Ham Radio For Dummies

Ham Radio For Dummies

by H. Ward Silver
Ham Radio For Dummies

Ham Radio For Dummies

by H. Ward Silver

Paperback(4th ed.)

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Respond to the call of ham radio 

Despite its old-school reputation, amateur radio is on the rise, and the airwaves are busier than ever. That’s no surprise: being a ham is a lot of fun, providing an independent way to keep in touch with friends, family, and new acquaintances around the world—and even beyond with its ability to connect with the International Space Station! Hams are also good in a crisis, keeping communications alive and crackling during extreme weather events and loss of communications until regular systems like cell phones and the internet are restored. Additionally, it’s enjoyable for good, old-fashioned tech geek reasons—fiddling with circuits and bouncing signals off the ionosphere just happens to give a lot of us a buzz!   

If one or more of these benefits is of interest to you, then good news: the new edition of Ham Radio For Dummies covers them all! In his signature friendly style, longtime ham Ward Silver (Call Sign NØAX)—contributing editor with the American Radio Relay League—patches you in on everything from getting the right equipment and building your station (it doesn’t have to be expensive) to the intricacies of Morse code and Ohm’s law. In addition, he coaches you on how to prepare for the FCC-mandated licensing exam and tunes you up for ultimate glory in the ham radio hall of fame as a Radiosport competitor! With this book, you’ll learn to: 

  • Set up and organize your station 
  • Communicate with people around the world 
  • Prep for and pass the FCC exam 
  • Tune into the latest tech, such as digital mode operating  

Whether you’re looking to join a public service club or want the latest tips on the cutting edge of ham technology, this is the perfect reference for newbies and experts alike—and will keep you happily hamming it up for years!  

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781119695608
Publisher: Wiley
Publication date: 04/20/2021
Edition description: 4th ed.
Pages: 448
Sales rank: 116,452
Product dimensions: 7.30(w) x 9.20(h) x 1.10(d)

About the Author

Ward Silver, NØAX, has been a ham since 1972 when he ear­ned his Novice license. Ward is the lead editor for the ARRL Radio Handbook and the ARRL ­Antenna Book. He is the author of the ARRL License Manuals and several other books on ham radio topics.

Read an Excerpt

Ham Radio For Dummies

By Ward Silver

John Wiley & Sons

ISBN: 0-7645-5987-7

Chapter One

Getting Acquainted with Ham Radio

In This Chapter

* Becoming a part of ham radio

* Traversing the world of ham radio

* Making a contact with ham radio

* Constructing a ham radio shack

Ham radio invokes a wide range of visions. Maybe you have a mental image of a ham radio operator (or ham) from a movie or newspaper article. But hams are a varied lot - from go-getter emergency communicators to casual chatters to workshop tinkerers. Everyone has a place, and you do, too.

Hams use all sorts of radios and antennas on a wide variety of frequencies to communicate with other hams across town and around the world. They use ham radio for personal enjoyment, for keeping in touch with friends and family, for emergency communications, and for experimenting with radios and radio equipment. They communicate using microphones, telegraph or Morse keys, computers, cameras, lasers, and even their own satellites.

Hams meet on the air and in person. Ham radio clubs and organizations are devoted to every conceivable purpose. They have special ham radio flea markets and host conventions, large and small. Hams as young as six years old and centenarians have been hams since before ham radio licenses. Some have a technical background, but most do not. One thing all these diverse individuals do have, however, is an interest in radio that can express itself in many different ways.

Tuning In Ham Radio Today

Hams enjoy three different aspects of ham radio - the technology, operating, and social points of view. Your interest in the hobby may be technical; you may want to use ham radio for a specific purpose; or you may just want to join the fun. All are perfectly valid reasons for getting a ham radio license.

Using electronics and technology

Ham radio is full of electronics and technology (see Chapter 2). To start with, transmitting and receiving radio signals is a very electronics-intensive endeavor. After you open the hood on ham radio, you're exposed to everything from basic direct-current electronics to cutting-edge radio-frequency techniques. Everything from analog electronics to the very latest in digital signal processing and computing is available in ham radio. I've been in the hobby for more than 30 years and I've never met anyone who is an expert on it all.

You may choose to design and build your own equipment or assemble a station from factory-built components, just like an audiophile might do. All that you need for either path is widely available in stores and on the Web. Hams delight in a do-it-yourself ethic known as homebrewing and help each other out to build and maintain their stations.


Hams also develop their own software and use the Internet along with radios to create novel hybrid systems. Hams developed packet radio by adapting data transmission protocols used over computer networks to amateur radio links. Packet radio is now widely used in many commercial applications. By combining GPS radiolocation technology with the Web and amateur mobile radios, the Automatic Position Reporting System (APRS) was developed and is now widely used. More information about these neat systems is contained in Parts III and IV.

Voice and Morse code communications are still the most popular technologies by which hams talk to each other, but computer-based digital operation is gaining fast. The most common home station configuration today is a hybrid of the computer and radio. Some of the newer radios are exploring software-defined radio (SDR) technology that allows reconfiguration of the circuitry that processes radio signals under software control.

Along with the equipment and computers, hams are students of antennas and propagation, which is the means by which radio signals bounce around from place to place. Hams take an interest in solar cycles, sunspots, and how they affect the Earth's ionosphere. For hams, weather takes on a whole new importance, generating static or fronts along which radio signals can sometimes travel long distances. Antennas, with which signals are launched to take advantage of all this propagation, provide a fertile universe for the station builder and experimenter.

Antenna experimentation is a hotbed of activity for hams. New designs are created every day and hams have contributed many advances and refinements to the antenna designer's art. Antenna systems range from small patches of printed circuit board material to multiple towers festooned with large rotating arrays. All you need is some wire, a feedline, and a soldering iron.

Hams also use radio technology in support of hobbies such as radio control (R/C), model rocketry, and meteorology. Hams have special frequencies for R/C operation in the 6-meter band, away from the crowded unlicensed R/C frequencies. Miniature ham radio video transmitters are frequently flown in model aircraft, rockets, and balloons, beaming back pictures from heights of hundreds and thousands of feet. Ham radio data links are also used in support of astronomy, aviation, auto racing and rallies, and many other pastimes.

Whatever part of electronic and computing technology you most enjoy, it's all used in ham radio somewhere ... and sometimes all at once!

Operating a ham radio: Making contacts

If you were to tune a radio across the ham bands, what would you hear hams doing? Contacts run the range from simple conversation to on-the-air meetings to contesting (recording the highest number of contacts).


By far the most common type of activity for hams is just engaging in conversation, which is called chewing the rag; such contacts are called ragchews. Ragchews take place between continents or across town. You don't have to know another ham to have a great ragchew - ham radio is a very friendly hobby with little class snobbery or distinctions. Just make contact and start talking! Find out more about ragchews in Chapter 9.


Nets (an abbreviation for networks) are organized on-the-air meetings scheduled for hams with a similar interest or purpose. Some of the nets you can find are

  •   Traffic nets: These are part of the North American system that moves text messages or traffic via ham radio. Operators meet to exchange or relay messages, sometimes handling dozens in a day. Messages range from the mundane to emergency health-and-welfare.

  •   Emergency service nets: Most of the time, these nets just meet for training and practice. When disasters or other emergencies strike, hams organize around these nets and provide crucial communications into and out of the stricken areas until normal links are restored.

  •   Technical Service: These nets are like radio call-in programs in which stations call with specific questions or problems. The net control station may help, but more frequently, one of the listening stations contributes the answer. Many are designed specifically to assist new hams.

  •   ALE Mailboxes and Bulletin Boards: If you could listen to Internet systems make contact and exchange data, this is what they'd sound like. Instead of transmitting 1s and 0s as voltages on wires, hams use tones. ALE stands for Automatic Link Establishment and means that a computer system is monitoring a frequency all the time so that others can connect to it and send or retrieve messages. Sailors and other travelers use ham radio where the Internet isn't available.

  •   Swap Nets: In between the in-person hamfests and flea markets, in many areas a weekly swap net allows hams to list items for sale or things they need. A net control station moderates the process and business is generally conducted over the phone once the parties have been put in contact with each other.

    DX-ing, contests, and awards

    DX stands for distance and the lure of making contacts ever-farther from home has always been a part of ham radio. Hams compete to contact faraway stations and to log contacts with every country. They enjoy contacting islands and making personal friends in a foreign country. When conditions are right and the band is full of foreign accents, succumbing to the lure of DX is easy!

    Ham radio's version of rugby, contests are events in which the point is to make as many contacts as possible, sometimes thousands, during the contest time period, by sending and receiving short messages. These exchanges are related to the purpose of the contest - to contact a specific area, use a certain band, find a special station, or just contact everybody.

    Along with contests, thousands of special-event stations and awards are available for various operating accomplishments, such as contacting different countries or states. For example, in December 2003, the station W4B was set up at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, and operated during the centennial of the Wright Brothers' first flight.

    DX-ing, contests, and awards are closely related, and if you enjoy the thrill of the chase, go to Chapter 11 to find out more about all of these activities.

    Joining the ham radio community

    Because of their numbers and reliance on uncomplicated infrastructure, hams are able to bounce back quickly when a natural disaster or other emergency makes communications over normal channels impossible. Hams organize themselves into local and regional teams that practice responding to a variety of emergency needs, working to support public safety agencies such as police and fire departments.

    Is it hurricane season? Every fall in North America, ham emergency teams gear up for these potentially devastating storms. Hams staff an amateur station at the National Hurricane Center in Florida (fiu.edu/orgs/w4ehw/) and keep the Hurricane Watch Net busy on 14.325 MHz (hwn.org/). After the storm, hams are the first voices heard from the affected areas with many more standing by to relay their messages and information.

    After the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, hams manned an emergency operations center around the clock for weeks. Government agencies had to focus on coordinating recovery and rescue efforts. The hams were able to handle "health-and-welfare" messages to support the emergency workers in their efforts.

    Every June, on the last full weekend, hams across the United States engage in an emergency operations exercise called Field Day. It's an opportunity for hams to operate under emergency conditions. An amateur emergency team or station probably is operating in your town or county.

    Hams provide assistance for more than emergencies. Wherever there is a parade, festival, marathon, or other opportunity to provide communications services, you may find ham radio operators helping out. In fact, this is great training for emergencies!


    A particularly beneficial relationship exists between ham radio and philately, or stamp collecting. Hams routinely exchange postcards called QSLs with their call signs, information about their stations, and often colorful graphics or photos. Stamp collecting hams combine the exchange of QSLs with collecting by sending the cards around the world with local colorful stamps or special postmarks. Foreign hams return the favor with a stamp of their own. The cheerful greeting of those red-and-blue airmail envelopes from an exotic location is a special treat!

    Hams like to meet in person as well as on the radio. Membership in at least one radio club is a part of nearly every ham's life. In fact, in some countries, you're required to be a member of a club before you can even get a license. Chapter 3 shows you how to find and join clubs - they're great sources of information and assistance for new hams.

    The two other popular ham gatherings are hamfests and conventions. A hamfest is a ham radio flea market where hams bring their electronic treasures for sale or trade. Some are small, parking-lot-size get-togethers on a Saturday morning while others attract thousands of hams from all over the world and last for days. These are more like the conventions hams hold with a variety of themes from public service to DX and low-power operating. Hams travel all over the world to attend conventions and meet friends known only as a voice and a call sign over the crackling radio waves.

    Roaming the World of Ham Radio

    Although the United States has a large population of hams, it by no means represents the majority. The amateur population in Europe is growing by leaps and bounds, and Japan has an even larger amateur population. With more than 3 million hams worldwide, very few countries are without an amateur.

    Hams are required to have a license, no matter where they operate. The international agency that manages radio activity is the International Telecommunication Union, or ITU (itu.int/home/). Each member country is required to have its own government agency that controls licensing inside its borders. In the United States, hams are part of the Amateur Radio Service, which is regulated and licensed by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC). Outside the United States, Amateur Radio is governed by similar rules and regulations.

    Amateur Radio licenses in America are granted by the FCC, but the tests are administered by other hams acting as volunteer examiners, or VEs. I discuss VEs in detail in Chapter 4. Classes and testing programs are often available through local clubs.

    Since the adoption of international licensing regulations, hams operate from many different countries with a minimum of paperwork. For example, a ham from a country that is a party to the international license recognition agreement known as CEPT can use his or her home license to operate from within any other CEPT country. The ARRL has gathered a lot of useful material about international operating on its Web site at arrl.org/FandES/field/ regulations/io.

    Because radio signals know no boundaries, hams have always been in touch across the political borders. Even during the Cold War, U.S. and Soviet hams made regular contact, fostering long personal friendships and international goodwill. While the Internet makes global communications easy, chatting by voice or Morse code over the airwaves to someone in another country is exciting.

    Communicating with Ham Radio

    Though you make contacts for different purposes - chatting, emergencies, a net, or to win a contest - most contacts follow the same structure.

    After you get a response from your call or respond to someone else calling, you exchange names, information about who you are, and the quality of your signal to gauge conditions.


    Excerpted from Ham Radio For Dummies by Ward Silver Excerpted by permission.
    All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
    Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

  • Table of Contents

    Introduction 1

    About This Book 1

    My Assumptions about You 2

    Icons Used in This Book 3

    Beyond the Book 3

    Where to Go from Here 4

    Part 1 Getting Started with Ham Radio 5

    Chapter 1 Getting Acquainted with Ham Radio 7

    Exploring Ham Radio around the World 8

    Tuning into Ham Radio 9

    Using electronics and technology 10

    Joining the ham radio community 12

    Radiosport - Competing with Ham Radio 15

    Communicating through Ham Radio Contacts 16

    Ragchews 17

    Nets 17

    Citizen Science and HamSCI 18

    Chapter 2 Getting a Handle on Ham Radio Technology 21

    Getting to Know Basic Ham Radio Gear 21

    Building a Basic Ham Radio Station 23

    Basic stations 23

    Communication Technologies 26

    Understanding the Fundamentals of Radio Waves 28

    Frequency and wavelength 29

    The radio spectrum 30

    Dealing with Mother Nature 32

    Experiencing nature affecting radio waves 32

    Overcoming radio noise 33

    Chapter 3 Finding Other Hams: Your Support Group 35

    Finding and Being a Mentor 36

    Interacting in Online Communities 37

    Social media and blogs 37

    Videos, podcasts, and webinars 38

    Email reflectors 39

    Online training and instruction 40

    Web portals 41

    Joining Radio Clubs 41

    Finding and choosing a dub 42

    Participating in meetings 44

    Getting more involved 45

    Exploring the ARRL 46

    ARRL benefits to you 47

    ARRL benefits to the hobby 48

    ARRL benefits to the public 49

    Taking Part in Specialty Groups 50

    On the Air - IOTA, SOTA, and POTA 50

    Young Hams - YOTA 51

    Competitive clubs 51

    Handiham 52

    AMSAT 53

    TAPR 54

    YLRL 55

    QRP clubs 56

    Attending Hamfests and Conventions 57

    Finding and preparing for hamfests 57

    Buying equipment at hamfests 58

    Finding conventions and conferences 59

    Part 2 Wading Through the Licensing Process 63

    Chapter 4 Understanding the Licensing System 65

    Getting Acquainted with the Amateur Service 66

    FCC rules 66

    Ham radio frequency allocations 67

    Learning about Types of Licenses 69

    Technician class 70

    General class 70

    Amateur Extra class 70

    Grandfathered classes 71

    Getting Licensed 72

    Studying the exam questions 72

    Taking your license exam 72

    Volunteer examiner coordinators 73

    Volunteer examiners 73

    Receiving Your New Call Sign 74

    Call-sign prefixes and suffixes 74

    Class and call sign 75

    Chapter 5 Preparing for Your License Exam 77

    Getting a Grip on the Technician Exam 77

    Finding Study Resources 78

    Licensing classes 79

    Books, websites, and videos 80

    Online practice exams 82

    Locating Your Mentor 82

    Chapter 6 Taking the Exam 85

    Types of Exams 86

    Public in-person exams 86

    Remote exams 86

    Exams at events 87

    Exam sessions in homes and online 87

    Finding an Exam Session 88

    Registering with the Universal Licensing System (ULS) 88

    Getting to Exam Day 90

    What to have with you 91

    What to expect 91

    What to do after the exam 93

    Chapter 7 Obtaining Your License and Call Sign 95

    Completing Your Licensing Paperwork 95

    Finding Your Call Sign 98

    Searching the ULS database 98

    Searching other websites for call signs 99

    Printing your license 100

    Identifying with your new privileges 101

    Picking Your Own Call Sign 101

    Searching for available call signs 102

    Applying for a vanity call sign 103

    Maintaining Your License 104

    Part 3 Hamming It Up 105

    Chapter 8 Receiving Signals 107

    Learning by Listening 107

    Finding out where to listen 108

    Understanding how bands are organized 109

    Using Your Receiver 110

    Tuning and scanning with channels 112

    Continuous tuning with a knob 113

    Software-controlled tuning 114

    Listening on VHF and UHF 115

    Listening on HF 116

    Using beacon networks and contact maps 118

    Receiving Signals 121

    Receiving FM voice 121

    Receiving SSB voice 125

    Receiving digital voice 127

    Receiving digital or data modes 128

    Receiving Morse code 131

    Chapter 9 Basic Operating 133

    Understanding Contacts (QSOs) 134

    Common parts of contacts 135

    Casual contacts 139

    Nets and talk groups - On-the-air meetings 139

    Contests and DXing - Radiosport 141

    How contacts get started 142

    Joining a contact 144

    Failing to make contact 145

    During a contact 147

    Calling CQ 150

    Casual Conversation - Ragchewing 152

    Knowing where to chew 152

    Identifying a ragchewer 154

    Calling CQ for a ragchew 155

    Making Repeater and Simplex Contacts 156

    Understanding repeater basics 156

    Making a repeater contact 160

    Using access control 161

    Miscellaneous repeater features 163

    Maximizing your signal 164

    Setting up your radio 164

    Making a simplex contact 168

    Digital Voice Systems 169

    HF digital voice 170

    VHF/UHF digital voice 170

    Digital repeater networks 172

    The DMR system 176

    Casual Operating on HF 178

    HF bands 178

    Picking good times to operate 179

    Contacts on CW and digital modes 181

    Chapter 10 Public Service Operating 185

    Joining a Public Service Group 186

    Finding a public service group 186

    Volunteering for ARES 188

    Preparing for Emergencies and Disasters 189

    Knowing who 189

    Knowing where 190

    Knowing what 190

    Knowing how 192

    Operating in Emergencies and Disasters 193

    Reporting an accident or other incident 194

    Making and responding to distress calls 195

    Providing Public Service 197

    Weather monitoring and SKYWARN 197

    Parades and chanty events 198

    Participating in Nets 199

    Checking in and out 200

    Exchanging information 200

    Tactical call signs 202

    Radio discipline 202

    Digital Message Networks 203

    Winlink - email by radio 204

    AREDN 206

    NBEMS 207

    Chapter 11 Operating Specialties 209

    Getting Digital 210

    Digital definitions 211

    WSJT modes - fast and slow 212

    FT8 and FT4 213

    PSK31 and PSK63 216

    Radioteletype (RTTY) 216

    Non-WSJT MFSK modes 218

    PACTOR, ARDOP, and VARA 219

    Packet radio 220

    APRS and tracking 220

    DXing - Chasing Distant Stations 223

    VHF/UHF DXing with a Technician license 223

    HF DXing with a General license 227

    Taking Part in Radio Contests 235

    Choosing a contest 237

    Operating in a contest 238

    Chasing Awards 245

    Finding awards and special events 245

    Logging contacts for awards 246

    Applying for awards 247

    Mastering Morse Code (CW) 247

    Learning Morse correctly 248

    Copying the code 249

    Pounding brass - sending Morse 250

    Making code contacts 251

    QRP (Low Power) and Portable Operating 251

    Getting started with QRP 252

    Portable operating 253

    Direction-finding (ARDF) 256

    Operating via Satellites 257

    Getting grounded in satellite basics 257

    Accessing satellites 258

    Seeing Things: Image Communication 259

    Slow-scan television 259

    Fast-scan television 261

    Part 4 Building and Operating a Station That Works 263

    Chapter 12 Getting on the Air 265

    What Is a Station? 265

    Planning Your Station 266

    Deciding what you want to do 266

    Deciding how to operate 267

    Choosing a Radio 270

    Allocating your resources 271

    Software defined radios 272

    Radios for VHF and UHF operating 273

    Radios for HF operating 278

    Filtering and noise 281

    Choosing an Antenna 282

    Beam antennas 283

    VHF/UHF antennas 284

    HF antennas 285

    Feed line and connectors 289

    Supporting Your Antenna 293

    Antennas and trees 293

    Masts and tripods 294

    Towers 295

    Rotators 296

    Station Accessories 298

    Mikes, keys, and keyers 298

    Antenna system gadgets 299

    Digital mode interfaces 301

    Remote Control Stations 302

    Remote control rules 302

    Accessing a remote control station 303

    Upgrading Your Station 304

    Chapter 13 Organizing a Home Station 307

    Designing Your Station 307

    Keeping a station notebook 308

    Building in ergonomics 309

    Viewing some example ham stations 312

    Building in RF and Electrical Safety 316

    Electrical safety 316

    RF exposure 317

    First aid 318

    Groundingand Bonding 319

    AC and DC power 320

    Lightning 320

    RF management 321

    Chapter 14 Computers in Your Ham Station 323

    What Type of Computers Do Hams Use? 323

    Windows 324

    Linux 324

    Macintosh 324

    Android and iOS 324

    Microcontrollers 325

    What Do Ham Computers Do? 325

    Software-defined radio 326

    WSJT-X and fldigi 327

    Radio and remote control 327

    Hardware considerations 328

    Keeping a Log of Your Contacts 329

    Paper logging 329

    Computer logging 330

    Submitting a contest log 333

    Confirming Your Contacts 335

    QSL cards 335

    QSLing electronically 336

    Direct QSLing 337

    Using QSL managers 337

    Bureaus and QSL services 338

    Applying for awards 339

    Chapter 15 Operating Away from Home 341

    Mobile Stations 341

    HF mobile radios 342

    Mobile installations 343

    Mobile antennas 347

    Portable Operating 349

    Portable antennas 353

    Portable power 354

    Field Day 355

    Field Day "gotchas" 357

    Chapter 16 Hands-On Radio 359

    Acquiring Tools and Components 360

    Maintenance tools 360

    Repair and building tools 366

    Components for repairs and building 368

    Maintaining Your Station 370

    Overall Troubleshooting 372

    Troubleshooting Your Station 372

    Power problems 373

    RF problems 374

    Operational problems 375

    Troubleshooting RF Interference 377

    Dealing with interference to other equipment 378

    Dealing with interference to your equipment 380

    Building Equipment from a Kit 383

    Building Equipment from Scratch 384

    Part 5 The Part of Tens 385

    Chapter 17 Ham Radio Jargon - Say What? 387

    Spoken Q-signals 387

    Contesting or Radiosport 388

    Antenna Varieties 388

    Feed Lines 389

    Antenna Tuners 389

    Repeater Operating 390

    Grid Squares 391

    Interference and Noise 391

    Connector Parts 392

    Solar and Geomagnetic Activity 393

    Chapter 18 Technical Fundamentals 395

    Electrical Units and Symbols 395

    Ohm's Law 396

    Power 397

    Decibels 397

    Attenuation, Loss, and Gain 398

    Bandwidth 398

    Filters 399

    Antenna Patterns 400

    Standing Wave Ratio (SWR) 401

    Battery Characteristics 402

    Satellite Tracking 402

    Chapter 19 Tips for Masters 405

    Listening to Everything 405

    Learning How It Works 406

    Following the Protocol 406

    Keeping Your Axe Sharp 406

    Practice to Make Perfect 406

    Paying Attention to Detail 407

    Knowing What You Don't Know 407

    Maintaining Radio Discipline 407

    Make Small Improvements Continuously 408

    Help Others and Accept Help from Others 408

    Index 409

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