Introducing the Amateur Radio Service
Amateur Radio – the avocation of non-commercial radio communications and experimentation – is recognized as a public service by the U.S. Federal Communications Commission (FCC) and is allocated a share of frequencies by a world body, the International Telecommunication Union (ITU), part of the United Nations.
Radio amateurs ("hams") have made significant technical contributions to physics, electronics and digital technology. Hams are frequently called upon to provide communications in emergencies.
The FCC defines the Amateur Radio Service as "a voluntary noncommercial communication service, used by qualified persons of any age who are interested in radio technique with a personal aim and without pecuniary interest."
A global community
Amateur Radio is also a global community of men, women and young people from all walks of life. Most countries have authorized an Amateur Radio Service, and like the United States, their governments issue licenses to private individuals and clubs who wish to pursue the hobby. At the time of this writing, there were more than two million licensed radio amateurs worldwide.
Volunteer Examiners (VEs) present local examination sessions through which one can earn the license required to operate an amateur station. These test sessions are held year-round at hundreds of locations such as community centers, schools and conventions.
VEs are sponsored by Volunteer Examiner Coordinators (VECs) which have joined in the National Council of VECs. This non-profit organization develops and publishes the tests as prescribed by the FCC.
All test questions and answers are publicly available in the form of Question Pools which are changed, deleted and updated according to schedule. Individual tests are composed of subsets of these Question Pools. Persons preparing for Amateur Radio exams are advised to ensure that their study books and materials are current with the latest Pools.
There is no charge to obtain a license, but VEs may collect a small fee to defray the costs of hosting exam sessions.
Callsigns, license documents and operations
The FCC assigns each amateur licensee a callsign that indicates the country, region and class of license at the time the license is assigned. U.S. callsigns must start with the letters A, K, N or W. Each callsign is globally unique. The Arlington Amateur Radio Club callsign is W4WVP, indicating that it is in the fourth U.S. call area.
Through a Vanity Call Sign program, amateurs may select their own callsigns if desired. They may retain their callsigns after relocating, or may request new callsigns. Thus, a callsign is not a definitive indicator of station location or license class.
Radio amateurs are not required to carry license documents. An amateur licensee may operate his or her station after its callsign and related data are formally entered by the FCC in its license database. Unlicensed operation of a station, or operation contrary to laws and regulations, exposes the operator to penalties, monetary fines and even seizure of radio equipment by the FCC Enforcement Bureau and the U.S. Marshals Service.
Amateur Radio operation is generally permitted anywhere in U.S. territory regulated by the FCC, and aboard vessels and aircraft – but only with permission of the captain. Many countries have agreed to reciprocal privileges that permit U.S.-licensed hams to operate in foreign territory and vice-versa.
A noncommercial service
With few exceptions, amateurs may not provide communications for pay, direct or indirect, paid or promised. During training, public events or emergencies, their participation must be as volunteers. Amateur radio equipment may not legally be used as a regular substitute for business radios or the public safety radios of government agencies.
To learn more
Visit our resources page for links to important ham radio resources, or visit ARRL, the National Association for Amateur Radio.
For general information on the Amateur Radio Service, and to learn how you can become a radio amateur, see our Amateur Radio page.