and several advanced technical topics. Hams who pass the Amateur Extra exam consider their license to be a real achievement. Do you think you can climb to the top rung of the licensing ladder?

Grandfathered classes

The amateur service licensing rules have changed over the years, reducing the number of license classes. Hams who hold licenses in deleted classes may renew those licenses indefinitely, but no new licenses for those classes are being issued.

Two grandfathered license classes remain:

  • Novice: The Novice license was introduced in 1951 with a simple 20-question test and 5-words-per-minute code exam. A ham with a General class (or higher) license administered the exam. Originally, the license was good for a single year, at which point the Novice upgraded or had to get off the air.

    These days, the Novice license, like other licenses, has a ten-year term and is renewable. Novices are restricted to segments of the 3.5, 7, 21, 28, 222, and 1296 MHz amateur bands.

  • Advanced: Advanced class licensees passed a written exam midway in difficulty between those for the General and Amateur Extra classes. They received frequency privileges between those of General and Amateur Extra licensees.

Here’s a breakdown of the relative populations of all type of license holders as of April 2013.

License Class Active Licenses Share of Active Licensees
Technician 347,580 48.7%
General 164,954 23.1%
Amateur Extra 131,983 18.5%
Advanced 55,714 7.8%
Novice 13,501 1.9%
Total 713,732 100%
Source: Total Amateur Radio Station Licenses.
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