HAM Radio 101

What’s a Vanity Call Sign and How Do You Get One?

Have you thought about changing your current call sign? Maybe you’ve upgraded your license, moved to a new call area, decided you want a shorter call, or have a real tongue twister that’s hard to decipher on the air. It could be you want a call that’s easier for your friends to remember or one the net control station won’t keep asking you to repeat.

A vanity call sign is one that a ham or amateur radio club wants in place of an existing call sign. Vanity call signs often include alphabetical characters that are important to the licensee—initials, parts of names, hobbies, nicknames, or amateur radio terms. For example, a person who hunts rare stations might request a call including the letters DX. As mentioned above, making the change might just be a matter of brevity.

The Process

With approximately 700,000 licensed hams in the United States, a lot of call sign combinations have already been assigned. Anyone can change their existing call sign at any time. The format of the call sign you qualify for is determined by your license class. The higher your license class, the shorter the call sign you can obtain. If you have a recent technician license, you have a 2×3 call similar to this one:

  • Group A: Amateur Extra Class, 1×2, 2×1, and 2×2 (includes AA-AL prefixes exclusively)—Examples: K3AB, WB4J, AA6WW
  • Group B: Advanced Class, 2×2—Examples: NC4RX, KB2DX
  • Group C: General and Technician, 1×3 (or 2×2 in special locations such as Alaska)—Example: N8BBQ
  • Group D: Technician and Novice, 2×3—Example: KE9OOP 

The first step is to choose a few call signs that you’d be happy with and list them in order of preference—first choice, first on list. You may not get your first choice for a number of reasons (others may have applied for it, for example). In order to increase your chances of finding something that matches, do not forget to check all combinations, not just suffixes. Some name examples: KB3OB, KJ3ILL, A4LAN, etc.

Another thing to consider is letter clarity—how clear will the sound of the letters be on voice contacts. The letters B, C, D, E, G, P, T, V, Z, and other sound-alikes can be tough to distinguish. Letters R, X, O, etc. have their own unique sounds and are easier to differentiate. For CW, total dits and dahs determine how long it will take to send a call sign, which is important in contesting. A8EN could be sent significantly faster than K4GP.

Then there are the clever combinations—initials like W6NBC or N2FBI, acronyms such as K2OCD, and ones that spell words or ham radio abbreviations like K8BOX or W7OM. Often the numbers 1 and 0, which have a visual similarity to I and O, are used to spell combinations like K1ND or W0RM.

Call Sign Research

Applicants wanting a specific vanity call sign will need to independently research the FCC Universal Licensing System (ULS) database before deciding to file an application. You can perform an Amateur License Search to research call sign availability and Vanity Call Sign Application Search to ensure that your desired callsign(s) do not already have a pending vanity application on file. The FCC Licensing and Support staff cannot provide assistance or guidance in determining the availability of amateur call signs.

The following additional sites all get their information from the FCC site, but may be more helpful:

The ARRL site at www.arrl.org/vanity-call-signs gives you most of the things you need to know concerning rules, procedures, and FCC information.

Radioqth (https://www.radioqth.net/vanity) provides listings of the ham call signs from the FCC’s database that will be coming available tomorrow for submission on a vanity license request, links to call signs that will be coming available in the future, and a listing of the ham vanity applications that have been recently granted by the FCC. There’s also a call search.

AE7Q (https://www.ae7q.com/query/) can help you look up call sign histories and applications, available Amateur Extra call signs, vanity call sign predictions and more, using a copy of the FCC’s amateur license and application databases—automatically updated from FCC data several times a day.

Call Search WM7D.net and QRZ.com offer simple call sign searches to check your vanity wish list.

What is your ideal call sign? Everyone’s choice will be a personal one for them and only limited by the group of call signs available based on their license class, geographic location, previously issued call signs, etc.

Your first step should be to check for available and soon to be available call signs from the sites above. Radioqth and AE7Q offer current lists of calls now available or that will be available in the near future. Once you’ve compiled a list of valid, unused call signs, it’s time to make your application.

Here are a couple of important tips.

  • You will not be considered for a call sign if you apply before the date it is available.
  • It’s also a common misconception that call signs are granted to the first person to apply. The truth is that everyone who applies for a certain call on a particular day is thrown into a hat and a winner is randomly selected.
  • You can apply for a call sign for another call district, provided it’s available. You’re not restricted to the one used where you live. For example, if you wanted K8DQ but it wasn’t available, and K7DQ was, you could ask for K7DQ.
  • There is a special exception for calls previously held by a close relative who is deceased. You can request that call, provided you have the same or higher license class. Example: You must be an Amateur Extra Class operator to request a Group A call sign.

Applying for a Vanity Call

1. Find Your FCC Registration Number (FRN). If you have an FCC radio license, you have an FRN. To find your FRN, search for your call sign on the ULS page.

2. Log into the FCC ULS. Next you need to log into the ULS and select the Online Filing login option. You’ll need your FRN and your password for the site. If you don’t have a password assigned yet or forgot yours, follow the Forgot Your Password? instructions on this page.

3. Request a vanity call sign. Once you log into the ULS, it should show you a list of licenses assigned to your FRN. Click on your ham license to open the License Manager page. You should see a blue menu box near the right edge of the page titled Work on This License. This menu box includes a Request Vanity Call Sign selection. Continue past the “Applicant Questions” page (answer “no” to each) to the “Select Eligibility” page. Select your category, most commonly Primary station preference list, unless you are requesting a vanity call formerly held by you or a close relative. Continue to the next page to provide your vanity calls in order of preference.

4. Pay the FCC application fee. Follow the FCC instructions on how to pay the $35 application fee. After completing the vanity application, the system will automatically open a page asking how you want to pay and will walk you through the payment process.

Join the Vanity Insanity

I am glad the FCC has a system that allows hams to choose call letters based on their personal criteria and not just luck of the draw. It’s good to have choices, and here’s your chance.

Hams hold call signs almost as dear to them as their given names. There may be thousands of Maria Garcias or James Smiths in the world, but only one K8MSH. Given the current population of planet Earth, I can truly say I’m one in eight billion!

Will you miss the old call? Perhaps—I did for the first few months. There were times when I started to ID and said N before realizing I should have said K. And then there were the nearly 200 QSL cards I still had with my old call sign, not to mention my vehicle’s vanity plate.

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