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 examComplexityHow 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.  Click Where to take the exam to find exam sessions in your area.

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 VE teams charge a small exam session fee, usually no more than $15, to cover the costs of running the sessions.  The FCC regulations state that within a single exam session, for a single exam fee, you can keep taking exams until you either fail one or pass all the way up to Extra.  Many HamTestOnline students pass all three exams in one sitting, going from “zero to Extra” in a single session, saving as much as $30 in exam fees in the process.

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.

ClassExam requirements
Privileges
Novice
No longer being issued.
Very limited privileges.
Technician
Technician exam.
All privileges in the VHF, UHF, and beyond, mostly useful for local communications.  Very limited HF privileges.
Technician Plus
No longer being issued.
Now the same as Technician.
General
Technician and General exams.
All of the above, plus extensive privileges across the entire radio spectrum.
Advanced
No longer being issued.
All of the above, plus some additional spectrum in a few HF bands.
Extra
Technician, General, and Extra exams.
All of the above, plus slightly more spectrum in a few HF bands.

Notes:

 

  • 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?

Technician

If you’re only interested in talking around town, you only need the Technician class license.

General

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 single-sideband (SSB), you need the General class.

Extra

There are various reasons you might want to get the Extra class license:

  • To have full access to all ham frequencies, including the less crowded Advanced and Extra portions of the bands.  Some of the best DX is in the Extra segments.
     
  • To get a shorter call sign, which can be a big advantage when working a pileup.
     
  • To be allowed to administer all exam levels as a volunteer examiner.
     
  • To have full reciprocal operating privileges when you travel to CEPT countries (Europe, Australia, New Zealand, Israel, etc.).
     
  • As a stepping stone for broadcast engineers to obtain the Certified Broadcast Technologist certification.
     
  • Prestige.  Why settle for silver, when you can have the gold?
     
  • It looks great on your resume!
     
  • Exercise your brain!  Any day you don't learn something new is a wasted day!

Which exams must I take?

Which exams you take depends on your situation.  Pay careful attention, because the rules are complex:

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.

Expired pre-1987 Technician ham license

If you 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).

If your pre-1987 Technician license has expired, you can receive a General class license by attending a VE session and doing both of the following:

  1. Pass the current Technician exam (element 2), and
     
  2. Present proof to the VEs that you held a Technician class ham radio license issued before March 21, 1987.
They will issue you a General class license.

See http://www.arrl.org/exam-element-credit for details.

Expired General or Advanced ham license

There is a recent rule change that will help you.  Effective July 21, 2014, the FCC will start giving partial credit for expired General, Advanced, and Amateur Extra class licenses.  

An expired General or Advanced ham license will give you credit only for the General class exam (element 3).

Once the new rules take effect, you can receive a General class license by attending a VE session and doing both of the following:

  1. Pass the current Technician exam (element 2), and
     
  2. Present proof to the VEs that you once held a General or Advanced class license.

Expired Extra ham license

There is a recent rule change that will help you.  Effective July 21, 2014, the FCC will start giving partial credit for expired General, Advanced, and Amateur Extra class licenses.  

An expired Amateur Extra ham license will give you credit for the General (element 3) and Extra (element 4) exams.

Once the new rules take effect, you can receive an Extra class license by attending a VE session and doing both of the following:

  1. Pass the current Technician exam (element 2), and
     
  2. Present proof to the VEs that you once held an Extra class license.

Any other expired ham license

If you’re beyond the 2-year grace period, and you didn’t hold a Technician license issued before March, 21, 1987, and you don't have an expired General, Advanced, or Extra class license, you must start from scratch, just as if you had never held a license.

Note specifically that the following offer no examination credit:

  • Novice licenses
     
  • Expired Technician licenses issued on or after March 21, 1987
     
  • Expired Technician Plus licenses

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) pre-1987 Technician license

If you 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).

If your Technician license has not expired (because you have been renewing it every 10 years), you can get an automatic upgrade to the General class without passing any exams.  For your automatic upgrade, you must attend a VE session and present proof to the VEs of both of the following facts:

  1. That you once held a Technician class ham radio license issued before March 21, 1987, and
     
  2. That you currently hold an unexpired Technician license.
They will give you the General class license without requiring you to take any exam.

See http://www.arrl.org/exam-element-credit for details.

Unexpired (or within the grace period) post-1987 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!

Commercial licenses

Sorry, Charlie, you get no credit for any of the FCC Commercial Operator’s licenses.  

Foreign 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 support@hamtestonline.com.  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

Click Where to take the exam to find exam sessions in your area.



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