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What to Expect at Your Ham Radio License Exam

In the past, amateur radio license tests were conducted by FCC employees at federal office buildings. Today, the tests are offered by volunteer examiners (VE) who really do want you to succeed. Morse code exams are no longer required for any class of Ham license—good news if you’re Morse-impaired.

Take a deep breath…relax…you’ve got this!

Do Your Homework

Preparation is the key to performing well. Take time to study for the exam using one of the license guides or attend a class. Try several of the online practice exams to sort out what you do and don’t know. This way, you’ll feel prepared when examination day finally arrives.

The Basics

Make sure you bring all these items to the test:

  • One legal photo ID (driver’s license, passport, student ID, etc.) 
  • Social Security Number or your FCC-issued Federal Registration Number
  • If applicable, a photocopy of your current Amateur Radio License or a reference copy printed out from the FCC website 
  • Check, money order, or cash to cover the exam session fee, currently $15, for most VE groups
  • Two #2 pencils with erasers and a pen. A calculator with the memory erased and formulas cleared can be used during the test

With any license application, there’s paperwork. You’ll fill out an FCC form 605 with your personal information. Some of the same information will need to be written on your test answer sheet, along with the test version you’re taking.

There are three levels of written exams. They all cover the same topics—regulations, operating practices, electronics, propagation, antennas, and safety—but with increasing levels of complexity:

The Technician (element 2) test is the entry license and is relatively simple. It contains 35 questions selected from a pool of about 400 questions. If you’re new to Ham radio, you’ll be taking this test first.

General (element 3) is a bit more challenging. It also has 35 questions but comes from a larger pool of about 500 questions.

Amateur Extra (element 4) is the most difficult of the three. It has 50 questions from a pool of about 700 questions.

Taking the Exam

Exams are in a multiple-choice format. Each question has four possible answers. You’ll choose the correct answer by marking an X over the letter or blackening it in. Don’t circle the letter—it makes it difficult for the VEs to see, since most use grading masks that can obscure a circle around your answer.

You’ll need to get at least 74% of the answers correct to pass. That means 26 or better for the Tech/General tests and 37 or better for the Extra. You must take the tests, in order, to get your license and upgrade. For example, if you want an Extra class license, you must pass both the Tech and General first. You can get exam credit for previous licenses you’ve had, even if they’ve expired. You’ll need proper documentation (time limits may apply). Contact a VE group for details.

As a VE, I’ve found that tests typically take from 15 minutes to as much as an hour. There really aren’t any strict time limits, but follow the session guidelines. If it’s from 6:30-8:30 pm, you’ll need to wrap up your test before the session concludes.

Test Secrets

OK, you’re in the room and you have the exam. Preview the test first, then decide where you want to begin. Start with an easy “warm-up” question, or jump right into the hardest part—whatever works best for you. Some other tips:

  • Read each question twice before answering to make sure you don’t miss the details.
  • Eliminate answers that are obviously wrong and consider the other choices. Often there are two answers that appear to be correct—choose what you believe to be the most correct.
  • Don’t get bogged down. If you’re having difficulty answering a question, move on and come back to tackle it once you’ve answered all the questions you know.
  • When you’re done, read through the test and check to see that you answered everything.
  • Contrary to popular belief, when you change your answer in a multiple-choice test, you are more likely to be changing it from wrong to right than right to wrong. Change it only if you have a reasonable doubt about your answer.

At the end of the exam, congratulate yourself for having done your best, and then forget about it for the time being. If you are worried about the results, keep things in perspective. The guy with 95% has the same license privileges as the one who got 70%. If you pass, you’ll receive a copy of your Certificate of Successful Completion of Examination. You will be assigned a call sign and be allowed to operate once the VE submits your paperwork and it is processed and posted online by the FCC.

If you don’t pass, you can take another version of your test at the session for an additional exam fee. However, if you missed a significant amount of questions, I’d recommend you do some more studying and try again in a few weeks.

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