The $50 Ham: Getting Your Ticket Punched

Today we launch a new series dedicated to radio amateurs for cheap. Radio Ham has a reputation as a “rich old man” hobby, a reputation he probably deserves to some extent. Get a glossy catalog from DX Engineering or visit their website and you will see that getting into the latest and greatest equipment is not an exercise for the financially disadvantaged. And so the image continues to exist recently, the retiree, long past the cost and time needed to start a family and suddenly with time on hand, happily adds just one more expensive piece of equipment to an already well-arranged shed to “chew a rag” with his “OM”.

Not $ 50 ham. W9EVT’s shed. Source:

As I pointed out a few years ago “My beef with ham”, I am an inactive ham. My main reason for not practicing is that I’m not a fan of talking to strangers, but there’s a financial component to my restraint – it’s hard to spend a lot of money on facilities when you don’t have much to talk about. I suspect that there are a lot of potential thighs out there who are excluded from the hobby because of its supposed cost, and maybe a few like me who are on the shy side.

This series aims to dispel the myth that a person needs buckets of money to be ham, and that the jaw is the only thing a person does on the air. Each installment will include a project that will move you further down your path with ham, which can be completed for no more than $ 50 or more. Where possible, I will build the project myself or test the activity so that I can pursue my own goal of using my license for change.

(A shout to Robert for the proposal for this series and for my kind permission to run with his idea.)

Receiving the ticket

(Licensing of amateur radio stations in the United States lasted until 1912. (I focus on American amateur radio laws and customs simply because I live there; please do not hesitate to join the comments section on differences in other countries.) Anyone wishing to work in the bands reserved for the amateur radio service must obtain a license from the Federal Communications Commission. Unlicensed people are free – and encouraged – to listen in groups, but if you don’t have a license, you can’t broadcast. And believe me, local thighs, with know-how, equipment and all over the world, will find you, which will lead to an unpleasant meeting with the FCC.

There really is no reason not to get a license. This will be among the cheapest parts of the ham trip and maybe even free. To earn a license, you will need to pass a written exam, but before you embark, you will need to know a little about amateur radio license classes and the privileges they provide.

The current entry-level license class in the United States is called the Technician Class; the old Novice class was eliminated in 2000, along with the Morse code requirement for all classes. Technicians have the privilege of operating mainly on the high frequencies, mainly on the 2-meter (144 MHz) and 70-centimeter (420 MHz) bands in telephone mode, which means voice transmission. Technicians also have access to small slices of 10-meter tape using data modes and small sections of 15, 40, and 80 meters if they learn Morse or use a computer to send and receive it. This limits Technique to mostly local communications, but there is a lot of work and a lot to learn in these bands.

The plan of the American ham group. Keep in mind that technicians have phone (voice) privileges only 10 meters or less; long-range ranges are out of range unless you use Morse. Source:

Practice, practice, practice

Even with all the limitations, the technician’s license still offers access to a wide range and serves as a gateway to the next two classes, General and Extra. Everyone must start with a technician license, which requires passing a 35-question multiple choice exam. The exam is standardized with questions selected from a fixed pool, with topics ranging from knowledge FCC Rules Part 97 to basic electronics and RF theory. The exam is quite easy, especially for anyone with experience in electronics. In fact, many complete beginners come to exam sessions after passing enough online practice tests to see every possible pool question and pass the exam without understanding anything about radio or electronics. There is a lively debate about whether this is a good thing or not – personally I am not a fan of this – but it is what it is; the technician exam is dead easily.

Your investment in a technician’s license will be minimal and consists mostly of the time required to study. Online practice tests – I recommend the tests of – are free to take as many times as needed. Some ham clubs offer local classes designed to help you prepare, and these usually only charge a nominal fee. There are even one day intensive ham sessions where you are directed through all the material and take the exam at the end of the day.

A typical exam session. Calculators are allowed, but no smartphones, please. Source: Tri-County Amateur Radio Club

Exam sessions are managed by Volunteer Exam Coordinators (VECs) Voluntary examiners (VEs), hams that have special training in exam administration and assessment. They also charge only a nominal fee – I think I paid $ 15 – and may even waive the fee in certain circumstances. There are also occasional special events such as the annual Field Day, where buttons set up tents and booths in public places as a range for the public, where exams are often held for free.

Honestly, getting a technician’s license is as low as an amateur radio hobby. Once you can constantly take practice tests online, the real exam is a breeze. Exams are assessed on the spot, so you’ll know right away how you did and you can even take the next exam at no extra charge if you’re ready. Try it, even if you haven’t studied – I almost passed my extra exam after passing my general.

Next time

In the next part I will start discussing what a newly carved technician can do with his license. It may seem like a dream to go on the air for less than $ 50, but it’s surprisingly available these days, and you’ll find that fifty dollars can go a long way toward making your first contact.