Ham Radio: How much does it cost?

Dave, KEØOG, with his (then new) Ten-Tec Jupiter HF Radio

Dave, KEØOG, with his (then new) Ten-Tec Jupiter HF Radio

I’m often asked a simple question: how much does it cost to become a ham? The answer, of course, is “it depends.” But there’s a pretty basic path that most hams follow, so let’s take a look at it.

First, there’s the matter of getting the license in the first place. The ARRL study guide for the Technician License will set you back $29.95 + shipping + (if applicable) sales tax. The shipping is a rather whopping $10.50, so without tax that’s $40.45. Warning: The Technician question pool changed on July 1st, 2010, so make sure you have the most recent study guide! Borrowing an old one may steer you wrong! (You may be able to get the book more cheaply on Amazon, but be sure you’re buying the current edition.) The book comes with a CD with practice exams. You can learn all you need from the book, but I do recommend at least touching base with another ham while you’re studying. Hams who help others become hams are called “elmers.”

Second, you need to take the test. That’s $15, which you pay on the day of the test. You can find a place to take your test by looking at the list of exam sessions maintained by the ARRL.

Okay, now you’ve got your license. What to do? The first thing you should do, and I recommend this so highly I consider it mandatory, is to join the ARRL. If for no other reason, their magazine, QST, is worth every penny. It comes monthly, is professionally put together, and is chock-full or articles aimed at you, the new ham. Further, membership enables you to explore the nethermost regions of the ARRL website, including its extensive list of product reviews. Membership is $39/year. Next, join your local ham radio club. If you’re in a metro area, you’ll have many to choose from. Here in sparsely-populated southwestern Colorado, it’s the Montrose Amateur Radio Club. Plan on paying about $20/year. Why do I consider this expense mandatory too? Because you’ll learn far more about ham radio from other hams than you ever will out of a book or magazine!

Ah, yes, the radio. After all, you went to all that effort so you could talk with people on the air. In almost all situations I recommend that the first radio be a 2-meter or a dual band (2-meter/70cm) handheld radio, usually called an “HT.” Where do you get this radio? Well, I often use Ham Radio Outlet. I find the folks on the phone to be courteous and patient and willing to answer your many questions. There are other large outfits you can order from, particularly Amateur Electronic Supply, but there are any number of places. I strongly recommend you get a fairly simple radio. At a minimum it should be 5 watts, have rechargeable batteries, a detachable antenna, and a way to run it from 12VDC. I do not recommend getting a radio with too many features—you’ll rarely use them and they’re expensive. I just purchased a nice, basic HT from an outfit called PowerWerx. They sell the inexpensive Wouxun KG-UV3D dual-band handheld that meets all the requirements for a first radio. See my review here, though I do warn you you’ll want to get the programming cable too. So, with the programming cable, the antenna adapter, and the radio, that’ll be about $160, shipping included. Any sales tax is additional.

You’ll accumulate accessories. You’ll soon want a magnetic-mount antenna for your vehicle, such as the MFJ-1402, $29.95 + S&H, and maybe you’ll want to participate in a ham club activity to build yourself a roof-mounted J-pole antenna. The parts will probably be about $15, but you also need coax cable to get from your radio to the antenna. A 25-foot cable with connectors already installed is the C&G HRO8X/25U, for $32.95 + S&H. (But beware—it’s further from your operating position to the roof than you might think!) Your handheld plus some accessories are great for casual home or mobile conversations.

Let’s see: what are we up to now:

  • License manual: $40.45
  • Testing cost: $15.00
  • First radio: $160

We’re up to $215.45, and that’s without accessories. To give yourself some leeway, I’m going to say plan on $350, which gives you an accessories budget.

Many hams think the Technician level is just fine and have no desire to upgrade to General. If that’s you, you’re in good company. But you’ll accumulate radios. Probably your second radio will be a 2-meter or 2-meter / 70 cm “mobile” radio, so called because it fits into a car or truck well. But it also makes a great base station. You can use that same magnetic mount antenna on your car, and that same J-pole and coax. I have the inexpensive Yaesu FT-7800. It’s current incarnation is the Yaesu FT-7900, and it sells for $279.95 + S&H. Ah, but there’s a catch. Using a radio like this requires a 12-volt power supply. That’s a whole ‘nother story in itself, but plan on $100 to $150. Pay particular attention to how much noise the power supply fan makes. I have an MFJ-4225MV and have had to modify it because the fan is so noisy. Note: make sure you get a power supply capable of 20A or 25A continuous as you’ll undoubtedly want to use the same power supply with your HF radio after you upgrade to General. And BE SURE to get a power supply made for ham radio, as something you get at Radio Shack might generate terrible RF noise.

Okay, where are we:

  • Getting licensed with minimum equipment: $215
  • Some accessories: $100
  • The mobile radio with S&H: $300
  • The power supply: $150

Okay, we’re up to $765 easily.

Why, you might ask, do I recommend that for your first few radios you purchase new equipment? Because you know it’ll work and you have a warranty. There’s a lot of great used gear out there, but until you have some more experience, it’s hard to separate the wheat from the chaff. Stick with new for the first HT and the first mobile rig.

You can, of course, go on from there. You may want a fancier antenna. Or you’d like a speaker-mike to go with that handheld. And so on. At some point you’ll want to upgrade to General, which means privileges on HF, which takes a different radio. I’ve posted on HF radios from ICOM, Yaesu, and Kenwood, all of whom offer some great first HF radios (as well as second, third, fourth, etc.). And, of course, an HF antenna…. So, to answer the basic question, how much does ham radio cost? Answer: it costs as much as you want it to cost!

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6 Responses to Ham Radio: How much does it cost?

  1. Dave says:

    Jason, thanks for the update! Indeed, the advent of the new Chinese radios has dramatically lowered the entry cost. I have a couple myself—a Wouxun and a Baofeng. They work just fine. 73!

  2. Jason says:

    Dave,
    While you can surely spend that much money on radio gear, I find that I’m good to go with $50 with a Baofeng UV‑5R ($35) and an upgraded antenna (<$15) for HT use. For mobile use, add a nice Diamond magmount (<$40) and a battery eliminator (<$5). Oh, and a USB cable for $15 if you want to mass-change settings often from the PC, but usually local clubs have one you can use during the meeting and most folks don't change settings that often.

    Love the videos and advice.
    73,
    Jason KK6OQW

  3. Mark says:

    Finally found a website with the information I needed to get started. Thank You from Greeley, Co.

  4. Mike says:

    Thanks for a great article full of info. Very new to this hobby, they just posted my callsign today. The old guy is excited.

  5. CatCube says:

    Thanks for your post! It’s been frustrating chasing down a rough cost estimate to get into ham radio. I realize that “you can spend as much as you want” is the correct answer, but doesn’t help someone like me who has no concept of what a very basic receiver costs, or all the little things you might need to get. I appreciate the ballpark answer.

  6. Brian says:

    Thanks, that is a great description for interested people like me.

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