Recently I became licenced as an amateur radio operator in Australia, and I found the process confusing and unclear. I’m hoping this guide can help the next person who wakes up one day with a desire to become a “ham”.
- Why get into amateur radio?
- What can you do?
- What are the rules/contraints?
- Inadvertent gatekeeping/jargon
- How do I get started?
- Appendix: Additional Materials
Why get into amateur radio?
You might already know why. You might be a technically-minded person who’s interested in communications or electronics, and be looking for a way to get your hands dirty and learn more. Or, you might be looking for a new hobby that involves setting up antennas in fields, or on roofs, or on the top of mountains, to establish interesting contacts far afield. Or you could be inspired by the idea of using satellites to communicate!
Amateur radio has very few limits or horizons. See the next section to understand how broad a hobby amateur radio can be.
What can you do?
Radio started with Morse code, so appropriately that is an option that is still available to you. However, it’s probably not the first way you’ll use a radio. Most of the time, you will probably want to use your voice, over Amplitude Modulation (AM), or more commonly on a variant known as Single Side-Band (SSB), which is a more power-efficient version of AM.
There are also a range of low-power digital modes that allow you to set up a small battery, a computer and a radio, and make slower-than-dialup contact with people. Some of the more common things you can do in the hobby also include:
- Walkie-talkies (handheld radios) - you can talk to your friends on a handheld. Depending on terrain and power, you can get up to tens of kms of range. If your friends want to talk back, they will also need to be licenced. As an example, my first handheld was a Yeasu VX-6R
- Repeaters - you can extend the range of your handheld by using a repeater, usually placed high on a hill and with good coverage of a region. You may surprised at just how many repeaters are available for your use, free of charge, and with a significant range! For example the repeater I commonly use has coverage of a fair chunk of metropolitan Sydney. VKham has a list of repeaters in Australia.
- HF - going down the frequency spectrum to HF, and depending on weather, you can use High Frequency (HF) to make contact with other parts of the world. This can be challenging, expensive, and a whole lot of fun.
- SOTA/POTA/QRP - combining amateur radio with getting out and about, you might like to participate in Summits on the Air, Parks on the Air, or QRP: low-powered operation, for generally portable setups.
- Digital modes - there are a range of digital modes available (e.g. RTTY, FT8, JS8Call, Olivia) that can save your voice, and often make an intelligible signal travel much further than your voice could on the same power. Hook up a computer or a raspberry pi, and you’re off!
- Morse - old school dits and dahs.
- Satellites - can be used with handhelds mentioned above or with larger setups. There are specific satellites that will act as repeaters while orbiting the earth. Great for quick, very long-range contacts! Check out AMSAT.
- EME and other bouncing - Bouncing signals off the moon, off passing aeroplanes, whatever! More information at the Wikipedia page
What are the rules/contraints?
First of all, you need a licence to transmit on the air, described in How do I get started?. Once granted, depending on your class of licence, you will have available to you a number of bands (frequency ranges). You will also be limited in your allowable transmit power, depending on your class. There is nothing to stop you from buying amateur radio equipment and listening, but you’re probably breaking the law and may incur hefty penalties if you hit the Push to Talk (PTT) button without being licenced.
The purpose of amateur radio is ostensibly to further your understanding and appreciation of radio in a non-commercial setting, so you can’t undertake any activities that will see you net a financial benefit. You also can’t get on and start playing your favourite Charli XCX track.
What this means is that this can sometimes be a truly self-serving hobby: people get on the radio sometimes to just talk about their radios. But it’s the learning and fun along the way that make it most worthwhile.
When transmitting, it’s important that you adhere to the Band Plan. These may vary from country to country. Though this isn’t enforceable, it makes the hobby more enjoyable and friendly for all involved.
While I’m sure the vast majority of it is unintended, those established in the hobby can use some words/terms that are jargon, and can make it difficult to understand unless you’re in the hobby too.
Some common examples of this are:
- “CW” is Carrier Wave, and means operating using Morse code.
- There are a range of Q Codes, which are used as shorthand for commonly-used phrases.
- “73” means “best” or “regards”. Lots of people will finish emails, blog posts and other messages relating to the hobby with “73”.
- “XYL” or “YL” means wife or girlfriend
- HT is a handheld radio
- “Hi Hi” or similar means laughter
- A “lid” is a bad operator
How do I get started?
In most countries, use of the amateur bands is governed by legislation, and a licence is required.
To obtain a call sign, you will need to register with your local authority and be issued one. A call sign is a kind of name for use on the air, though after contact is established with someone you are free to use your real name as well.
In Australia a licence is required to obtain a call sign and for permission to transmit on an amateur radio frequency.
Licences are issued by the Australian Communications and Media Authority. To obtain a licence you need to sit some exams, and ACMA will be contacted on your behalf once you have passed those tests.
The peak body for amateur radio in Australia is the Wireless Institute of Australia. Their website has a list of amateur radio clubs in Australia, many of whom will be able to assist with the licensing process.
Call signs granted in Australia start with VK, a number indicating your home state/territory, and then 2–4 letters depending on a few factors (2–3 for Advanced licences, 3 for Standard licences, and 4 for Foundation licences with the first letter beginning with ‘F’).
The list of WIA radio clubs in NSW is a good starting point to finding a local club to ask about testing.
I had good luck with my local club, the Waverley Amateur Radio Society.
There are three levels of licence in Australia:
As mentioned above your call sign currently will depend on the type of licence granted.
Obtaining a licence
Depending on your desired licence level, you will need to sit some examinations. These need to be run by approved people, so you will need to find a club (usually) that runs them. I found success after emailing around to a few clubs, and being recommended one that had scheduled exams coming up.
Clubs may also run introductory sessions, which can be very helpful for people new to the hobby. I came to the hobby with only the background of a Bachelor of Engineering (Electrical), which was obviously extremely helpful for the technical aspects, but there will always be aspects of a technical hobby that you won’t pick up at university. I recommend sitting through and absorbing as much as possible of whatever content is available to you, no matter your experience level.
There is a book for the Foundation licence available at the WIA website.
For Standard and Advances licences, there is no book. The generally-agreed best course is to study materials from the Radio and Electronics School, run by Ron Bertrand - VK2DQ. You pay ~$30 to download some materials which run on your Windows computer. While studying for the Standard course, I found that most materials could be opened on my Mac in the VLC player, however I needed Parallels to run the drills and practice exams.
Studying after work took me about 3 weeks of half-hearted effort, followed by one week of concerted effort. I studied in the evenings after work, and on weekends.
I sat the Standard licence, so I can only write authoritatively about that. For me, there were 3 tests:
This exam covers putting the radio together, knowing balanced/unbalanced line, how to deal with interferene by winding a toroid, knowledge of the types of connectors, testing connections using an Ohmmeter, and some other material. This is why despite my education it was so valuable attending the one day Foundation course at the club house; I never learnt about connectors at university! You must get 100% to pass this.
Covers your knowledge of ACMA regulations, including which bands are allowed to be used by whom. Despite studying for a particular class (e.g. Standard), you might be asked about bands that another class of licence (e.g. Foundation) can use. Ultimately a lot of rote learning. You must get around 80% to pass this.
This is where all the material about radio operation comes in. For example at the standard level, you must know resistor colour codes, how a heterodyne receiver works, how a transformer works, etc. All syllabi are available at the Austalian Maritime College. You must get around 70% to pass this.
Getting your callsign
It can take weeks to get your callsign from the date you sit your exams. It took me around 3 weeks for the AMC to acknowledge my papers, and about 4.5 weeks in total until I had my ACMA invoice. As soon as you’ve paid your invoice and ACMA have the funds (so, pay by credit card if you can’t wait!), you can get on the air.
I have my licence… now what?
If you’re excited to get going once you have your licence, I recommend getting your first radio before you’re licenced. The temption to join in on the local repeater can be hard to resist, but it’s better than making the journey of obtaining your licence feeling like a flop when you have to wait a week for your radio to arrive.
Get your first radio
Depending on your home location, you may have constraints on how big an antenna you can setup straight away. You also might not want to invest a lot of money until you really decide this hobby is for you, and which parts you might focus on.
My recommendation is to get a good reliable handheld (often referred to as a HT). There are various kinds with various features; I recommend (as above) the Yaesu VX-6R as it’s rugged, small, and versatile. It doesn’t have every feature you can find in a handheld, but it’s a good little performer.
I’ve held back from using lots of amateur radio jargon to here, but understand there might still be some portions I could explain better. If you have any questions, feel free to contact me on twitter @jeauxlb.
73s and hope to hear you soon,
Appendix: Additional Materials
I found it immensely helpful to watch immerable YouTube videos to understand the lingo and concepts. Channels I found informative include, in no order at all:
- KG6HQD (great for seeing SOTA in action)
- DXCommander (manufactures a popular portable antenna mast)
- K6UDA (if you can excuse the casual mysoginy, you can actually learn some stuff)