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How to Operate a HAM Radio

HAM radio is a popular hobby that allows amateur operators to communicate with one another on multiple frequencies. It is also a useful skill to develop in the event of an emergency or disaster.

During a disaster, cell phones and internet might be out of service so having an alternative way to communicate with your family, friends or network is going to be crucial to obtaining information and ensuring you thrive during the emergency. Having a working HAM radio and knowing how to operate it will prove invaluable in a survival situation. Here’s what you need to know:

To operate a HAM radio, you must obtain a license, but this is not particularly difficult. HAM operators call this “getting your ticket.”

To get a license, you will have to pay a small fee and take an exam. The Amateur Radio Relay League can help you find a testing site near you. There are different levels of licensing, each of which provides the operator with different rights:

Technician. Allows the operator to transmit up to 100 watts on a limited number of frequencies.
General. Allows the operator to transmit up to 1500 watts and operate on a larger number of frequencies
Extra. Allows the operator to transmit up to 1500 watts on all frequencies.

In a disaster, licensing will be of little concern, but in the meantime it is best to practice on a General level to get a good feel for the range you can obtain at 1500 watts.

Here is a chart of the frequencies that each license may transmit on:

You’ll need a few different items to get started as a HAM radio operator. These include:

A combination transmitter/receiver. This item has a broad price range, and what you will pay depends on how much wattage you want to be broadcasting with. More is better in most survival situations, but you can generally get a solid one for between $200-$500.

Power Supply
Powers the transceiver. You should be able to find one for less than $100. Make sure your power supply is compatible with the transceiver, however; you want to make sure you’re giving the transceiver enough power but not too much, which could blow a fuse.

Another item with a broad price range, but with one that is about $50-$100 you will be able to transmit overseas. Depending on the kind you get, you will have to check with your local zoning laws to determine whether and how you can mount it.

Either auto or manual; manual tuners are better for first-time HAM radio operators. The tuner links the antenna with the transceiver, and is important in making sure they are matched and properly using power.

This is how you speak to other HAM operators. You can also invest in a “Key” to communicate using Morse code. Your microphone does not need to be very expensive in order to provide the audio quality you need to communicate with others.

For connecting your various parts. Having a few extra cables is always a good idea, particularly since you may not be able to acquire new ones after a collapse. The same goes for fuses, wires, and any other components of the HAM radio. You’ll want to be able to repair it yourself if something goes wrong.

Communicating with Morse Code
Turn on the HAM radio, and use the antenna tuner to get the “match” as close to 1-1 as you can. Find an open frequency, and ask more than once before you assume a frequency is open.

Of course, in a disaster, you may want to look for a frequency that is already in use if you’re trying to acquire information or connect with other survivors.

To check a frequency, send "Q-R-L" which means "Is anyone using this frequency?" If you're using a phone ham radio, just say, "This is [your callsign], is this frequncy busy?" Ask this twice and see if you can get an answer.

You can call anyone by sending the letters "CQ" as one word. For example, a typical call would be sent as, "CQ CQ CQ DE [your callsign] [your callsign] K." "DE" means "This is ..." and the "K" means "back to you." If you're using the CW mode, send the message twice in case the person wasn't copying it down fast enough the first time.

Here are some Q codes that might be helpful.

QRL - Is this frequency busy? (If in response, it means "Yes, please don't interfere")
QRM - Interference from another signal
QRN - Interference from natural or man-made static
QRO - Shall I increase power? (If in response ,it means "Yes, increase power")
QRP - Shall I decrease power? (If in response ,it means "Yes, decrease power")
QRQ - Shall I send faster? (If in response ,it means "Yes, send faster, at # words per minute")
QRS - Shall I send more slowly? (If in response ,it means "Yes, send slower, at # words per minute")
QRT - Shall I stop sending? (If in response, "Yes, stop sending")
QRU - Have anything more for me? (If in response, "No")
QRV - Are you ready? (If in response, "Yes, I am ready")
QRX - Standby
QRZ - Who is calling me?
QSB - Signal fading
QSL - Received and understood
QST - General call preceeding a message addressed to all amateurs
QSX - I am listening to __ kHz
QSY - Change to another frequency
QTH - What is your location (In response, "My location is __.")

Here are a few other helpful codes that are widely used and internationally recognized.

73 - Goodbye
88 - With love
SK - Signed off (the last thing you will send)
GL - Good luck
CU - See you
AGN - See you again
GM - Good morning
GA - Good afternoon
GD - Good day
PSE - Please
UR - Your or you're
OM - Old man
YL - Young lady or unmarried woman
XYL - Wife

Communicating via Phone Radio
If you're using a phone radio, you can start your message by saying, "Hello CQ CQ CQ this is [your callsign] [your callsign expanded (ie. Bravo Echo Charlie Whiskey)] [your callsign] calling 20 meters" Repeat that sentence again and then finish by saying "and standing by for a call."

If this is your first conversation, let the other person know that so they will be more understanding of the conversation.

Have some "cheat codes" like these below to help you remember what to say until you get used to conversing on the HAM radio:

A - Alpha
B - Bravo
C - Charlie
D - Delta
E - Echo
F - Foxtrot
G - Golf
H - Hotel
I - India
J - Juliet
K - Kilo
L - Lima
M - Mike
N - November
O - Oscar
P - Papa
Q - Quebec
R - Romeo
S - Sierra
T - Tango
U - Uniform
V - Victor
W - Whiskey
X - X-ray
Y - Yankee
Z - Zulu

To end the conversation with phone radios, you will typically also say "73" as the final thing you say.

Even after you finish the conversation, you might not be finished. Some people will log a QSL card and send a snail-mail letter to the contact. Don't be surprised if you get a letter in the mail from your new HAM radio friend.

Your Advice
How did your experience go the first time you talked on a HAM radio? Any advice that you have for other people who might just be getting started? Comment and share below to help others.

17 thoughts on “How to Operate a HAM Radio”

  • Robert

    When checking out the ARRL website for testing information, testing locations and testing dates, be sure to check out the link for affiliated clubs in your area. You will likely find a group of people who are more than willing to help (or "Elmer" as it's know in the hobby) you.

  • Jeff

    "In a disaster, licensing will be of little concern,......"
    This statement is a bit misleading. You still have to be licensed during a disaster BUT the LEVEL OF LICENSING (Tech, Gen, Extra)can be ignored BUT it is for ACTUAL EMERGENCY COMMUNICATION ...NOT gabbing with your friend or relative. In an actual disaster ham radio can likely and does become the primary method for cities, hospitals, etc to communicate regarding essential needs. That is why communications should be limited in a disaster to absolute essentials.

  • Allen

    The Amateur Radio "Technician" (1st level)and "General" (2nd level) exams are both quite easy (35 multiple choice questions) and generally cost $15 to take during a test session. Upon passing the tests(s), the FCC License is FREE and expires in 10 YEARS; renewal is also FREE. The really cool part of this is you can purchase Study Guides from ARRL.com (about $30) which have every possible question/answer for each exam (the "question pool", they call it)! You can literally memorize the questions/answers and easily pass the test on the first try even if you have no background in radio or electronics! (FYI, you can miss 9 questions on the 35-question test and still pass it!) For "preppers" out there, I would highly recommend this as a last-ditch communication medium. I've done this recently and am quite satisfied learning the hobby -- and knowing I've reached the pinnacle of all emergency communication which can be utilized even if the entire grid goes down. So, if it's across town, across the country or even across the planet: THIS is the way to do it all in a grid-down situation. The wide range of frequency bands available make it possible. I highly recommend it to everyone!

    • Gayland Grant

      That is one of the problems we have today. People memorizeING the test with studing.
      You don't learn anything.

  • Doug

    I encourage folks to get their license - a Technician license is really not that hard to obtain.

    A disaster is not the time to be 1) setting up your equipment and antenna; 2) learning how to talk on the radio.

    I it amazing to see how your communication during a disaster can help people. A nice feeling knowing that you are able to reach out to others.

    Don't expect that the cell phone network will be operational; no power, no cell or overloaded circuits.

    Fully agree with Robert and Jeff's comments.

  • Lee

    Find a ham radio testing location in the U.S. via this ARRL page:


  • Allen

    I've been there. I was part of the team coordinating the thousand "hams" that came in to restore emergency communications after Katrina. Your cell phones and Internet systems are wonderful - but will you bet your life they are still up and functional? Will you bet the lives of your families? Learn, get licensed and join a local group. If not for yourself, then do it for your community. In a real emergency, nothing is prettier than that antenna reaching into the sky.

  • Lani

    I agree! Get to know how to use your equipment, and "have fun" with it now. Don't wait for an emergency. Just like anything else, it's best to be prepared in advance. It is an indispensable form of communication in an emergency, but it's a lot of fun all the rest of the time!
    It's not just a guy's hobby either! I'm a woman, and there are lots of women on the air. I started out as Technician class, then participated in Field Day, and decided I wanted to upgrade. Now, I am an Extra class, and also a VE. It's not that hard, and it is really rewarding. And as far as hobbies go, you can do it relatively inexpensive, or you can sink lots of money into it, depending on what you want to do. Check it out!!!

  • Fred Schiffer

    I would recommend finding a local ham club and helping on "Field Day". It occurs on a weekend at the end of June. Its purpose is to prepare for emergencies. I do not get on the air on Field Day (but I do have my license), I help with the support jobs of logging messages, keeping the emergency generators running and helping with cooking. It takes a coordinated effort of lots of people and it is a great time.


  • Benny

    I've been thinking about learning about Ham but,
    living in an apartment gives me very little choices when it comes to antennas can anyone tell me what options are there out there for my situation?

    Thank you All in Advance

  • Keith

    This skill set is no different than any other in the preparedness tool box. If you wait till disaster strikes to practice and build community around the skill set, you will be out in the cold in more ways than one. Don't be one of those misinformed people who think HAM Radio will be useful to them when the day comes, even if they never practiced or developed their skills and community. HAM Radio will not work very well for you that way.

  • Allen

    "Benny wrote:
    I’ve been thinking about learning about Ham but,
    living in an apartment gives me very little choices when it comes to antennas can anyone tell me what options are there out there for my situation?" I would get a handheld transceiver ("walkie-talkie") and a small magnetic mount antenna to attach to top of metal appliance such as refrigerator or washer/dryer. Unscrew the original "rubber ducky" antenna from the HT (handheld transceiver), connect the magnetic mounted antenna to it (you may need an adapter)and you're in business. Chances are good you'll be able to reach a local repeater and vastly expand your range to communicate from the apartment. Plus, with this setup you can use also in a vehicle or even walking (putting the rubber ducky antenna back on). Be sure to purchase an antenna designed for the same frequencies available on the HT.

  • Dennis

    The hardest thing about HAM radios is the basic operating of them. They are not user friendly, especially the handheld ones. Try changing frequency without having a manual to figure out which buttons to press in a certain sequence. In fact I would use my handheld more except it is not user friendly to operate and because of that I don't use it much and as a consequence it stays a mystery as how to program it to talk on.

  • Oregonannie

    I've been wanting to 'get into' HAM radio operating, too, but is my info correct that it interferes with other people's TV's, etc.? Seems I've heard that HAM operators get a lot of flack for that. Is this true?

  • Kitty Bosserman
    Kitty Bosserman June 6, 2015 at 5:22 am

    Do you have to take learning courses to learn? If so, where are they located and what do I ask for when I call. Also, where can I buy the needed equipment?

  • Ed K

    I like the idea of a solid backup alternate communications method. I went to the online auction just to see what rigs were available and was a bit overwhelmed, regs antennss etc etc..
    I have some Vhf experience, just using.
    No tech understsnding re antennas etc.
    I don't want to purchase a rig without understanding the practical limitations, only to then purchase another better rig in the future.
    Some hams that I've known in the past have two or three rings and I really don't want to go that route. Can anybody give a reasonable briefing on rigs that are available I am adverse to any technology from China. And am ok with analog dials vs my concern about a digital diaI
    Quitting on me. I would be looking for a rig that would communicate to relatives within a 30 mile radius. And I would like to be able to suggest to them what handheld rigs they can use. I have an oak tree in the backyard which is about 40 feet tall and I'm pretty sure I can mount a base station antaenna discreetly up in that tree. I live in a FL subdivision, terrain is flat..
    Thank you for any comments and suggestions.

  • Pat

    An EMP destroys a HAM radio too, correct?

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