Amateur radio is something I have been curious about for a long time. Radio plays a significant part in my radio controlled aircraft hobby and I’ve often wanted to learn more about how it works. This Spring I decided it was time to stop putting off getting my license so joined a local radio club and managed to pass the RSGB Foundation examination. I wanted to offer something to other new ‘hams’ searching for information about the Foundation tests with this post.
The Foundation license is the first of three levels in the UK amateur radio licensing system. Anyone wanting to transmit on the Amateur frequencies will need a license in order to legally do so. The Radio Society of Great Britain (RSGB) is the governing body for the hobby and has this helpful introduction on their website:
The Foundation Radio Amateur Examination is part of a structured suite of three examinations recognised by Ofcom to give access to the amateur radio bands. All prospective radio amateurs must demonstrate a suitable level of competence and proficiency as a pre-requisite to holding a licence. The Foundation Licence is the entry level to amateur radio. It is intended to provide an exciting introduction to the hobby whilst requiring an acceptable minimum level of skill and experience.
The Foundation license was created to lower the barrier to entry to Amateur Radio in the UK, and particularly given rise of the ‘maker movement’, I think has been quite successful in bringing in new people to the hobby. The foundation licence grants fairly limited operating privileges of up to 10 watts of power on a limited number of the amateur bands. Ten watts is still plenty of power for regional SSB work, QRP, Morse code (CW) and data modes.
In reality the foundation licence is quite basic, and anyone with an existing interest in technology and electronics should have little difficulty in obtaining their licence. If you have no technical background whatsoever, you might find it a bit challenging but still perfectly achievable.
Once obtained, the RSGB/Ofcom Amateur Radio licences do not usually expire or need to be periodically resat.
To pass the Foundation test, the candidate must first complete several practical assessments followed by a multiple choice exam. There is a fee of £27.50 payable to the RSGB in advance of sitting the exam. Both the practical and the exam must be conducted by an RSGB registered assessor. The common way to do these is by joining a local amateur radio club, but there are some ‘weekend bootcamp’ courses available. It is possible to self-study all of the material rather than finding an instructor, but the challenge will be finding a registered assessor to conduct your practical tests.
The exam consists of 26 questions, each with 4 possible answers. The candidate has 55 minutes to complete the test and the pass mark is 19 out of 26. It must be taken at an RSGB registered test centre, although the RSGB are preparing to rollout online tests starting in November this year. I presume that these online tests will still need to be sat at registered test centres and supervised by RSGB instructors.
The practical exercises test the candidate’s ability in basic radio setup and operation. I think having a practical aspect to the course is a very good idea to ensure new operators are starting on the right footing. The practical tasks that need to be completed are:
- Connecting up radio equipment (power/RF for antenna, transceiver and matching unit).
- Transmitting and receiving on VHF and HF frequencies.
- Sending and receiving Morse code (at any speed, with a crib sheet).
- Tuning an adjustable dipole antenna for different frequencies.
I completed these practical assessments immediately before my theory exam at the test centre in around 90 minutes.
The theory aspects of the Foundation licence exam are covered to the required depth by the official RSGB Foundation Licence Now! Book, which is effectively required reading for all candidates. It can be bought on Amazon or directly from the RSGB for a small sum. You’ll need a basic knowledge of topics such as electrical circuits and measurement, types of antenna, radio operations and health and safety. I’m told one area where candidates often slip up is having a proper understanding of the terms and conditions (rules) of the licence, so this is worth extra attention.
As I mentioned above, I started my journey to having an amateur radio licence by joining my local radio club. I’d very much recommend this approach as everyone at the club were exceedingly helpful during my studies for the exam. My instructor took a ‘hands off’ self-study approach to the theory material and I was left to work through the RSGB study guide. This suited me and people were always happy to help where there were any sticking points when working through the material. I found I really learned a lot about amateur radio just by attending the radio club meetings and talks regularly and asking lots of questions from the more experienced members. I did initially consider self-studying for the exams without joining a radio club, and looking back I’m glad I didn’t do that.
In addition to reading the RSGB Foundation Now! study book, I found various useful information sources online. The critical ones are:
If you’re intending to take the Foundation licence assessment, you need to be very familiar with both of these documents. If you’ve been using the RSGB study guide book, then most of their content will already be known to you. A print out of the licence terms and Conditions are given to you in the theory exam so knowing how to find your way around this document will be important.
After I had read the RSGB book and studied the above two documents I started trying to regularly practice the exam questions. I found two resources useful for this, first was the RSGB Foundation Exam Mock Papers and second was the popular Hamtests website. Hamtests contains a large library of unofficial practice questions submitted by the users of the site. It’s free to use after creating an account, and I highly recommend it.
Another good source of online study material is the Bredhurst Receiving and Transmitting Society Foundation Study Materials. I only made light use of it as an alternative to the official study book, but it’s well thought of and could potentially be used as an alternative to buying the official Foundation Now! book.
Whilst I didn’t do any preparation for the practical assessments, I did attend several club contest events during the summer which gave me invaluable real world experience setting up and operating on both VHF and HF. I found the practical assessments to be more of a two-way learning experience than a hard and fast ‘exam’ that needs extensive preparation.
One other thing I did while preparing for my Foundation exam was to use one of the public WebSDR stations to listen to HF QSOs and get a feel for the bands.
The usual sort of exam preparation tips apply for the exam day - get a good night’s sleep, have a good breakfast and arrive to the test centre with plenty of time to spare. Don’t do what I did and forget a pen/pencil and a calculator!
I arrived early at the test centre to complete my practical assessments with my instructor before the second exam invigilator arrived along with several other exam takers.
I think I completed the exam in about half an hour, I didn’t find it too tough and only got one question wrong. The examiners at the test centre gave each of us a ‘preliminary’ marking immediately after the exam session had ended. I found lots of practice with the Hamtests website very helpful.
It took just over two weeks for my paperwork from the RSGB to come through confirming my pass. I was then able to go on to the Ofcom Amateur and Ships Licensing Portal to generate my licence paperwork and have a callsign allocated. I had some trouble with the Ofcom website, as it wouldn’t let me pick any callsign, apparently there was a fault with the website - I had to call Ofcom to sort this out which added another few days delay to getting on the air.
If you’re unsuccessful in your exam attempt, I believe a resit can be undertaken as quickly as you can schedule it. There will be another exam fee payable to the RSGB.
After getting my callsign I was able to start using my ICOM 746 transceiver in anger, and have already made QSOs (SSB and data) all over Europe. I’m now starting my preparation for taking the RSGB Intermediate licence exam later this year.
If you are reading this thinking about or preparing for your Foundation exam, good luck and thanks for reading!
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