Amateur Radio or ham radio licensing varies from country to country. This writeup describes the licensing process in the United States and Canada. Information is current as of August 2010.


In the United States there are three classes of Amateur Radio license, governed by four different examinations.

5-WORD PER MINUTE (WPM) MORSE CODE EXAMINATION. Element 1. Not a terminal exam but an endorsement for all following exams. Not necessary for the Technician exam, but permits the "Tech" endorsement holder privledges on HF (shortwave). Required for the General and Extra licences. Usually consists of listening/copying five minutes of code, then taking a ten-question "fill-in-the-blanks" test on the material or presenting one minute of mistake-free copy. A sending test is no longer required. UPDATE: All morse code testing has been discontinued as of February 2007.

TECHNICIAN Requires passing the Element 2 written exam on the basics of VHF/UHF radio use. Mostly concerned with regulatory necessities, the frequency boundaries of the given license, and RF energy safety (i.e. "How far should an operator hold a handheld transciever from the body while transmitting?"), and some antenna design. Technicians can operate only on frequencies above 50 MHz, but may use CW (morse code) on these frequencies without taking the code test. This is by far the most popular ham radio license in the US.

GENERAL Requires passing Elements 1, 2, and 3. Since this license is the "gateway" to HF operation, Element 3 tests regulations specific to these frequencies, as well as the rudiments of etiquette and frequency boundaries. Other topics include emergency operations, radio wave propagation, use of non-CW digital modes, meters and filters, and some brief electronics algebra. General Class operators have the use of the majority of HF frequencies, being excluded from some areas rich in DX or rare foriegn countries. Until early 2000, Generals required completion of a 13 word per minute code exam to gain the license.

EXTRA. The Extra Class is the terminal Amateur Radio license. Many have distinctive call signs, usually consisting of four characters, that are desired for their brevity. Until early 2000 Extras had to sit for a 20 word per minute code exam, most having prepared by spending a year or two on the air honing their code skills with contacts. Having recieved my Extra in early 1996 I was a bit frustrated to learn a few years later that the "new" Extra did not require high speed code proficency. Predictably, many "old" Extras cried foul when the new regulations were proposed. Nevertheless, the universal 5 word per minute regulations are here to stay, probably because the United States was one of the last fast speed testing holdouts. Many amateurs who recieved Extras before the reform qualified for very prestigious call signs under a brief FCC call sign recycling program, so the truly snobbish (like me) can revel in holding the most sought after call combinations.

The current incarnation of Extra requires passing Elements 1, 2, 3, and 4. The Element 4 exam focuses primarily on space and data communications, electronics math and circuitry, being an examiner and test coordinator, and regulatory information on the names of different types of radio spectrum emissions. Also included are questions on proper antenna setups, as well as the ever present test on amateur radio frequency boundaries. Extra holders are permitted use of all frequencies given to US amateurs by ITU law. An Extra license is crucial for working the rare DX and contesting, or multi-day radio competitions in which competitors scrounge to make the most and rarest contacts in the briefest period possible.

Until the 2000 reforms, two other license classes existed -- the Novice and Advanced Classes. The Novice was designed as an Amateur Radio "learner's permit", consisting of the 5 wpm exam and a brief exam pretty much testing the user on the minimum electrical know-how to build a radio without dying of shock. By the late 1990's most hams were entering at the Technician level with store bought radios. That, an a decline in CW and HF operations, rendered the Novice class little more than 50's nostalgia for older hams.

The Advanced slotted between the General and Extra. No code testing beyond the old 13 wpm exam was necessary. A long exam, it focused primarily on electronics equasions, reading of schematics, and quizzing on abbreviations and technical terms. Many hams considered the Advanced exam harder than the Extra. In my opinion the Advanced and Extra written exams were bookends. One was the higher level electronic theory exam, the other the final regulatory exam. One could argue that the Advanced evolved into little more than a speed bump on the way to Extra.

As of 2010, Technician Plus licensees have been merged with the Technician class at renewal time. No new Novice and Advanced licensees are being issued. However, these licenses are renewable.

All exams are administered by a Volunteer Exam Coordinator, or VEC. The American Radio Relay League (ARRL) is the largest, not suprising since the ARRL is the national ham radio organization. Since examiners must be of a higher class than their testers, most volunteer examiners (VE's) are Extras. The examination pools are available online and in print from a number of sources.

Most of this is from my bank of general knowledge, though I did look at the online ARRL/VEC test pools at to get a sense of testing changes.


The Canadian ham radio licensing system is less complex than the American model.

5 WPM CODE TEST The exam allows Basic license holders HF operation at 250 W.

BASIC. 50 question exam on elementary operating procedure and electronics. This license allows operation on all frequencies above 50 MHz at 250W. Pass is 70%.

BASIC +. A person who passes the Basic exam at 80% ("Honours Pass") is allowed to operate on HF at 250W. In other words, Industry Canada waives the 5 WPM code test for a person that passes the Basic with distinction.

ADVANCED. The full license. The exam covers intermediate electronics theory. Unrestricted operation on any amateur radio frequency alloted to Canada. Kilowatt power allowed. An advanced licensee may operate a repeater or trustee a club station (a radio station shared by a number of hams).

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