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Amateur Radio (often called Ham Radio) is a quintessentially geeky hobby. Essentially, it involves radio operators (called “hams”) talking to each other around improbably complex equipment over VHF and UHF frequencies.

This is a hobby that has an unfashionable reputation. But that’s totally undeserved, as becoming a “ham” has some serious practical advantages. Here’s why you should consider learning all about it.

Being Aware Of Local Emergencies

Knowing about a local emergency, like a multi-car pile up, can often mean the difference between spending hours stuck in a line of traffic or not. But finding out about them in time can be hard.

TV news is glacially slow to report on events at times, and social media can be a cess-pit of hoaxes 5 Internet Hoaxes That Went Viral & Almost Had You Fooled This Year 5 Internet Hoaxes That Went Viral & Almost Had You Fooled This Year There were a few convincing hoaxes knocking about the Internet this year; from waterproof iPhones to Christmas Dinner in a tin. Here are some of the best. Read More and misinformation 4 Reasons You Should Never Trust Social Media 4 Reasons You Should Never Trust Social Media You just got burned in an argument because, once again, you quoted something you saw on social media. Why does this keep happening? Read More .

Ham Radio is different. It’s both fast and reliable. You’ll be hearing about events from people who live near where they’re taking place, or are witnessing it from their automobiles, as many ham operators carry in-car handsets.

BaoFeng

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This is news you can generally depend upon, as it’s coming directly from people in your own community, who you’ll be able to trust.

But that’s just one side of it. Many government agencies use the same UHF and VHF frequencies used by amateur radio equipment in order to let people know about disaster and extreme weather situations.

The most famous one is run by the National Weather Service, which transmits automated weather alerts. You can learn more about it in the video above.

Stay Connected When Disaster Strikes

When Hurricane Sandy struck the Eastern seaboard of the United States, it caused an unfathomable amount of damage to the infrastructure.

Homes were without power for weeks How Residential Solar Power Kits Can Keep You Online During Outages How Residential Solar Power Kits Can Keep You Online During Outages While fossil-fuel powered generators are well understood, the same isn't true for residential solar power kits. There are thousands of products on offer, each with their own advantages and disadvantages. Which ones are right for... Read More , and communications were severely disrupted. Some who found themselves in trouble were unable to contact the emergency services to summon assistance.

But one thing that the hurricane wasn’t able to disrupt was radio broadcasts. It is for this reason ham radio operators were so vital in keeping people safe during the worst of the storm.

HamRadioSetup

In Connecticut, operators worked around the clock to protect their communities and liaise with emergency services, shelters, and the local Red Cross. Many left their homes and placed themselves in these places, in order to keep communications flowing.

Any licensed amateur radio operator can join groups whose job is to assist during emergency situations. One of the largest is the Amateur Radio Emergency Service, which operates in Canada and the United States.

But it’s not the only one, and it’s not just the United States that has them. Wikipedia has a pretty comprehensive list of active groups you could consider joining.

It’s A Skill To Learn and Maintain

You can’t just buy a radio set and become an amateur radio operator. Not legally, at least. Before you can start transmitting across the airwaves, you’ve got to get yourself certified and licensed. In the US, that’s with the Federal Communications Commission.

HamLicense

To do that, you’ve got to take some classes, or do some self-studying. These cover the essentials, like the laws in your country surrounding amateur radio broadcasts. But others are much more exciting, and explore the math and physics of ham radio, as well as basic electronics.

The entry-level FCC license (called a Technician Class License) is earned after the successful completion of a 35-question written exam. Exams are usually administered by local volunteer examiners. The cost can range from free, to a nominal fee that shouldn’t exceed $15.

HamStudyBook

If you love finding out how stuff works, and long to go back to learning about math and science in a classroom environment, becoming an amateur radio operator might just be for you.

There’s A Community

It sounds obvious, doesn’t it? But amateur radio is an incredibly social endeavor. I’m not just talking about talking to people over your radio, although that’s a huge part of being a ham.

HamRadioDude

 

There are also radio meet-up groups and social events you can attend in your area, as well as online communities that bustle with activity. The Amateur Radio subreddit, for example, has almost fifteen thousand users, and is full of people sharing their expertise, and bragging about their accomplishments.

Many tech-oriented communities can be toxic wastelands, full of internal conflict and politics. But the Ham one is different. They’re open to newcomers, and generally happy to help. This is something that’s cemented in The Ham’s Code:

“The ham is friendly. Slow and patient sending when requested, friendly advice and counsel to the beginner, kindly assistance, co-operation and consideration for the interests of other; these are the mark of the ham spirit.”

It’s Cheaper Than You Think

If you’re put off by the potential costs of becoming a “ham”, you’re going to want to pay attention here. In recent years, it’s become a much more affordable hobby. This is largely thanks to the deluge of cheap handsets that have flooded the market from the factories of Shenzhen and Guangzhou.

One Chinese maker of amateur radio handsets is Baofeng. They’ve done for ham radio what Huawei and Xiomi did for smartphones Why Your Next Android Smartphone Should be Chinese Why Your Next Android Smartphone Should be Chinese For years, Chinese smartphones have gotten a bad reputation, but here's why you should really consider getting one now. Read More , essentially lowering the cost to make them affordable for all. You can now get a hand-held radio for under $30.

BaoFeng UV-5R Dual Band Two Way Radio (Black) BaoFeng UV-5R Dual Band Two Way Radio (Black) High / Low Power Settings (4W/1W) Programmable Amateur Radio Buy Now At Amazon Too low to display

Admittedly, this lacks the features, customizability, and power of other, more expensive models. Indeed, many complain about the poor build quality of these devices. Despite that, they’re a great, affordable way for newcomers to enter the field.

Incremental steps forward in equipment won’t break the bank, either. You can get a much more potent radio for just under $200, and there’s a thriving secondary market of devices on eBay 10 Tips to Shop on eBay Like a Boss 10 Tips to Shop on eBay Like a Boss These 10 eBay tips will help you optimize your searching and bidding to save you a lot of money on the items you're looking for. Read More .

Yaesu FT-2900R 75 Watt 2 Meter VHF Mobile Transceiver Amateur Ham Radio Yaesu FT-2900R 75 Watt 2 Meter VHF Mobile Transceiver Amateur Ham Radio 2M VHF mobile Amateur Radio, Transmits 144-148Mhz, Receives 136-174Mhz. Buy Now At Amazon $173.00

Are You Tempted?

Ham Radio is a great hobby to learn. It’ll introduce you to new groups of people, and will serve you well in times of need. Plus, it’s cheaper than you think.

Are you a ham? Are you considering becoming a ham? Let me know in the comments below, and tell me all about it!

Photo Credits: Ham Radios (Andrew Filer)Baofeng UV-5RA (James Case), Busted Yesterday (Steve Bozak), Ham Radio License Manual (Micah Drusal), License (Brett Neilson) 

  1. Jeff Dahn
    September 23, 2016 at 11:13 pm

    I actually found out about amateur radio through the Reddit forum you mentioned. For me, it has been more than a hobby. It has been a life saver. I am a former Chief of Police who fell chronically ill and disabled. Unable to work, depressed and bedridden, I stumbled on the amateur radio forum on Reddit. Interested in the posts, I made an inquiry of the users there and in the ham spirit, eight people replied to me, giving me advise and suggestions on where to get more information, how to study, etc. One person sent me a study guide. Another sent me a radio! In two weeks, I became certified at the General level (middle of the three). This was in 2013. Today, I am an Extra Class (highest level), a certified Volunteer Examiner (VE), which authorizes me to along with at least two other VEs, administer exams and licenses for other amateur radio operators. I also many times host as net control for the weekly radio net for our club. These actives, and others not here listed, allow me to still help, serve and communicate with others despite the limitations imposed upon me by my illness and disabilities. I love amateur radio! - Jeff Dahn - KB3ZUK - Rockville, Maryland

  2. Dave
    July 15, 2016 at 2:40 pm

    A uddy of mine and I are interested in getting good our license, but haven't found a place to take the test, etc. We live in South Dakota. Any ideas?

  3. Carol Rivermoon
    April 24, 2016 at 4:06 am

    I'm a "new Ham", having passed my Tech exam about a month ago. I've been a SKYWARN storm spotter off and on for the past ten years or so, and since moving back to Iowa in 2005 I noticed a lot of crossover between the local Hams, ARES and SKYWARN. A kindly local ham lured me in with a "package deal" which included study materials, a one-day class and my first radio (a Baofeng) at an unbeatable price. Now there are several dozen more new Hams around here, and a couple of my classmates have already taken and passed their General exam ! I'll be going for mine later this year.

    As I'm more of a computer and A/V geek than a radio building geek, even though I worked in broadcasting professionally for some years. So I'm beginning to experiment with Echolink, which lets Techs make connections all over, just like the "big boys". I also plan on joining ARES and, of course, having fun at our local club's upcoming Field Day. It's fun, people are friendly, and it's providing me more geeks to talk to. What's not to like ?

    73's all !

    Carol R, KE0IKD

  4. John Mehalick
    March 4, 2016 at 10:16 pm

    Also the nets,that are on daily HF, VHF and UHF you can find out what is going on!
    73
    W3MTP John

  5. Richard Myers
    March 2, 2016 at 9:24 pm

    de AD4VS, a great posting. Thanks for doing it.

  6. DUG
    March 2, 2016 at 8:29 pm

    SO MANY BANDS WHICH TO CHOOSE? 2 METER, 10 METER? WHAT?

  7. Serena
    March 2, 2016 at 1:47 pm

    We made ham radios in 6th grade. I don't remember much beyond coiling copper wire around a toilet paper roll. Our teacher was licensed and all kids looked forward to the project. (And even looked forward to learning morse code just to get licensed also.)

  8. DON HAVLICEK
    March 1, 2016 at 4:38 pm

    The first paragraph says 'using VHF and UHF frequencies".....

    The greater majority of operations take place on the HIGH FREQUENCY bands from 1.8 to 29.7 mHz, not on VHF/UHF.

    The HF frequencies are best utilized in emergencies for longer distance communications and for simply 'chatting' with other hams all over the world!

    Don - N8DE
    Licensed for over 60 years!

  9. Bil Munsil
    March 1, 2016 at 4:34 pm

    Is one of these you?

    KC9FTU MATTHEW M HUGHES NEW AUBURN WI
    KD9EYC Matthew C Hughes Hartford City IN
    KE5QPS Matthew C Hughes N Richland Hills TX
    KG4PTW Matthew R Hughes Lynchburg VA
    KG7OYT Matthew A Hughes Sierra Vista AZ
    KJ4EMY Matthew K Hughes Independence KY
    VA3FET Matthew Hughes NORTH YORK ON

    Bil Munsil
    K1ATV HAM TV
    Mesa AZ

  10. rst599
    March 1, 2016 at 4:16 pm

    The Morse Code requirement was dropped for the entry-level Technician license in 1991, which resulted in a boom of new Tech licensees. The previous requirements to be able to receive 13 words per minute for General Class and 20 wpm for Extra class remained until 2000, when it was changed to 5 words per minute. In 2007, the code requirement was dropped for all license classes, which resulted in another mini-boom particularly among those upgrading to the higher classes.

    Ironically, Morse Code activity on the air has only increased since the exam requirement was eliminated, especially among those who are active in radio sport (contesting) and those who enjoy very low power (five watts and less, called "QRP") communication on the worldwide-reach shortwave bands. Most hams transmit with about 100 watts on these bands.

  11. alan
    March 1, 2016 at 6:36 am

    Isn't is interesting how so many MakeUseOf articles have just become advertisements for Amazon?

    • Jack
      July 2, 2016 at 1:48 pm

      What I was thinking and do not rely on those cheap Chinese radios in a emergency.Save up some money a buy a decent radio please.

  12. Dezone
    March 1, 2016 at 4:12 am

    There is a large Ham radio antenna that was left in the attic of this house that we bought a couple of years ago. I think this would be great to actually use it and teach the kiddies the how things work piece as well. I used to have a lot of fun with the CB radio in my car and a few friends. That was also a few years back when we were all dialing into the internet.

  13. Otis
    February 29, 2016 at 1:38 pm

    "Many government agencies use the same UHF and VHF frequencies used by amateur radio equipment in order to let people know about disaster and extreme weather situations."

    Not exactly right. Generally no one other than Hams transmit in the Ham bands. Wx alerts are in their own band that some Ham radio can receive and other than that I can't think of any other services that broadcast near these frequencies.

    • Matthew Hughes
      February 29, 2016 at 9:20 pm

      Ah, good to know!

  14. Arpit Kharbanda
    February 28, 2016 at 3:09 pm

    Several years ago, Kentucky had an ice storm. huge electric towers collapsed. there was nothing local running.
    No gas, no phone, no cell phone, no internet. just ice. well, the ham people helped law, fire and utility people coordinate and communicate in order to restore our county to this century.
    When the world turns suddenly primitive, the ham operators are there providing emergency communication services.
    Ham radio does not require infrastructure. We are completely self reliant. All we need is the ionosphere, and a radio. We don't need towers, or anything like that. Also, the propagation or the way signals bounce changes, so it is always different.

    One would want to take up ham radio as a hobby:
    1. Because chat doesn't require the skill of working the grey line
    2. Because Facebook doesn't require the same skill as working 200 countries with 5 watts or less
    3. Because the first thing to go down in the event of a natural disaster is the local cell phone system
    4. Because there is something magical about bouncing a signal off an aurora, the moon, or meteor scatter
    5. Because talking to astronauts is damn cool
    6. Because we have our own satellites
    7. Because we have our own section of the internet,AMPRNet
    8. Because we are allowed to modify radios and try new technologies.
    9. Because of the international camaraderie
    10.Because you may like electronics
    11. Because you may want to help in cases of emergency, when everything goes down except for your radio
    12. Because you like competitions
    13. Because you'd like to talk to ISS
    14. Because you'd want to reach distant lands with the shack you made yourself
    Anyway, Matthew covered the details in the article very well! Kudos to you for such a informative article.

    • Arpit Kharbanda
      February 28, 2016 at 3:12 pm

      *an

    • Matthew Hughes
      February 29, 2016 at 9:16 pm

      Cool story! Thanks Arpit.

  15. Roger Gardner
    February 25, 2016 at 11:45 am

    i posted this on our ham club facebook page. https://www.facebook.com/groups/u.c.a.r.c.il/ thanks for bringing that info up. i have been a "ham" since 1987. again thanks.
    "73s" KA9ZFB

    • Matthew Hughes
      February 29, 2016 at 9:20 pm

      Thanks Roger

  16. Charlie
    February 24, 2016 at 3:36 pm

    Morse Code is no longer required for any Amateur Radio license.

    • Matthew Hughes
      February 24, 2016 at 6:55 pm

      Hey Charlie,

      Where are you seeing morse code? I don't remember mentioning it, and I can't see it mentioned in any revisions.

  17. fcd76218
    February 24, 2016 at 2:10 pm

    At least for entry level license one no longer needs to proficient in Morse Code.

    • Matthew Hughes
      February 24, 2016 at 6:54 pm

      Hey! Where are you seeing morse code? I don't think I mentioned it in the article, and I can't see it in any revisions?

    • fcd76218
      February 24, 2016 at 7:13 pm

      Once upon the time Morse Code proficiency (transmitting and receiving) was required for all Amateur Radio Licenses. It was an impediment for many an aspiring ham. I was one of them. I knew the theory forwards, backwards and sideways. I could build a receiver, a transmitter and an antenna from scratch. But when it came to Morse Code, I was all elbows.

      I don't know when the Code requirement was dropped but it was between mid-1970s and recently. Mid-70s was when I lost interest in ham radio and moved on to other hobbies.

    • Eric Stoick
      February 26, 2016 at 11:42 pm

      I think they are just pointing it out because you didn't. Don't take offense.

    • Matthew Hughes
      February 29, 2016 at 9:17 pm

      Not taking offense! I was just worried I'd made a mistake! Thanks so much! Really cool story. :)

      Dragonmouth, you should totally get back into Ham. Get a cheap Baofeng and see if it's still how you remember it.

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