Ham Radio Calling Procedure, and Making Your First Call

I remember the joy and enthusiasm I felt when I was first getting into ham radio. I can barely describe my excitement when I was pouring over components, assembling my set, getting everything set up and dialed in, and then powering up for the first time.

BaoFeng UV5R Ham radio
the BaoFeng UV5R Ham radio

All that study, all that effort, getting licensed, and finally I was sitting at the mic in front of my own ham shack.

And then it hit me, like a cold wave of fright. What do I do? What do I say? Why am I even doing this in the first place? It was horrible! Talk about going from the pinnacle to the pit. I’ve never had stage fright before, but back then I was sure that is what it must feel like.

Now, I and all the other seasoned ham ops out there can justly laugh at the “beginner me,” but back then it was no joke at all.

Making your first call can be confusing, nerve-racking, and downright intimidating. But it doesn’t have to be! Everyone started somewhere, and if you’re getting started you need this step-by-step guide. Let’s get right into it down below.

First, Beat the Mic Fright

Before we go any further, I’ve got to take a moment to talk about mic fright. It is exactly what it sounds like, and exactly what I alluded to in the intro. It’s a type of stage fright sprinkled with a little bit of imposter syndrome.

You’ll be sitting at your handset, having done the work, put in the study, and gotten the license, and then feel a crushing weight thinking that:

  • ❌ you don’t know what you’re doing,
  • ❌ shouldn’t be on the air,
  • ❌ that your voice is stupid,
  • ❌ and that all of the seasoned guys out there are going to laugh at you and make fun of you,
  • ❌ or else you’re going to piss somebody off.

I’m not going to go into it at length about this, but I want you to hear me out and listen: you’ll do fine. Everybody started somewhere…

Just remember your manners, do the best you can, and let the people you’re talking with know that you are new. Most ham operators will be overjoyed that someone else has “picked up the torch,” and they’ll be happy to mentor you.

But do some “rehearsals” to make sure you don’t wind up a blubbering idjit who’s stumbling and stuttering over everything, and talking over everyone…

With your set off, go through the motions of collecting your thoughts, keying the mic, saying what you need to, imaging a response, and then responding in kind.

Yes, it’s very literally practicing how to talk but it makes a big difference, I promise! Now is also a good time to have a more seasoned buddy or mentor go through it with you off the air.

Trust me, your confidence will grow! Just remember what I said. Now, let’s make that call!

Step 1: Setup and Connect Your Radio

First things first, if you haven’t already. You need to assemble your radio and connect all of the components.

Your antenna needs to be ideally situated, as high as you can get it legally and practically, and hopefully on top of or above major obstructions. Make sure all of your cables are in good shape and that you double-check every connection.

If you buy a kit or are following a guide for the process, double-check every step in order before you proceed. It’s possible to make costly mistakes that will damage your equipment or result in a subpar experience.

Step 2: Calibrate and Tune Antenna

The next step is to tune your antenna, if required, and also calibrate your set. Calibration isn’t always needed, but if it is, you’ll need to refer to the manufacturer’s manual and follow their instructions for doing so.

Tuning your antenna properly means you’ll need an SWR meter. This device connects between the antenna and the radio itself, and it might be critically important for both, ensuring that you’re transmitting a strong, clear signal but also that you can receive properly. It can also help prevent damage to the radio!

Note: Not all antennas requires calibration. Some are pre-tuned from the factory, especially if built in or preattached to your set. But if you put your own set together and haven’t already done so, tune before you go on the air for the first time. The last thing you want to be worrying about is equipment issues.

Again, double-check all connections between every component. This is a common cause of signal degradation that’s very easy to overlook.

Baofeng UV 5R5 HAM radio
a Baofeng UV 5R5 HAM radio

Step 3: Ready to transmit; Turn On Radio

Assuming your radio is properly assembled, calibrated, and tuned, when you are ready to transmit you first need to turn the radio set on.

Check all of your indicators and instrumentation for proper functionality. If anything seems amiss, correct it now. Make sure that your mic is connected and functional, but not keyed, and also double-check your speaker or headset.

Step 4: Dial to Frequency

The next step is to dial to a frequency that you’d like to talk on. This is dependent on your purposes and your license. Remember that, depending on your license, you only have access to certain frequencies.

For instance, if you want to tune in to 2200 M for any purpose you better have a General or Extra class license. Technician licenses are not permitted. On the other hand, 80/75 M is accessible by Technician grades, but General and Extra classes have access to additional frequencies in that same range.

You should, by now, know this stuff, but you don’t have to know it all by heart. Make sure you get a chart of what frequencies you’re allowed to access, and which are the most important ones in your area, like repeaters, and keep that near your set.

Step 5: Listen!

So you’ve tuned in. What next? Listen! Chances are that channel is in use, and even if it’s not full of people talking, someone might be monitoring it, and they’ll have to check in periodically. More on that in a minute.

You don’t want to dial in and then just start talking over people. That is very bad manners and a good way for people to take you for exactly what you are acting like: a careless greenhorn.

As a rule, I like to tune into a frequency and listen for at least 5 minutes to make sure there’s not an ongoing conversation.

You might wait as long as 10 minutes if you are shy to see if someone checks in with their call sign; that will at least give you a starting point for a conversation if you don’t want to be the first to talk.

Step 6: Note Callsigns and Other Info

Assuming someone’s been chatting, or if you hear someone check in with their call sign, make quick notes on a pad so you can refer back to them and don’t have to remember them.

Call signs start to blur together in your mind after a while, especially on a chat with many participants that are just rag-chewing. This will also allow you to refer to them properly using codes and shorthand.

Once you know who is who on the channel, and decide that you want to jump in, wait for an opportunistic break in the conversation so you can announce yourself.

Step 7: Announce and ID Yourself

Now it’s time for the big moment. Introduce yourself, and do so properly! When you have time and opportunity to jump in, key your microphone and say “This is” before releasing the mic switch for about 2 seconds.

Then key the mic and announce your call sign, preferably using the proper phonetic alphabet as you were taught. This will allow anyone making logs on the channel to record your call sign as you did previously.

After giving your call sign, you may opt to include your name if you want to, or it’s required for the purposes of the call, and your location, usually by county and state.

Step 8: State Intentions

Immediately after announcing yourself with your call sign and other relevant info, let listeners know why you are on the air or tuned in. If you’re just listening in, as soon as you speak, your call sign announces that you are listening. If you are there to chat, say so.

Just remember to be brief and respectful of others that are on the channel. Wait for acknowledgment from other participants, and then conduct the conversation from there.

It doesn’t necessarily have to be about anything important, but remember if there’s already a conversation ongoing you want to participate in that conversation, not dominate it and change the subject. At least, not at first!

An example call looks like this:

*Key mic “This is”- *wait 2 sec.- “Kilo-Alpha-4-November-Bravo-Charlie, name’s Sam, Hardin County, Kentucky. Listening.” *stop transmitting

Step 9: Remember to Announce Callsign Regularly

Remember the regulations: you must announce yourself on a channel at least every 10 minutes. Do this by keying and, announcing your call sign as before, and then simply stating “for ID.”

Get this part over with as quickly as possible so you don’t clog the channel, but remember to do it.

Step 10: Use Codes and Acronyms When and As Appropriate

When you are just starting out, unless you have studied relentlessly you aren’t going to know every code, acronym, and bit of lingo that seasoned operators use.

And even if you’ve memorized it academically you won’t be fluent in using it like a second language when you’re actually on the air. Not at first! That’s okay, but you want to make a point to use it when and as appropriate because this is a demonstration of fluency and respect for the craft.

All the Q codes, naturally, are quite important because you are QSO’ing at this very moment. You might use QRV, QRI, QRA, and others as needed, but don’t forget the other common shorthand codes, the alphanumerics.

Signing off with “73” is always good practice and especially appreciated by the older ham ops, but don’t forget to drop a GM, GA, and GD in the chat; good morning, good afternoon, and good day respectively.

Step 11: End the Call Properly

Last but certainly not least, remember your manners when you are leaving the frequency or just dropping out of the conversation entirely.

Say your goodbyes, and exit the conversation by stating your call sign and then “clear” or “SK”, for “signed off”. Don’t forget to exchange those QSL cards before you go, if you want to make new friends or talk to someone later!

Join a Ham Club in Your Town or Nearby Area

One thing that made a world of difference for me, and I want to make a world of difference for you, is joining a local ham club, even if a local club is one in a neighboring town or a few counties over.

Getting involved in regular meetups, events, and other stuff is only going to build your proficiency and do so way quicker than it would otherwise.

It’s also nice making real-life friends that you can practice calling with. Knowing that you’re simply reaching out to an actual buddy instead of flinging your voice out there into the airwaves for strangers to respond to might be just the thing to help get you over that dreadful mic fright in the beginning.

But if you want to go solo, that’s just fine too. Follow the steps I gave you and the guide above and you’ll be an old pro in no time.

ham radio calling Pinterest image

6 thoughts on “Ham Radio Calling Procedure, and Making Your First Call”

  1. I have 3 radios on my bugout bag. With antennas, battery, coax, and solar panel measures 8 X 8 X 5 inches. I can cover 2 meter, 2.5 meter, 70 cm, 10 meter, 11 meter and cw on 40 meter. As always it is best to find out if your stuff works prior to a disaster, adverse weather event (hurricanes for me) I have found choosing a call sign and sticking to it advantageous. For example Delta41. I announce “This is Delta41 unlicensed ham testing emergency communication over.” If you are heard someone will respond, complain you are unlicensed, suggest your should get licensed (which is a good idea) . I respond this is my last option for emergency communication and I am testing to insure it works. For the most part ham operators are reasonable and will understand. I thank them and then sign off similar to described in the article. You can listen on ham but if you key the mic you better have an emergency (threat to life) and you have no other way to get help. Do your research as there are many methods for emergency communication.

  2. Great article. Good practice.
    South Orange County, California.
    KE6KZR. Irvine Disaster Emergency Communications, Irvine Ranch Regional Fire Watch. Monitor PulsePoint.


  3. I have a ham license and, of course, an assigned call number. The only reason I have it is for SHTF situations, given that I have no interest in discussing sundry topics with total strangers to pass the day. In normal times, I have no reason not to comply with the useful suggestions in this article. Even during not-so-normal times, such as the period following a major earthquake, that will be the case. This is because I would know that in other parts of the country normal life goes on, and that help is eventually coming.

    If a major life-altering national event occurs, however, one that brings the reality of the disaster to every door and produces a widespread breakdown of law and order, such as a widespread EMP attack or a major nuclear war, I’ll violate ham protocol and legal requirements as I believe necessary. That’s because it is likely that in such cases “no one is coming to save you.”

    For example, I intend to use a private code that I hope will ensure that my communication is secure. I will also never use my call sign since announcing it could allow a nefarious listener to determine my name and address. A “bad guy” might not recognize my voice on a specific occasion, but giving my call sign would confirm that I am the same one he heard ten days ago. This could help him “add 2 plus 2” and develop useful intel that might be used against me.

    That practice would not be indicative of paranoia. It would simply be common sense in a high threat environment.

    As time passed, should an FCC investigator knock on my door to discuss my violations of correct radio procedure, I’ll probably wrap my arms around him and give him a hug, given that his presence at my home would indicate that law and order is finally being re-established. 🙂

    One thing that is beyond the scope of the article, but which is an important thing to consider, is that, if there is an EMP attack, it is unlikely that anyone will be using ham radios–with correct practices or not–unless the radios are protected in Faraday Cages.

    I keep my handheld radios in popcorn tins and the like. I either seal them with aluminum tape or I use the “Russian dolls approach” by keeping individual radios in a tin within a tin. Sometimes, I use the “pants and suspenders” approach and do both.

  4. A ham license. As a user of a CB radio I had during the sixties, I enjoyed using it and talking to many people. My longest contact was from Detroit to Florida. I had no particular reason to get it other than impressing the young ladies who were foolish enough to go out with me. I even was able to contact the police when we, My future wife and I witnessed a guy shot as we were stopped at the light. Running for a car we turned and followed. noting the license plate and direction the car headed. it was relayed to the cops which caught them quickly. Emergency contact for help is the main reason to have one. As I made plans to Marry the redheaded beauty who was also the reason I spent so much effort to insure this one didn’t get away, I failed to lock my car one night and my CB was stolen. events that occupied me for the next year set its replacement on the back burner. Now after 54 years of marriage and needing something to keep me occupied I am now thinking about taking the test for a ham license. With the internet I talk to people around the world. A ham radio would provide a way to talk without it set down on paper or data for general listening by government. The value for emer. communications are more valuable than ever. Having dependable communication that is not dependent on technology other than what you provide yourself becomes more critical with each passing day. Our government exerts more control and regulates our actions with ever expanding powers. Transmissions can be hidden and moved often with little effort. making the government work very hard to find its point of origin. while not impossible. it takes a lot of resources and time. Time that can be used to spread the word about the corruption that grows each day. We still have choices to make to insure our freedoms are not taken. Hope to be able to talk to many when I get my call letters.
    ———–I, Grampa

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