What Should I Do?

How to Operate a HAM Radio

A basic primer
Thursday, January 29, 2015, 5:29 PM

HAM radio is a popular hobby that allows amateur operators to communicate with one another on multiple frequencies. It is also a useful skill to develop in the event of an emergency or disaster.

During a disaster, cell phones and internet might be out of service so having an alternative way to communicate with your family, friends or network is going to be crucial to obtaining information and ensuring you thrive during the emergency. Having a working HAM radio and knowing how to operate it will prove invaluable in a survival situation. Here’s what you need to know:


To operate a HAM radio, you must obtain a license, but this is not particularly difficult. HAM operators call this “getting your ticket.”

To get a license, you will have to pay a small fee and take an exam. The Amateur Radio Relay League can help you find a testing site near you. There are different levels of licensing, each of which provides the operator with different rights:

Technician. Allows the operator to transmit up to 100 watts on a limited number of frequencies.
General. Allows the operator to transmit up to 1500 watts and operate on a larger number of frequencies
Extra. Allows the operator to transmit up to 1500 watts on all frequencies.

In a disaster, licensing will be of little concern, but in the meantime it is best to practice on a General level to get a good feel for the range you can obtain at 1500 watts.

Here is a chart of the frequencies that each license may transmit on:


You’ll need a few different items to get started as a HAM radio operator. These include:

A combination transmitter/receiver. This item has a broad price range, and what you will pay depends on how much wattage you want to be broadcasting with. More is better in most survival situations, but you can generally get a solid one for between $200-$500.

Power Supply
Powers the transceiver. You should be able to find one for less than $100. Make sure your power supply is compatible with the transceiver, however; you want to make sure you’re giving the transceiver enough power but not too much, which could blow a fuse.

Another item with a broad price range, but with one that is about $50-$100 you will be able to transmit overseas. Depending on the kind you get, you will have to check with your local zoning laws to determine whether and how you can mount it.

Either auto or manual; manual tuners are better for first-time HAM radio operators. The tuner links the antenna with the transceiver, and is important in making sure they are matched and properly using power.

This is how you speak to other HAM operators. You can also invest in a “Key” to communicate using Morse code. Your microphone does not need to be very expensive in order to provide the audio quality you need to communicate with others.

For connecting your various parts. Having a few extra cables is always a good idea, particularly since you may not be able to acquire new ones after a collapse. The same goes for fuses, wires, and any other components of the HAM radio. You’ll want to be able to repair it yourself if something goes wrong.

Communicating with Morse Code

Turn on the HAM radio, and use the antenna tuner to get the “match” as close to 1-1 as you can. Find an open frequency, and ask more than once before you assume a frequency is open.

Of course, in a disaster, you may want to look for a frequency that is already in use if you’re trying to acquire information or connect with other survivors.

To check a frequency, send “Q-R-L” which means “Is anyone using this frequency?” If you’re using a phone ham radio, just say, “This is [your callsign], is this frequncy busy?” Ask this twice and see if you can get an answer.

You can call anyone by sending the letters “CQ” as one word. For example, a typical call would be sent as, “CQ CQ CQ DE [your callsign] [your callsign] K.” “DE” means “This is …” and the “K” means “back to you.” If you’re using the CW mode, send the message twice in case the person wasn’t copying it down fast enough the first time.

Here are some Q codes that might be helpful.

QRL – Is this frequency busy? (If in response, it means “Yes, please don’t interfere”)
QRM – Interference from another signal
QRN – Interference from natural or man-made static
QRO – Shall I increase power? (If in response ,it means “Yes, increase power”)
QRP – Shall I decrease power? (If in response ,it means “Yes, decrease power”)
QRQ – Shall I send faster? (If in response ,it means “Yes, send faster, at # words per minute”)
QRS – Shall I send more slowly? (If in response ,it means “Yes, send slower, at # words per minute”)
QRT – Shall I stop sending? (If in response, “Yes, stop sending”)
QRU – Have anything more for me? (If in response, “No”)
QRV – Are you ready? (If in response, “Yes, I am ready”)
QRX – Standby
QRZ – Who is calling me?
QSB – Signal fading
QSL – Received and understood
QST – General call preceeding a message addressed to all amateurs
QSX – I am listening to __ kHz
QSY – Change to another frequency
QTH – What is your location (In response, “My location is __.”)

Here are a few other helpful codes that are widely used and internationally recognized.

73 – Goodbye
88 – With love
SK – Signed off (the last thing you will send)
GL – Good luck
CU – See you
AGN – See you again
GM – Good morning
GA – Good afternoon
GD – Good day
PSE – Please
UR – Your or you’re
OM – Old man
YL – Young lady or unmarried woman
XYL – Wife

Communicating via Phone Radio

If you’re using a phone radio, you can start your message by saying, “Hello CQ CQ CQ this is [your callsign] [your callsign expanded (ie. Bravo Echo Charlie Whiskey)] [your callsign] calling 20 meters” Repeat that sentence again and then finish by saying “and standing by for a call.”

If this is your first conversation, let the other person know that so they will be more understanding of the conversation.

Have some “cheat codes” like these below to help you remember what to say until you get used to conversing on the HAM radio:

A – Alpha
B – Bravo
C – Charlie
D – Delta
E – Echo
F – Foxtrot
G – Golf
H – Hotel
I – India
J – Juliet
K – Kilo
L – Lima
M – Mike
N – November
O – Oscar
P – Papa
Q – Quebec
R – Romeo
S – Sierra
T – Tango
U – Uniform
V – Victor
W – Whiskey
X – X-ray
Y – Yankee
Z – Zulu

To end the conversation with phone radios, you will typically also say “73” as the final thing you say.

Even after you finish the conversation, you might not be finished. Some people will log a QSL card and send a snail-mail letter to the contact. Don’t be surprised if you get a letter in the mail from your new HAM radio friend.

Your Advice

How did your experience go the first time you talked on a HAM radio? Any advice that you have for other people who might just be getting started? Comment and share below to help others.

~ Clayton Krebs

Clayton Krebs is a preparedness consultant and team member of The Ready Store.  He writes informative articles and information for the ReadyBlog, the Ready Store's blog and educational section pertaining to topics of the economy, resiliency, and preparedness issues. 

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thebrewer's picture
Status: Silver Member (Offline)
Joined: Nov 7 2012
Posts: 110
Considering it

I've been considering a Ham Radio for some time now and would like to know from any users out there if they can suggest the best way to learn the ropes. Is a class necessary to pass license test or can you just read a book?

thatchmo's picture
Status: Gold Member (Offline)
Joined: Dec 14 2008
Posts: 432
invaluable skill

I've been an amateur radio licensee for about 3 years.  I dove right in and attained my Extra ticket pretty quickly.  The above article covers lots of ground, maybe too much to attract beginners, and most of it debatable- which is cool because if they're not on the air, or sleeping, most hams will debate any ham-related topic on the internet ad nauseum....I'm really looking forward to learning morse code- which kept me out of amateur radio in my youth, but is no longer required.  But it is the most efficient way to communicate over RF.  But today, after attaining a Tech license- very easy these days- you can get on the air with a $35 radio from Amazon.  The fun (and expenses) will go up from there. Our club offers a "study session" the morning of the test where you can study  all the test questions- they are also available on the 'net- then test in the afternoon.  We have about a 90% pass rate. Really the best way to get started in Amateur radio is to find an "elmer"- ham term for mentor.  The best way to find one is to find a local radio club and connect with someone there.  When you take your test, it will most likely be given by a local club, and just ask someone at the test to recommend someone to help you out.    Most hams are pretty excited about their hobby and are glad to get someone else started.  This can also be a link to acquire some used equipment at a  fair price. 

One comment above which I'd like to address is that in a disaster, licenses will be a not issue.   That may be true, but without the knowledge of how to operate properly, you may just be part of a problem that renders the bands unusable because of unskilled operators.  As we say, Amateur licenses are "licenses to learn".  It's a huge and multi-faceted hobby.  www.arrl.org is a good place to start.  Also www.eham.net .  Post any questions here or PM me.  Aloha, 73, Steve, WH6DZP.


thebrewer's picture
Status: Silver Member (Offline)
Joined: Nov 7 2012
Posts: 110
Thank you Steve!

Thanks for your response. As it happens I found out while stumbling around Facebook looking for Ham radio clubs I came across a friend of mine who was a member of most of the groups. I reached out to him and apparently he's been Ham operator for over 20 years and teaches a class. The things you find out about people...

Anyway, I'm heading over to his house tomorrow for a little Super Bowl/Ham radio intro!

thatchmo's picture
Status: Gold Member (Offline)
Joined: Dec 14 2008
Posts: 432
Ah, serendipity, it's a

Ah, serendipity, it's a wonderful thing!  Your path to propagation will be much easier now.  Another great thing about this hobby is that there is literally dozens, if not hundreds, of niches to get into.  As we all know, keeping the brain active with learning new stuff is a good thing.  I expect to see your new call sign posted soon!  Good luck.  Aloha, Steve.

eexpo's picture
Status: Bronze Member (Offline)
Joined: Jun 30 2011
Posts: 51
Safety issues

Are there any health issues with the transmitter exposing user to excess radiation?

Tall's picture
Status: Platinum Member (Offline)
Joined: Feb 18 2010
Posts: 564
The RF exposure is from the antenna not the transmitter

Some ROT for RF: http://www.arrl.org/fcc-rf-exposure-regulations-the-station-evaluation

thatchmo's picture
Status: Gold Member (Offline)
Joined: Dec 14 2008
Posts: 432
In the real world, "typical",

In the real world, "typical", amateur radio antenna installation- no.  But Tall's post illustrates how the Amateur radio hobby gets into these questions, is seriously concerned with public safety, and helps the ham to self-assess his liability and responsibility.  Again, getting even your Tech license, and doing some basic research and study will answer this and other questions.  As the OP mentioned using amplifiers to boost signal strength, tinkering with some of those units can expose one to lethal voltages.  There are several safety issues to be addressed in the hobby- antenna erection, vis-a-vis power lines and climbing on ladders, the roof, etc., dealing with high voltage or high current, sitting in a chair at your shack for long hours talking to strangers on the other side of the world when you really should be out getting some exercise.....Serious RF emissions to nearby persons is pretty low on the risk table if normal care is taken.  I'd wager talking on your cell phone is a larger issue of concern.  Aloha, Steve.

pinecarr's picture
Status: Diamond Member (Offline)
Joined: Apr 13 2008
Posts: 2237

I was browsing around on Michael Greer's (the Archdruid's) site, and found that he also had (linked to) some info about using Ham Radios.  I'm posting it here so it is available as a reference to others on pp.com who come to the ham radio WSID article looking for info...


What is the use of Ham Radio to a Green Wizard?

I think that Green Wizards Radio has two purposes. One is to provide a pool of people who are dedicated to preserving a means of long distance communications that can be supported with a low-level technology. The other is to provide a way for Green Wizards working in other circles to communicate with each other to share ideas and support while not depending on an extremely complex and expensive Internet.

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