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Making Your First Contact

Operating Tips

Watch other hams make contacts to familiarize yourself with the process, but don't be afraid to make your first contact. The more contacts you make, the more comfortable you will feel. Here are some tips.

The phonetic alphabet is helpful when the other station can't hear you well or when the operator is not a fluent speaker of English. Don’t make up your own phonetics.

A - Alpha N - November
B - Bravo O - Oscar
C - Charlie P - Papa
D - Delta Q - Quebec
E - Echo R - Romeo
F - Foxtrot S - Sierra
G - Golf T - Tango
H - Hotel U - Uniform
I - India V - Victor
J - Juliet W - Whiskey
K - Kilo X - Xray
L - Lima Y - Yankee
M - Mike Z - Zulu


  • Single Sideband (SSB)

    Your transceiver manual tells you how to properly set up your rig for SSB voice operating. Some general rules apply:

    • Position the microphone about one inch from your lips. Speak in a normal tone of voice.
    • Select the ALC (Automatic Limiting Control) meter and watch it as you speak. If the meter indicates that your voice is bouncing it out of the ALC range, you’ll need to find the microphone gain control and turn it down or try speaking a little softer. A high ALC reading indicates that you are overdriving your radio and possibly distorting your signal.
    • Hams usually switch their radios from transmit to receive (and back) by pressing the Push to Talk (PTT) button on the microphone or by using a foot switch. For hand or desk microphones, avoid stabbing or punching the switch. Not only does this shorten the life of the switch, it can send a loud click at the beginning of your transmission.
    • Nearly every modern radio has a Voice-Operated Switch (VOX). When the VOX is on, the sound of your voice will automatically switch the transceiver into the transmit mode.  If you must use VOX, speak into the microphone at a normal voice level. When you start speaking, the transmitter should activate automatically. When you finish speaking, the transceiver should return to the receive mode (after a short delay). Sometimes the VOX may trigger in response to background sounds. If so, look for the VOX Gain control. You can adjust this control to eliminate the problem.
    • You’ll also find speech processing (or speech compression) as a feature on most radios. This is a method of boosting your average output power when you’re operating SSB. A speech processor takes a normal voice signal, which varies constantly as you speak, and processes the signal to minimize fluctuating power levels. The result is an SSB signal that has consistent power at the highest level possible. Speech processing is good when you are operating at low power or with a poor antenna. On the other hand, speech processing can distort your signal. If you use speech processing, keep the processing level set at medium and ask for reports on your signal quality. Turn the level down if other operators tell you that your signal is distorted.

  • Calling and Answering "CQ"

    To start a contact, call "CQ" or answer someonecalling CQ. A CQ is a general call to get a random contact.

    Before calling CQ, listen to find a frequency that unoccupied by any other station. This may not be easy, particularly in crowded band conditions. If the frequency seems clear, ask if the frequency is in use, followed by your call. “Is the frequency in use? This is NY2EC.” If nobody replies, you’re clear to call. Keep your CQ very short. If no one answers, call again. If you call CQ three or four times and don’t get a response, try another frequency.

    A typical SSB CQ goes like this:

    “CQ CQ Calling CQ. This is AD5UAP, Alfa-Delta-Five-Uniform-Alfa-Papa.”

    When answering a CQ, keep the answer short. Say the call sign of the station once or twice, followed by your call:

    “N2EEC N2EEC, this is AB2GD, Alfa-Bravo-Two-Golf-Delta.”


  • Rag Chew - A Long Enjoyable Conversation

    “Rag chewing” is ham lingo for a long, enjoyable conversation. Start with the basics: your name, location, the signal report, and a brief summary of your station (how much power you’re running and the kind of antenna you’re using). Then get the other person to talk about himself. Hams can talk about anything, but there are some topics we try to avoid. Discussions of politics and religion tend to attract controversy and start arguments on the air. If it looks like your rag chew is heading in those directions, use good judgment. Does the other operator agree with your views? If not, will you be offended? Will he (or others) be offended? If you have doubts, it is best to change the subject. Conduct yourself as though anyone in the world might be listening at any time. Whenever you transmit, you’re representing all of Amateur Radio.

  • When to Keep it Short

    Hams love to talk, but there are times when you should keep the conversation short. For example, a DX operator may be trying to contact as many people as possible, as rapidly as possible. Listen before you call. If the DX operator seems to be making short contacts (signal report and “good-bye”), it is best to do the same. If you are heard by the DX station, only give the information he is looking for – a signal report and your location. Do not attempt to engage him in conversation.

    You may occasionally hear hams operating special event stations. These are temporary stations set up at events throughout the country: at county fairs, boat races, etc. Unless the special event operator sounds like they want talk more, keep the conversation short. This gives everyone else a chance to make their contacts.

    If you hear a call like this: “CQ Contest! CQ Contest! This is W1AW. Contest!” you’ve stumbled across an on-the-air contest. The idea: Contact as many stations as possible during the contest period. You don’t have to be involved in the contest to participate; your contact will count regardless. Just listen to the contest station and determine what he is looking for. Contest contacts require the exchange of specific information such as your state, county, etc. Find out what he needs before you call and make the contact short. Time is essential when it comes to a contest!

  • Joining a Conversation in Process

    Remember that private conversations don’t exist in Amateur Radio. If you don’t want to call CQ to start a conversation, you can join a conversation that is already in progress. Listen carefully to the operators. Are they having an animated, involved discussion? If so, it may be a bit rude to interrupt unless you have something important to offer.  If the chat seems casual, the operators may not mind someone else joining. So how do you politely interrupt? The best approach is to wait for one station to stop transmitting and then quickly announce your call sign:

    “Yes, Charlie, I hope to get the dipole soldered together this weekend if the weather holds up.” “N1RL.” “Ah…we have a breaking station. N1RL, go ahead!”

    Do not use the word “break.” You may hear other hams doing this, but you should only say “break” when you need to interrupt because of an emergency.

  • Amplitude Modulation (AM)

    Amplitude Modulation (AM) dominated Amateur Radio voice communication until Single Sideband (SSB) started after the end of World War II. SSB packs a great deal of power into a small slice of the radio spectrum, allowing many more conversations to occupy the same band and SSB is also very efficient in terms of transceiver design, but it doesn’t have the audio quality of AM. Nothing rivals AM for audio quality except FM, but FM is only legal when you are operating above 29.500 MHz. You’ll find AM conversations primarily on 80 and 40 meters, and occasionally on 10 meters just above 29 MHz. Most amateur transceivers have AM capability, so if you hear an AM conversation put your radio into the AM mode and give it a try!

  • Morse Code (CW)

    The best way to start with CW is to tune around until you hear someone calling CQ. CQ means, “I wish to contact any amateur station.”  When answering a CQer you should zero beat the other ham's frequency. That means setting your transmit frequency as close to theirs as possible. So how do you zero beat? One method is to tune down through the other CW signal, the pitch going from high to low, until the other signal disappears. Then, slow tune back up until you hear a pleasant CW note in your receiver (typically 600 Hz). This should put your signal close enough. An alternative is to use the Receiver Incremental Tuning (RIT) feature found on many transceivers. (On some radios this may be called a clarifier.) With the RIT off, tune down into the signal until it disappears. Then, turn the RIT on and adjust until you hear the signal again. The RIT adjusts your receive frequency slightly, but leaves your transmit frequency unchanged. If you can’t find anyone calling CQ, perhaps you should try it yourself. A typical CQ goes like this:


    The letter K is an invitation for any station to reply. If there is no answer, pause for 10 or 20 seconds and repeat the call. If your transceiver has narrow CW receive filters, it is a good idea to turn the filter off when calling. Don’t send faster than you can receive and don’t respond to a CQ at a speed faster than the other station is sending. If you hear a CQ, wait until the ham finishes transmitting (by ending with the letter K), then call him. Make your call short, like this:


    AR means “end of message." Suppose K5RC heard someone calling him, but didn’t quite catch the call because of interference (QRM) or static (QRN). Then he might come back with:

    QRZ? DE K5RC K (Who is calling me?)

    Learn More about Morse Code (CW) on our Learning Morse Code page.

  • FM Repeaters

    Your first FM voice contact may take place through a relay device known as a repeater. These are specially designed transceivers that instantly retransmit signals heard in their receivers. They are typically located on tops of buildings or at the summits of hills or mountains, and use tower-mounted antennas to provide over wide areas. Most repeaters operate on the 2 meter and 70 cm bands. There are various ways to find a repeater. Modern transceivers often include a scan mode that searches for activity. Some transceivers will even place active frequencies in their memories automatically.  The ARRL publishes The ARRL Repeater Directory, an annual, comprehensive listing of repeaters throughout the US, Canada and other parts of the world. The ARRL also publishes TravelPlus, a map-based CD-ROM that allows you to trace your proposed route on a color map and print a list of repeaters along the way. Once you find a repeater to use, take some time to listen and familiarize yourself with its operating procedures.

    If the repeater is quiet, pick up your microphone, press the switch, and transmit your call sign.

    For example:

    “This is W1VT monitoring.”

    This advises others on frequency that you have joined the system and are available to talk. After you stop transmitting, the repeater sends an unmodulated carrier for a couple of seconds to let you know it is working. It’s not good repeater etiquette to call CQ. You’re not trying to attract the attention of someone who is casually tuning his receiver across the band. Except for scanner operation, there just isn’t much tuning through the repeater bands—only listening to the machine. If you want to join a conversation already in progress, transmit your call sign during a break between transmissions. The station that transmits next should acknowledge you. Don’t use the word BREAK to join a conversation. BREAK generally suggests an emergency and indicates that all stations should stand by for the station with emergency traffic. If you want to see if your buddy across town is on the air, call him like this: “N1ND this is W1VT.” If the repeater is active, but the conversation in progress sounds as though it’s about to end, be patient and wait until it’s over before calling another station. If the conversation sounds like it’s going to continue for a while, transmit your call sign between transmissions. After one of the other hams acknowledges you, politely ask to make a quick call on the repeater. Usually, the other stations will allow you this brief interruption. Make your call short. If your friend responds to your call, ask him to move to a simplex frequency or another repeater, or to stand by until the present conversation is over. Thank the other users for letting you interrupt them to place your call.



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