HAM Radio: Frequently Asked Questions

Handheld Ham RadioThe following frequently asked questions regarding Amateur Radio Operators (HAM) have been answered by Louis B., Regional Emergency Communication Specialist:

Why should I get a Ham Radio License if I can use a CB radio? What is the difference between the two? Do you need a license to use a CB radio?



Ham Radio, is both a hobby and a service in which participants, called “Hams,” use various types of radio communications equipment to communicate with other radio amateurs for public service, recreation and self-training. One of three license levels is required for sole operation of a Ham Radio (a non-licensed person may operate a Ham Radio under the guidance of a licensed Ham).

Amateur radio operators enjoy personal (and often worldwide) wireless communications with each other and are able to support their communities with emergency and disaster communications if necessary, while increasing their personal knowledge of electronics and radio theory. Millions of people throughout the world are regularly involved with amateur radio.

The term “amateur” is not a reflection on the skills of the participants, which are often quite advanced; rather, “amateur” indicates that amateur communications are not allowed to be used for commercial or moneymaking purposes.


Citizens Band Radio, or CB, is a short-distance two-way voice communications system for use by individuals for personal and business activities on one of 40 available channels.

There are no age, citizenship, or license requirements to operate a CB radio in the United States. Operators may use any of the authorized 40 CB channels; however, channel 9 is typically used for emergency communications or for traveler assistance. Usage of all channels is on a shared basis.

Other forms of CB-like two-way communications are Family Radio Service (FRS) and General Mobile Radio Service (GMRS).



  • Available communications frequencies range from: High Frequency, 160 Meters (1.8 MHz) up to frequencies 275 GHz and above.
  • Transmit power levels of 2,000 Watts are permitted on certain frequencies and modes. Power levels of below 1 Watt to 50 Watts are more common. Most Hams use the lowest power levels possible to prevent interference from limiting the communications abilities of other people in areas close by.
  • VHF 2 Meters (144 MHz) and UHF 70 cm (420 MHz) are most commonly used for local communications and by entry level Hams.
  • Unlike CB, FRS, and GMRS, the frequencies, in sections, are continuously tunable and are not limited to fixed channels.
  • Ham Radio can be configured to use repeaters that allow weak signals to be “relayed” by powerful transmitters with antennas located at high elevations on buildings, towers, or mountains. This feature is particularly useful for low-power or hand-held radios that can lose the ability to communicate when located or carried into a valley or in-between tall structures where line-of-sight between radios can not be maintained.
  • There are multiple operating modes available such as Digital Formats used for text, data, and image transmissions; voice (often referred to as phone); and Morse Code (CW).
  • Digital and CW formats can often be intelligible under conditions where voice transmissions are impossible.
  • Frequencies can be selected for specific requirements such as long distance communications, ability to penetrate structures, and other specialized applications.
  • Fewer antenna location and height restrictions.
  • Transmission ranges can vary from less than one mile to many thousands of miles depending on the radio type, antennas, and other equipment used.
  • Although a license is required, Ham Radio will usually be the most reliable and suitable form of two-way radio communications available during emergencies. That said a good emergency communicator would use any and all forms of communications that succeed in getting the messages from one point to another.


  • Operation is permitted anywhere within the United States and its territories or possessions; as well as anywhere in the world except within the territorial limits of areas where radio services are regulated by a foreign government, or another U.S. agency such as the Department of Defense.
  • Transmitters must be FCC certified and may not be modified, including modifications to increase output power or to transmit on unauthorized frequencies. Output power is limited to 4 watts for AM transmitters and 12 watts peak envelope power for single sideband (SSB) transmitters. The antenna may not be more than 20 feet (6.1 m) above the highest point of the structure it is mounted to, nor more than 60 feet (18.3 m) above the ground.
  • CB and other types of two-way communications formats, including Family Radio Service (FRS) and General Mobile Radio Service (GMRS), are more likely to experience unfavorable communications conditions during emergencies due the large number of people trying to communicate, those intentionally attempting to disrupt communications, and the limited frequencies or “channels” available.
  • Operates within the High Frequency (HF) 11 Meter Band (27-MHz). The maximum legal CB power output level, in the U.S., is four watts for AM and 12 watts (peak envelope power or “PEP”) for SSB, as measured at the antenna connection on the back of the radio. It is one of several personal radio services defined by the FCC’s Part 95 rules.
  • Uncooperative users sometimes make legitimate, short-range use of CB radio difficult and users of illegal high-power transmitters, which are capable of being heard hundreds of miles away, may blank out all other users for many channels in each direction of the primary channel in use. In the United States, the vast number of users and the low financing of the regulatory body mean that the regulations are only actively enforced against the most severe interfering stations, which makes legitimate operations on the Citizen’s band unreliable.
  • The 27-MHz-frequencies used by CBs, which require a long antenna and don’t propagate well indoors, tend to discourage use of handheld radios for many applications.
  • Expect a communication range of 2 to 10 miles, most often less than 5 miles depending on the surrounding obstructions.


  • FRS uses narrowband FM (NBFM) with maximum effective radiated power of 0.5 watt (500 milliwatts). FRS is intended for hand-held, short-range local, and private communications.
  • Operates within the UHF spectrum and usually penetrates structures better than CB signals but with much lower power levels that feature may be limited.
  • Expect a communication range of 1 to 5 miles, most often less than 2 miles, generally line-of-sight; significantly less if not line-of-sight.


  • General Mobile Radio Service (GMRS) is a licensed land-mobile FM UHF radio service in the United States available for short-distance two-way communication. GMRS is intended for use by an adult individual that possesses a valid GMRS license.
  • The GMRS-only channels are defined in pairs; with one frequency in the 462 MHz range for simplex and repeater outputs, and another frequency 5 MHz higher for repeater inputs. There are eight channels exclusively for GMRS and seven “interstitial” channels shared with Family Radio Service. GMRS use requires an FCC license, and licensees are permitted to transmit at up to 50 Watts on GMRS frequencies (although 1 to 5 watts is more common), as well as having detachable or external antennas.
  • GMRS licensees are also able to use the first 7 FRS frequencies (the “interstitial” GMRS frequencies), but at the lower 5 Watt maximum power output, for a total of 15 channels. FRS channels 8 through 14 are not available for GMRS use; use of these frequencies requires an FRS transceiver and are the most commonly used GMRS Radios.

How old do you have to be to get a Ham Radio License?

While there is no minimum age requirement for obtaining a Ham Radio License there is a reading test involved so typically six might be the youngest Ham you could expect to see.

How expensive are Ham Radios, and what radio do I buy after I get my license? How do I pick one, there are so many out there?

A Ham Radio can be obtained from less than $100 to many thousands of dollars. The operating mode you find interesting or type of use you intend would dictate your choice. You may end up with many different types of Ham Radios for different purposes.

For new Hams I always recommend purchasing a very basic used hand-held VHF radio for less than $100, which is easy to do at most Ham Fests (a two-way radio flea market), get used to the hobby and discover which mode or modes and frequencies interest you and then make other purchases specifically designed to fit your new and informed tastes.

I would also recommend securing the opinion and assistance of an experienced Ham when deciding on and purchasing your first radio.

Do I need a huge antenna for my radio to work?

Typically the greater gain (usually specialized or larger antenna) and higher above ground your antenna is mounted, the greater distance you will be able to transmit and receive. If you use a local repeater to relay your signal a hand-held radio with the original “rubber duckie” antenna will usually be adequate for most local needs. If a repeater is not available a better remote antenna could be required depending on your application.

How much does it cost to get the license?

Study materials could cost $20 and up depending on the source, but there are Internet sites that offer free what is needed to prepare for the exam. The commercial materials are usually worth the investment.

Some testing entities offer the exam free and others charge a modest fee to cover materials (usually $15 or less). The FCC does not charge a fee for obtaining a Ham Radio License.

Where do I take the test?

There are many groups in multiple locations that Procter Ham Radio License exams. Members of CARS (a local Ham Club) offer testing two or three times a year. Other groups offer more frequent testing. Ask a Ham or contact the American Radio Relay League (ARRL) http://www.arrl.org/ for testing site information.

How long is my license good for?

Usually ten years.

How can I prepare for the test? What manual should I use?

The Internet is full of material to assist in preparing for the Ham Radio License Exam. The ARRL (see URL above) offers a booklet titled; “Now You’re Talking” approximately $20 that contains the necessary information to pass the exam and additional electronic theory that is helpful while you enjoy your new hobby.

If I take a High Speed Ham Radio class, how much should I study to get ready?

The “High Speed” class will include the information necessary to pass the exam, but in a condensed and rapid-fire mode that leaves little time to deeply absorb the concepts. To obtain the greatest satisfaction from your new hobby additional study and experimenting would be advised.

To facilitate understanding, considering the fast-paced nature of the High Speed class, I would recommend purchasing the ““Now You’re Talking” book and read/study a few weeks before the class. This will also prepare you to arrive at the class armed with a bevy of questions.

Do I have to go to meetings after I get my license?

There are no meeting requirements to maintain your license. Attending meetings where like-minded people gather will offer support and a networking base to tap into when you have questions, run into problems, or need help building/repairing something.

How can I get involved to help the community once I am a licensed Ham Radio Operator?

Join with other like-minded Hams and they will apprise you of a plethora of service opportunities. Usually the most convenient way to do that is joining a Ham Club like CARS:

Cascade   Amateur   Radio   Society (CARS)  http://groups.yahoo.com/group/c-a-r-s/

Can I connect with other Ham Radio Operators from our stake and other stakes?

Join CARS and sign up for the Email Listserver. The Listserver reaches Hams from all over the region.

How can a Ham Radio Operator help during an emergency response plan in a ward?

Talk with your Bishop and suggest you be assigned as a Ward Emergency Communication Specialist.

Are there any benefits to obtaining a Ham Radio Operators License beyond helping out during an emergency affecting the church?

It can be a very enjoyable hobby, assist with family matters, and increase your knowledge base, which will be useful in all other areas of your life.

Being the only Ham in my family, my wife used to dislike my taking the radio along on outings because of the “funny noises it made”. The following occurrences affected her opinion:

1) We had a flat tire in a remote location with 10” of snow, 12°F outside, jack would not fit under the car, and no Cell signal. I managed to hit a repeater with my radio and summoned aid.

2) On I-5 South bound we had a group of thugs try to run us off the road and gestured that they were going to harm us in other ways. Our Cell Phone happened to have a dead battery so I used the Ham Radio to make a phone call through a repeater to 911 Dispatch. They patched me through to the State Police and the thugs were in custody within five minutes.

3) In remote Southeast Oregon, out of Cell Phone range, we happened upon a wreck involving a car and pickup truck. The car was damaged enough that the doors would not open, smoke was coming from the engine compartment, and gas was leaking from the tank.
Using my Ham Radio I managed to contact a farmer who was also a Ham. He phoned the local fire protection group and then drove to our location (about 20 miles away). He had the windshield broken out and the occupants extricated before the rescue people arrived.

Although the car had not ignited before the Fire Department arrived it could have and I cannot imagine watching people burn to death.

In spite of having three Cell Phones my wife now insists I bring the radio along and demonstrate that it functions before we leave on an outing.

I have also experienced numerous pleasant events while using my radio.

With a higher power permitted than FRS, GMRS will usually transmit further and should have a range similar to CB Radios but with a more restrictive line-of-sight requirement.

Find an amateur radio license exam in your area, click here…

Feartured image source: public domain

Photo source: LDS Intelligent Living

2 thoughts on “HAM Radio: Frequently Asked Questions”

  1. I am active in the local Emergency Net on 2 meters and would like to
    have a schedule and frequency for the HF SSB net.

    Thank you,
    wolfe WA0BNZ

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