Becoming a radio amateur
These are frequently asked questions about becoming a radio amateur -
- How do I become a radio amateur?
- How do I listen in on the amateur frequencies?
- How do I contact my local club?
- What if I live miles away from the nearest club?
- What is the Licence examination?
- What practical skills do I need?
- When do I get my examination results?
- How do I apply for a licence?
- Now what?
How do I become a radio amateur?
The best way is to start by listening to other amateurs on any of the “amateur bands” (frequencies reserved for use by radio amateurs). Try 3.5MHz upwards, or 7MHz upwards for starters. There are ways of doing this even if you have no receiving equipment (see below). Listen to what’s being said; listen to how it’s done; and imagine yourself in that place.
For a full list of amateur frequencies in the UK see the Band Plans and Information pages.
If you like it, and would like to become a member of that community yourself, then you should join the RSGB (Radio Society of Great Britain) as a listener, and receive the monthly magazine RadCom, which is full of ideas, tips and useful information, keeping you abreast of what’s happening in the world of amateur radio. Then start thinking about getting a licence for yourself – it’s easy, and you will find lots of other amateurs only too willing to help you on your way. (That’s part of the ethos of being a radio amateur.) You can find out more about getting a transmitting licence below.
How do I listen in on the amateur frequencies?
You will need a receiver which will tune in to them (and a suitable “antenna”, or “aerial”, which can be as simple as a long piece of wire). If you haven’t already got any equipment of your own, you can always either listen to one of the internet SDR websites like the RSGB WebSDR site which allow you to listen to amateur radio frequencies; or you could go along to your local amateur radio club and ask to listen in using their equipment. Club members are usually very helpful towards newcomers — and also a very useful source of information for the complete beginner on where second-hand equipment may be found; which are the best “rigs” to get hold of; how to build your own receiver; etc.
How do I contact my local club?
If you have decided you want to become a radio amateur, your local club should be your first port of call. Club meetings are usually held once or twice a month, in the evenings.
Clubs often provide talks on amateur radio, run training courses and have a club radio room, or “shack”, where members can operate. Club talks are a very good source of information on what amateur radio is all about.
You will meet like-minded people who will help you “learn the ropes”. Your nearest club is also quite likely to be the place where you will need to go to take your first licence examination.
There is a simple tool on the RSGB website that can help you find your nearest club.
What if I live miles away from the nearest club?
Don’t despair. It is possible to learn from the very fine publications produced by the RSGB – a society which anyone aspiring to become a radio amateur should join for the many benefits it provides the learner. (Note that you don’t need to be licensed to join the RSGB - in fact most members first join as listeners.)
As well as reading books, much information can be gleaned by listening in to conversations on the air. By listening in to local “nets” you may even be able to find a friendly local amateur who will help you on your way.
If you’re simply not the type of person who can learn from a book, but who needs or prefers a tutored approach, there are also distance courses now available via the internet which allow a degree of live interaction with a tutor.
If you have no joy in finding a club or a course near you, contact the RSGB Training and Education Chair on firstname.lastname@example.org.
What is the Licence examination?
Whilst anyone is allowed to listen to the amateur bands, you need a licence to transmit on them. In order to obtain such a licence you will need to pass an exam; but do not panic, the entry level exam is really not that difficult.
Your first amateur radio licence will be the Foundation Licence – which has been purposely designed as an easy-to-achieve goal to help the newcomer to amateur radio get on the air quickly. Some ten hours tuition is all that is normally required to prepare for the assessment and examination. If you have prior knowledge of radio or electronics, the preparation time is likely to be much less than ten hours.
There is no requirement to attend any formal training but you do need to gain sufficient knowledge to pass the RCF (Radio Communication Foundation) written examination. The Foundation exam has 26 multiple-choice questions to be answered in 55 minutes, requiring at least 19 to be answered correctly.
(from the RCF website:)
“The Foundation Radio Amateur Examination is part of a structured suite of three examinations recognised by Ofcom to give access to the amateur radio bands. All prospective radio amateurs must demonstrate a suitable level of competence and proficiency as a pre-requisite to holding a licence.
The Foundation Licence is the entry level to amateur radio. It is intended to provide an exciting introduction to the hobby whilst requiring an acceptable minimum level of skill and experience.
The RSGB produces a very good booklet detailing all the information needed to take the Foundation Licence practical assessment and examination. (Foundation Licence Now!)
Note that, wherever you take the RCF examination, a fee of £27.50 will be incurred, and some venues may charge a small fee to cover room hire, etc.
If you’re a member of the Air Cadets, preparing for your Communicator’s badge, and have passed the ACO Equivalent examination, this is accepted by Ofcom (the amateur radio license issuing authority) as the exact equivalent of the RCF Foundation examination, and no fee is incurred.
There is no age limit for taking the examination (although candidates must be of an age where they are able to read and understand the training book, be able to recognise and use fractions and decimals, and be able to sit a formal examination).
What practical skills do I need?
The practical assessment is an integral part in the process and all exam candidates are required to pass the assessment before they are allowed to sit the written examination. The assessment is also excellent preparation for your life on the air.
You will be expected to demonstrate the following skills:
- know how to connect together a typical amateur radio station (a radio, a power supply, some feeder and an antenna);
- tune a transmitting antenna;
- operate a receiver to listen to voice, Morse code and data signals, and use the common controls (for example, frequency, squelch, volume, etc.);
- operate a transmitter to make voice contacts using common controls (for example, frequency, microphone gain, antenna tuner, etc.);
- receive and send a very simple short message using Morse code. The Morse assessment is easily achieved, no knowledge of the code is required (a crib sheet showing the 26 letters of the alphabet and the 10 numerals is provided), and there is no speed requirement.
These simple and easy exercises will be carried out under the supervision of an RSGB-registered assessor, who will sign off your record of achievement as proof of your competence in readiness for the examination. Again, your local club should be able to help you here.
When do I get my examination results?
Your practical amateur radio skills will be assessed prior to your taking the written examination; and your completed written paper will be marked on the spot wherever you take it (club, school, college, etc.). You will know very soon after handing it in whether you have achieved a pass or not, although you will have to wait (usually about a week) for official confirmation of this from the RSGB Examination Department.
How do I apply for a licence?
Armed with your pass slip go to the Ofcom website, create a new account for yourself, and either fill in online, or download the form to apply for an Amateur Radio licence (Form Of346).
Note that applying for a licence online is free; whereas if you send in a paper application to Ofcom, a processing fee will be incurred.
Assuming you are applying online, you will be able print off your licence and start using your Foundation callsign straight away. If you have applied through the post, you will need to await the delivery of your licence through the post.
….and there you are. You’re now a Radio Amateur. With your own internationally recognised station callsign; able to transmit and communicate at 10 watts of power on a variety of frequencies, to any other licensed amateur anywhere on the globe. Or even on the International Space Station. The world of low-power international communications is yours to command.
Once you have your Foundation station up and running you should start thinking about the next steps. There is no compulsion to upgrade your licence to the next level, but you will gain more knowledge and skill in training for the Intermediate licence level. You will also enjoy additional privileges, including higher power limits; more frequencies; and you will be permitted to build your own transmitting equipment.
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> Getting started in amateur radio
updated 2013-11-12 G5FM