Morse Code for CW Mode


Most people recognize Morse code even if they cannot decipher the sounds. It’s one of those things that we hear in old movies and TV shows and occasionally in radio or TV ads. As a ham you may hear it on local repeaters and HF voice for identification.


Continuous Wave (CW), where the signal is modulated by Morse code, is the original amateur radio mode, and has a long history with hams. Old telegraph codes exist but in ham radio when we say Morse code we mean International Morse code.


For decades Morse code proficiency was a requirement for amateur radio licensing in most countries with speed increasing proportional to license class/privilege. Morse code requirements for all license classes ended in the USA in 2007 (Technician dropped in 1991), opening doors to many hams who were otherwise interested in getting licensed but found Morse to be a real obstacle. This followed an ITU agreement in 2003 that Morse Code testing of radio amateurs would no longer be an international requirement.

Does this mean Morse code is dead? Hardly! While the number of CW (Morse) operators is fewer in number now than 50 years ago, there are still thousands of active hams whose primary (or even only) mode is CW. Why? Besides being fun and challenging, CW has some real advantages:

  • Because nearly all the transmitter power goes into a narrow (~100Hz) signal, practically all signal power is useful, as opposed to phone (voice) modes. 

T8A05-2018Sometimes when SSB voice signals are inaudible due to poor skywave propagation, CW signals punch right through. In fact, many rare stations (DX) primarily use CW mode to reach more hams eager to work an odd location. A CW signal can have more than a 10-20 dB advantage over a SSB signal.T8A11-2018

  • The signal to noise ratio (SNR) is much better, making communication much more effective.
  • Adjacent noise or signals (QRM) can be filtered much easier in the receiver with a narrow CW signal.
  • Due to CW’s efficiency, lower power radios work well, and can run longer off-grid.
  • CW-only radios are small, simple, and cheap, with more bang for the buck.
  • Finally, a few hams prefer not to use their voice, and CW (along with digital modes) frees them up from being disabled or mic shy.

In addition to these general advantages, CW mode is the only high frequency (HF) mode that USA Technician class licensees can operate below 28MHz. So Techs can actually make contacts using Morse on 80, 40, and 15m, outside their typical local repeater range.

Perhaps Morse is intimidating to you as a prospective ham or Technician class licensee who wants to communicate beyond the local area. Even though we no longer need to know Morse to get a license, the reasons above should give you some incentive to learn it. Besides, it’s really not as tough as it might seem. And even though some hams blaze away above 25 words per minute (wpm), you can almost always send/receive slower at a more comfortable beginner’s pace and work through your mistakes.

While Morse may seem like a second language to most people, it is actually much simpler and easier to master than a new tongue with all its complexities. You need know only 26 alphabet symbols, 10 numbers, and several punctuation marks and common shortcuts to be proficient.

So how does one go about learning Morse code and using it? The Boy Scouts had a merit badge for Morse and the military may still teach you but these are less common nowadays. Don’t despair; there are many resources for learning Morse, some linked below. Here are four suggested steps:

  1. Learn to receive Morse code- the important beginning stage to become familiar with letters, numbers, and punctuation. Just learn it; you don’t have to be fast.
  2. Learn to send Morse code- it is important to have a good “fist” for others to copy at any speed; this involves timing, practice and good habits.
  3. Learn CW/Morse ham radio procedures- know what certain prosigns mean and how hams perform an exchange or QSO.
  4. Practice off-air with a CW Elmer or experienced friend

Then you’re ready to try for real over the radio!

You have many resources available to learn Morse and CW protocol: stand-alone PC apps, online apps, and some clubs or organizations geared towards not only learning Morse but also training for real contacts. Links to some below and more links within links.

One thing many of these training tools have in common is the Koch method and Farnsworth timing, which is considered an improvement over rote learning with gradual speed increases. Most people have a natural limit to their ability to copy or send above a certain rate (wpm). No matter; you can still enjoy CW at almost any speed.

Of the links below to various Morse resources, the last one is truly useful and interesting and worth checking out: All About the Telegraph and Deciphering Morse Code. Thanks to Noah Bass for suggesting this excellent resource. He found it while working on his Boy Scouts radio merit badge.

Perhaps you’re interested in learning Morse in CW mode but find the protocols intimidating? There are groups of hams to train and encourage good CW practice, such as CWops and LI CW club. One that the author likes is the Straight Key Century Club (SKCC), which promotes non-electronic Morse sending using purely mechanical keys (not computerized or electronically aided). By definition it’s mostly slow-paced, as not many folks can send more than 20wpm using a straight telegraph key. It’s free and members mainly do simple exchanges to gain low-stress experience. They are a generally supportive and helpful bunch who tolerate newbies and coach them along.

By the way, when describing Morse code, hams don’t use the terms dots and dashes, even though it may look like that on paper. We say dits and dahs, which aligns more with how it sounds, as opposed to how it looks.

Useful web links

The Endurance of CW in Amateur Radio

Morse code is still worth learning – but why?

Become a Morse Code Expert– The Art of Manliness

Morse Code World

Just Learn Morse Code -PC app which author likes

CWops CW Academy– highly regarded way to learn both Morse and procedures

Learn Morse Code-CW with the Long Island CW Club, another highly-regarded resource

Learn Morse Code (CW) Online

Learning Morse Code – ARRL

American Morse Code -Somewhat different from international (modern), because of telegraph sound

All About the Telegraph and Deciphering Morse Code. Thanks to Noah Bass for suggesting this excellent resource. He found it while working on his Boy Scouts radio merit badge.

Technician Class Distant Contacts

Making radio contact over great distance is one of the more interesting aspects of ham radio.  For many radio amateurs, it’s their main pursuit.


Working DX (ham-speak for distance) commonly means contacting a station outside your own country but Alaska and Hawaii are certainly DX stations by distance, and in reality good DX is cross-country in a large entity such as the USA.


Unfortunately for US hams, the entry-level Technician class license permits rather limited opportunities for making radio contact beyond line of sight.  Don’t despair if you have only a Tech license and want to do more than chat with locals on a repeater.  There are six ways for a Technician licensee to communicate outside of town, outside your state, or even outside the country.  We will briefly mention these here and perhaps cover them in greater detail in future posts.

DX is commonly accomplished on the high frequency (HF) bands due to ionospheric refraction or bending of radio waves.  HF signals routinely reach the other side of the planet and places in between.  So for most hams chasing DX or just working beyond the local area means having a HF transceiver and antenna for the band(s) of interest.

The first two opportunities for Technician licensees to communicate over distance involve traditional HF equipment:

1) USA Technician class operators have privileges to operate CW mode (Morse code) on 80m, 40, 15m and 10m HF bands with a 200W power limit.  This is how hams used to get started in amateur radio and while CW is still quite popular, it is intimidating to many new folks.  So opportunity #1 may not be appealing to many Techs unless they want to learn Morse code (a fun skill, by the way).

2) USA Technicians also have SSB voice and  digital (data) privileges on 10m, again with a 200W limit.


This is the only HF voice privilege for this class and the frequency range is very narrow.  The data mode privilege is really helpful here because it allows Techs to work popular digital modes such as JT, FT, PSK,  Olivia and MSK.  However, 10m propagation is highly dependent on solar activity.  The band can be inactive or slow for weeks or months at a time.  So Technicians may be frustrated over a lack of activity for opportunity #2.

Tech license DX opportunities #1 and #2 above on HF bands are admittedly limited by mode and/or active band.  This alone is excellent motivation to upgrade to a General class license.  Consider this possibility.  It’s not a huge leap in learning and study to move up, very achievable for most people.

We know that the VHF and UHF bands for which Technician licensees have full privileges are generally limited to local communication because of line of sight propagation.  Repeaters and/or tall antennas can extend this range but DX is not readily achieved using normal methods.  However, there are four clever technologies that enable DX on VHF/UHF bands: Continue reading