How I became a newbie ham radio operator (during a pandemic)

​I want to tell you what it’s been like over the last few months becoming a ham radio operator, which I did mainly for prepping purposes and with no previous background in engineering or other related subjects. I didn’t have a lot of money to throw at this project, and I wasn’t interested in a new, time consuming hobby, so my approach has been a minimalist one. In fact, for a long time I assumed that ham radio would inevitably become an expensive rabbit hole and so ruled it out for myself, concentrating instead on getting a simple NOAA radio. But then some of you on this site clued me in to the fact that it was possible to get by with​ ​a ​relatively c​heap handheld ham radio​​ and that there were courses and materials to help people prepare for the FCC amateur radio license tests.

​Studying for the Exam

If I was going to own a ham radio, ​I definitely wanted to get licensed with the FCC. Currently, the lowest level of license for amateur radio operation in the US is the technician’s license. This is the minimum qualification necessary to transmit on amateur radio. (Unlicensed operators can only listen). 

Passing the technician’s exam involves taking a test comprised of 35 questions on which you have to score a minimum of 75%. The questions concern various subjects such as basic electromagnetic theory (Ohm’s Law), safety, amateur radio etiquette, etc. I used two main sets tools to study for the test. 

The first was the HAM CRAM course offered by outdoorcore.com for $49. It promises that students can go from zero to license in six hours using the course. (A blog post from the creator explains how to study for the ham radio exam.) The course took me longer, primarily because it uses a lot of mnemonics to memorize information that might be on the test, but I’m a person who learns best by getting some understanding of what I’m studying, so I frequently delved into various subjects more than the course would encourage me. The other tools, which work in tandem with the ham cram, are the flashcards and practice quizzes at hamstudy.org/tech2018.

All in all, I spent several weeks (maybe three?) doing a little studying on most days. The studying was comprised of going through the ham cram modules and doing a lot of practice exams, as well as occasionally looking up terms and explanations on the internet. I also had one or two Zoom calls with Joe Bassett (W1WCN), the creator of the course. It certainly took me far longer than six hours, but I never felt overwhelmed or inundated. 

Call me obsessive, but one of the things that helped me most to get my practice test scores up was going through every single flashcard in the total pool of 400 and something and reviewing every answer I got wrong. After doing that, my test scores went up dramatically until, by the end, I was routinely getting scores in the mid to high 90s.

I must say that getting up to speed with the test did not make me feel that I had learned electromagnetic theory or that I would immediately be able to sit down and operate a ham radio. Apparently, that’s okay. Joe says that the test doesn’t measure aptitude for operation, so much as it does aptitude for learning.

Taking the Technician’s Exam (During the Pandemic)

After the studying comes the exam itself. First you have to find a radio club or other organization that administers the exam and sign up for one of their sessions. (The club charges some money for this — I believe $10 in my case and the FCC also charges $15 for issuing the license).  I found my session through hamstudy.org. My test was administered by GLAARG (Greater Los Angeles Amateur Radio Group), about which I had read positive reviews. 

Taking the exam during the pandemic is a surreal and painstaking experience. I can’t speak to how it was done in the “before times,” but apparently it was usually in a large classroom. During covid though, people have to take the exam remotely and all manner of mechanisms are put in place to make sure that nobody cheats. The clubs display a plethora of rules for test takers on their pages, some of them in bold and red, looking rather intimidating. The rules try to exert as much control as possible over the remote test environment. There are rules about cameras, calculators, mouse devices and room setup — and the rules are not the same for every club!

To begin with, you have to take the exam in a space with no pets and no other people and one with a closing door. The space also has to be free of clutter. All these requirements together immediately ruled out most spaces in my house, as they do for a lot of people. (I considered doing the test in the kitchen, but it has no door.) Many of the organizations that hold these exam sessions helpfully suggested doing the test in the bathroom, which I actually did!

Many organizations administering the exam require the use of two cameras — one pointing at your head and the other at your hands, to make sure you don’t cheat. I did set up two cameras (by attaching my cell phone to the back of a chair with a rubber band!), but it turned out that GLAARG was a little less paranoid than most clubs and only required one camera. 

Exam takers are let into the general Zoom session in the order they asked to be admitted, so it’s good to come to the session early to avoid a long wait. First stop after being admitted is the breakout room where an officer of the club explains how the test will proceed and then does a preliminary inspection of the space with each applicant, one at a time. We had to point our camera at the ceiling and swivel it all around the room (bathroom, in my case) to let the examiners see that there are no papers hanging around with answers to test questions. The examiner looked at our computer and our mouse. We were also told earlier not to look away from the screen in any manner that would suggest that we are looking somewhere or to someone for answers. 

After this introduction we were let in one by one, each to our private exam room. Three examiner observers were present there for each one of us. They performed a second inspection of the space, much like the first. After this, the test itself was straightforward and proceeded in the same format as the study quizzes, which were familiar to me by then. The examiners are there to monitor the test takers and give them instructions. The actual test, once you start it, is administered by the software itself and looks very much like the practice quizzes with exactly the same wording of the questions. The online test is also graded immediately by the software, so you know right away if you passed and how many answers you got wrong. I was happy to pass with a pretty high score. From there all I had to do was wait a few days for the FCC to issue me my license and call sign. That was exciting.

These Are Not Your Childhood Walkie Talkies

I got my technician’s license in January. By this time I had two handheld radios in my possession (the Yaesu FT-60R and the BaoFeng BF-F8HP) which I had been asked to review, so I had to learn how to use them first. Here’s one thing to consider if you’re thinking about getting a ham radio: these are not your childhood walkie talkies, or even a CB radio your parents may have had in their car if you’re of a certain age. If you are getting a ham radio for use in emergencies, don’t think that you’ll be able to pull it out with minimal skills and training and start using it on the spot. You don’t need to become an expert at ham radio, but you do need to learn at least basic use of your equipment and practice with it with actual people. 

Having to write a review of my handhelds had its pluses and minuses for me. On one hand it meant that I really had to learn the ins and outs of these two radios, which I might not have done to quite such an extent if I was just learning to use them for myself. On the other hand, I learned a lot. Mainly, I read the manuals for both radios, played with the knobs and buttons and asked Joe Bassett lots of questions, some over email and some over Zoom. Having him to mentor me has been extremely helpful.

At the end of the day I will be keeping the Yaesu FT-60R. I have also been playing with the Echolink app on my smartphone. Echolink software allows licensed ham radio operators to communicate over the internet. I was initially skeptical about the value of this. Don’t we have email and chat and social media for that now, not to mention Zoom? But it turns out it has its uses. 

On a purely frivolous note it’s kind of fun to tune into stations across the globe and hear ham operators talking to each other in Afrikaans or listen in on a meeting of hams in Australia. It’s a different slice of life than you might find on websites or on social media. Also, however, Echolink allows me to connect to remote stations and participate in activities with groups which my little handheld radio could never reach on its own.

Finding Fellow Hams and Training

It turns out that, once you get your license and learn to use your radio, no delegation from the local ham radio community shows up at your doorstep to welcome you to the club and offer training. Far from it!

My interest in ham is primarily from the angle of emergency preparedness. In my area I had to dig around the local resources to find who coordinates the local ARES (Amateur Radio Emergency Service) group. This turned out not to be so easy. The local clubs have not been forthcoming with that information. In fact the local clubs have been haphazard (to put it generously) in their responses of any sort to me. If I ask several questions, they sometimes respond with enthusiasm, but no answers and sometimes not at all.

The gist of what I’ve gotten from the main ham radio club in my area is that I should join it before I get any information about what it offers or how it’s connected  to ARES. To be honest this does not make me want to cough up $40/year to join! Apparently, this kind of lack of communication and followthrough is not uncommon.

With the help of my mentor I eventually did find the weekly ARES net (meeting of ham radio operators on the radio) and have been participating in it as time allows — without joining any clubs. The level of training offered by the local ARES is disappointing, however. It essentially consists of roll call over the local repeater (an amateur radio repeater is a station that amplifies and retransmits signals, allowing radios with weak signals a much wider radius of communication). The same roll call is then performed on a simplex frequency (simplex refers to direct communication on a radio frequency, not using a repeater). It’s good for a raw beginner, but doesn’t seem terribly useful for learning how to handle myself on the radio in an emergency. 

Fortunately, I’ve been able to join an ARES group in Florida that IS doing some training. (This is where Echolink has been most useful.) Now, you might think, Florida? Don’t you live in California, Jonnie? I do. But training is training on a certain level. If I can learn how to follow protocol in an emergency, I might be of some use to my local hams when one comes. 

In Conclusion

​To sum it all up: is it possible for a person with no special previous training to become minimally proficient as a ham without spending a huge amount of money or time? Yes. Is it going to be as easy as the pros say it will be? Probably not. At least for me, ham radio did for a while take up most of my prepping time and energy, but now I think I’m coming to the end of that. Should you just get a radio and not worry about licensing or training? DEFINITELY NOT. ​At the very least, get your technician’s license and learn the basics of how to use your radio before an emergency strikes. Also, be aware that ham radio is a social activity and requires entry into a different culture. You will have to scope out the new turf and learn the rules, even if you do it very part time. Is it worth it? You will have to decide for yourself. For me it has been, and it’s stretched my mind.




  • Comments (28)

    • 7

      Welcome to the world of ham radio! 

      That’s nuts that they charge $40/year to join ARES where you live. Is this the norm for everyone? In my area it was free.

      And yup, ARES was just a roll call every week, kind of disappointing.

      But once a month we would all get together in person and learn things about ham radio, emergency preparedness, search and rescue, and other things related to ARES.

      And twice a year we would run actual drills where we would do mock disasters where some ham operators would go to the city’s EOC (Emergency Operations Center) as the central hub and then send a few of us out in 4X4 vehicles all over the city to pretend to be the eyes on the ground. So for example, the one mock disaster I participated in was a blizzard. They would call my call sign and ask where I was, I would relay my current location and how things were where I was (2 feet of snow, cars stuck, three people stranded…) then they would ask me to drive to a new location and report back with conditions there. This gave us a realistic scenario and we actually went out and drove to these locations to get a sense of the area and if our radios were able to reach home base from where we were. That was fun!

      Love the wrap-up of your experience. I have a few friends on the fence about getting their license, I’m going to refer them to this post.

    • 6

      Congratulations Jonnie !

      I remember the CB radio era. For a long time the Coast Guard would only (officially) monitor the marine radios – until reality set in.

      Glad to learn you’re dedicated to preparedness.

    • 5

      Congratulations, Jonnie! Thank you for the great write-up of your experiences. I’m KK6KTX. I got my license while living in San Bernardino County, California. I’m living in the upper Midwest now.

      In my experience, sometimes the clubs are informal “gatekeepers” of a sort regarding access to sensitive information such as preprogrammed frequencies that might be used in emergencies. For example, you had to be a club member in order for preprogrammed frequencies, offsets, tones, etc. to be loaded onto your handheld radio. I can understand why they don’t just give this information to any licensed operator.

      In some places, ARES/RACES is the primary amateur radio volunteer emergency communications group, and in other places, it is not. I’ve been away from southern California for a few years, but when I was there, amateur radio emergency communications in San Bernardino County was organized through the San Bernardino County Fire Department, not ARES/RACES. 

      Once again, congratulations and welcome!

      • 3

        Good to know about the alternative volunteer emergency group possibilities, thanks. In my area the clubs definitely do seem to be gatekeepers, but incompetent ones! I wouldn’t mind as much if they were clear in their communication and prompt in their followthrough and explained to me what I needed to do to get access to what. But they aren’t and they don’t. They just want to join for the privilege of attending their meetings, where I guess they would let me know what it is that they offer to begin with. But they’re not even clear with me about that.

      • 5

        It could be incompetence, it could be busy volunteers, and/or it could be part of the gatekeeping process itself. The protocol might be to see a demonstrated level of commitment and accountability before too much information is shared. 

      • 3

        Sure the field of ham is expanding to all races and ages but the majority in my experience is the old white guy. And they like to keep ham pure and are pretty protective of it. Some are welcoming to all newbies and others are locked down and you need to figure out your stuff before using it.

    • 8

      Great post, Jonnie. You’ve written well about getting into the hobby.

      And thanks for the shoutout. It’s been fun getting to know you. Keep in touch, you know how to find me.

      Joe – W1WCN

      • 5

        Thanks for all the help, Joe!

    • 4

      Congratulation Jonnie, great post.

    • 2

      Congrats! Good info. I also tested through GLAARG, which is a great organization. Joe is a great guy, I need to QSO with him again soon.

      How would you compare the FT-60R to the BaoFeng?

      If you’re interested in HF, I’d recommend upgrading to General soon while the info is fresh in your head. The General exam is much harder but builds on what you’re tested on in the Technician test. I highly recommend HamTestOnline to study for it. It looks ancient, but it’s well worth the money.

      • 4

        Josh, let me know when you’d like to have a QSO. It’ll be great to reconnect.

        And this just in from the shameless plug division: The General Class Ham Cram is in post-production and is due for release in early June. The price point hasn’t been decided, yet, but whatever it is I’ll offer 20% off for theprepared.com readers.

      • 3

        A comparison review of the FT-60R and the BaoFeng BF-F8HP is coming soon. Stay tuned!

      • 2
    • 3

      Jonnie – I was laughing when I read your post … I’ve had almost an identical experience – I’m just a few months behind you. I also bought the Yaesu FT-60R and have no idea how to use it yet! I’m studying for my Technician’s exam now, via HamRadioPrep.com … I think the fee was $35. I’m about halfway through the lessons/practice exams. AND I’ve also had the same experience on reaching out. Sent an email to a link on a local club’s website a week ago … got an automated reply that they would get back to me. Since then … crickets!

      Do you know a good source (other than reading the manual) on how to learn to use all the features and operate the Yaesu? Of course I wouldn’t do anything until I get my license. I’m also “down the road” from you – outside San Diego in Ramona, CA. Would be open to meeting at some point and discussing. I’m also just like you – a prepper who is just now adding this communications capability to my prepper repertoire.


      • 2

        Hi, Les. Yeah, Joe says that the experience we’ve had with the clubs is not uncommon. Too bad. My main resource outside of reading the manuals and playing with the radio was Joe. I compiled long lists of questions and then had Zoom sessions with him. I’m a former technical writer, so this is actually a very familiar process to me. That is, I as a non-expert would come in, read specs, hopefully play with the prototype and then figure out what I needed to ask the experts and how to ask them in order to coherently document the product.

        So, you could find an expert, but I would actually be happy to talk to you as well, if you don’t mind talking to a newbie. It would be sort of interesting to see if I can explain the functions of the radio to another person. (But I totally understand if you don’t want to be a gunnea pig :-).) As far as meeting up, I’m afraid I’m quite a ways up the road from you in NorCal, but we can certainly meet up on Zoom.

      • 3

        Oh, also, once you get your license, if we can find a repeater in your area to which I can connect via EchoLink and you can connect directly, we could QSO on a repeater! Good practice for both of us.

      • 3

        Jonnie – thanks for the reply. I actually finished the 10 sections of my study course last Friday night about 10 pm, went online to see when exams would be upcoming, and lo and behold … there was ONE exam in my area in the next 90 days, and it was for the next morning at 9am! Needless to say, I got little sleep Friday night, going back through all my notes, taking more practice exams, etc. But I showed up this past Saturday morning, took the exam, and actually passed … only missing 4 questions! So now I’m motivated to move forward and get my General license. I just got my call sign yesterday, so I’m stoked! I’ll take you up on your offer, in a few weeks, to talk by phone or Zoom and have you walk me through the radio and how to use it! And yes, once i know what I’m doing and lose my fear of getting on the radio and getting blasted for doing something wrong, we can find a repeater and talk!



      • 3

        Hey! Congratulations Les! 

        People here getting their licenses left and right. That’s so great, we need more hams in the world.

      • 4

        Les, I just saw your reply. That’s very cool. Congratulations! I too was very excited to get my certificate. It’s funny, because it’s definitely not my biggest accomplishment in life, but everyone was very impressed. By everyone I mean friends and relatives.

      • 4

        Johnnie – I’m traveling next week, but the week after, if possible, I’d love to take you up on your offer to do a Zoom call and go over the Yaesu FT-60R and you could tell/show me its features, operation, etc. I’m sure we aren’t supposed to post our cell phone or email addresses in the forum … so how can we set this up?

      • 3

        Many hams look up each other’s contact info over on qrz.com. Create an account, type in the call sign of your buddy, and it often brings up their info.

        On many ham nets that I’ve participated in, I’ll ask for someone’s phone number or email so I can contact them and chat more off the net. Instead of just broadcasting your info or dealing with spelling out your email address and taking up the frequency, they will just say “Look me up on qrz”. So it will be something that you will want to create an account on eventually because you will probably use it.

        Hope that helps

      • 2

        Robert – a BIG help! I got online and signed up, and found Jonnie. I’ve set up my account, added a picture and geo-locator info, but can’t find a way to add my phone #. And I’m not sure if my email shows …. any guidance on using QRZ for that would be much appreciated!

      • 1

        I haven’t used QRZ in like a year and a half, so I don’t remember exactly but I believe they pull your info from the FCC and what info you gave them when you got your license. 

        You may want to also create an account with the FCC so you can update your information with them whenever you move or get a new phone number. https://apps.fcc.gov/cores/userLogin.do

      • 3

        As Robert mentions, I am on QRZ. There’s an email there that I’m willing to make public to all the ham world :-). Drop me a line when you’re ready and we’ll tackle the Yaesu.

      • 3

        Congrats Les!

      • 3

        Thanks Josh. Excited to begin exploring this new world!

        Les – KN6OZM

    • 5

      KS4ZS ham operator for 29 years

    • 2

      For those who asked, the review of the Yaesu vs. Baofeng is here: https://theprepared.com/blog/review-yaesu-ft-60r-vs-baofeng-bf-f8hp-for-new-ham-radio-operators/