Got my license—now what?

(This is preliminary and comes from an e-mail I sent to someone asking what order I thought new hams should do things.) (Updated 4 June 2014)

I’ve been a ham for 38 years, so I’ve picked up a little here and there. I have no particular equipment recommendations except to keep it simple. The least expensive HF transceiver today is better than the best from 25 years ago. I do recommend the following in general:

  1. DO NOT DO NOT DO NOT purchase ANY equipment until you have passed your Technician examination!!!!
  2. Hams should plan on joining the ARRL. The monthly magazine, QST, is indispensable. You should also plan to join and participate in your local club.
  3. Your first radio likely should be a VHF handheld. There are inexpensive 2-meter-only handhelds and a few inexpensive 2-mtr/440 dual band rigs that are inexpensive (I bought one a couple years ago for under $200, and the Wouxun handheld is less than that). I like to deal with HRO,, out of Denver, but AES is also good.
  4. Get new equipment! As a new ham you should not waste your time dealing with the idiosyncrasies of someone’s old radio that “works” (meaning it works sort of)
  5. Find ham friends to talk with! Learn about the local repeaters and then use them! GET ON THE AIR!
  6. Next comes a mag-mount antenna for the car. This should probably be purchased at the same time as the handheld
  7. Then comes a dedicated 12v power supply (from the mains–buy ahead and get a 10A supply that can be used with a mobile rig)
  8. One could put an outdoor antenna up at this point, but one has to be careful that it has a DC ground so as not to blow out the handheld’s front end (this happened to me).
  9. The second radio should be a mobile, either 2-meter or 2-meter/440, which can also be used as a home base station. Mine is a Yaesu FT-7800, which was quite inexpensive. It’s a very basic radio, yet can be used for voice, packet, etc. This should be used with an outdoor antenna. I recommend a J-pole because they’re easy and inexpensive to construct.
  10. Next should be some sort of power that is independent of the mains, such as a 12-v Deep Cycle battery from Wal-Mart, with a way of charging it.
  11. A ham can stop here and have lots of fun. But…
  12. Then upgrade to General
  13. When upgrading to HF, there are a number of inexpensive rigs, but we’re now talking $1000 and up. For a first HF radio I recommend something simple, like the popular Yaesu FT-857D, which covers HF, VHF, and UHF, and can easily be used as a mobile rig. The Yaesu FTdx-1200 is also popular. HF radio seems simple at first, but it takes awhile to really know how to use the specialized features—not something easily learned from a manual. Kenwood has the TS-480, and Icom a similar rig. Some like to go for the 160m-440Mhz rigs–both HF and VHF.
  14. DO NOT start out with a high-end HF rig. A new ham is several years away from understanding and being able to use the additional features. These complex radios are difficult to use and can be very frustrating if you don’t know what all the knobs are for. It’s easy to set them up wrong.
  15. DO NOT start out with a QRP HF rig—get a 100W rig. QRP is a finicky and specialized sub-hobby and to be successful requires lots of HF experience. (But when you have the experience, by all means try it!)
  16. With HF comes an antenna. The antenna is the key to success. The lower bands require some real estate—a 40-meter half-wave dipole is 66 feet long, and 80m twice that.
  17. With HF also comes a bigger power supply, usually 20A to 25A. It’s also possible to use that 12v deep cycle as long as it’s kept charged. Note the hazard from hydrogen gas and also the potential for acid haze corroding things nearby.
  19. Somewhere in there a ham might like to play with the digital modes. A simple handheld will suffice for packet or APRS if used with the right TNC (but full-featured TNCs aren’t all that cheap—even the small ones can cost $200, although the TinyTrak is pretty inexpensive). My packet setup is a dedicated ICOM IC-2100 mobile rig and a 4-element 2-mtr beam, coupled to an old AEA DSP-232 and used with an el-cheapo Win-98 laptop I got off e-bay for under $100. Digital modes al;e finicky—there are many ducks that have to be perfectly lined up for everything to work.
  20. Then upgrade to Extra
  21. And become a VE

4 Responses to Got my license—now what?

  1. Lyle says:

    Hi Dave. Your YouTube ham radio videos are excellent, and your website articles are also very informative. A few weeks ago I passed my Technician class exam, and now I am studying for General. Luckily I also found an active and supportive amateur radio club a few miles from my home. Thanks for providing such awesome resources for both new and experienced hams!

  2. Hi Dave–

    Just wanted to thank you for the training videos and materials. I passed my Technician exam yesterday and — thanks to your good advice — am now looking for my first radio. Your videos on antennas have really helped me understand the principles in a practical way.

    I’ve ordered the General book from ARRL to continue studying your videos and advance my knowledge.

  3. Dave says:

    Hi Chris, congratulations on your new license, and thanks for the kind words! 73, Dave

  4. Chris Ginney says:

    Hi Dave,

    Thanks for your very instructive videos on the Technician Class and General Class exams. I watched all of your videos for the Technician Class exam and took practice exams in my spare time for about 2 weeks prior to taking it. I did also peruse the ARRL book but did not read it cover to cover.

    Well, I passed the exam with only 2 wrong. I also learned a lesson… Since I was done with the test in about 10 min., the examiners asked me if I wanted to take the General Class exam at no additional charge. I thought, “what do I have to lose?”. The resulting score was too low for the merciful examiners to share. The red pencil needed to be sharpened afterword. They just told me that I did not do quite as well on the General exam.

    I came away from the exam knowing the difference between the two classes of license and how having the different classes makes sense. The main thing I think I learned is that people don’t need to understand a lot in order to do fine using UHF and VHF and they can pass the test and be on their way. However, just studying the questions and passing the General Class test will not guarantee a good experience in learning about how to use HF. In other words, the certification is not just to make sure people obey the rules but also to give them enough knowledge to stay interested in the endeavor. This may be obvious to most people but I just became interested in HAM radio about a month ago. So I’ll save the practice tests for after I get through the book this time around.

    I thought I would just drop you a note here because I appreciate what you are doing with your videos and especially when you go into more detail than the book in order to put things into perspective. I would give you my callsign but it is not in the FCC DB yet… Hopefully soon! 73

    Best regards,
    Chris Ginney

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