A series of exams are often available, each progressively more challenging and granting more privileges: greater frequency availability, higher power output, permitted experimentation, and in some countries, distinctive call signs. Some countries, such as the United Kingdom and Australia, have begun requiring a practical training course in addition to the written exams in order to obtain a beginner's license, which they call a Foundation License.
In some countries, an amateur radio license is necessary in order to purchase or possess amateur radio equipment An amateur radio license is only valid in the country in which it is issued or in another country that has a reciprocal licensing agreement with the issuing country.
Both the requirements for and privileges granted to a licensee vary from country to country, but generally follow the international regulations and standards established by the International Telecommunication Union and World Radio Conferences.
In most countries, an individual will be assigned a call sign with their license. In some countries, a separate "station license" is required for any station used by an amateur radio operator. Amateur radio licenses may also be granted to organizations or clubs. Some countries only allow Amateur radio operators to operate club stations. Others, such as Syria and Cuba restrict all operation by foreigners to club stations only. Radio transmission permits are closely controlled by nations' governments because clandestine uses of radio can be made, and, because radio waves propagate beyond national boundaries, radio is an international matter.
Prospective amateur radio operators are examined on understanding of the key concepts of electronics, radio equipment, antennas, radio propagation, RF safety, and the radio regulations of the government granting the license. These examinations are sets of questions typically posed in either a short answer or multiple-choice format. Examinations can be administered by bureaucrats, non-paid certified examiners, or previously licensed amateur radio operators.
The ease with which an individual can acquire an amateur radio license varies from country to country. In some countries, examinations may be offered only once or twice a year in the national capital and can be inordinately bureaucratic.
A reciprocal licensing agreement between two countries allows bearers of an amateur radio license in one country under certain conditions to legally operate an amateur radio station in the other country without having to obtain an amateur radio license from the country being visited, or the bearer of a valid license in one country can receive a separate license and a call sign in another country, both of which have a mutually-agreed reciprocal licensing approvals. Reciprocal licensing requirements vary from country to country. Some countries have bilateral or multilateral reciprocal operating agreements allowing Amateurs to operate within their borders with a single set of requirements. Some countries lack reciprocal licensing systems.
When traveling abroad, visiting amateur operators must follow the rules of the country in which they wish to operate. Some countries have reciprocal international operating agreements allowing Amateurs from other countries to operate within their borders with just their home country license. Other host countries require that the visiting Amateur apply for a formal permit, or even a new host country-issued license, in advance.
Many people start their involvement in amateur radio by finding a local club. Clubs often provide information about licensing, local operating practices, and technical advice.
Newcomers also often study independently by purchasing books or other materials, sometimes with the help of a mentor, teacher, or friend. Established amateurs who help newcomers are often referred to as "Elmers", as coined by Rodney Newkirk, W9BRD, within the Amateur community. In addition, many countries have national amateur radio societies which encourage newcomers and work with government communications regulation authorities for the benefit of all radio amateurs. The oldest of these societies is the Wireless Institute of Australia, formed in 1910; other notable societies are the Radio Society of Great Britain, the American Radio Relay League, Radio Amateurs of Canada, Bangladesh NGOs Network for Radio and Communication, the New Zealand Association of Radio Transmitters and South African Radio League.
An amateur radio operator uses a call sign on the air to legally identify the operator or station. In some countries, the call sign assigned to the station must always be used, whereas in other countries, the call sign of either the operator or the station may be used. In certain jurisdictions, an operator may also select a "vanity" call sign although these must also conform to the issuing government's allocation and structure used for Amateur Radio call signs. Some jurisdictions, such as the U.S., require that a fee be paid to obtain such a vanity call sign; in others, such as the UK, a fee is not required and the vanity call sign may be selected when the license is applied for.
Call sign structure as prescribed by the ITU, consists of three parts which break down as follows, using the call sign ZS1NAT as an example:
ZS – Shows the country from which the call sign originates and may also indicate the license class. (This call sign is licensed in South Africa, and is CEPT Class 1. Where specific classes of amateur radio license exist, the call signs may be assigned by class, but the specifics vary by issuing country.)
1 – Gives the subdivision of the country or territory indicated in the first part (this one refers to the Western Cape).
NAT – The final part is unique to the holder of the license, identifying that station specifically.
Many countries do not follow the ITU convention for the numeral.
In the United Kingdom the original calls G0xxx, G2xxx, G3xxx, G4xxx, were Full (A) License Holders along with the last M0xxx full call signs issued by the City & Guilds examination authority in December 2003. Additional full licenses were originally granted in respect of (B) Licensees with G1xxx, G6xxx, G7xxx, G8xxx and 1991 onward with M1xxx calls.
The newer three level Intermediate licensees are 2E1xxx and 2E0xx and basic Foundation license holders are granted M3xxx, M6xxx call signs.
Also, for smaller entities, a numeral may be part of the country identification. For example, VP2xxx is in the British West Indies (subdivided into VP2Exx Anguilla, VP2Mxx Montserrat, and VP2Vxx British Virgin Islands), VP5xxx is in the Turks and Caicos Islands, VP6xxx is on Pitcairn Island, VP8xxx is in the Falklands, and VP9xxx is in Bermuda.
Online callbooks or callsign databases can be browsed or searched to find out who holds a specific callsign. Non-exhaustive lists of famous people who hold or have held amateur radio callsigns have also been compiled and published.
Many jurisdictions issue specialty vehicle registration plates to licensed amateur radio operators often in order to facilitate their movement during an emergency. The fees for application and renewal are usually less than the standard rate for specialty plates.
In most administrations, unlike other RF spectrum users, radio amateurs may build or modify transmitting equipment for their own use within the amateur spectrum without the need to obtain government certification of the equipment. Licensed amateurs can also use any frequency in their bands (rather than being allocated fixed frequencies or channels) and can operate medium to high-powered equipment on a wide range of frequencies so long as they meet certain technical parameters including occupied bandwidth, power, and maintenance of spurious emission.
Radio amateurs have access to frequency allocations throughout the RF spectrum, usually allowing choice of an effective frequency for communications across a local, regional, or worldwide path. The shortwave bands, or HF, are suitable for worldwide communication, and the VHF and UHF bands normally provide local or regional communication, while the microwave bands have enough space, or bandwidth, for amateur television transmissions and high-speed computer networks.
In most countries, an amateur radio license grants permission to the license holder to own, modify, and operate equipment that is not certified by a governmental regulatory agency. This encourages amateur radio operators to experiment with home-constructed or modified equipment. The use of such equipment must still satisfy national and international standards on spurious emissions.