Exploring Trends in Amateur Radio Licensing


by Tim Watson, KB1HNZ

Last evening, our club hosted the first of several VE exams for the year, and we had a great turnout. Not only were there quite a few upgrades, but also several newcomers who earned their first licenses. And this has been a steady trend since we began hosting these exams in 2010. It started me wondering what the national trends might be, so I began to research it.

Joe Speroni AH0A, makes this research pretty simple. He has compiled data for each U.S. license class in the U.S. dating back to the late 1990’s, and the numbers show that amateur radio is not just doing well, but thriving! Total licenses have increased by 11.42% since 1997, reaching an all-time high of 755,952 in January 2019, but that only tells part of the story.

So where are the biggest changes taking place? Let’s take a closer look. The Technician Class has seen an increase of 22% over the same period, from 314,532 licenses in 1997 to 384,509 in 2019. General Class went up by 50%, from 116,629 in 1997 to 176,089 in 2019, and Extra went up by a staggering 100.1%! In 1997 there were only 73,737 licensed Extras in the U.S., but by 2019 that number grew to 147,560.


It would be natural to say that these increases were a direct result of the Morse code requirement being dropped by the FCC in 2007, after the ITU ratified changes to the Radio Regulations to allow each country to determine whether it would require a person seeking an amateur radio license to demonstrate the ability to send and receive Morse code. General class licenses increased by over 5,000 between December 2006 and March 2007, which can most likely be attributed to the Morse code requirement change but, except for a jump during that period, the trend is much more gradual. Surprisingly, General Class licenses actually decreased between December 2006 and January 2007, possibly suggesting that some folks waited to upgrade until the new regulations came into effect, which also skewed the results somewhat. Extra class licenses show a steady increase over time, with one notable increase between April 2000 and June 2000, where it jumped from 77,530 to 90,451. Technician also shows a steady increase over time, but dropped between February and March 2007, around the same time that the Morse Code requirement was changed.

The Advanced and Novice license classes have seen a steady decline since license restructuring began in April 2000. From that point forward, no new Advanced, Tech Plus, or Novice licenses were issued, and many of these hams have since upgraded to one or the other license classes. Many Advanced have upgraded to Extra, Tech Plus was absorbed into the Technician Class, which also gained privileges on 10 meters and CW portions of 40 and 80 meters, and Novices have upgraded to either Technician or above. It is surprising to see, however, that although its been 20 years since that change took place, there are still many Advanced and Novice licenses active.

These trends are a good sign that the hobby is healthy and continuously growing. We see it on the local level, and its good to see that the same is happening nationwide.

Looking at some other countries, Germany’s ham population dropped between 2004 and 2005, but has steadily increased since, with over 81,000 licensed hams in in the most recent year of record. Japan’s numbers are all across the board. They saw the largest increases in new licenses between 1987 and 1996, with over 100,000 new licenses per year, but that decreased to a low of 15,896 in 2004, and it’s been increasing steadily since. In the United Kingdom, new licenses have been on a steady rise since 2005, going from 6,948 per year in 2005, to 21,791 in 2016, which is a 213.6% increase.

There are obviously many different factors that have played a role in shaping these figures, and it would take a lot of time to explore all of them, but a few come to mind right away. The FCC and ARRL have done a great job over the past two decades to simplify the licensing structure, which has attracted many newcomers to the hobby, and encourages existing hams to pursue upgrades. Ham radio gear has also become more accessible and affordable than ever. An entry level HT costs $30 today, compared with $150-$200 when I first got started in the hobby in 2001. New digital modes such as FT8, DMR, D-STAR, Fusion, and others, open the hobby up to new people, and the QRP movement combines experimenters, kit builders, and outdoor enthusiasts, who enjoy operating portable from mountaintops, parks, and more, adding a whole new element to the hobby.

Ham radio is also more accessible now than ever before. When I first became interested in the hobby, in the early 1990’s, it wasn’t easy to find even basic information about it. The Berkshire Athenaeum, our local library, had books about it from the 1970’s, that were great for learning about radio theory, but they didn’t answer simple questions, like “how do I get a license?..” “Where do I get a radio?…” “How do I find out more?” It wasn’t until our household got the internet that I could research that information. There’s a lot of folks these days that say that the computer and the internet are “killing ham radio,” but my experience is very much the opposite. Who can imagine a radio room without a computer? We use it to look up call signs, check DX spots, examine the propagation, and so much more! And we use tools like electronic logging, software defined radios, and rig control every day. In many ways these advances are the best thing to happen to amateur radio.

If you’re interested in learning more about the trends in amateur radio licensing, click here to visit Joe Speroni’s FCC license data table.

And, as always, please share your thoughts and comments.

Works Cited:

“Total FCC Licenses, by month, by class.” Joe Speroni, AH0A:  http://www.ah0a.org/FCC/Licenses.html

“Ham Licenses Each Class.” 02/21/2020. Web Image: http://www.clearskyinstitute.com/ham/stats/index.html

“Ham Licenses Total.” 02/21/2020. Web Image: http://www.clearskyinstitute.com/ham/stats/index.html

One thought on “Exploring Trends in Amateur Radio Licensing”

  1. I must have been a masochist because I got my no-code Tech license in 1992. A year later I had my Extra – going through General, Advanced and finally taking the element 1C test. It gives me the right to rib newly minted Extras. I’ve held the calls N1MPQ, KD1NR, and now for at least twenty years KD1S. Living in 4 land.


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