Deciphering Your New Ham Radio Call Sign - dummies

Deciphering Your New Ham Radio Call Sign

By H. Ward Silver

Each license that the FCC grants for ham radios comes with a very special thing: a unique call sign (call to hams). Your call sign is both a certification that you have passed the licensing exam and permission to construct and operate a station — a special privilege. If you’re a new licensee, you’ll get your call sign within seven to ten business days of taking your licensing exam.

Your call sign becomes your on-the-air identity, and if you’re like most hams, you may change call signs once or twice before settling on the one you want to keep. Sometimes, your call sign starts taking over your off-the-air identity; you may become something like Ward NØAX, using your call sign in place of a last name.

Hams rarely use the term handle to refer to actual names; it’s fallen out of favor in recent years. Similarly, they use the term call letters only to refer to broadcast-station licenses that have no numbers in them. Picky? Perhaps, but hams are proud of their hard-earned call signs.

Call-sign prefixes and suffixes

Each call sign is unique. Many call signs contain NØ or AX, for example, but only one call sign is NØAX. Each letter and number in a call sign is pronounced individually and not as a word — “N zero A X,” for example, not “No-axe.”

Hams use the Ø (ALT-0216 on keyboards) symbol to represent the number 0, which is a tradition from the days of teleprinters and typewriters. It avoids confusion between capital-O and zero.

Ham radio call signs around the world are constructed of two parts:

  • Prefix: The prefix is composed of one or two letters and one numeral from Ø to 9. It identifies the country that issued your license and may also specify where you live within that country. For U.S. call signs, the numeral indicates the call district of where you lived when your license was issued.
  • Suffix: The suffix of a call sign, when added to the prefix, identifies you, the individual license holder. A suffix consists of one to three letters. No punctuation characters are allowed — just letters from A to Z.

The ITU assigns each country a block of prefix character groups to create call signs for all its radio services. All U.S. licensees (not just hams) have call signs that begin with A, K, N, or W. Even broadcast stations have call signs such as KGO or WLS. Most Canadian call signs begin with VE. English call signs may begin with G, M, or 2. Germans use D (for Deutschland) followed by any letter; almost all call signs that begin with J are Japanese, and so on. Check to find the complete list of ham radio prefix assignments.

Class and call sign

Your license class is reflected in your assigned call sign. When you get your first license, the FCC assigns you the next call sign in the heap for your license class, in much the same way that you’re assigned a license plate at the department of motor vehicles. And just as you can request a specialty license plate, you can request a special vanity call sign — within the call-sign rules, of course. The higher your license class, the shorter and more distinctive your chosen call sign can be.