Which Exam to Take?
by John Cunningham, W1AI
The various license classes and requirements can be confusing, so we’ll try to answer all your questions here.
The license exams
There are no more Morse code exams for any class of ham license. There are still plenty of people using Morse code, and you are quite welcome to join them. You just no longer have to take an exam first.
All that's offered now is three different written exams. They all cover the same topics — regulations, operating practices, electronics, propagation, antennas, and safety — but to increasing levels of complexity:
|Written exam||Complexity||How many questions
| Technician (“element 2”)
|| Relatively simple
|| 35 selected from a pool of about 400 questions
| General (“element 3”)
|| Moderately difficult
|| 35 selected from a pool of about 500 questions
| Extra (“element 4”)
|| Most difficult
|| 50 selected from a pool of about 700 questions
All exams are administered by volunteer examiners (VEs), generally a group of friendly hams from a local club. Exam sessions are held regularly all across the country. Look up exam sessions in your area by zip code at http://www.arrl.org/find-an-amateur-radio-license-exam-session. (If you don't see any sessions in your immediate area, expand your search to a wider area using the dropdown box to the right of the zip code.)
Upon request, most VE teams will make accommodations for physical disabilities. For example, they can provide exams in Braille which include no figures for the blind. They can read the questions and answer choices aloud to those who have trouble reading.
Some exam sessions charge a small fee, usually no more than $15, to cover the costs of running the sessions. Within a single exam session, after paying a single exam fee, you can keep taking multiple exams until you fail one, or until you have passed them all. We have lots of students who pass all three exams in one sitting, going from “zero to Extra” in a single session.
The license classes
There are six different classes of ham licenses. Three of them are no longer being issued, but hams who held those licenses before the FCC stopped issuing them still retain their license class and its privileges.
||No longer being issued.
||Very limited privileges.
||All privileges in the VHF, UHF, and beyond, mostly useful for local communications. Very limited HF privileges.
||No longer being issued.
||Now the same as Technician.
||Technician and General exams.
||All of the above, plus extensive privileges across the entire radio spectrum.
||No longer being issued.
||All of the above, plus some additional spectrum in a few HF bands.
||Technician, General, and Extra exams.
||All of the above, plus slightly more spectrum in a few HF bands.
- The “HF” frequencies are most useful for talking around the world by radio. The VHF, UHF, and beyond are most useful for local communication.
- An individual can hold only one unexpired license, with one license class, at any given time. For example, if you pass all three exams, you just have an Extra class license, not a separate license for each class.
- When Technician Plus licenses are renewed or modified, they are automatically converted to Technician.
Which class do I need?
If you’re only interested in talking around town, you only need the Technician class license.
If you're interested in emergency communications, you should have a General class license. While most emergency communications is local, that's not always the case. For example, during Katrina, local communication within the affected area was often impossible, and some emergency crews communicated with each other by relaying messages out of the area using HF ham frequencies.
In an actual emergency, you're allowed to use any means of communications at your disposal to get the message through. You don't need any license at all. However, to be prepared for an emergency, you need to practice, and for that you need a license. HF communication can be challenging, and it takes time to develop the required skills.
If like most hams you are interested in talking all around the world on “shortwave” radio, you also need the General class license.
If you live on a boat and want to stay connected using ham SSB, you need the General class.
There are various reasons why some people decide to get the Extra class license:
- They want to have highest class license and all the privileges.
- It allows them to get one of the shorter call signs. In addition to being more prestigious, a short call makes it easier to work a pile-up.
- Some of the best DX (foreign stations) are only available in the Extra segments.
- Volunteer examiners must hold an Extra class license to administer the Extra class exams.
- Why settle for silver when you can have the gold?
Which exams must I take?
Which exams you take depends on your situation:
Never had a ham license
If you have never held a ham radio license, you must start by taking the Technician exam. Once you pass that exam, you can take the General exam, and finally the Extra exam.
Ham license expired within the past two years
The FCC gives a 2-year grace period for renewing your license. You cannot transmit during that grace period, but you can renew your old license without having to take any exams.
You don't actually have to renew your grace-period license before taking the upgrade exam. You simply present it at your exam session, and it gives you credit just like an unexpired license. However, if you're right at the end of the grace period, you might want to renew now, in the unlikely event you fail the upgrade exam.
Pre-1987 Technician license
If you ever held a Technician class ham radio license issued before March 21, 1987, the FCC gives you “grandfather” credit for the General class exam (element 3), even if that license expired decades ago.
To claim the credit:
- If you currently hold an unexpired Technician license, when you present proof to the volunteer examiners (VEs) of your pre-1987 Technician license, you automatically get credit for the General exam, and you are upgraded to General class.
- If you are not currently licensed, you must first pass the current Technician exam. Then, when you present proof to the volunteer examiners (VEs) of your pre-1987 Technician license, you automatically get credit for the General exam, and you are issued a General class license.
No other class of license has a similar grandfather clause. For example, if you held a General or Extra license before 1987, there is no credit. Yes, I agree, this is a very strange rule.
See http://www.arrl.org/exam-element-credit for details.
Any other expired ham license
If you’re beyond the 2-year grace period, and you didn’t hold a Technician license before March, 21, 1987, you must start from scratch, just as if you had never held a license.
Unexpired (or within the grace period) Novice license
If you hold a Novice class license which has not expired, or is within the 2-year grace period, you get no credit for any exams. To advance you must proceed as if you have no license at all.
Unexpired (or within the grace period) Technician license
If you hold a Technician class license which has not expired, or is within the 2-year grace period, you get credit for the Technician exam. Your next step is the General exam.
Unexpired (or within the grace period) Technician Plus license
If you hold a Technician Plus class license which has not expired, or is within the 2-year grace period, it's treated the same as a Technician license.
Unexpired (or within the grace period) General license
If you hold a General class license which has not expired, or is within the 2-year grace period, you get credit for the Technician and General exams. The only remaining step is the Extra exam.
Unexpired (or within the grace period) Advanced license
If you hold an Advanced class license which has not expired, or is within the 2-year grace period, you get credit for the Technician and General exams. The only remaining step is the Extra exam.
Unexpired (or within the grace period) Extra license
If you hold an Extra class license which has not expired, or is within the 2-year grace period, you get credit for the Technician, General, and Extra exams. The only remaining step is the Ultra exam. Just kidding! Congratulations, you've gone as high as you can go!
Sorry, Charlie, you get no credit for any of the FCC Commercial Operator’s licenses.
You get no credit towards U.S. ham licenses for licenses from other countries.
For more information
I hope we've answered all your questions. If not, drop us an email at firstname.lastname@example.org. We'll answer your question and update this article to make it easier for the next reader.
How to prepare for the exams
HamTestOnline™ offers popular and highly successful online courses, combining study materials, question drill, and an electronic tutor to help you learn about ham radio and prepare for the exams at the same time. After all, it should be about learning about your new hobby, not just memorizing the answers. Study with us, and you are guaranteed to pass!
Where to take the exam
Look up exam sessions in your area by zip code at http://www.arrl.org/find-an-amateur-radio-license-exam-session. (If you don't see any sessions in your immediate area, expand your search to a wider area using the dropdown box to the right of the zip code.)
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