Ham radio, also called amateur radio, is a way of communicating with others through shortwave radio stations. Ham radios make it possible to communicate without a cell phone or the internet. Shortwave radios can be a great off the grid communication solution during an emergency or if the power grid failed.
Ham radio is a popular hobby. Hobbyists communicate with others in local areas, nationally, even internationally. Keep reading to learn what you need for a ham radio setup.
How Does Shortwave Radio Work?
Shortwave radio is communication that happens over electromagnetic waves (radio waves) at high frequencies (HF) between 3 to 30 megahertz (MHz) through the ionosphere.
Shortwave radio communicators are called Hams and operate ham radio stations or what’s also referred to as amateur radio or shortwave radio. Shortwave radio is regulated by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC). You need a license to operate a ham radio station for broadcasting communications over shortwave radio HF bands.
Once you get your license, you will receive a unique call sign. This is a distinct alphanumeric identifier provided by the FCC to prove you are licensed, which permits you to set up a ham radio station and legally broadcast.
To broadcast, shortwave radio stations must have the right equipment. Equipment can vary based on preference; however, there is certain equipment that even a beginner will need.
Ham radio station equipment:
- Transceiver (mounted, mobile, or handheld)
How to Get a Ham Radio License
Beginners must pass a test from the FCC to obtain a ham radio license. This can be done at various third-party FCC approved testing sites or online.
There are three types of tests you can pass. Each ham radio test extends more privilege so you can broadcast on higher frequencies. The first test is the Technician Class Test. This gets you entry into amateur radio to broadcast on shortwave radio.
Ham radio license tests:
- Technician – 35 questions (easy)
- General – 35 questions (moderately difficult)
- Extra – 50 questions (difficult)
Administrators of these tests are called Volunteer Examiner Coordinators (VECs), who coordinate with the individual Volunteer Examiners (VEs) that administer and proctor the tests.
The FCC heavily regulates testing standards, so be prepared to keep your webcam and smartphone camera both on if you plan to test online. Check with the testing site to ensure you stay in compliance with their expectations and standards.
FCC approved testing sites:
Important: Read the instructions carefully before signing up for an online test. The FCC is strict, and VEs will disqualify you if you do not comply with all instructions.
Best Beginner Ham Radio Setup
Setting up a ham radio station can be simple or be quite complex. Ideally, you want to create a unique space in your home for your ham radio base station. This can be a walk-in closet, home office, or any place quiet and protected. You are legally responsible for others in your household broadcasting over the air, the FCC will fine you, and you will lose your license.
Your financial situation determines how much equipment you can purchase. We recommend beginners start small and purchase more expensive ham radios over time. This way, you become familiar with how ham radios work and the hobby surrounding them.
Points to bear in mind:
- Know what you want in a ham radio setup.
- Ham radio equipment can be purchased used.
- Talk to other shortwave radio stations to get advice.
- Join a ham radio club to get free help setting up your space.
- Be responsible for your ham radio hobby.
Check out our review of the Best HAM Radios for Beginners.
Ham Radio Equipment
Perhaps the most confusing topic for a newbie comes down to a single topic—Ham radio equipment. This is because there is so much shortwave radio equipment, too many options for a new ham to process. To help you get started, we’ve done the research on the best ham radio equipment for beginners. Upgrade, as you like, once you have the initial ham radio base station built and know how ham radio equipment works.
Best Ham Radios:
- BaoFeng UV-82HP
- Wouxun KG-UV8D
- Radioddity GD-77
- Baofeng BF-F9 V2+
- Baofeng UV-5R5 Ideal
Best Ham Radio Transceivers
- Xiegu G90 HF Amateur Radio Transceiver 20W SSB/CW/AM/FM 0.5-30MHz SDR Structure with Built-in Auto Antenna Tuner
- Yaesu FT-60R Dual Band Handheld 5W VHF/UHF Amateur Radio Transceiver
- TYT TH-9800 PLUS Version Quad Band Cross-Band 50W Mobile Transceiver Vehicle Radio Amateur Base Station, Cable/Software incl
Best Ham Radio Accessories
- Coaxial cable (hook up to external antenna)
- Antennas (extend signal and reach)
- Programming cables (connects to laptop to update and program radios)
Ham radios are used by ham radio operators to broadcast messages over high-frequency shortwave radio signals, making it possible to communicate off-grid with other amateur radio operators. This can help in emergencies and is a great hobby to become familiar with if you are interested in telecommunications.
Getting your ham radio license is easy and inexpensive. It is advisable to find a local ham radio club to become involved in. Meeting other ham radio operators will help with the learning curve, provide insight into setting up your base station, and offer you opportunities to become more involved as a hobbyist.
There is a lot of equipment available to purchase for your ham radio base station. We’ve presented some basic equipment options that fit beginners.
What does ‘ham’ stand for in ham radio?
Basically, ham is a nickname, not an acronym. Ham is a term coined in 1909 by ham radio operators, and it has stuck ever since then.
What are the different ham radio licenses?
Technician, General, and Amateur Extra are the three licenses offered by the FCC. Each license gives you more access to higher frequency bands.
Can a ham radio be traced?
Yes a ham radio signal can be traced. Often ham radio operators who find out that someone is operating without a license will triangulate the non-licensed operator to report them to the FCC. Make sure you have a license.
Do you have to know Morse code to get a ham radio license?
Once you had to know morse code to get your license, today this is no longer necessary. Learning morse code is a valuable skill to have that is still in use today. Many hams know morse code and use it to communicate with other hams.
What is ham radio good for?
Ham radios are used to communicate during emergencies, such as if the power grid goes down. They are also used to communicate with other amateur radio stations and has become a fun hobby.
Can I take my ham radio test online?
Yes, you can take your ham radio test online. There are some strict requirements that must be followed, so be sure you know what the rules are.
How far can a HAM radio reach?
The distance a ham radio signal will reach depends on the equipment used, antenna, and other factors. Typically the reach is between two miles and 40 miles. Shortwave radios can reach international destinations around the world.
Can ham radio speak CB?
Yes, you can technically communicate with someone on a citizen band radio station (CB). However, this is not legal because you are not allowed by law to talk to non-licensed ham radio operators over a ham radio.
How many questions is the ham radio test?
The first two tests have 35 questions each. The final text has 50 questions.