Last updated 2018-08-25
The US Federal Communications Commission (FCC) issues amateur radio licences to anyone with a US mailing address. No residence or citizenship is required. For South Africans, an FCC licence is useful in that it enables you to operate from countries with which the US has a reciprocal agreement, but South Africa does not. It is not required when operating from the USA, as a South African citizen can use a full South African licence in the USA under the CEPT agreement.
Examinations for FCC licences are conducted by Volunteer Examiners under the auspices of a Volunteer Examiner Coordinator (VEC). The most ubiquitous VEC is the ARRL.
The leaders of the C82DX DXpedition in October 2013 assisted locals in setting up an exam session in the Pretoria area, just after their return from Mozambique. Using N3EZ, N4XP, NF4A and the late WF4W as examiners, we were able to qualify six locals for FCC licences. Three of the locals have qualified as examiners, allowing us to establish a permanent team.
Our team held its first exam session in May 2014. In future, we'll try hold exam sessions whenever we have at least four or five takers.
There are three licence classes: Technician, General and Extra. You can take only the Tech test, or Tech and General, or all three. If you already hold an FCC licence, you can take only the higher tests to upgrade to General or Extra. The higher licence classes provide more privileges, in the form of operating frequencies, modulation modes, power output and short callsigns.
Anyone with a reasonable electronics and amateur radio background should be able to pass the exams with a dozen hours of study. Some of the candidates who passed their exams at our October 2013 session reported as little as three hours of study, against the background of a good working knowledge of amateur radio.
A Morse code test is no longer required.
You can even obtain a callsign of your choice under the Vanity Call programme. I opted for N3EZ—they wouldn't let me keep W6O after I'd used it in 1996!
Courtesy of Steve Roux ZS6XRS, who kindly did the dirty work of finding all the stuff, I've placed a comprehensive set of study materials on the Internet. You'll find separate Zip files for the three licence classes. Remember that you have to pass the Technician-class exam even if you want a higher class licence, and you also have to pass the General if you want an Extra.
Technician class study material
General class study material
Extra class study material
Once you think you're ready, you can take a fake exam to assess your ability. There are many such exams on the Internet, with examples being at Eham and the ARRL.
1. Find a friend in the USA who is prepared to act as a maildrop. The person does not need to be a radio ham, but of course a radio ham is more likely to understand what to do with any paperwork that may arrive there. Hint: You may consider finding someone in an exotic area such as Hawaii or Puerto Rico, so that you can get an exotic KH6 or KP4 callsign!
2. Ensure that an exam session has been scheduled. Liase with me (ZS6EZ) if you are interested. Once we have at least four takers, we'll schedule the session.
3. Once you know which session you'll attend, pay your entry fee into the account:
Electronic payments are preferred, as cash or cheque payments attract horrible fees. If you make the payment less than a week before the session, please bring a printed payment notice with you as your payment may not have been detected in the account before the exam. The exam fee will be R 220, unless there is a substantial change in the exchange rate.
4. Send me an email, if you haven't already done so. I need your contact details for in case any last-minute information needs to be distributed. Let me know which licence class exams you intend writing. We'll try to accommodate walk-in candidates, but we may have limited resources and you may be disappointed.
5. Register for FRN (optional). You can expedite the licence issuing process by registering on the FCC's database beforehand and bringing the resulting FRN with you. If you get stuck, read the instructions.
You'll need 30 to 40 minutes each for the Technician and General exams (35 questions each) and 45 to 60 minutes for the Extra exam (50 questions). One candidate has written all three exams in under 40 minutes, with a score of 98%. We'll aim to be open for at least for three hours, so you should have enough time to pass all three exams and also attempt a rewrite.
Assuming that you pass one or more exam elements (which we fully expect you will!), you will receive a CSCE (Certificate of Successful Completion of Element). This Certificate proves that you have passed the exam, and can be used to obtain or upgrade your FCC licence. If you already have a licence, the CSCE allows you to immediately start operating with your new privileges, subject to a special callsign suffix (/AG for General and /AE for Extra). If you do not have an FCC licence, you'll have to wait for the licence to appear on the FCC ULS (which you can find through Google). The exam team will submit the paperwork directly to the ARRL, who will submit it to the FCC. The process generally takes less than two weeks. The FCC no longer mails licence certificates. Instead, they use email and Web distribution, so that you can print your own certificate off the ULS. Nevertheless, to be on the safe side, ensure that there is someone at the address who can forward things to you.
The answer is probably "yes".
Our experience: Most reasonably experienced South African radio amateurs can pass Tech and General with a few hours of cramming. Most electronics professionals find that they can pass Extra with a little cramming. No-one has ever left our sessions empty-handed.
At our first exam session, six South Africans arrived. Some reported that they felt under-prepared, with as little as three hours of study. All of them were licenced South African radio hams.
All six passed the Technician exam on the first try. Five of the six passed General on the first try. Three passed Extra on the first try.
Three candidates attempted re-writes. The one who had failed General managed to pass on his second attempt, and went on to obtain an Extra licence. Two attempted to re-write Extra. Both failed again.
Three hours after we started, only one candidate was still writing. The others had all completed either three or four exam papers (including re-writes), and all the paperwork had been completed.
The session ended with all six candidates getting licences--three Extra and three General. Three of the six had to pay an extra fee to cover re-writes.
At the second exam session, one candidate passed all three papers, one of which required a re-write. He obtained an Extra Class licence.
At the most recent session, two candidates passed all three exams on their first try, qualifiying for Extra licences. We were all out of there within two hours.
If you need first-hand feedback, you can ask South Africans who have passed US licence exams. Known examples include ZR6N (Pending Extra), ZS1EL (K1VL Extra), ZS6BK (KK6HTS General), ZS6BMN (Pending Extra), ZS6DT (KB7JB Advanced), ZS6EZ (N3EZ Extra), ZS6FDX (KK4VDA General), ZS6LMG (AC9GU Extra), ZS6LDP (AC2NN Extra), ZS6MDH (KV4SK Extra), ZS6PJH (KK4VDB General), ZS6RI (KF6NOF General) and ZS6SF (KV4SL Extra).
We will arrange sessions as and when required. If your club has at least five candidates, we would consider coming to your club premises. Please contact us in this regard.
Full details of all future sessions will appear closer to the time, here and on the ARRL's Web site. We'll also circulate details to anyone known to be interested. If you are, make sure that I know about you.
Chris R. Burger N3EZ (also ZS6EZ), ARRL Volunteer Examiner, Pretoria
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