How to Get Started in Ham Radio

ham radio station

Ham radio is a type of amateur radio service that operates in the two-frequency range. Basically, it’s a walkie-talkie for the airwaves. Today, there are over 784 thousand licensed radios in America. Each model is able to communicate across hundreds of miles. Having a ham radio is sort of like having a free long-distance service that can connect you to family and friends all over the world. To own and operate this type of radio and a license is required. Fortunately, the cost of these licenses ranges from $10 to $15 and they’re valid for a decade. Once you’ve obtained a license there are thousands of repeaters and groups all over the country, which makes communicating easy. This guide will provide you with a general overview of these radios, and how people can become licensed ham radio operators.

American Radio Relay League

The American Radio Relay League also referred to as the ARRL, is designed for amateur radio operations. Located in Newington, Connecticut, this worldwide organization works with the Federal Communications Commission. Both the ARRL and the Federal Communications Commission work together to ensure ham operators are recognized as valuable social and technical resources. The American Radio Relay League also provides publications that are designed to inform the public about amateur radio, helping people obtain licenses, and assisting new operators regarding a variety of aspects of amateur radio. If you’re interested in obtaining an operator license or want to learn more about amateur radio in general, the ARRL is a great resource. Additionally, the National Association for Amateur Radio is another important resource that new operators should check out.

Amateur Radio Use- Your New Ham Radio Hobby

ham radio hobby

Beginners will find that once they get the hang of using one,  a ham radio hobby allows them to enjoy communicating with people all over the globe.

Amateur radio offers dozens of different types of communication modes that you can learn. Additionally, amateur radio operators will be invaluable in emergency situations, when other lines of communication fail.

Learning about amateur radio and the different radio frequencies is an excellent way to learn more about radio communications and electronics in general.

These radios use the first three blocks of the EMS or electromagnetic spectrum. Ham radios also utilize the very low-frequency block. Every communication is done using two-way amateur radio frequencies, which allows people to talk to each other across large distances.

High frequency is used for communications between other countries through the airwaves. High frequency is also used for phone calls placed around the world, just like a cell phone network.

This is referred to as the hull down band or marine band. This band is shared with CB radios, however, wireless microphones have grown in popularity, causing a decrease in CB radio use.

How to Get Started in Ham Radio

ham radio tuning

If you would like to get into amateur radio without breaking your budget, below you’ll find some tips and basic guidelines.

  • For starters, you should hook up your ham radio to an external antenna. A signal that’s received by the antenna is usually stronger than a signal that’s received by the built-in antenna. You’ll also be able to get further away from any electrical interferences by installing an antenna away from other devices in the home.
  • Wideband antennas can easily be made using a simple wire coathanger or you can purchase one online from dedicated ham radio stores.

Types of Amateur Radios

All amateur radio options will require a transceiver, antenna, and power supply to receive and send signals.

There are three basic types of amateur radios to choose from:

  • Base stations
  • Mobile
  • Handheld

Handheld Amateur Radio

This type of amateur radio is often referred to as handi-talkies.

Mobile

A mobile amateur radio is often mounted in a vehicle, just like a CB radio

Base Stations

Usually, these ham radios are part of a big setup and installed in a home. They come with a large immobile antenna, transceiver, and power supply.

The Spectrum

ham radio spectrum

Just like other types of wireless technologies, an amateur radio utilizes the power of electromagnetic radiation to send digital data, Morse code, and voices around the world with the assistance of antennas, receivers, and transmitters. The radio’s electromagnetic radiation will travel in the form of a sinusoidal wave, and the specific frequency and wavelength of the wave will determine what type of electromagnetic signal the operator is working with. Electromagnetic radiation can be broken down into a spectrum, which is categorized in order of decreasing wavelength and increasing frequency to include gamma rays, X rays, ultraviolet, visible light, infrared, microwaves, and radio waves.

Longer Wavelengths

Out of all of these categories, the ham radio will operate solely in the radio wave spectrum which is known for longer wavelengths that can reach more than 62 miles. Additionally, a radio frequency can then get broken down into another spectrum called the radio frequency spectrum.

There are many devices that all have to share space in this spectrum. The spectrum has been divided by the FCC to reserve specific bands for different radio technologies.

For example, maritime radio communications operate in a very-low-frequency band (VLF), whereas satellite communication will operate in the EHF or extremely high-frequency band.

When it comes to the ham radio, the FCC has allocated specific frequencies that begin at the AM radio band. This type of range includes a couple of radio frequency bands, UHF and VHF. Both UHF and VHF have their own advantages and disadvantages.

VHF

Very high frequency or VHF resides on the radio frequency spectrum between 30 up to 300 MHC with the band reserved for ham radios coming in at 144 to 148 MHZ. VHF provides a type of simplex communication system that allows line of sight communication between two radios. This band has a reputation for its reliability and the fact that it has a low susceptibility to noise from electrical equipment nearby. Because of this, VHF is the band of choice for many people who operate ham radios.

When you communicate in the VHF band, operators often take advantage of repeaters that are placed all around the country by local radio clubs. These are a type of antenna-like structures that are able to rebroadcast and receive signals that are sent from a ham radio. This helps to significantly extend the radio’s reach. Additionally, many of these repeaters are solar-powered or have built-in power backup which makes them perfect for people who want to keep communications going during a crisis.

UHF

UHF or ultra-high frequency ranges from 300M Hz up to 3 GHz. Ham radio users will have a range from 420 up to 450 MHSC. Unfortunately, UHF has a much shorter wavelength compared to VHF radio waves and it’s also prone to interference from structures or any other type of solid object, whether it’s trees, a building, or a body that blocks the signal. However, UHF doesn’t have a higher bandwidth occupation, so you’ll find wider frequency ranges and better audio signal quality when you’re communicating using this band.

Ham Radio Equipment

HAM radio equipment

If you want to get started using a ham radio, you’ll have many options when it comes to equipment. If your goal is to go all the way and build your own ham radio setup, then you can expect to invest hundreds or dollars to get started.

Fortunately, these days there are cheaper options available that will allow the newbie to get started with a ham radio setup for as little as $20. You can purchase a transceiver online which will allow you to tune in and speak to people around the world without your wallet taking a serious beating. This can be a great option if you want to explore this hobby, get your license, and see if you want to invest further in a better setup. If you do decide to eventually build your own ham radio setup, then you’ll need to invest in the following components:

Receiver

Receivers allow ham radio operators to listen in on a variety of radio bands, and this box will come in either a handheld version or desktop version. Many types of receivers will also come with a memory module that will allow you to save your go-to frequencies.

Transceiver

You can also invest in a transceiver, which will combine both a transmitter and a receiver in one box. You can often find these as single band or two-meter models for basic users. However, if you plan on upgrading your ham license, then you can find a dual or triband transceiver that will provide more communications power.

Antenna

If you have an outdoor space or a space set up in your home, then you may want to consider investing in an antenna. Antennas will come as either directional, which will send a signal to a direct path, or omnidirectional which sends out signals in all directions. You also find mobile antennas that can be installed on a car or truck that provides a signal boost when you’re traveling so you can always access your favorite ham radio station.

These are just some of the components that you’ll need when you’re putting together a ham radio setup. Keep in mind there’s a lot more to this type of setup that ham operators will want to purchase, such as things like a microphone, power supply, and cabling.

Ham Radio License

If you’re serious about amateur radio, the first step is obtaining an amateur radio license. You must obtain your license to operate your radio legally. You’ll need to take a test that will cover your knowledge in electronics, regulations, amateur radio rules, and theory.

There are a few different types of licenses available, including:

Technician

This type of license is a great choice for people who are just getting started with ham radio use. This type of test will feature a total of 35 questions that cover the basic regulations, electronics theory, and safety for ham radio use. Once you’ve passed the test you’ll be licensed for communicating in microwave, UHF, and VHF frequency bands.

General License

With a general license, you will be able to unlock all of the privileges the technician license offers, in addition to communicating on frequencies in the HF or high-frequency band.

Extra

This license is for the serious ham radio user and requires you to pass a test that includes over 700 questions. If you pass this test, you’ll get to use both the general and technician license frequencies in addition to exclusive sub-bands.

To get started with the licensing process you’ll need to find a book or class to dig into and then you can take the test.

Ease of Use

FRS and CB are the easiest radios to use for the beginner. You can just purchase a model off the shelf and everyone in your group can turn to a specific channel and you’re good to go. You don’t need a license and the barrier of entry is low.

However, there are tradeoffs. Most survival experts believe the advantages of ham outweigh the extra steps required to learn how to use one.

Since the government made it easy for anyone to use bands that are license-free, they require a manufacturer to cripple the equipment so people are unable to broadcast in places they aren’t supposed to and they’re unable to abuse the airwaves.

As I mentioned earlier, a ham radio requires at least a basic license. Learning how to use amateur radio and its equipment can be more complicated compared to other radio options.

 Benefits for Amateur Radio Operators

Amateur Radio Operator

Using a ham radio gives the user a peek into the world of communications, on a larger scale. Basically, anyone can get a ham radio license and get on the air to talk to people all over the world. For people who are interested in tinkering with wireless technology, amateur radios provide a solid introduction to radio communication knowledge and basic electronics. Once you have all of the ham radio equipment you need, the world is yours to communicate with.

These radios are often relied upon when disaster strikes. During a crisis, when fragile cell phones and power grids fail, the ham radio will keep on running.

This type of wireless technology is usually utilized as the sole method of communication during disasters. In fact, there are many volunteer-based emergency groups that offer their skills and ham radio knowledge to help coordinate aid and relief for people in their community.

However, the use of these radios does extend far beyond emergency situations. For example, astronauts that travel on the International Space Station often use a handheld ham radio. When they hold the ham radio to the window, positioning it in line of sight with the other radios on earth, they can contact people on the ground with this simple yet amazing technology. Outside of emergency situations and space adventures, ham radios are also often used for:

Distance Dialing

Some ham radio users participate in contests to see how many other amateur radios they’re able to connect to in distant locations.

Digital Data

A ham radio isn’t only used for voice communications. With some newer models, users can also send a digital signal around the world to share things such as pictures.

Ham Radio Operators-Preppers

Amateur radios are the radio of choice for most preppers. Ham is the best choice because of its flexibility, range, and power.

Ham radio is also the only option that allows you to talk to and listen to your local emergency services.

Amateur radios also offer a significantly wider range of frequencies compared to other types of radios. With a CB radio, it can get really crowded.

Basically, ham offers a better range and more power.

The flexibility of these radios will also allow users to listen to commercial FM stations and NOAA.

However, basic ham radio equipment cannot guarantee that you’ll pick all local emergency services since some fire and police departments have moved to encrypted and digital systems. To listen to those stations, you would need to use a police scanner.

Amateur radios can also be modified or used to access MURS, CB, and FRS/GMRS frequencies. However, this can be illegal since a ham radio may broadcast with more power than what’s allowed by the FCC on lower frequencies such as FRS and CB.

This list of benefits is by no means complete, and uses for these radios are only limited by the user’s imagination. Most ham radio users are known for their nature of being inventors and tinkerers. So, whether you want to brush up on electronics theory or dive into wireless communications, there’s something for every hobbyist interested in learning more about radio communications.

Quick Tips on Investing in a New Amateur Radio Setup

HAM radio set up

Putting together an amateur radio system can be challenging and confusing for the beginner. Below, you’ll find some tips that will help you build your system so you can operate it more confidently and effectively.

●      You won’t be doing the same activities on your ham forever. Because of this, you should focus on building a system that’s flexible. Don’t buy specialized gear unless it’s required for a particular type of function.

●      Use software and a computer for certain things that are likely to change, such as operating on digital modes.

●      Avoid neglecting grounding and bonding.

●      Try different layouts to determine which layout works better for you.

●      Try to set aside part of your budget for things you may need along the way, including a special power distribution box or cable.

●      Try building some equipment yourself. Begin by building accessory projects such as keyers, filters, and audio switches. Building your own equipment can also save you plenty of cash.

●      Make sure you use your sound card, keyer, and mic properly. Configure your audio to ensure it’s clean and clear.

●      Once you have your basic gear in place, you can upgrade your equipment gradually, so that you can hear a little farther than you’re able to transmit.

●      Have a goal in mind so that the money you spend on your system works toward that goal. Keep in mind, the best upgrade is often the antenna.

Final Thoughts

Learning how to use an amateur radio can benefit you in a number of ways, especially when disaster strikes and all other forms of communication aren’t available. Keep in mind, using a ham radio isn’t as simple as using a CB or MURS radio. You’ll need to study for a test and pass it to obtain a ham radio license, then there’s the type of radio setup to consider. Major base style setups can be pricey. Those new to ham radio use may want to start off with handheld radio options, especially new preppers who want to learn how to use a ham radio for survival purposes.

While this beginner’s guide for new ham radio operators isn’t complete, it does include all the important information you need to help you choose your starter ham radio, while also discussing the many benefits that come with using this type of powerful, flexible radio system.

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