So you are interested in ham radio and want to get a license. Thats’s great! Now how should you study for the exam?
Let’s present some basic information first. Breathe a sigh of relief to know that Morse code is no longer required to be a licensed US amateur radio operator. Also unlike the days of old, you no longer have to travel to a FCC office to be examined. Many of us old timers recall having to demonstrate our skills at sending and receiving Morse and taking a tough written test at a FCC office in a large city.
License exams are now conducted by local hams who are accredited by an authorized organization to certify that examinees have passed the written exam. These volunteer examiners then process the paperwork necessary to get passing candidates their license. You can find the nearest exam dates and locations at the ARRL website.
License exam questions are all multiple-choice and are managed by the exam coordinator organizations. There are question pools for each of the three license grades and these pools change somewhat every four years. The question pool for the Technician class license consists of about 425 possible questions while the General exam has around 460. The Tech and General exams both have 35 questions and a passing grade is 26 correct answers (74%, 9 wrong). The Extra class license is much more extensive with over 700 questions in the pool and consists of 50 questions with a passing grade of 37 correct answers (74%, 13 wrong). Each license class has questions about Rules/Regulations, Operating Procedures, Radio Fundamentals, Practices, Electrical/Electronic Principles/Components, Equipment, Modes/Methods, Radio Wave Behavior, Antennas/Feedlines, and Safety. As you might expect the questions become more involved and difficult as you progress from Technician to Extra license classes. Every exam will have a certain number of questions from each of these general categories.
The Technician license exam is relatively easy to pass and is where most people start. The General class exam is more challenging but is still doable for most people, being moderately or somewhat difficult to learn. The Extra class exam is truly difficult and requires extensive learning and study to pass. You can proceed from Technician to General and on to Extra in one exam session if you are really eager and prepared or just settle for Tech or General that day, as most people do.
Because you won’t know which questions will be on any given exam, you need to understand most (at least 75%) of the entire question pool for whichever exam you are attempting to pass. So this requires some study in advance of taking the exam.
While it is possible for a reasonably intelligent and technically-minded person to pass at least the Technician license exam without studying, it’s not easy and some learning and preparation is highly recommended. How should one become prepared? Below are several suggestions for learning the exam material:
Study with your Elmer. That’s the friendly local ham who encourages and mentors new or prospective amateurs. This comes with an added bonus of him/her sharing their knowledge and experience on various topics so you will better understand the subject.
Local license training class. Clubs and organizations often conduct license training courses for all three license classes. You can find a listing of local license courses at the ARRL website. Here again you will get the benefit of the teacher’s knowledge and experience on various topics, it’s just not as personal as the Elmer method.
Both the Elmer and training class methods will likely involve a reference book published by the ARRL (Ham Radio License Manual) which you could go through on your own.
Good self-study courses are available from W5YI among other places. In particular the Gordon West license class series is popular and well-regarded and can be found elsewhere on the web. Gordo sometimes conducts classes around the country.
Online web-based training courses. There are several interesting ones out there and some may be more helpful than others. Check them out :
However, we highly recommend and endorse HamTestOnline as an outstanding web-based training and practice tool. This top-rated course integrates study materials with question drill, using the actual exam questions and answers. It tracks your progress and focuses on weak areas, drilling questions you get wrong more often than ones you get right.
At HamTestOnline you will find the question pools and may take practice exams for free. You can use it anonymously but if you create a free account you can get limited study rights and it will keep track of your practice exam scores. If you pay a nominal fee, you can get two years of full study privileges where they give you detailed info while you answer practice questions.
There is at least one single-day class promoted out there which provides a no-frills crash course to pass the Tech license exam. Beware of such courses that “teach the test” or have you simply memorize the question pool. Such methods may in fact help you pass your exam but in the end you don’t really grasp the topics and your ham radio experience will suffer, as may other hams whom you inflict your ignorance on. It’s more important to truly know and understand the material by training and experience than to just memorize answers.
With apologies to the rest of the world, all this info applies to the US licensing process. In another country you will need to find out on your own the best ways to study and how the license exams operate.