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What is a Ham Radio Call Sign?

Lori Kilchermann
Lori Kilchermann

A ham radio call sign is a designation given to an amateur radio operator by a licensing board. This call sign identifies the operator to anyone who might hear his or her transmission. The ham radio call sign must announced at the and end of each transmission, and at least once every ten minutes during a transmission. Failure to identify and give the call sign is grounds for fine and/or revocation of radio license.

In order to receive a ham radio license, an amateur radio operator must register with the licensing department. In the United States, this is the Federal Communications Commission or the FCC. The operator is given a test and once passed and approved, the ham radio operator is assigned the call sign that must be used for identification purposes every time a transmission is made.

Man holding computer
Man holding computer

The FCC will also grant a vanity ham radio call sign to U.S. radio operators. This vanity ham radio call sign is much like a personalized automobile license plate. The call sign can represent something special about the operator or it can replace a ham radio call sign for a club. The vanity ham radio call sign may only be obtained by trading in an existing call sign. Therefore, a vanity call sign can not be issued to a first time licensee.

While there is a charge for a vanity call sign, there is no charge for an assigned ham radio call sign at the time of licensing. The licensing agency simply assigns the next systematically assigned call sign that is computer generated. The call signs identify what part of the country the operator is based in, as well as what type or class of ham radio license the operator possesses.

There are some restrictions when choosing a vanity call sign. There are some letter configurations that cannot be used as they represent another nation. Also, SOS cannot be used in any call sign. When a ham radio call sign is being used on a ship, the call sign should be followed by the letters MW, meaning maritime mobile. Also, if the call sign is being given from a vehicle, it should be followed by the letter M, meaning mobile.

Only the licensed operator is allowed to transmit on the radio. No unlicensed operators may transmit over the air, unless a licensed operator is present and continuously monitoring the transmission. In this situation, the licensed operator is responsible for everything the unlicensed operator says during the transmission. Also, a ham radio operator may only operate one station at a time.

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