Becoming a licensed ham radio operator wasn’t initially the easiest thing for me. I wasn’t entirely sure what a ham radio even was or if I needed a license to operate one. There are a number of study resources that charge a fee to help you pass the ham radio test. But based on my experience, you shouldn’t have to pay more than a couple of bucks to become a ham operator, if pay anything at all.
First and foremost, learning how to operate and to communicate on your ham radio is a different skill set than passing the ham radio test. That’s an important distinction. Understanding what it takes to enjoy operating a ham radio is largely achieved through “doing,” not by studying a course, reading a book, or passing the exam.
I don’t believe you need anything more than one of the below study apps in order to pass the ham radio exam. Just one of these apps will allow you to become a licensed (a.k.a. legal) ham operator so you can allow the real learning to get underway.
Here’s what you need to know about the ham radio exam and the free app I would use to pass it … in 5 minutes.
What a ham radio license will allow you to do
A ham radio license will allow you to communicate on the most popular ham radio frequencies. As a refresher, the most active ham radio frequencies are usually the 70cm and the 2m bands, or frequency ranges 420-450 MHz and 144-148 MHz. Without at least a ham radio technician class license (the least experienced class), you will not receive a callsign. Many ham radios require that you enter your call sign when your first use the radio. Regardless, you’re free to listen to, but will not be able to broadcast on, any of these frequencies.
This is usually what will happen to anyone speaking on ham radio frequencies without a license:
- The signal from the radio will essentially be traced
- The location where the signal is being broadcast will be reported to the FCC
- The owner operating that radio station will be fined, likely heavily, and/or have their equipment revoked
During emergency situations, the above rules do not apply.
How most people study for the ham radio test
Ham Radio is synonymous with “amateur radio.” When you become a licensed ham radio operator, you are actually receiving an FCC Amateur Radio license. There are three classes of Amateur Radio (a.k.a. Ham Radio) operator: Technician, General, Amateur Extra. Passing the ham radio Technician Class test requires you to answer 26 out of 35 questions correctly. So if you miss more than 9 questions, you’ll need to retake the exam.
What does the exam look like? Every four years, the FCC creates a pool of at least 350 questions that are to be used for each class of ham radio operator. For the years 2018 to 2022, the question pool for the technician class exam has a total of 423 questions.
Studying for the ham radio exam requires you to memorize the answers to all 423 questions, knowing you will only get 35 of these questions on the actual exam.
As a recap, in case any of this isn’t clear as mud:
What you’ll need to do to get a ham radio license
These are the steps I recommend you take in order to pass the ham radio exam on your first try.
- Study first! – The ham radio exam usually cost around $10 to take, but it is administered by volunteers. Out of respect for the volunteer’s time, only take the test if you’re truly ready for it. Showing up and taking the exam without receiving at least 90% on multiple practice tests is a good indicator you might need more studying.
- Sign up at hamstudy.org – Register an account and go to find a session.
- You can book any open session. Note, as of 2020, sessions are being held remotely and on-site.
If you’re testing remotely, it will be proctored via webcam. Make sure your area is clear of books, papers, or anything that could possibly be viewed as aiding you with the exam.
The best app for becoming a ham radio operator
In my experience studying for the ham radio Technician Class test, I found the two apps below to be the most helpful. While you only need one of them in my opinion, they are likely the two most popular ham radio studying apps you’ll come across.
Ham Radio Exam app by Roy Watson
This app has three different versions, one for each ham radio class (Technician, General, Amateur Extra). Each app offers all of the questions from the ham radio exam question bank.
- Every test question that I had on the actual exam was on this app
- Made by a ham radio operator (Roy Watson)
- Very well-reviewed
- Allows you to take sample practice tests
- Can use off-line / not on the internet
- Not the most elegant app
- Has some advertisements (nothing too annoying in my experience but FYI)
A note about the HamStudy.org app
Hamstudy.org has its own app, aptly named Hamstudy.org. The app largely offers the same as the HRE app mentioned above but it is more elegant. If you’re into design and slightly more ease of use, the HamStudy.org app is worth considering. The tradeoff between the two apps is that the Hamstudy.org app is not free ($2.99).
Of note, the app functions the same as the browser version of Hamstudy.org. Meaning studying via hamstudy.org on a browser is free and offers the same experience as the app. The hamstudy.org app does allow you to access the study questions and practice tests while you are offline, however.
Is the Technician Class test difficult?
As mentioned above, passing the ham radio exam is a matter of memorizing questions and answers from a large pool. With that information outstanding, the subject matter from the questions in the pool is not common for many people. Concepts such as the properties of electricity to abstract FCC regulations encompass the exam. While it seems like a fool’s errand to pay for a ham radio exam study guide with some a free app available, not studying the question pools for 8+ hours is just foolish.
The best news about the ham radio test is that you already know the questions and answers…you just need to memorize them. HamRadioExam and Hamstudyguide.org are two great study guide apps. They offer practice tests that give you the exact questions you will receive on the tests.