Sending and Receiving QSLs on Your Ham Radio

By H. Ward Silver

QSL cards, which are the size of standard postcards, are the ham radio equivalent of a business card. They range from simple to ornate. DXpeditions often creates a multi-panel folding cards with lots of information and pictures from the rare location. QSLs are primarily exchanged for HF contacts and are used to qualify for operating awards.

QSLing electronically

Many hams are confirming their contacts on two sites: eQSL and ARRL’s Logbook of the World (LoTW). Your logging software may even be able to upload your contacts to these systems automatically as you make them. With these systems, there is no need to exchange paper cards although many hams send a card for a first contact with a station for their collections.

eQSL was the first electronic QSL system and is extremely easy to use. Its site has a tutorial slideshow that explains just how eQSL works and how to use it. eQSL offers its own operating awards, as well, verified by contacts uploaded to the eQSL system.

The ARRL’s LoTW is more complicated to use. You’re required to authenticate your identity and license, and all submitted contacts are digitally signed for complete trustworthiness. LOTW provides electronic verification of QSOs for award purposes. It currently supports the ARRL awards and CQ’s WPX and WAZ award programs.

DXpeditions often use an online QSLing system such as Club Log’s OQRS system. You can support the expeditioners with a donation and request your QSL at the same time. It’s speedy, secure, and highly recommended.

Direct QSLing on your ham radio

If you want to send a paper card, the quickest (and most expensive) option is direct, meaning directly to other hams at their published addresses. You can find many ham addresses on the web portal QRZ.com. This method ensures that your card gets to recipients as fast as possible and usually results in the shortest turnaround time. Include the return postage and maybe even a self-addressed, stamped envelope.

Direct QSLing costs more than electronic QSLing but makes it as easy as possible for you to get a return card on its way from the other ham — many times, with a colorful stamp.

Postal theft can be a problem in poorer countries. An active station can make hundreds of contacts per week, attracting unwelcome attention when many envelopes start showing up with those funny number–letter call signs on them. Don’t put any station call signs on the envelope if you have any question about the reliability of the postal service. Make your envelope as ordinary and as thin as possible. If the station gives QSL instructions online or during the contact, be sure to follow them!

Using QSL managers

To avoid poor postal systems and cut postage expenses, many DX stations and DXpeditions use a QSL manager. The manager is located in a country with reliable, secure postal service. This method results in a nearly 100 percent return rate. QSLing via a manager is just like direct QSLing. If you don’t include return postage and an envelope to a manager for a DX station, you’ll likely get your card back via the QSL bureau, which takes a few months at minimum.

You can locate managers on websites such at QRZ.com’s QSL Corner, which is free to members. If the station has a website or has posted information on the QRZ.com page, a manager will usually be listed there.

If you send your QSL overseas, be sure to do the following:

  • Use the correct global airmail letter rate from the U.S. Postal Service website.
  • Ensure airmail service by using an Air Mail sticker (free at the post office), an airmail envelope, or an Air Mail/Par Avion stamp on the envelope.
  • Include return postage from the DX operator’s home country to the U.S. from sources such as William Plum DX Supplies (email plumdx@msn.com) or the K3FN Air Mail Postage Service.

You may be asked to “send one (or two) greenstamps” for return postage. A greenstamp is a $1 bill. Be sure that currency isn’t visible through the envelope.

Bureaus and QSL services

All that postage can mount up pretty quickly. A much cheaper (and much slower) option exists: the QSL bureau system. You should use this method when the DX station says “QSL via the bureau” or on CW and digital modes, “QSL VIA BURO.” The QSL bureau system operates as a sort of ham radio post office, allowing hams to exchange QSLs at a fraction of the cost of direct mail.

If you are an ARRL member, you can bundle up all your DX QSLs (you still have to send domestic cards directly) and send them to the outgoing QSL bureau, where the QSLs are sorted and sent in bulk to incoming QSL bureaus around the world. The cards are then sorted and distributed to individual stations. The recipients send their reply cards back in the other direction.

To get your cards, you must keep postage and envelopes in stock at your incoming QSL bureau. (Anyone can use the incoming QSL bureaus.) Then, when you least expect it, a fat package of cards arrives in the mail. What fun!

An intermediate route is the K3FN QSL Service, which forwards QSLs to foreign and U.S. managers for a fee, currently 1 to 5 dollars per card depending on how fast you want the QSL in return. You send outbound cards directly to K3FN, and your return cards are sent to you by the service level you paid for.

Applying for awards

Each award program has its own method for submitting QSL cards to qualify for an award. All of them have a few things in common, though. There is a form to fill out listing each contact individually. For more than a few contacts, you’ll need to enter the information in alphabetical order by prefix.

For example, a contact from KA9ABC will be listed before N1EUZ before WBØGQP. (For DX prefix order, use the ARRL’s most-current DXCC List.) Print clearly so the award manager does not misread your information. Pay the award fee, if any, with a check or money order or electronically if that option is available. (Don’t send cash unless it is necessary.)

Next, sort the cards into the same order as on the form. Orient them with the contact information facing up, even if it is on the back of the card. Bundle the cards together so that the top card is the first on the application form. You then mail or ship the cards to the award manager as directed by the award’s sponsor. If you are sending a lot of cards or if the cards are particularly rare, send the cards by certified mail or with a signature-required service.

Don’t forget to include return postage or shipping costs in your award fee. It is also a good idea to include a self-addressed postcard with the application that the sponsor can return so you know the package was received. Assuming all your information checks out, you’ll receive your certificate and QSL cards!

Cards for the ARRL DXCC Award can be checked by a local or regional “field checker.” You can make arrangements to attend a club meeting and submit your cards to him or her directly. Card checkers often have a booth or table at the larger hamfests.