Become A Ham Radio Operator
Amateur radio is a popular hobby with over 690,000 participants in the U.S. alone. But you can't just sit down in front of a radio and start transmitting. You must be licensed by the FCC in order to operate a transmitter.
Find A Club
The best way to learn about amateur radio is to find a local club. These are hams who get together and do fun exercises like fox hunts (tracing rogue transmitters) and talk shop.
One guide for studying for your Technician Class exam is the ARRL Ham Radio License Manual (ISBN: 0-87259-963-9). Another study that's popular (and free!) is KB6NU's No-Nonsense, Technician Class License Study Guide. You can download this study guide from KB6NU's Ham Radio Blog.
In addition to studying for the test, you can take practice tests online. One example is the QRZ Amateur Radio Practice Test site.
Etiquette is very important in ham radio, and much of the Technician exam involves learning about following correct procedure. The first rule of operation is to not interfere with other peoples' signals. That's not just etiquette, it's the law. If that means moving your contact to another frequency, so be it. Also, remember that the FCC polices the airwaves, which means swearing is a no-no.
As telegraphy becomes less important to commercial radio operators, it is less important for amateur radio operators to learn it, so the FCC reduced their requirements for knowing Morse Code. Over the years the FCC eased the Code requirement for various classes until finally, in 2007, they did away with it altogether. There are still plenty of opportunities to learn and use Code, and there are even certain frequency bands that are Code-only. However, you no longer need to learn Morse Code to pass a license exam.
There currently are three different classes of licenses available to new amateurs in the US. The entry-level license, called Technician Class, has limited transmitting privileges below 30 megaHertz (MHz), but all privileges above that. Technicians may test for the General Class which grants greater privileges. The highest level of ham is the Amateur Extra which enjoys all the privileges available to an amateur.
Tests are offered by local radio clubs during their hamfests, and other times. To find an upcoming test near you, check out ARRL's Find-An-Exam page, or contact your local club to see if they'll schedule a test by request. Many of the Volunteer Examiners who offer tests are willing to coordinate a test at a mutually convenient time.
Every licensed ham has a unique call sign. For example, the ARRL president Kay C. Craigie has the callsign N3KN. When you pass your exam you'll be given a callsign by the FCC. However, so-called vanity callsigns can be purchased if you don't like what you got.
The official FCC callsign search page is at: http://wireless2.fcc.gov/UlsApp/UlsSearch/searchLicense.jsp
To know who you're hearing and talking to, the two largest world-wide callsign databases are:
There are several organizations devoted to organizing volunteer radio operators to assist authorities in the event of a disaster. For example, when Hurricane Katrina hit, cell towers and telephone poles were down. Hams mobilized to provide communications. Additional information can be found at the following websites:
Build Or Buy Equipment
Once you're licensed, you still need something to transmit with. That can mean a rather expensive piece of electronics. However, there are alternatives to purchasing new. First, many people who are skilled at electronics simply build their own transmitter. There are DIY kits available. Others shop for used equipment at ham conventions, which usually have a flea market as part of the program.
Several online ham radio communities have used equipment for sale by individuals who upgraded their gear, as well as equipment reviews which cover both current and older gear. Amateur radio technology from years ago still communicates just fine. Many people start with used gear, and some even prefer (and collect) older radios with vacuum tubes and analog dials.
Once your equipment in place, start transmitting! Just make sure you're operating on a frequency you're entitled to, and remember to use your call sign to let everyone know you're out there.
It’s A Sport
Radiosport is the word, lots of hams on the air all at the same time. Over 10,000 people participated in the CQ WW (World Wide) contest in 2008. If the ham bands seem under-populated during the weekdays, just wait until a radiosport weekend. More information at Arrl Contest Page
Learn The Lingo
You are officially a New Ham. Try to avoid motorboating (low frequency hum) and busted calls (improperly stated callsigns) while making the trip (transmitting a message successfully). Continue to gather knowledge and experience and you'll be an Elmer (a ham radio mentor of new hams) in no time. Meanwhile, brush up on your jargon. Also, learn the NATO phonetic alphabet for relaying callsigns, spelling, abbreviations and numerals.
Ham Universe is a great site with tips for new hams and Elmers alike.
Practice your Morse Code with a handy webapp.