Bare Minimum Ham Radio

Posted in Ham Radio


If you've thought about getting your ham license, then this article is for you. I'll show you an easy path to getting your Technician license that I followed late last year to get mine in about two weeks. Doing the Bare Minimum won't make you the ultimate ham. For me, it was better to get past that hurdle, so I could dive deeper into the hobby and get hands-on practice at the same time.

The path consists of:

  1. Getting a radio
  2. Listening to a nearby repeater
  3. Taking a practice test
  4. Watching some YouTube videos
  5. Taking many practice tests
  6. Taking the exam

Most people should be able to complete this in two or three weeks if you put in about an hour of work per day.

Get a Radio

The most popular handheld ham radio for beginners is the Baofeng UV-5R, which you can get for under $25 on Amazon .

You can upgrade it with a nicer antenna , larger battery , and programming cable later, but the radio is really all the equipment you need to get started.

The Baofeng UV-5R is somewhat controversial in the ham community. Elitist ham snobs look down on it and tell you that you need to spend $200 on a "real" handheld radio. Uptight hams (affectionately referred to as "Sad Hams" by NotARubicon ) will criticize it for being able to transmit outside the ham bands. I think it's the perfect beginner radio because it's functional and so cheap that it's practically disposable.

Listen to a Nearby Repeater

Okay, you have your radio. Now you should use it to listen to amateur radio operators talking. That's where repeaters come in.

You can think of a repeater like a hub for ham radio operators. When you transmit to the repeater, it re-transmits what you said so that anyone listening to the same repeater can hear what you said. This means that you transmit on one frequency, and listen on another, but that's unimportant at the moment. The important thing to understand is that repeaters are where you'll find the most activity.

Find a repeater near you. The easiest way to do this is to install the RepeaterBook app on your phone. It uses your location to find nearby repeaters. You want a 2 meter or 70 cm repeater within about 5 miles for a decent signal. The range of a repeater all depends on things like how much power the repeater uses, where the repeater is located, terrain, etc. Since your radio is portable, you could move within range of a repeater if there isn't one close to where you are.

Repeaters aren't always busy. In fact most of the time they are silent, unused. I found the best times to listen are on weekday evenings. Sometimes the local clubs have scheduled chat sessions called "nets". Find the website for a local club , and they'll usually post net schedules.

To enter (program) a repeater in your radio, you only need to know the frequency to listen on. To transmit (which you shouldn't do until you have your license) you'll need to program two more things into your radio, but that isn't important right now, so we'll skip it.

Turn on your Baoefeng UV-5R, and press the VFO/MR button until there are no numbers underneath the battery symbol. This makes it so you can just enter a frequency. Type the six numbers of the frequency for the repeater you want to listen to. For example, one of the repeaters near me is W3VPR in Davidsonville, Maryland on 147.105 MHz. I press buttons: 1-4-7-1-0-5.

For extra credit, program in the OFFSET and T-CTCS (tone). You only need these for transmitting though.

Take a Practice Test

Go to , select Technician, select Practice Test, and give it a shot. If you don't know an answer, eliminate the ones you know are wrong and just guess on the remaining answers. It doesn't really matter how well you do on this. It's just to set your expectations for the kinds of questions you'll be answering.

Watch some YouTube Videos

So now you've listened to some hams talking on the radio, and getting a good idea about how you're supposed to behave. You've taken a practice test to get an idea what the questions are like. It's time to go a little deeper in your learning. Find yourself a good video series on YouTube. Maybe this one...

Take Many Practice Tests

This is where you'll really get ready for the exam. Watching a YouTube series only exposes you to the information once, and most people don't retain information well enough by simply seeing it once. Learning really happens when we're forced to recall the information, and do so at regular spaced intervals to combat the Forgetting Curve .

The forgetting curve graph

Go back to and use Study Mode to study for the test. will show how your aptitude is increasing. Occasionally take a practice test. When you're consistently scoring passing grades on the test, then you're ready for the real exam. I spent about an hour a day for two weeks on this, and am sure I got 100% on the real exam (although they only tell you whether you passed). The practice questions and answers are exactly the same as on the real test, so there will be no surprises!

If how we learn interests you, I highly recommend the book Make It Stick: The Science of Successful Learning

Make It Stick book

Take the Exam

When you are consistently passing the practice tests, register for an exam. You can find an exam using the ARRL website. Make sure you follow all instructions carefully when registering for the exam and taking the exam.

That's really all there is to it! I think most people could do this in two to three weeks if they wanted to. If you have any questions I would be happy to answer your comments below.

And with that, wishing you a happy Independence Day tomorrow, 73 from Eric, KC3SVJ.