What Privileges Do HAM Radio Operators Need in the United States?

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In order to listen in on HAM radio, all you need is a police scanner or a two-way radio capable of picking up the shortwave frequencies. You’ll need to either know the frequency you want to listen to, or just spend some time searching the airwaves to see what you find.

But once you’re tuned in, you’re good to go!

If you’re not content to simply listen in though, then you might find yourself itching to have a go at transmitting. Unfortunately though, this is a little more complex: and not simply a matter of picking up a walkie talkie and broadcasting!

Among other things, you will need a license in order to become a ham radio operator – and you will need the correct privileges. We’ll explain those now.

Types of Operator License

Broadcasting by radio in the United States requires a license in most cases. This is intended to prevent accidental radio jams, to help educate operators on how to intercept and handle emergency radio transmissions, and to generally monitor the content being put out into the blue.

In order to obtain a license, you will need to first pass a specific test level, which is called an ‘element’. You’ll then have a permanent credit for that ‘level’ of test, which you will keep as long as you continue to renew your license.

That system enables you to progress at your own pace – and the license will be good for ten years with no need to retake an exam when it needs renewing.

So, what are the levels?


A technician has all amateur privileges and is where most hams will start. A technician will be allow to access all ham bands with frequencies ranging from 50MHz and upwards.

Technician licensees also have permission to transmit by voice on certain parts of the 10 meter band, and to use Morse code on some of the HF bands under 30MHz. To pass this test, you need to answer 35 multiple choice questions and score 26 or higher. Morse code is no longer required for amateur operation under 30MHz.

General Class

The general class license is the next step up and is a great milestone for many. Hams with a general license are permitted to broadcast on all amateur frequencies, with only small portions of the HF bands off limits. The general class exam once again consists of 35 questions.

Amateur Extra

An Amateur Extra license gives all amateur privileges, with only a few small HF bands off-limits – these being reserved for Morse code operators who communicate with rare foreign stations (DXing). For everyone else, this will provide more than enough freedom to run their station as they choose.

Grandfathered Classes

Grandfathered classes are those legacy classes that still exist from bygone eras. These include novice and advanced licenses.

Keep in mind that there are some license-free bands that you can communicate on if you just want to practice. If that’s all you have in mind, then you still just need a handheld two-way radio to get started. For everything else, you’ll want one of these licenses.

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