United States Radio Examinations and Licenses
Besides sponsoring a number of Industry Canada Accredited Examiners authorized to give Canadian Amateur Radio Examinations, the Lambton County Radio Club (LCRC) also sponsors a Volunteer Examiner Team affiliated with the American Radio Relay League's (ARRL) Volunteer Examiner Coordinator (VEC) Organization.
This team, called the "Southwest Ontario VE Team" is available to administer examinations for the three classes of United States Federal Communication Commission (FCC) Amateur Radio licenses. This service is being offered so as to assist members of our club, other clubs, other Canadian Hams or others who would like to more easily obtain a US Amateur Radio license without actually traveling across the US/Canadian border to do so.
Much like Canada's license requirements, all that is required for Canadian citizens or permanent residents to become licensed in the USA is to have a US mailing address somewhere in the United States where the US Postal Service can deliver US domestic mail. That can be a "borrowed" postal address from a friend or relative who lives in the United States, or it could be some other form of US-based postal address, such as a UPS Store address or an actual US Post office Box.
Why obtain a US license?
For Canadian Amateurs, obtaining a US Amateur Radio License and call sign can be done for any number of reasons. They include (but aren't limited to) frequent travel to the United States and a desire to "fit in" with local Hams, the desire to obtain a foreign-based license and/or call sign, or simply to have yet another "piece of paper" to hang on the wall of one's Ham Radio shack.
But first...a word of caution.
Before proceeding further, however, it is important to discuss a few regulatory issues that need to be kept in mind for Canadians who might be contemplating obtaining a US Amateur Radio License and call sign.
First, depending on the class of US license you obtain, and because you MUST operate under its provisions while you are actually in the United States, you could actually end up LOSING operating privileges that would otherwise be granted to you under the provisions of the special Amateur Radio Reciprocal Operating Agreement between the USA and Canada. That is, depending on the class of your US license, simply operating as a portable station in the United States using your Canadian call sign might actually give you more operating privileges than what a US license would grant.
It is also important to remember that, for Canadian citizens and permanent residents, obtaining a US Amateur Radio License is, under Canadian law, NOT a suitable substitute for obtaining a Canadian Certificate of Proficiency in Amateur Radio if you want to also operate in the Amateur Radio Service while in Canada.
The bottom line here is that, just as Canadian Certificates of Proficiency in Amateur Radio have no validity whatsoever for US Citizens and permanent residents operating in the USA, US Amateur Radio licenses have absolutely no validity whatsoever for Canadian citizens and permanent residents while operating their Amateur Radio equipment in Canada.
Where and how do I begin?
In the United States, Amateur Radio is regulated by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) under the Communications Act of 1934. It is also subject to numerous international agreements. All Amateur Radio operators must be licensed. In the U.S. there are three license classes. Each successive level of license comes with an expansion of (primarily frequency and mode-based) privileges. Your entry into Amateur Radio in the USA will normally begin by obtaining a Technician Class License.
Earning each license requires passing a separate examination associated with that class. Although regulated by the FCC, all exams for Amateur Radio licenses in the United States are now given by volunteer groups of Amateur Radio operators, called Volunteer Examiners (or VEs), of which the Southwest Ontario VE team is one. However, unlike here in Canada (where accredited examiners deal directly with Industry Canada) in the United States, US Amateur Radio examiners are accredited by one or more organizations called Volunteer Examiner Coordinators (VECs). Prospective Hams and VEs deal with these VECs, rather than directly with the FCC.
That is, Volunteer Examiners (VEs) are first accredited by one or more FCC-authorized Volunteer Examiner Coordinators (VECs). VEs administer and grade tests to applicants and report those results to their administering VEC. The administering VEC, in turn, collects and verifies that information and then (usually electronically) passes that information on to the FCC. The FCC then issues Amateur Radio licenses directly to successful applicants based on the VEC's report.
Also, unlike Canada, where our Certificates of Proficiency are now issued "for life", US Amateur Radio licenses are good for 10 years and are renewable within 90 days of expiration. And, as we have said, anyone, of any age, may hold one except representatives of foreign governments.
What about Morse tests?
In a word, they are now history in the United States.
Morse testing requirements for all classes of US Amateur Radio Licenses were dropped in early 2007. Unlike Canada, where taking the 5 WPM Morse test was made optional and still can be shown as an endorsement on our Canadian Certificates of Proficiency, there is no longer a way to take a Morse examination (or to "earn" a Morse endorsement) for any class of US Amateur Radio License.
What are the various US Amateur Radio License classes and privileges granted?
It is also important to remember that the associated exam for each class of license is called an "exam element" in the US system. For example, passing the Element 2 exam grants Technician Class privileges while passing the Element 3 exam grants General Class privileges. Successfully passing the Element 4 Exam grants Amateur Extra Class privileges. You may often hear VEs use these exam "element" numbers interchangeably with their corresponding license class examinations during US exam sessions.
And, just in case you were wondering where the exam for Element 1 went, Element 1 was the (now-defunct) 5 WPM Morse test. For better or worse, it's now history.
The ARRL has posted an excellent discussion about the privileges of each license class and the overall requirements for US licensing at http://www.arrl.org/getting-licensed.
How do I prepare for my license exam?
Many US-based publishers, including the ARRL, offer books, courses and computer software to facilitate self-study for US Amateur Radio licenses. In addition, some local US Amateur Radio clubs offer licensing classes. Some clubs also provide mentoring support to help new licensees get started. ARRL study materials are designed to help you understand the context for the licensing exam questions and are a valuable reference even after you get your US license. For a description of ARRL licensing study publications and software you may want to visit the ARRL's online store.
Online practice tests for the US Amateur Radio exams and study aids are available from many sources. Here are a few you may find helpful:Handihams is a non-profit organization that provides assistance for individuals with disabilities. For more information on a US licensing class that may be conducted in an area close to you, you can go to ARRL’s class search Web page. You can also locate other upcoming US exam sessions by using the ARRL's exam session search Web page.
How do I schedule to take an exam at a LCRC US Exam Session?
Keith Baker, VA3KSF/KB1SF, is currently serving as the Southwest Ontario VE Team's Liaison with the ARRL VEC as well as the VE team's contact person and administrator. He is your point of contact to schedule an appointment to take an exam with the Southwest Ontario VE Team. All of our US license test sessions are now conducted by appointment only and pre-registration is required! Absolutely no "walk-ins" will be accommodated!
If you are interested in scheduling a test session or you would like more information about possible subsequent sessions, please call or e-mail our contact VE (below) for details.
Depending on the availability of examiners, our test sessions are normally scheduled on weekend afternoons. This day and start time was specifically chosen so as to give those persons traveling to and from the Toronto, Hamilton, London and/or Windsor, Ontario areas ample time to travel to and from the test site in a single day. However, sessions on other days and times (including evenings) during the week can be accommodated, again, based on the availability of examiners.
Keith's contact information is as follows:
Keith Baker, KB1SF / VA3KSF
What do I need to bring to the exam session?
As we said, these exam sessions will be conducted by a team consisting of a minimum of three local volunteer examiners accredited to administer exams by the ARRL VEC. The ARRL VEC is, in turn, working under the direction of the FCC.
There will be a charge for taking your US exam. The exam fee is set by the administering Volunteer Exam Coordinator (VEC), and is currently US $15. Contact the exam session administrator to determine the exact fee that applies to the exam session you plan to attend. The Southwest Ontario VE team is not equipped to take credit or debit cards, nor checks, money orders, or bank drafts of any kind. However, they will accept US Currency or Canadian currency at the (then equivalent) US exchange rate. Please do not mix currencies.
Each time a candidate pays one test fee they are eligible to take exams for the Technician, General and/or Extra class licenses (or all three) at the same session. Exams are usually administered in ascending order based on an applicant's current US privileges. As long as they keep passing exams, a single test fee per session will suffice.
However, if an applicant wishes to retake an exam which was taken and failed at that same test session (assuming the VE team has another version of the test available and the time to administer it), another US $15 test fee will be assessed. In all cases, it is up to the administering VE's whether (or not) applicants will be allowed to take multiple exams.
And, as in Canada, there are no FCC fees associated with the issuance of an initial license, or in making standard administrative changes, such as a license renewal, change of address or license upgrade to a higher class. However, there are fees assessed for other FCC services, such as obtaining a so-called "vanity" call sign although the FCC recently reported their intention to drop these fees as well.
Bring an original (and one paper photocopy) of a picture ID (drivers license or passport) OR, if no photo ID is available, two forms of other identification with you to the test session. Such documents as a birth certificate, report card, library card, Social Insurance Card, utility bill, bank statement, etc. will also serve as valid identification. Students may bring a school ID, and/or a written note from a legal guardian. The bottom line here is that we'll need to verify that "you are you" before you will be allowed to take an examination.
Also, if you have ever held a US Amateur Radio license (even an expired one!) bring the signed original (plus a photocopy) of that license along with you as well. Because that license has expired (beyond the FCC's two year "grace period") you will still have to take at least a Technician examination to obtain a new US license. However, you might still be eligible for some examination element credit toward a higher class of US license. More information about old or expired US licenses and exam element credit is available on the ARRL Website.
To be prepared, you should also bring two (2) number two pencils with erasers and a pen. A calculator with all the memories erased is allowed. Be prepared to verify that all memories are erased to the VE team. You may not bring any written notes or calculations into the exam session. Scratch paper for calculations needed during your exam will be provided to you.
What does the US application form look like?
Your initial application for an Amateur Radio License in the United States will be via an NCVEC Form 605. It is important to remember that this is NOT an FCC form! Rather, it is a standardized form that all US accredited Volunteer Examiners use to report individual results to their administering VECs. Once you pass your examination(s), the VECs compile the information you (and the volunteer examiners) use to complete the NCVEC Form 605 in order to send that information on to the FCC for licensing.
There's a set of instructions on the back of the form about how to fill it out. Also note the long "laundry list" of certifications you make by signing the form. You may want to print out a copy and start filling it out before you arrive at your test session. However, blank forms will be provided at the test session for you to complete before you take your exam(s).
If you are unsure about what to put in any particular block (or what a particular tick mark or fill-in block actually means) don't worry. Your examiners will be sure your "real" form is correctly filled out before it is submitted.
What is an FCC Registration Number (FRN) and how do I get one?
You'll note that one of the blocks in the NCVEC Form 605 asks for a "Social Security Number (SSN) or (FRN) Federal Registration Number". To further add to the confusion, this number is sometimes called an "FCC Registration Number".
Several years ago, the FCC standardized the issuance of all of its licensing under what they call their "Universal Licensing System" or ULS. Under this system, licenses in the Amateur Service were grouped in with all the rest of the millions of licenses the FCC issues to both the Amateur and other radio services in the United States. Every licensee in the system was issued an FCC Registration Number, or FRN.
Once you obtain a US Amateur Radio License, you, too, will be issued an FRN. You will need to refer to this number for any and all subsequent correspondence with the VECs and/or the FCC for such things as renewing your license or obtaining a so-called "vanity" call sign (see below).
However, before you can be issued an FRN, the FCC (under US law) needs to know if you owe the US Federal government any money or have been convicted of a crime in the USA. They verify this information by comparing an applicant's Social Security Number (the US equivalent of our Canadian Social Insurance number) with the Internal Revenue Service's list of "scofflaws". This is why all applicants for a US Amateur Radio license are asked to include their US Social Security Numbers (SSANs) on their license application forms.
Now, most Canadians have not been issued one of these numbers, and, as you'll see in a moment, there's no need for worry if you don't have one.
However, if you have ever been issued either a US Social Security Number (SSAN), or a US Taxpayer Identification Number (ITIN) you'll need to bring that information along with you for inclusion on your application form! An Individual Taxpayer Identification Number (ITIN) is a tax processing number issued by the US Internal Revenue Service (IRS). It is a nine-digit number that always begins with the number 9 and has a 7 or 8 in the fourth digit (for example 9XX-7X-XXXX). The IRS issues ITINs to individuals who are required to have a U.S. taxpayer identification number but who do not have (and/or are not eligible to have) a Social Security Number (SSAN) from the US Social Security Administration (SSA).
However, as we said, if you have NOT been issued one or the other of these numbers, you DON'T need to get one just to obtain a US Amateur Radio license! At your test session, we'll have you simply write the word "Foreign" in the appropriate block of the NCVEC Form 605 where it asks for your SSAN. Once you pass your exam(s), the FCC will issue you an FRN without you having to show either an SSAN or an ITIN on your application form.
And, once your license is issued, your newly minted FRN will be printed and shown right along with your newly attained US Amateur Radio call sign on your license. And you must then use that FRN on any subsequent exam applications you may complete to upgrade, change or renew your license in the future.
Requesting a Call Sign
Unlike the Canadian licensing system for our Service, you cannot request a specific call sign for your initial US Amateur Radio license. What's more, unlike in Canada, you cannot hold more than one US Amateur Radio call sign at a time.
Rather, once you pass (as a minimum) the Technician exam, you will be issued what's called a "sequential" call sign from the FCC database of available calls commensurate with the class of license you have attained and the US call sign area of the mailing address you've given on your application form.
However, after you receive your license, you can then apply for a so-called "vanity" call sign in the FCC database that's commensurate with your class of license. That vanity call sign can be from any US call sign area. Traditionally, there has been a small yearly fee for this service. However, the FCC recently expressed its intention to drop these fees as well. However, you must deal directly with the FCC in order to obtain one. More information on the FCC's vanity call sign system can be found on the ARRL Website.