How to get your Radio License
Should traditional modern communication systems be unavailable, having a backup way to communicate far distances is a smart thing to have. It's not uncommon for large storms to take out cellphone and land line phone systems and with them likely goes the internet as well.
The easiest and most useful backup option is one that's been around a very long time - and it's long range radio communication via voice and telegraph. You may have heard it referred to as Ham radio which is slang for Amateur Radio. To become a Ham radio operator and transmit on certain frequencies you must have a license. The U.S. FCC has restrictions on how the radio spectrum can be used and before you transmit you must understand these rules lest you be subject to fines or penalties.You do NOT need a license to RECEIVE transmissions (to listen to what others are doing).
We also aren't talking about CB Radio, which doesn't require a license to use. That gets you on a few frequencies but doesn't allow you to use repeaters, and is used for short-distances only. Think Smokey and the Bandit. I should say here that getting licensed is not difficult. There is an exam, and that intimidates some people. I've found it no more difficult than taking a drivers license test. You need to memorize some questions and learn some basic concepts to get started. It's a little bewildering at first because there are a lot of new concepts, but if you just keep reading through it eventually the pieces start to fall into place.
The first license you can get is called the TECHNICIAN License. This is good enough for 90% radio users. This will give you enough operating frequencies to use a radio like the $30 Baofeng UV5RA that's very popular. This license will give you access to 2 important operating bands: 2 meter and 70 cm. Those are the frequencies you can use to transmit several miles away from your location.
The next level GENERAL License gives you the ability to transmit worldwide or greater distances within the US such as state-to-state communication. This also requires a upgrade in equipment for consistent results, such as a tall antenna system and increased output power from the transceiver. There is a Third class, called EXTRA which is for those folks who are really getting into the game.
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HOW TO STUDY FOR THE TEST
The book you want to get is: The ARRL Ham Radio License Manual for about $26
The ARRL is the National Association for Amateur Radio. They are a membership based organization. You don't have to join them to get your license. They put out magazines, books, and articles, host events, all kinds of things so if you enjoy Ham Radio and want to get further into it then becoming a member is a good way to do so.
The book is easy to read casually, and gives you and overview of the subject while also the specific answers needed to pass the Tech exam. They have all the questions from the exam pool at the back of the book along with practice exams.
Another option is to do it the way I did. Just memorize the questions and answers via endless repetition using the Ham Test Online web study tool. Doing it this way took me about 2 weeks of study (about an hour a day) before I was getting all the practice tests 100% correct. (I passed my actual exam with only 1 wrong out of 25 - darn!)
It's $24.95 for a two year subscription. It's neat because it adapts itself and the questions it gives you to you - if there is a question you keep getting wrong, it will give it to you more often so you will get it right. You can also choose to study by category which helps if you don't like jumping from subject to subject.
I decided to go for my General License. The local ARRL group by us gives free courses every two months before offering the exams so we went. And lo and behold, they gave us a smaller pool of potential questions to choose from then the one listed by the ARRL! So that made studying even easier. However they teach off the ARRL books, and I had to borrow one from a friend of a friend for a couple of days.
I also found out that you can get the pool questions for free online. So if you want to do this without spending a dime (other than the exam fee which is $15 I think) then that's another option for you.
You might be asking yourself "So what does all this do me you anyway? Cant I just run to the local big-box store and grab some walkie-talkies and be done with it? They say they have a 5 mile range on them, that's good enough, right?"
Well in a word, no. The first problem is the antenna. The ones that come on the walkie-talkies are affectionately called a "rubber ducky." And they are great for line-of-sight and short distances. If you want to transmit further than outside of your neighborhood then you will need a good strong antenna mounted up as high as you can get it.
Secondly you will be on a much narrower band of frequencies, and sharing them with a lot more people. The FCC doesn't regulate them so it's more or less a free for all.
Third and to me most importantly - you cant access REPEATERS with a walkie-talkie from Wallyworld. You will need an HT (Handy-Talkie) radio, like the Baofeng I mentioned earlier.
A repeater allows you to use a small radio with limited range to cover greater distances than you could otherwise. They are also useful for communicating over physical obstacles in the landscape, and are often placed as high up as they can be.
They are similar to internet chat rooms, where several people can be in the room at the same time. However on a repeater, only one person speaks at a time and participants take a round-robin approach to talk to each other.
In the event of a large scale problem, many repeaters will go out of service. But several will likely not and will stay in action and in service for the RACES and ARES groups to conduct emergency communications. You can become a part of that network, or chime in in the event of an emergency that you witness or are in.
You can do it!
This is just the surface of a huge subject. But hopefully this guide helps you get to where you are going. Check out our recommended beginners equipment list to get some ideas of the type of gear you might want to get and the costs.
Good luck! I'll help with any comments or questions I can.