HamTestOnline.com – The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

I used HamTestOnline.com to study for and pass all three tests offered for the three level of FCC amateur radio license. It was fast, efficient, and cost effective. Pity I can’t recommend it.


The gold standard tool for studying for the amateur radio license exam is a set of guides written by Gordon West (“Gordo”) and sold by radio dealers. You can see the full list of his materials on his W5YI website. Ham radio enthusiasts love to use their call signs, by the way. We may need to change the name of Longleaf Breeze to AK4IF Farm.

Those who shop for Gordo’s materials find a bristling array of books, CDs, and computer software. I haven’t seen or used any of them, but I can only assume from the online feedback about them that they’re comprehensive, authoritative, and thorough. Hams have been using them to study for the license exam for years, and they’ve survived the test of time. I can’t say this from personal experience, but my guess is that those who use study materials like Gordo’s are knowledgeable about ham radio by the time they finish and ready to enjoy their new hobby. They’ve probably also spent hundreds of hours plowing through all those materials, listening to all those CDs, and completing all those workbooks.

I hoped for something faster, and I found it. HamTestOnline also comes with a formidable array of positive feedback from happy test-takers. The price seemed reasonable – about $75 if you sign up in advance to use its web site to prepare for all three tests. I took advantage of the free trial long enough to decide that it was the right approach for me, and when HamTestOnline asked me to pay for it with my credit card I said yes.

HamTestOnline delivers what it promises. Thanks to its methodical record-keeping, I can tell you that I studied for 34 hours and 30 minutes to pass all three license exams. I took the technician and general class tests on Saturday, May 7 and the extra class test last night, May 9. I can’t tell you my scores, but I know I must have done well, because the tests seemed easy, covering material on which I had been drilled completely. I can’t see any way I could have finished this so quickly without HamTestOnline.

Just the Questions. HamTestOnline dispenses with any pretense of teaching you about amateur radio. It’s all about learning the answers to the 1200 +/- questions that make up the question pools: 350 or so for the technician, 350 or so for the general, and 500 or so for the extra. And learn them I did. It’s striking how many little tricks I was able to pack into my short-term memory to help me associate the correct answer with each of those questions. The beauty of HamTestOnline is that it notes the questions that give you trouble and asks them to you later (how much later is adjustable by the user). So all I needed to do to study was to go to the web site, log in, and start answering questions. HamTestOnline took care of keeping up with everything else. It even told me when the answer I needed to give was the wrong one because that’s the answer the exam graders would be using.

Constant Encouragement. HamTestOnline is well designed from a pedagogical perspective. It rewarded my study periodically by telling me the progress I was making. “Congratulations! You’ve now completed 26% of the technician class study” or words to that affect. It even told me when I was far enough along to schedule my exam.

Thematic Organization. Because I knew at the outset that I wanted to prepare for all three exams, I asked HamTestOnline to begin asking me questions from all three question pools immediately. The overwhelming majority of the early questions were from the technician class question pool, but I know there were some from the extra pool, because I remember knowing I had mastered 2% of the extra class questions at one point while I was preparing for the technician and the general. And the site was not just jumping around randomly. It presented the questions grouped by themes, asking several questions at once about FCC rules, and then several about the fundamentals of radio, etc.

Grammar, Spelling, etc. I have become annoyed in reading technical material at the grammar and spelling errors that seem to be ubiquitous in them. That wasn’t a problem with HamTestOnline. I didn’t notice while I was using it, but now that I look back on it, I remember no misspelled words and no awkward phrasing. The site was a joy to use.

So What’s Bad?

What’s bad is how little I know about ham radio after having taken and passed the tests for all three levels of amateur radio license. Now that I have my extra ticket, I’ll still need help from knowledgeable friends (thanks in advance, Tom) to set up my little ham shack and begin operating.

Just the Questions. That exclusive focus on the questions from the question pools means that there’s only the scimpiest of textual material offered on HamTestOnline. There are links to external sites where you can go to learn more about a topic, but because they’re external they don’t use the same terminology, are not always on point, and are not organized in the same way. I found myself making little use of the external links. And too often, HamTestOnline asked me questions with no textual help at all, forcing me to come up with little tricks to answer the questions correctly rather than learning comprehensively the material the question was addressing. Rather than learning “what devices are commonly used in VHF and UHF parasitic suppressors at the input and output terminals of transistorized HF amplifiers,” I simply learned to say “ferrite beads.” To this day, I have no earthly notion what a ferrite bead is or what a parasitic suppressor is or should do, but I know the answer to that question and 1199 others like it.

I frankly would have liked to learn more of the concepts. If HamTestOnline had offered to share with me knowledge about them, I would have studied it gratefully. But it’s not available. It’s as if the authors are saying, “don’t bother learning about ham radio. Just learn to say “ferrite beads.”

And What’s Ugly?

What’s ugly is how utterly logical it is that HamTestOnline has developed this approach. We who are studying for the amateur radio license (with rare exception) don’t really want to plow through all that technical mumbo-jumbo. We love having a fast, simple way to learn the answers to the questions so we don’t have to delve into the theory and learn what a verner diode actually does.

So the ugly part is not anything HamTestOnline is doing; it is that it’s simply a logical response to the environment of amateur radio license testing. The ugly part is the use of fixed question pools.

In the not-too-distant past, you couldn’t do it the way I did. Candidates for a license exam knew what concepts would be on the test, may even have known that there was bound to be a question about ferrite beads. But they had no way of knowing how the question would be phrased, so they needed to know what I don’t: what ferrite beads are, when their use can be helpful, and on what components they should be attached. I don’t know why we changed the system to the fixed question pool; I can only assume there were complaints (some perhaps well-founded) that this ad hoc approach to testing was unfair or even inaccurate. But I bet those who passed it knew a lot more about ham radio than I do.

In our world where ham radio is part of our plan for resilience, knowing how to do it right may be a matter of life or death, not simply a hobby or a way to win a contest. So now that I’ve passed those tests I must go back and learn those concepts, at least as they relate to the VHF world where I plan to do most of my ham radio work.

If you want a fast, relatively cheap way to pass the ham radio license exams HamTestOnline can help you get it done. Just know that when you finish you will still need to put in many hours of study time if you actually want to understand the subject.

9 thoughts on “HamTestOnline.com – The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly”

  1. When I got my ticket (1970), volunteers conducted only the Novice exam. All other exams were administered directly by the FCC — for us, in Atlanta or occasionally Birmingham. The FCC did not publish its specific test questions, although there was an ARRL book to coach test-takers. One had to know electronics, although it was rudimentary for the Novice ticket. An Extra exam was basically the equivalent of a BSEE with respect to electronics and antennas. Of course, back in those days a lot of hams still built their own radios.

    Eventually the FCC tired of the burden and the cost to administer exams. When they handed exams to the volunteer community, some warned that the exams would devolve into memorization contests. It’s like the guys who won a world Scrabble contest a few years ago; they couldn’t even speak English. They simply memorized the entire Scrabble dictionary.

    These days, few hams build their own rigs. However, a lot more hams these days build their own antennas than 40 years ago. Nearly everyone bought an off-the-shelf multi-band beam or multi-band dipole (vertical or horizontal) when I had a ticket.

    One other thing… in 1970 it was 5 wpm code for a Novice or Technician, 13 wpm for a General or Advanced, and 20 wpm for an Extra. Considerable effort went into that. From my point of view, if the point of being licensed is to conduct emergency comms, code is still a way to do that when all else fails… especially if you’re using HF with a battery-powered QRP rig and an improvised antenna after a hurricane, for example.

  2. So Chuck, are you still active? If so, what’s your call sign? If not, what made you decide to let it go?

    And I agree with you, by the way, about WC. The problem is that so few people use it nowadays that I’m not sure there would be much benefit to my learning it, sort of like learning Esperanto.

  3. No, I let my license lapse during college — too many things going on at that time in my life — and never got it back. Traveling as much as I have gets in the way. But I talk about a license occasionally with my neighbor N4GC and my internist W4TTX. I’d be interested in old-style AM on 160, 80, or 40 (assuming I could find usable boat anchors). Of course I don’t have the space for antennas that you do.

    If the Bar exam were multiple choice and all the questions and answers were published in advance, think of how many lawyers we’d have!

  4. Have you thought about getting a cb radio? I know they have a lot of limitations over ham, but there are a lot more of them, and there are also lot’s of people with scanners that listen constantly. If emergency communication is what your after cb seems like the best option to me. By the way, learning one of the worlds only planned and non evolved languages is definitely not a waste of time.

  5. After doing some more research, I have to retract my earlier statement. Ham is the way to go.

  6. Because apparently according to my research you can use ham equipment to access all of the radio bands. So therefore, once you have ham you effectively have them all and the equipment can be adjusted for long or short range communication based on your needs at that particular time; so they say at least. Cb and family band radios still are probably preferable for short range communication on work sites and farms for example.

  7. Your whole premise is flawed. Using the Gordon West books and CD’s does not teach you everything you need to know, it’s basically no different than hamtestonline. I have both the Gordon West Extra book and the audio CDs. The audio CD’s are him basically reading the questions and answers, along with some radio banter to keep you awake. The book is just the question pools and answers with a few key words or perhaps a sentence or two. You are not going to learn any more radio theory or nuts and bolts using Gordon West books then you are doing hamtestonline. The books and hamtetonline are about one thing only, and that is passing the test. Gordon West makes money because people buy his books and pass the test and that spreads through word of mouth allowing him to continue to sell books. If Gordon filled his books with information not directly related to passing the test most people would not buy them because people the overwhelming majority of people want to pass the tests without being subjected to PHD level radio theory. Unless you are already an Electrical Engineer, you are going to be just as clueless about radio operations regardless of which ham radio test prep method you use. Think of passing the tests as the entrance exam to the hobby, as opposed to a graduate level course. As for how it used to be, well google “Dick Bash”. He basically started publishing books with the questions and answers to the tests. He stood outside of the testing sites and paid people to give him the questions and answers on the tests. And as Chuck says, back in the day if you were a geek into technology, ham radio was it. You could build your own radio, perhaps grow up to be a radio or TV repairmen or go to college to be an electrical engineer and design electronics. Go into a ham radio store today and grab a VHF HT. You can’t home brew that. The microprocessor and miniaturization technology of today is so advanced that it is not feasible or practical to bother building you own “serious” radio. Which is why antenna’s are now the focus of most home brewing, because that’s where the basic radio theory can still be practically applied by the average hobbiest. Look at what kids are exposed to today with technology, you can Skype to grandma on a computer or smartphone across the world for a few hundred dollars with no technical knowledge. Convincing somebody to study and pass an exam to an equivalent knowledge of a college electrical engineering degree, plus learning morse code so they can have a brief conversation with somebody in Europe isn’t the same today as it was 40 years ago.

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