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What Amateur Radio Equipment Is Best For A Beginner?

Updated on December 29, 2009

There is so much radio equipment available...

When you're getting started in Amateur Radio you'll need to pass an exam and get a license from the FCC before you can transmit anything at all, unless another licensed amateur radio operator is there to oversee your transmissions. Years ago if you wanted an Amateur Radio operator's license, you needed to learn and pass a test in Morse Code, but not any more. You can get 'On The Air' with a minimum of fuss and find out how large the worldwide community of licensed Ham Radio operators is.Incidentally, the Morse Code (often referred to as just 'CW' or Charlie Whisky) is still used because it has some advantages, but hams use it by choice. Apart from voice modes (usually FM or SSB) there are numerous Digital Modes available to Hams as well. Most of them involve the use of a computer and./or a radio modem.

As a beginning Ham operator, you are NOT expected to have a collection of radio and test gear like this!
As a beginning Ham operator, you are NOT expected to have a collection of radio and test gear like this!

What To Buy Once You Get Your Ham License?

HF, VHF or UHF radios are all used by Amateur Radio operators - depending on their level of license.

A 2 meter band VHF FM transceiver or walkie talkie will probably be your best bet, because it will allow to to chit chat with other licensed ham radio operators in your town or city and get to know them. And with luck, you will find an older ham (known as an Elmer) who will "take you under their wing" and tutor you. This process is known as "Elmering".

Having a 2 meter radio will give you access to the 144-148 MHz vhf band that is assigned to Ham Radio operators in most countries of the world. The vhf signals are mostly good for line-of-sight contacts, not for working overseas "DX" stations. A handheld 2m radio will usually transmit an FM signal at about 1 to 5 watts power output, whereas a mobile or base station 2m rig may have an output of 20 watts, 50 watts or higher.

But as long as you are within range of your ham radio club's local 2m FM repeater tower, you should be able to set up your 2m two way radio to work through the repeater to talk to anyone in or around town who can hear it.

Transmitting out through a repeater is known as working duplex. Your 2 way radio transmits on one frequency or channel and receives on a different frequency... and everyone else using the repeater does the same. So while your little handheld radio might only be good for half-a-mile of distance while working simplex (same channel for both TX and RX), when you work duplex you have the added power of the repeater station to help you, plus you have the considerable extra distance courtesy of the great antenna location.

Most repeater stations have towers for their VHF or UHF antennas, and many are on the top of hills or tall buildings. So your modest walkie-talkie may well be able to talk out to everyone in the whole town or city who uses that channel.

Since repeaters cost money to set up and maintain, they usually belong to the local ham radio club. If you live in their district and plan to use their repeater, then it is pretty much expected that you will join their club and contribute to the club by paying your dues, attending meetings and making friends with your fellow ham radio (amateur radio) operators.

It is those guys (and ladies) at those meetings who can best advise you on what ham radio gear you will need. But do contact them because they'd love to help you. And they can probably help you find good deals in second-hand two way radio equipment, and they can steer you to getting your ham radio license as well.

Just remember, you may listen to ham radio frequencies before you have a license, but you cannot transmit (unless you are with a licensed "Elmer"). In that case, he (or she) will announce their callsign, and introduce you as their guest or "Second Operator".

For more information on amateur radio equipment, visit http://www.walkietalkietwowayradios.com/.

I will try to answer any radio-related questions here, as long as I think it will be of interest to other viewers. And if you pick a popular subject, I may even write a new lens about it.

Are You Interested in Ham Radio? - Make a comment or ask a question here...

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    • gedanate profile image
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      gedanate 4 years ago

      @anonymous: Hi Tracy. It isn't that simple. Hams have their assigned bands (and thousands of possible frequencies) while the hospitals and other organisations will have their assigned channels that are NOT on the ham bands. Using the Ham (Amateur Radio) bands and equipment requires studying for an exam, taking a test on radio/electronics theory and operating regulations). Are you prepared to do that? And while it it true that Hams are allowed to use ANY frequency "in case of emergency", the agencies could refuse to talk to you anyway. You just wouldn't know. The gear and antennas also costs quite a bit of money; serious money.

    • gedanate profile image
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      gedanate 4 years ago

      @anonymous: Stee. I have not used those radios, so I wouldn't even try to make a suggestion. Find your local Amateur Radio club and ask the guys there. They will know the rapeaters and the terrain. Some of them may have used those radios as well. Good luck!

    • gedanate profile image
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      gedanate 4 years ago

      @anonymous: Hello, Kevin.

      It takes some pretty sophisticated HF equipment to make a radio link work from coast to coast. It isn't any sort of basic setup. I suggest you find your local Amateur Radio club(s), contact the folks there and do a bit of studying to become a licensed Ham. They you will start to get the knowledge. Of course, the guy or gal at the other end needs to learn how to set it all up and operate, get the equipment and antennas set up and get licensed. But if it is all too much trouble, just use your cellphone or Skype. Seriously.

    • gedanate profile image
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      gedanate 4 years ago

      @anonymous: Hello Raymond. Ham Radio (aka Amateur Radio) requires some study, a knowledge test and a government license. There should be some local Amateur Radio operators in your general area. Search the Internet, try Google. Find these guys and they are sure to help you on your way to getting your radio license (and callsign) to go on the air. CB radio does not require study, and most countries don't require a license for CB any more -- but I don't know about South Africa. Do a Google search for "amateur radio clubs, south africa" and contact the organisations listed there, such as:

      http://www.parc.org.za/

      http://www.haminfobar.co.uk/ham_radio_clubs/south_...

      http://harc.org.za/

      http://www.zs6stn.org.za/

      http://www.marc.org.za/

    • gedanate profile image
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      gedanate 4 years ago

      @anonymous: Hi Jim. A vhf or uhf antenna can be very small, and some portable hf antennas can be placed on the balcony or by a window. Do some study first and talk to some local hams face to face. They will help you.

    • gedanate profile image
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      gedanate 4 years ago

      @anonymous: Hi Jeremy. There are lots of kits available that you can put together. Most of them are for low-power radio transceivers (referred to as QRP radios), and there are more morse code sets (that send a CW signal) as opposed to voice transmissions, that are usually in SSB mode (single sideband). A little morse code radio is much, much simpler and cheaper to make. A quick search in Google would have found you many, including these:

      http://www.elecraft.com/

      http://www.qrpkits.com/

      http://www.smallwonderlabs.com/

      http://fofio.blogspot.com.au/2012/04/amateur-radio...

      http://youkits.com/

      http://www.fix.net/~jparker/wild.html

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      anonymous 4 years ago

      Hello. I am an engineering student and am interested in becoming licensed and also building a HAM radio from scratch, antenna too. I will be doing this for my engineering special projects class. I am having a hard time finding a 'do it yourself' ham radio kit. It seems that they are all manufactured for me, I want to build my own. I am currently researching this project and hope to get going on it soon. Any advise you have would be fantastic as I am a total newby to HAM radio..I have soldering down so I am confident I can build my own radio. Thanks for your anticipated assistance.

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      anonymous 4 years ago

      Hi, My situation is a-bit different. I work at a remote rural hospital and want to learn HAM and buy a radio to be able to communicate with outside hospitals and state networks in case of emergencies. It is not unusual to lose for cell phones coverage in our area, and regular phone service can be quickly overwhelmed in a region wide emergency. What type of equipment would I need for this application?

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      anonymous 4 years ago

      hello i just started studying for my license in Canada and as my First radio i would like to get the Yeasu VX8 DR(i don't want the GR for the gps yet). do you think this would be a good choice as it is upgradeable and future proofed. i like that it is a tri bander and i live about 10 miles away from a repeater

    • profile image

      anonymous 4 years ago

      Looking for a basic set up that will allow me to communicate from Missouri to both coasts, east and west. Any suggestions on where to start. thank you Kevin Matthews. P.s. i saw a login section but no register section for the site?

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      anonymous 5 years ago

      Good Day. A bit more than 20 years ago I received a battered AM CB A Major radio from my grandfather. I very much enjoyed the hooby at the time also being a teenager. I would like to start this hobby again, but I have no clue where to start. Any Advice? George - Western Cape South Africa.

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      anonymous 5 years ago

      I live in an apartment on the first floor. What do you do for an antenna. Am thinking of getting into ham.

    • gedanate profile image
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      gedanate 5 years ago

      @anonymous: Hi Suzie. Congratulations on purchasing your RV. I am sure you and your 4-legged companion have some great adventures ahead of you. Now as for radios, I want you to understand that CB Radio is not the same as Amateur Radio. CB Radio does not need a license these days in the US, but Amateur Radio does -- and getting that license as a "Ham" requires a little bit of study and passing an examination, then paying small fee. Basically, I would counsel against relying on a two-way radio in case of an emergency. Your cellphone should be your primary method of dialing 911 if you need help real bad. But having a 2-way radio makes a useful backup or "Plan B" when you are too far from any cell tower to be able to get a connection. Remember, on CB radio or Amateur Radio, there is no switchboard of professional operators standing by just waiting for your call. You would just have to hope you can find a channel where people are talking and try to "break in" to the conversation... hoping they will (a) hear you, then (b) invite you to talk, and then (c) take your plea seriously and make a phone call to the authorities on your behalf. Then again, a CB or Ham/Amateur radio can be great for making new friends as you travel, but as a lone woman, even with a doggy companion, you must always be on your guard for those who might wish to take advantage of or harm you. Whatever CB radio you buy, having a good antenna is a must. If you can fit a full 1/4-wave 9-foot whip onto your RV, then do so. It will give you the best possible range... and mount the base of the antenna as high as possible. (You can always tilt the antenna down when driving.) Or, if you are willing to get an Amateur license, you can get a VHF radio and get access to many of the repeater stations out there that re-broadcast your signal to cover a wide area. See also: http://www.walkietalkietwowayradios.com/698/radio-...

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      anonymous 5 years ago

      Hello and thanks for considering my post and question. I am about to embark on an adventure, on my own with my dog. Buying a brand new Roadtrek SS Agile (Class B RV) -- I will be starting out slowly to travel the roads rather than jumping in with both feet and trying to make it from Coast to Coast on my first sojourn!! I got the "bug" from my Mom who took us kids (solo) when we were younger on many road trips in her Van conversion and THEN the upgraded Broughan! I am thinking that I'd really like to have a "cb radio" for my new rig, not only for emergencies, but for "company"! Can you give me any hints about how I would make a decision on the type to get and the accessories I'd need (antennae, etc.)? I don't mind spending the money to get something that will work well and get me decent long range coverage. Thanks so much. Suzie Weston.

    • gedanate profile image
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      gedanate 5 years ago

      @anonymous: Hello David. Congratulations on making the decision to do what it takes to become a licensed Amateur Radio operator. I cannot advise on clubs in your area, since I live in Australia and not in the USA. However, I will point you to the ARRL web site as a good starting point to find your nearest Amateur Radio clubs. They will be able to help you directly. Here in Sydney, our local club has an appointed Education Officer, a retired old Ham who freely gives his time to coach newbies through the radio exams, and who reports to the club every month how many more licensed members have successfully sat for their ham exams.

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      anonymous 5 years ago

      Hello:my name is david and im an expierenced radio operator from the late 1960,s-1980s then took a long break.Had the normal lower band fcc licenses at the time and active in react but was never a ham.I would like to become a ham and im just starting out.It would be nice to be under elmers wing in my area of yucca valley ca so i can learn properly. started the online course and got ham for dummies! Would appreciate any constructive insight and mabe a lead for a local mentor i can work with and learn properly.Thank you!

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      anonymous 5 years ago

      @gedanate: Most hams are ignorant,and do not want to help.They talk a good story that's all.

    • gedanate profile image
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      gedanate 5 years ago

      @gedanate: My two way radio web site is: http://www.walkietalkietwowayradios.com -- Just check the links in the side column.

    • gedanate profile image
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      gedanate 5 years ago

      @anonymous: Hey, Jack. I am sorry I missed your question earlier. However, it looks as if I have just answered it for a teenage visitor named Nick. Go to the ARRK, and also do a search on the web for an Amateur Radio Club in your vicinity. 73 de David vk2dmh

    • gedanate profile image
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      gedanate 5 years ago

      @anonymous: Hi Nick. I'm an Aussie so I am not completely knowledgeable about the US tests. Also, I did mine back in the 1970s when they were quite different, and even included Morse Code. These days you just take a pretty simple multiple choice test, and a volunteer examiner (a VE) examines your answers and passes your details to the FCC when you pass. I know you are already old enough, because kids (sorry) younger than you have gained amateur radio licenses. What you need to do is read and memorize the answers to a batch of the stock exam questions. You can do this off the internet, but the best way is to go to the ARRL wensite and find a ham radio club that is close to you. They will usually have a training officer, and even if not, there should be some experienced Amateurs who will help get you started. have fun!

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      anonymous 5 years ago

      How hard is the FCC test? I am 14 years old, can I get a license?

    • gedanate profile image
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      gedanate 5 years ago

      @anonymous: Hi Dave, that is not an easy question to answer, but I'll give you my thoughts on the matter. You'd be looking at an HF Amateur Radio that can do a full 100 watts PEP output using single sideband (for voice) or digital modes (computer to computer). Depending on the distance between the two locations, the sunspot cycle (which affects radio propagation) and whether it is day or night, you would be using frequencies between around 3.5 MHz (80m band) and 14.2 MHz (the 20m band).

      Contact the ARRL (the link is on the right column of every page on my site) and ask for the contact details of your nearest Amateur Radio club, they can help you get a license that will cover you for using the HF radio. Alternatively, you could pay the FCC for some kind of land-mobile HF license for the two radios (one at each end of the circuit), then pay for the frequencies they will assign to you. It will be a big hassle, I expect, and rather costly. Also, you would not be allowed to use a ham rig (without a ham license) and would have to buy a type-approved commercial-grade HF radio instead that has FCC approval.

      Talk to your local hams as soon as you can. But be prepared to do a bit ow work to get your license! All the best! David Harvey, vk2dmh.

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      timwilly90 6 years ago

      Very nice written post, Thanks for explaining in detail.

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      anonymous 6 years ago

      Thank you for this page.

      For years I've wanted to invest myself and the few $'s i have available into developing a Ham base. Now that I"m old, financialy bent and retired I have time to learn. This page answered some questions, however I don't know the right questions to ask to gain the knowledge I need. Can you extend a helping hand?

      Thanks again.

      Jack Hotchkiss

      rejackh@gmail.com

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      anonymous 6 years ago

      What would it take in license and hardware to do emergency radio communications between North Carolina and Arizona?