The Secret to Getting an FCC Amateur Radio License in Record Time!

Getting your ham license is easier than you think.

If you want to be able to use the fancy radio gear that the hams get to use, participate in a local emergency communications team, be prepared to communicate with family and friends even when your cell phone or land-line service disappears, or do the many other cool things that licensed amateur radio operators get to do, you’ll need an FCC license.
Here’s the quick version, with explanation and resources farther down:

  1. Study all the Q&A ahead of time, using a book or flashcards or CD or whatever
  2. Take as many practice exams as you want to online, for free
  3. Take the exam
  4. Get your license from the FCC, for free

“Oh no!  It must be very difficult jump through all the hoops to get such a license,” many of you are probably saying.  Or “How could I possibly learn all of those technical concepts without an electrical engineering degree?”, or “There’s no way I could afford the huge licensing fees.”  Good news – none of this is true!  It’s easier, probably much easier than you think.
The test is easy to pass, and the license application is ridiculously simple.  Not only that, the people who administer the test will enthusiastically help you with any questions you have about the application.

When it comes to the content of the test, the concepts are not complicated. The electronics information you’ll need to know is super-simple.  But wait, there’s more.  Have you heard of the… metric system?  You’ll need to know about that too.  And can you remember some very complex rules?  For example, “You have to say your call sign at least once every 10 minutes when you’re talking on the radio.”  Remember some rules, some numbers and letters that matter to the FCC, and you’re just about ready.

I’m  trying to make the point that the test is easy, because it is.  But I have one more bomb to drop.  Ready?  Every possible question and answer you could get for the exam is already published and available for you to study.  Yeah.  It doesn’t get any easier than that.  You will need to review the Q&A before you go take the test, because a lot of the info isn’t stuff you’ll read about in People magazine, or Wired, or whatever you usually read.

Once in a while you hear about someone who didn’t pass the Technician exam.  I can only guess that the reason why is 1) very poor test-taking skills (e.g., not paying attention to which letter you’re filling in on the answer sheet, even when you know the right answer), or 2) lack of any studying whatsoever (that must be the case for some folks, just like in school.  But you don’t have to take the ham test, so why bother?  Peer pressure?  I don’t know.)

So why do I even need to write an article on this, if it’s so easy?  Because I want to make it even easier, to help anyone pass the test and get that license and open the doors to all the fun that ham radio can bring.  Here are some tips:

  • Start by figuring out how you learn best.  Since you already know that all of the Q&A are available, you will need to best way to review them so that they’ll stick in your head.  Do you learn by reading and remembering?  There are a few good books out there that have the Q&A, as well as additional supporting info, to give context to the answers.  Do you do better with flashcards?  They have those too. Maybe you learn by listening?  There are Q&A CD’s with which you can review.  Or maybe you’re like me and you learn how to pass the test by taking practice tests.  They have those too, online and free.  Or if you like, you can pay someone to access their online test-taking tools, which track your progress.  You can find a variety of online resources later in this article.
  • One other tip, which you can use on any test that gives you Q&A in advance.  Only read or highlight the correct answers in your study guide.  Cross out the wrong answers and only ever review the right answers. After you go through all of the questions, however many times you like, you will have only imprinted the correct answers on your brain, and when it comes time to take the test, you will only remember the correct answers! 🙂

Ham Radio License Exam Testing Resources

Here are some of the most common, useful books:

Here are flashcards, if you learn well this way:

Here are some online testing resources.  You can take the tests in advance, as many times as you want, for free!  (There are other sites you can pay for, but take a look at your free options first):

Note:  If you have only read one or two chapters of a licensing book and want to take a free online test, and then only get 15% correct, don’t get frustrated and give up!  You will need to review the rest of the material in the license book. If you go through all of the Q&A before you take an online test, you will get much better results.  I know that may sound like common sense to many of you, but I know a lot of folks who are so itching to take the test that they don’t review all the Q&A first, and they wondered why they didn’t get all of the answers right. 😐  But I know you’re smarter than that.

What did I do?  I started by reading through both of the Q&A books I list below (but I often take an overkill approach).  Then I read a book that explained additional info for beginners to ham radio, because I was curious about how ham radio worked.  And then I took a few practice tests, until I could reliable get a score greater than 80%.  After that, I focused on areas where the answers made the least sense to me, practicing those a few more times, making sure I had the right answers fresh in my memory.  This approach made passing the test a piece of cake.

Find the study approach that works well for you, and when you’re ready, take a couple practice exams. Once you can pass the online test regularly at 80% or higher, you should be ready to take it for real.

You can do it!  Seriously – how often does the test you’re taking already have all of the answers available?

Where to Take a Ham Radio License Exam

Finding a place to take the exam should not be difficult.  When I looked, I had a hard time finding a place, but I was on my own with nobody to help me.  These resources will make it much easier for you!

Eventually you’ll find out where the testing takes place in your area.  And that’s it.  You can review all the answers at your leisure.  You can find a club nearby who will let you take the test and help you (if you need it) with the simple FCC form.

Ham Radio FCC License Fees

And then you pay.  Oh yeah, I forgot to tell you.  The cost of a license is expensive… NOT!  An FCC amateur radio license is FREE.  You may have to pay ~$15 to take the test, so that the club running the testing can pay for supplies, room rental, postage to ship off your answer sheets to the FCC, etc., but you read correctly about the cost of the license.  Free.

But wait, what about when you renew, 10 years later?  (Yeah, every ten years.  Pretty convenient, right?)  That’s when you have to pay, right?  No, it’s still free.  However, there is a special circumstance when you could pay, if you really wanted to.  If you want a “vanity call sign”, which means you can pick some of the letters and/or numbers (if that combination isn’t used already).  Some hams do that with their initials (like me – my call sign is AB8L).   So that must be expensive, right?  Sorry to disappoint you once again.  It’s $14.25.  For ten years.  And the cost is the same when you renew, 10 years later.

One more thing — the first license level is called “Technician“.  It allows you access to a certain set of UHF, VHF, and some HF frequencies, which will give you the ability to do short- and some medium-range communicating.  The second license is called “General“, and gives more access to more frequencies, including a lot more of the HF spectrum, which will be important for medium- and long-range communications.  Tip:  if you are studying for the Technician exam, you may want to do the General exam at the same time.  You can take more than one test in the same testing session for no additional charge!  (And the license is still free.)  The last type of license is called “Extra” and gives access to all of the frequencies available to amateur radio operators.  You will probably need to study a lot more for the Extra exam – it’s quite a bit harder.  But Technician and General are probably all you would ever need.

Now what?  Have I covered all of your questions and concerns?  If you have any questions, post them and I’ll reply.

Now go out and get a license, and I hope to hear you on the air soon!

-Andrew, AB8L