Amateur Radio License Classes
Amateur radio operators are differentiated from most other radio operators by the requirement of an FCC license granted only after passing an exam. Citizens Band (CB) radio operators don't need any license, nor do Family Radio Service (FRS) or Multi-Use Radio Service (MURS) operators. General Mobile Radio Service (GMRS) operators require a license but no exam is needed to get one. The amateur radio exam requirement ensures a minimal amount of competence among amateur operators.
There are currently three classes of licenses issued for amateur radio: Technician, General, and Amateur Extra. (There are a few older classes around that can still be renewed but no new licenses are issued for those archaic classes.) Each license class grants the operator more privileges and access to more of the amateur radio bands.
The Technician class is the current entry level license. It primarily allows access to VHF/UHF bands. In the greater Los Angeles area, that gives you access to hundreds of repeaters. With the Internet Radio Linking Project (IRLP), you can use a handheld radio to talk to repeaters thousands of miles away. You can also communicate with satellites and the International Space Station on these bands. If talking isn't enough, you can try amateur radio television! Still not enough? Try Moon Bounce where you bounce a radio signal off the moon and back to Earth! How's that for a long distance contact?
The next license class up is the General. It gives you access to large portions of every U.S. amateur radio band. With the General, you get the long range HF bands not allowed with a Technician license. If you want to talk to amateur operators all over the world using Single Sideband (SSB), this is the license for you.
The top level license is Amateur Extra (often referred to simply as Extra.) It allows full access to all parts of the amateur radio bands. This license gives you all available privileges, bands, and power allowed on amateur radio.
So, where do you start? You have to pass the thirty‐five question Technician written exam first. It covers basic FCC rules, frequencies allowed, radio safety, etc. You must score twenty‐six (74%) or better to pass. Topics covered by the exam are broadly outlined on this Subelement Guide. Some amateur radio clubs and commercial organizations offer Technician license prep courses (often over a weekend). There are also many books available to use as study aids.
Once you've studied the material, it's time to take the test. You can test yourself with practice tests on this site (select Exams on the menu above). Once you are satisfied you can pass the real exam, you need to find an exam location. Many amateur radio clubs sponsor test sessions. To find a local club, mouse‐over the Club tab on the menu above. A drop‐down list of counties (for the greater Los Angeles area) will appear. Select your county and browse until you find a local club. If they have a linked Web page, check the club's page for testing sessions.
Another way of finding exam locations is through Volunteer Examiner Coordinators (VECs). VECs are responsible for coorinating ALL amateur radio licensing exams. There are currently fourteen VECs recognized by the FCC. Some operate regionally (such as the Greater Los Angeles Amateur Radio Group VEC), some nationally (such as American Radio Relay League (ARRL) VEC), and some in between. The FCC maintains a list of the VECs. Each VEC often provides a list of upcoming exams they are coordinating.
What about testing fees? FCC rules allow VECs to charge a fee as reimbursement of expenses. The maximum fee allowed is currently (in 2017) $15 per test session. The actual fee charged will vary depending upon the VEC. As examples of current fees (in 2017), the Laurel VEC does not charge ANY fee, the Greater Los Angeles Amateur Radio Group VEC charges $5, and the American Radio Relay League (ARRL) VEC charges the full $15! Please note that the reimbursement fee does NOT go to the club hosting the test session. It goes to the VEC.