Call Sign Variations

New hams listening in on a repeater are likely to hear a wide variety of call signs.  They may be confused and question some of them.  Repeaters near an international border can get pretty interesting with call sign variations in both countries.   EchoLink and IRLP open many repeaters up to access from anywhere the internet can reach.  Call sign variations are even more evident on HF bands where communication distances can be much greater.  New ham KG5XYZ may wonder why not everybody else is a KG5 like them.

It is important for new hams to be familiar with call sign variations and legal call signs for logging, message handling and just scribbling down a call sign when communicating with another ham.  “Did I just hear KMG365?” Comment if you get this reference. 🙂


First it is essential to understand that ham radio call signs (AKA call letters or just plain call) have a prefix followed by a numeric digit followed by a suffix.  The prefix is determined by the country in which the license is granted, most always one or two alphabetic letters. The digit following the prefix has significance within individual countries, such as geographic zones.  The alphabetic suffix following the number is generally meaningless other than to distinguish between calls sharing the same prefix and number.

There are variations in prefixes, not only by country but often also in number of alpha characters.  The number in a call sign is almost always a single digit.  The suffix may legally be anywhere from one to five alpha characters, depending on governing authority.

This arrangement of prefix-number-suffix is referred to as its format and is useful for describing a call sign. The format system counts the number of characters in both the prefix and the suffix.  It is usually termed the “p by s” system or pxs in writing where p represents the number of characters in the prefix and s is the number of suffix characters.  Using USA example call signs, W3MRC is a 1×3 call while KF5ZFD is a 2×3.  KL7AA and AF5NP are both 2×2 call signs.  NA6M is a 2×1 and W1AW is a 1×2.  One by three (1×3) and two by three (2×3) are by far the most common call formats in the US, followed by 2×2 and then 1×2 and 2×1.  Because they are relatively uncommon, even seasoned hams sometimes pause at a 2×1 call to register with their brain as legitimate.

1×1 call signs are legal in the US but are assigned only to organizations for special events and only for a limited time.  Details on special event call signs can be found at this FCC site.


Valid prefixes in the USA are K, N, and W (one letter),  and AA-AL, KA-KZ, NA-NZ, and WA-WZ (two letters).  Complete details can be found here.

Below is a small sample of international prefixes a US ham might run across, mainly on HF bands: Continue reading


Old-timers are already familiar with it but new or prospective hams may not be aware of a wonderful online callsign reference called QRZ.

The ham radio brevity code QRZ means, “who is calling me?” if you’re not sure or didn’t catch their complete callsign.

QRZ is a very powerful and popular callsign database that is located at  The QRZ site takes its name from the Q-code question, who is calling me?  It’s particularly useful to look up a fellow ham you’re having a QSO with or have heard about or met in person.

If they have a callsign, you can look up their FCC registered address, license class, license expiration, exact location including the important Maidenhead grid square and a map of their location with exact distance from your station.  It’s also useful for learning their previous callsigns if they have changed from what the FCC originally assigned them.

If the other ham has added info about themselves, you can see photos of them and their equipment, a biography, specific interests or whatever else they choose to share, including  an email address.  Hams can also use QRZ as a contact log if they choose to do so.

The database is updated daily from the FCC main file so it’s up to date and accurate.  You can search by call sign, partial call, name, address or grid locator.  If you look yourself up on the map you can see all the hams in your immediate vicinity; you might be surprised at how many there are.

I like to use QRZ to put a face to the name of people who are on Emcomm nets, the local repeaters, or during my HF QSOs and know a little more about them.

The QRZ database includes international hams so if you want to look up call signs around the world you can do that, too.  I found a distant relative fellow ham in Germany just by searching my family name.

By the way, QRZ is properly pronounced, “Cue Are Zed” as we  learned in the post on how to pronounce the letter Z.

QRZ has at least one major competitor, HamCall, plus a copycat with the confusing name of QRZCQ.

Before personal computers and the internet became common, hams relied on large printed books to look up the name and address associated with a particular callsign.  The main one was the Radio Amateur Callbook with the Pegasus (winged horse) mascot.  It is still available  on CD-ROM and/or USB memory stick.  Old print copies can be found on eBay and Amazon.

So check out QRZ and start using it.  I’m sure it will become a bookmarked browser favorite of yours.

What Will My New Call Sign Be?

Of particular interest to prospective hams just finishing their study and preparing for their license exam, there is a great way to get a basic idea of the call letters they will be assigned, at least in the USA.  First they must know the FCC region they reside in based on the address they gave on the license application form.  The FCC divides the US into ten geographic regions with a numeric designation for each one;  a quick reference is found here.  For example, the table shows a numeral 5 for Texas so all New Texas licensees will have a 5 in their call sign as originally assigned.  By the way, this can be changed later but that will be a future topic.

From here you can refer to the Hamdata FCC info website and look for the most recent sequentially assigned call signs in your numeric region.  You can estimate that your assigned prefix (the letters before the number) will likely be the same as the most recent one issued for your region (unless it is at the end of the alphabet already), and your suffix (the letters after the number) will be the next one or two alpha characters subsequent to the most recent one issued for your region. All of this applies, assuming you take your exam in the next two or three weeks. If you test further out, you will need to check the database again to see the current stats.