The final courtesy of a radio contact is acknowledgement of the QSO (radio contact).
QSL is an old brevity code meaning, “I acknowledge receipt”. Back in the early 1900s when passing messages was a main function of amateur radio (whence the Amateur Radio Relay League or ARRL), the term QSL made a lot of sense. Today you may hear a ham speak or write QSL to let you know they received something.
The term QSL now more commonly means to confirm a radio contact. Early on this was done mainly with postcards.
Some hams still do send out QSL cards, or send them in reply or if requested. Collecting cards is a fun aspect of ham radio. Many cards are interesting or unique.
Besides tradition, a sense of satisfaction, and general fun, QSO confirmation in the form of valid QSL is a basic requirement for most operating awards. This may not matter to you but many other hams are eager for your QSL, particularly if they are requesting one.
All hams should provide some form of QSL for all contacts except for routine local ones. Information in the QSL should include the station call signs, date and time (UTC), band/frequency, mode, signal report, and sender’s location details. Good logging is essential for this and a QSL function is often supported by computer logging utilities.
You can determine how to exchange QSLs with a particular station from their QRZ profile if they have one set up (most active hams do).
Details about QSL cards are given further below. Mailing cards can get expensive. While the cost of printing the cards is not so bad, postage adds up, particularly when sending internationally. Bureau (BURO) services to send/receive cards internationally reduces cost somewhat but is still pricey and response time is generally slow (months to years). Alternate methods of providing a QSL have arisen out of the need for keeping costs down.
Non-card QSLs are all electronic in nature, exchanged via internet connection in some manner. We will briefly mention three here. You can search for others on the WWW.
Most significant is the ARRL’s Logbook of the World (LoTW). This system was developed with tight security as a replacement for QSL cards. LoTW Getting Started site is here and an excellent 3rd party user guide is here. You can view your uploaded QSOs and matching QSLs on LoTW. You can also view your awards status (countries, states, zones, prefixes, modes, bands) and apply for eligible awards and endorsements. ARRL awards are highly prized, especially DXCC and WAS, although you don’t have to use LoTW for awards— you can also use QSL cards.
Another good QSL resource is your logbook on QRZ.com. It is widely used and easy to work with. QSLs are automatically shown when a matching contact is entered by the other party. Can easily be linked to other logging programs as well as LoTW.
Bonus is that a LoTW QSL imports as a QRZ QSL, so even if the other station doesn’t use QRZ you can get credit if they use LoTW. Awards are numerous (continents, countries, states, counties, and grid squares by mode and band) and automatically tabulated.
Between LoTW and QRZ the author has a 85% of his contacts confirmed so these are the two biggies (for him, at least).
The third non-card method for QSO confirmation is eQSL, termed The electronic QSL Card Centre. They are “the first and only global electronic QSL card exchange for amateur radio operators and SWLs. It is designed to be the fastest, easiest, and cheapest way to exchange QSO confirmations, eliminating the cost and time that regular QSL cards have required for the past half century.” While that may be true, eQSL is not (as of this writing) accepted by LoTW or QRZ for credit. It is popular but not as widely used (only 58% confirmed for me). You can read up on how it works at eQSL.cc. eQSL might really take off if it became inter-operable with LoTW but that may be years off, if ever.
Frustratingly, some hams do cards only, or they do not QSL at all (boo! don’t be that guy.)
Author’s card is shown below for example, front and back:
In addition to the basic info, hams often include grid square, email, and logos/affiliations.
When mailing, cards can be sent naked at the lower postcard rate. But it’s more common to enclose them in a larger envelope, particularly when including SAE or SASE for return.
Standard QSL card size is 3½ by 5½” (90x140mm) on heavy stock but some hams favor an odd size card which makes mailing awkward.
Cards can be purchased from any number of suppliers (a few listed below). Using standard designs is easy and usually a number of customizations are available. You can design your own cards; many card suppliers will use your artwork. Gloss finish professional cards are much nicer to receive but you can print your own cards. If you do so, use good card stock, not thin paper.
Sending cards direct to international (DX) stations has its own considerations. Unless you can obtain postage stamps from different countries, it’s best to send two or three US dollars (ham-speak=green stamps) for return postage. An international reply coupon (IRC) can be used for universal postage but these are hard to obtain. In some countries postal theft is a problem so it’s a good idea to not mark the envelopes with amateur radio indications, even call signs (savvy thieves know there may be money enclosed).
Alternately, some DX stations have a QSL manager in the USA where you can pay US postage both ways, avoiding expensive and slow international mail.
While you may want a card for that rare contact you made with Genovia, they don’t necessarily want yours. Some DX stations are set up to send cards upon request with electronic payment (typically US$2-3 via OQRS) and you don’t have to send yours so half the postage is saved.
For what it’s worth, the author uses all four methods discussed here. QRZ is his primary real-time log and is linked daily to LoTW for a more official repository and awards tool. Cards are sent and collected on request or receipt. Jim wants to have at least one card from every country and three from every state (variety), plus special interest or special event cards. While not a regular eQSL user, he will send an eQSL confirmation upon request. eQSL is also useful to see if another station logged a questionable contact.
Some useful references on QSLing and QSLcards:
Jim’s QSL card supplier- cheapQSLs.com – $10-$20 /100 cards typical
UX5UO Print Ukranian QSL card supplier high quality, good price
K4SJG custom/standard card supplier
RadioQTH Create/print cards