How Amateur Radio Call Signs Work

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Getting into HAM radio can feel a little bit like entering a secret club! You’ll be communicating on channels that only those in the know will be listening to, and you’ll be partaking in a tradition that dates back to pre WW1!

Another cool facet of amateur radio, is that you’ll be given your own call signs. A call sign is a legal requirement that is used to identify the station or the operator. In some countries, stations are required to use their station call sign, while in others the operator may use their call sign instead.

How Call Signs Work and Why They Are Necessary

If you are hoping to become a ham radio operator, then you might think that you can simply buy yourself a two-way radio and get started! Unfortunately, it is not quite that simple: the reason being that operating a radio is actually a position of responsibility. It is possible as a radio operator to unintentionally jam transmissions from weather radio, marine VHF radio, or other important emergency radio.

It’s therefore important to make sure that you understand what you are doing and don’t intentionally or maliciously interfere with important communications.

At the same time, there’s always the possibility when operating any radio signal, that you might inadvertently intercept an emergency broadcast. Perhaps for instance you were to receive a message from someone stranded on a mountain. It’s possible to do this even with shortwave radio, due to the way that it works. Should this happen, it’s important that you know what you are doing!

This is why it’s necessary for any Ham radio operators to first obtain a license.

But how would the regulating bodies know whether someone had a license or not if they were to listen in on a radio communication? If you are communicating via radio, then all they will have is your voice and your frequency – presumably that could be anyone unless they know your voice!

And this is where the call-sign comes in. This tells people listening in that you are authorized to broadcast, and it helps quickly identify the nature of the broadcast and whether or not it’s something that needs the further attention of the authorities.

Ham Radio Call Signs

Amateur radio call signs belong to the ‘international series’ and will follow a certain pattern – a character prefix, a digit (which often explains the geographic location or class of license), and a suffice consisting of the number 1, 2, 3 or a letter.

This can vary in different countries. In Australian for instance the call sign will have a two letter prefix, digit, and then a number from 2-4 or a letter suffice.

Station operators will then give their station name by voice – stating the letters normally or using the phonetic alphabet (some countries require phonetic alphabet identification).

In some instances, it is possible to select a ‘vanity’ call sign, which is a little like a vanity license plate and simply lets you pick from call signs that are available. You can search databases like the WM7D call-sign database to find those that are still free.