If you are a new ham (or an aspiring one) you have probably noticed Radio Operator license plates (tags) on vehicles in your area and perhaps elsewhere.
According to a Wikipedia topic, “All U.S. states offer specialized license plates for licensed amateur radio operators, in many cases at no extra charge or at a discount compared to standard vanity plates. Among the stated reasons in various state statutes for providing special amateur radio plates are to recognize amateur radio operators for their service, and to enhance visibility of amateur radio operators in an emergency. The owner’s radio call sign is used instead of a standard-issue serial.”
In addition to the USA, many other countries also issue specialty vehicle registration plates to licensed amateur radio operators, purportedly to facilitate their movement during an emergency. Notably, ham plates are not issued in continental Europe; please advise if this is incorrect or has changed. One commenter from the UK has reported that they are available but expensive there.
Before you elect to get ham radio license plates for your own vehicle(s), consider the pros and cons of having them.
There are several advantages in having radio operator plates on your vehicle:
- A fun form of specialty plate and the number is easy to remember (your call sign)
- Helps other hams identify you
- Opportunity to discuss amateur radio with a curious public
- Possibly give you more credibility when driving into a disaster area
- Likely at lower-cost than any other form of vanity plate
And some disadvantages:
- Makes it easier for the public to locate you if they want to, if you are sensitive to this issue (alternative is to give the government a PO box instead of a street address)
- Negative publicity for ham radio if you are a bad driver
- Potentially makes vehicle contents more attractive to thieves
- You need to get new plates if you change your call sign
Interestingly, in Texas and at least three other US states, radio amateurs are permitted to have their call sign on the license plates of multiple vehicles that they own, in effect allowing more than one vehicle to share the same license plate number.
According to the Texas application (and likely some other states) you must regularly operate amateur radio equipment in the vehicle(s) featuring the ham radio license plate. That said, it’s unclear how this requirement would be enforced so in practice it would seem to be treated much like any other specialty plate. Some hams operate mobile quite often and then there are others who don’t have any equipment in their car; it’s just a vanity plate for them. This author doesn’t operate mobile often but does have a permanent antenna mount and keeps the radio and antenna in the trunk for quick deployment. You need to decide for yourself how to comply with any operating requirements.
In the US, vehicle registration and licensing are managed by individual states so the process of obtaining ham radio license plates will vary depending on where you live. License plate fees, criteria, conditions, and restrictions will also vary by state.
You will need to discover this on your own by researching state licensing regulations (ahhh, the wonderful aroma of bureaucracy). A fellow ham in your area who already has ham tags should be helpful in explaining the process and steering you in the right direction. An excellent reference to US state vehicle license plate info can be found at this ARRL link.
We will use one state as an example here because it’s our home turf. In Texas it’s easy to get radio operator plates: You fill out an application form and submit a copy of your FCC license that shows your call sign. After being notified that your plates are ready days or weeks later, you go pick them up at your county tax assessor office, turn over your existing plates and pay the registration fee. You’ll need a screwdriver to take off the old and install the new ones in the parking lot. In Texas there is no vanity fee for ham plates, just the usual registration fee which is prorated for the time remaining on your existing registration.