A hobby. A licensing scheme to encourage experimentation in radio transmission. A worldwide friendly society. A learning environment incorporating electronics, computers, meteorology, satellites, radio, television and communications techniques.
Because it's fun - honest.
No. Anybody can play! The youngest licenced amateur in the UK is still in primary school, the oldest just keeps getting older! Interest and enthusiasm qualifies you for entry.
Citizens' Band radio is licensed in the UK without the requirements of training and testing. A CB licence allows you to talk to other CBers over the air but there are some heavy restrictions. You can't experiment with radio construction in the way that a radio amateur can. You are restricted to a very small set of frequencies and a low transmission power which means you can't typically communicate further than 30 kilometres. Many people try out CB before moving into amateur radio; as the equipment is not reusable we don't recommend this. Is that a 10-4 big buddy?
You could rush out and join your national amateur radio society ( www.rsgb.org in the UK). You could subscribe to one of the radio amateur magazines. But best of all has to be to contact your local amateur radio club and visit a few of their meetings to really see what it is all about. Many people start by becoming one of the steadfast group of Short Wave Listeners. As such you don't require a licence but, of course, you cannot transmit. To make the most of the hobby you will need to follow an approved training course (a weekend) and pass a straight forward multiple choice test. This will put you on the first rung of the radio amateur ladder and entitle you to a foundation licence. This is enough to talk to the world.
It can't hurt but most of us get by on enthusiasm. There is a different exam for each level of licence in the UK: Foundation; Intermediary; Full. As you progress the tests get longer and more in-depth. They are all multi-choice and relate to the material covered in the training course. The exams are not intended as barriers, just as a mechanism to help you reach a certain level of competence.
If you are under twenty-one or over seventy-five then the annual UK licence is free, otherwise its £15 (sterling). Radio equipment ranges in price and capability. Many newcomers hook up with a local radio club where they can use the club equipment and get a feel for the second hand market. You should be able to establish your own radio station for less than the price of an entry level computer..
Setting up a radio station in the middle of a field and operating for twenty-four hours non-stop; traveling halfway round the world with enough gear to operate from a dessert island; bouncing radio waves off the moon; Sounds pretty extreme to me. But only a small percent of radio amateurs push themselves and technology to the limit. Most are content to chat about what interests them.
Just like car number plates, the reason we have 'callsigns' is to uniquely identify us as valid licenced operators. And just like car number plates there is some flexibility and, in fact, some radio amateurs have their callsign as their car number plate. A word of warning: many radio amateurs become very attached to their callsigns.
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