Congrats on getting your ticket! Welcome to the fun world of Amateur Radio.
I will absolutely agree with the advice to pick up a cheap 2m VHF/UHF handheld, but I would STRONGLY advise you, if you can afford it, to pick up a used Yaesu, iCom, or Kenwood unit, or at worst an Alinco, instead of a Baofeng. This will fly in the face of many people here whom I do acknowledge as very good friends - A Baofeng is a radio, it will work, it is dirt cheap. However, the chipset they use and the modulation/demodulation techniques employed inside it mean that it has much lower sensitivity and discrimination ability, and there are reports that they are more electrically fragile than other radios - in other words as you grow and start playing with new antennas and try to really learn about the mysterious and beautiful analogue side of the hobby, your poor Baofeng is likely to easily give up the ghost for some trifling mismatch. The more robust commercial brands are at least moderately well protected from this, and also easier to repair.
== Note: “HT” is the term almost everybody uses for the walkie-talkie style amateur radios, it means “Handheld Transceiver” though some old fuddies will say it means “Handy Talkie” ==
My recommendation would be something along the lines of a Yaesu FT-60R, VX-5R (or the -3, 4, or 6), VX-150 (aka FT-250), or an iCom T-7H. These are all very solid, reliable radios that you can likely find used in good condition on eBay, at a local amateur swapfest if you have any clubs around you, or through craigslist or what-have-you in your area. I have a Kenwood TH-F6A which was my very first radio and I still very much like, although I find the buttons very small and the advanced feature set is still slightly confusing to try to use in earnest, so I recommend a simpler rig that you can alternately use as a hammer in an emergency, if you catch what I’m saying. I do not recommend any of those fancy touchscreen units that are currently on the shelves as your first HT, or even your third, but far be it from me to hide you from some imagined fun if that’s really your jam.
Ok, so stepping back a little and looking at the wider picture of what amateur radio has to offer, while this is by no means an exclusive list, here are the aspects that appeal to me, and a few aspects I know personally appeal to others, in no particular order:
- The ability to actually friggen transmit radio. I mean, this is just cool. You’re twiddling etheric waves of electromagnetism and somebody else, potentially across the planet, is picking them up and making sense out of them. That’s just… I mean if that’s not cool to you I don’t know if anything else here is going to turn your crank at all, either. This is the big fun, to me. It’s kind of like asking pilots why they fly… because it’s friggen AWESOME. Everything else is secondary.
- It’s a sort of ultimate DIY - you can’t see anything you’re doing, so there’s a huge amount of inference, deduction, analysis, occasionally some math, and a whale of a lot of experimentation going on here to figure out how to make sense of the bizarre, imperfect mismash that is radio-frequency energy. So antennas are suddenly actually really neat, because by simply bending a piece of wire differently, or shaping it differently, or attaching two different pieces at different points, innumerably different (and occasionally useful) effects occur. Same thing with the transceivers, with different receive circuits, with different modes (and how to detect and modulate them), etc. It’s just a big engineering nerd’s playground to see how things work, figure out what makes them work and how to improve them, etc.
- Ok setting aside the physics nerd stuff, another really important and useful aspect to radio operation goes back to one of the very first practical applications for radio - shipboard telecommunications, especially lifesaving. The Titanic wasn’t a total mysterious loss because of radio, several hundred people were saved because of radio. It’s an immensely practical means of communicating with very low power and minimal equipment across great distances as needed, and this tradition and the skills, practices, operating procedures, etc. for using it in this manner are actively practiced by radio amateurs globally on a regular basis. Look up ARES if you’re in the US (or if not, your local equivalent amateur radio emergency service group). They help out in major hurricane disasters - in fact during the Katrina incident in New Orleans they were the ONLY operating radio dispatch network for ambulances, police, and fire in the city for – I believe – several months after the disaster. Getting involved, even on a part-time basis, with this crew is both great fun and doing a community service. If disaster hits in your area, you’ll at least know where on the spectrum to show up and what you might be able to offer to help, or how to get assistance if you need it.
- Another really neat thing to do with radio these days is to do tricks with it. Things like bouncing radio waves off the moon (which is actually really tricky) or moving satellites – these are a sort of “sport” for amateur radio operators. Other radio sports include SOTA and POTA - that’s “summits on the air” and “parks on the air” respectively. In the former case you go physically to various “summits” (e.g. recognized local peaks of hills or mountains) in your area or wherever they can be found, and try to talk to people via radio from that physical location. There are a few “rules” to make it fair and to ensure that you got legitimate “contacts” but other than that it’s just fun. POTA is the same thing, but for national and regional parks. For some people it’s just a good excuse to get on the air, for others it’s a collector’s thing - they try to get all the peaks or parks in their state or province, or all the major national parks, for instance. You can play both ends of these sports - you can try to “chase” people who are out there, as in, you sit at home and use various resources such as the “spotter” websites to know what frequencies they’ll be on at what time, and then listen in to see if you can hear them, and try to be one of their “contacts” - sort of like an assist in hockey. There are “awards” for these sorts of things and they can be a fun and lively way to use your radio in a purposeful manner.
- On the flip side, you can try to get as many contacts from as far away as possible (this is called DXing), or with as little power as possible (this is called QRPing). I personally really like the idea of DX QRP work, which is to say seeing how far you can get with as little power as possible. It’s sort of the deep nerd side of radio, where everything matters from the antenna and directivity and terrain to the sunspot/solar cycle and where you want to transmit to, to your gear and how sensitive or efficient it is.
There’s a lot more including digital modes, data transmission, software-defined radios (where the bulk of the “radio” is in DSP, not physical hardware), etc. All of this can apply to all of the above in different ways too.
But I’ve sort of saved the best for last, and that is “CW” (continuous-wave), or what you might know as Morse Code. CW is pretty much the old-school to end all old-schools of radio, and for good reason - it uses the least bandwidth of any human-modulated scheme out there, and so can punch through with low power where nearly nothing else can. It’s also a discipline, a practice, and when you get good at it, something that appears akin to black magic to the profane. This is really an art form disguised as an incredibly useful communications system, and I’m learning it as much for the mental discipline and the curiosity (QRP CW rigs are absolutely tiny, use so little power, and can DX like nobody’s business - they’re pretty much amazing) as for the utility.
Ok great you can do all this with a radio, whooo. How to actually DO it, though? Well, that’s why radio clubs exist. Find your local club, usually they’re the ones who run the repeaters near you. Don’t know your club? You’re in the States (aka Canada’s Underpants), so you can join the ARRL and they have lists of clubs and a repeater directory you can get. If anyone is reading this in Canadia (aka America’s Top Hat), you can get similar information from the RAC. If you’re in the UK, it’s the “Radio Society of Great Britain” you’ll be looking to contact. In any case, no matter what country you’re in, there’s an amateur radio authority, and likely a variety of clubs, at least one of which will cover your homestead. Join them, at least for the first year, and try to attend club meetings. Clubs will have, almost always on 2m and occasionally on other frequencies too, what is called a “net”. All a “net” is is an organized roundtable of conversation amongst a lot of people who are using the frequency at the same time. I recommend for your first net you just listen, although you’re welcome to “check in” if you like, but it’s good to get a feel for how your club runs the net and what they do before you dive in, in case they put you on the spot your first time around! The reason nets exist is to give people practice with using the air, to test out new rigs (you get signal reports on how your signal quality is, so you can figure out if that new antenna is any real upgrade from your HT’s rubber duck or not), and to give people practice with the roundable taking-turns that is necessary when sharing one frequency. Showing up on the net also "supports’ your club in that it incentivizes them to continue funding the repeater - as long as you pay your dues too! Repeaters are NOT cheap to operate, and they provide a critical and useful service to any VHF/UHF users in the area. Supporting that, even a little bit, helps the resiliency of your community directly.
So, if I’m to summarize the major groups of pursuits in amateur radio, the bigger categories would be:
- VHF/UHF users who like to join the local nets, chat with each other or their families over local repeaters, or just scuttlebut (“rag chewing” with their radio buddies) when nobody else is using the repeater. You can cover a circle of over 100 miles radius with a well located repeater, so this gives your tiny HT an immense amount of range and utility, all by itself.
- HF users who like to try to communicate long distance (DX) for the challenge and enjoyment of not needing any infrastructure. Various levels of DIY and skill (e.g. CW operation) add challenge and QRPing adds a dimension of efficiency and precision.
- “Contesters” who do the various radio “sports” like moonbounce (aka EME), SOTA/POTA adventure-oriented radio use, or the armchair operators who enjoy talking to the folks “out there” contesting.
- Community-conscious folks who enjoy being prepared for emergencies, making contacts with local law enforcement and other agencies and learning to co-operate in emergency situations.
- Experimenters and DIYers of both traditional “I built my first radio” Marconi types to those working on next-gen DSP algorithms and software-defined radios or digital modes.
- Those of us who are enjoying the active CW community and finding the challenges, secrets, and arcane operating procedures of the old times enjoyable. Plus we get the better ends of the frequency bands.
There’s no “order” in which to do these correctly. Marconi was basically just goofing around and figuring things out as he went. Just find an aspect that interests you and start learning about it. Find others who operate like that, learn from them, make friends, and then try stuff.
There’s a lot of talk about “Elmers” - basically anybody who can show you the ropes is an elmer for you - it just means mentor or guide. Finding elmers is crucial to success - there’s a lot of hidden or assumed knowledge in radio operations that you pick up MUCH faster just by watching someone experienced operate and then bombarding them with questions, and then trying it yourself and getting feedback. For instance, the friend who helped me tune my DX Commander antenna in the park was “elmering” me on HF - I haven’t done much HF operating before and there are certain patterns and expectations to using it for people who are very experienced. It can seem daunting the first time or three you go on air on HF. For you, you don’t need to worry about this just yet as you’ve got a Tech class ticket, so you won’t be doing HF work until you get your General, at least, so my recommendation would be to first get comfortable with 2m and 70cm operation, get your HT, maybe build a slim jim or other homemade antenna for it, see the difference in repeaters you can access or range you get, etc. Join a club and participate in fox hunts and club activities to make friends and see how others operate. Maybe buy a mobile 2m rig with a little more power that can either go in your vehicle or serve as an affordable base station so you can operate from home comfortably too. You’ll need an antenna for that also, so build a home antenna and mount it. These little challenges are fun, rewarding, save you money, and get you involved long enough to help you learn where you want to go at your own pace, while still reaping a lot of the rewards right off the bat.
I’m absolutely delighted you asked these questions here, and if there’s anything else you’d like to know, just ask away. I had so many questions when I got started and it really didn’t feel like there were good organized resources to help me sort it out - until I started talking to PEOPLE and not looking online or in books. That’s what we’re here for.
73 (this means best regards, it’s quite common in radio parlance)