More on the Test Free License

I didn’t intend to write a follow-up to the Test Free License post but the larger conversation that it has spawned both here and on Reddit has wandered quite a bit off the path that I tried to lay out in my dissertation on the matter. Some of the original context has been lost and I wanted a shot at setting the record straight – assuming that’s possible given such a volatile topic.

The idea for the post came from a visit to a ham radio shop on Friday where I noticed the number of books offering help in obtaining an amateur radio license far, far outnumbered books about antennas, assembling a radio shack, or operating procedures. I’m assuming this is because demand for training and licensing material is higher than for more general how-to books about the hobby.


With a two-hour drive home after my radio store visit, I had time to chew on why this might be so. I’m an Extra class operator who hasn’t taken a license test in a long, long time and to be honest, I never think much about our licensing process. I’ve encouraged more than a dozen people to join the hobby over my 40-year radio adventure, but I’ve never been much interested in becoming a volunteer examiner and have (sadly) left this work to others.

What I’m trying to say here is that I’m no expert on these matters.

But I do find it curious that there’s so much material available for sale on becoming a radio amateur, given that all the information necessary, including all the test questions and answers are available online at no cost. Further inspection reveals that there is a business here because people look for shortcuts – or more effective ways of reaching a goal, if you prefer, and these paid systems make such promises.

Online discussions and reviews reveal that “this” or “that” particular system makes it easier to master the material required to enter the world of amateur radio. Is it really possible to cover a large pool of regulatory, technical, and operating questions in a 100-page booklet?

Not likely, though for what it’s worth, producers of this material break things down by license class. There are different study guides for Technician, General, and Extra class examinations.

Moving past the printed or rich media that sometimes attends these systems, I see frequent mentions of successful Saturday morning testing sessions via social media. Very often these take the form of a four-hour session where it is possible to go from zero-to-license by using clever means for memorizing the questions and answers needed to pass the test.

I’ve written about this many times over the years as it seems to me to be a terrible system for injecting new blood in the hobby – though I admit it has been effective at adding to our numbers.

My objections to these kinds of license mills that exist mostly to crank out new amateurs on a monthly basis has usually been met with push back from those involved in the process who tell me that the test isn’t terribly important and what matters most is the experience of getting them on the air as quickly as possible and getting them acclimated to radio operation.

If we buy that premise, then testing is probably unnecessary and has become just another speed bump on the road to an amateur radio license. And that makes me wonder if the current system is being perpetuated because there’s profit in it?

The sale of books and study guides looks like a thriving business to me – at least that seems obvious from the number of such titles for sale at the radio store. I’ve no complaint that someone makes a few bucks for their efforts here, unless the people who produce these materials are the same folks promoting the continuation of the current process – or who propose the addition of yet another license class — requiring more study guides.

And that’s what seems to be happening. Some VEC’s who make up the question pools and administer the testing processes, are also involved in the publishing of study materials.

From these thoughts, I presented the hypothetical argument for eliminating amateur testing altogether. I don’t believe we need more than one license class, and I’m perfectly okay issuing amateur radio licenses without any testing.

But I understand that completely freaks a lot of folks out.

Some feedback said that license testing is an international requirement. I’m not sure that’s correct. The Morse code test was an international requirement, but once that was eliminated, most nations removed their national requirement for it.

The FCC rules could certainly be changed such that the VEC’s could make the “test” a ten question, true-false affair that every applicant could pass without the need for study guides.

But this brings us to the many notions that this will dumb-down the amateur radio service. Much of the feedback I received suggested that the Citizens Band experience was the result of a no-license service. I think these are all patently wrong and they oddly echo the same thing most of us incorrectly believed about the removal of the code test.

I want to wrap this long post up with a list of things that I think are important in clarifying what I actually wrote in my original treatise versus some of the feedback I received and that is being perpetuated.

1. I never suggested that the amateur radio service was dying and this was never intended as a suggestion to grow the service. Ham radio in the US is healthy.

2. Everyone who wrote to suggest that removing the license testing would turn amateur radio into CB radio is just plain wrong. The same argument has been made over and over for the last fifty years whenever any major overhaul to amateur licensing has been made and they’ve always been wrong.

3. Passing a test provides ZERO assurance that a licensee won’t break the rules or the law. It’s important to note that EVERY single FCC violation ever made by a radio amateur since the Communications Act of 1934 has been made by someone who passed a test. And most of those passed a much tougher test and proved their proficiency with Morse code. This fact alone should dispel all notions that the “test” has anything to do with creating good or bad amateur radio operators.

4. I suggested the $100 ten-year fee for two reasons. One, it should generate some revenue for the government. When the FCC dropped fees for licensing a few years back they said that the cost to collect the fees was more than the fees themselves. Still, we should recognize that government services that aren’t revenue neutral are ALWAYS subject to elimination.

5. The other reason I suggested the fee was to clean out the FCC database. As it is, a person can obtain an amateur radio license and later lose interest in the hobby. These drop out yet continue to renew their license since it is free to do. If there were some fee involved, most would probably allow these to lapse and thus clean-up the current database which is no doubt chocked full of non-active hams.

I think that about covers it. It’s certainly something to chew on even if you disagree. I do appreciate all the feedback, I asked for your comments and you offered them up. Thank you for that!

Author: Jeff Davis


2 thoughts on “More on the Test Free License”

  1. That Licence Mill thing, many fire dept. employees in this area recently passed their exams, my belief is it was to keep “outsiders” out of the Emergency Operations Centre. This gives me nightmares of marrettes and electrical tape being used to repair feedline if the antennas fail there. There is a VERY big difference between licensees…. and REAL hams.

    -Luke VE3LDJ

  2. Or we could make the test harder. I understand that amateur license tests are substantially harder in some other countries (UK, Canada).

    Also, the Technician test is about as challenging as the written test for a driver’s license. Which is scary in a different way.

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