What? A Record Level of US Ham Licenses?

The ARRL just reported that the number of FCC amateur radio licenses hit an all time high of 717,201 at the end of 2013. Since we all know that the interwebz has made ham radio communication obsolete :-), this is a difficult statistic to comprehend. Joe Speroni AH0A keeps a useful collection of ham licensing statistics including the ability to generate plots of the data. I used Joe’s site to generate this plot of total US amateur licenses versus time. Note that the vertical axis does not start at zero, so the plot tends to exaggerate the amount of change.



Click to expand

From this plot, we see that the number of licenses was in decline from about 2003 to 2007. The no code Technician license was introduced in 1991 which is earlier than the data on this chart. The FCC completely dropped the Morse Code requirement from all license classes in 2007, as indicated on the chart. (See Wikipedia for the exact dates.) The decline in licenses was reversed at that time and has been growing ever since.  There is an interesting inflection point in 2010 that coincides with the release of a new Technician License question pool. The line is noticeably less steep after this point, which seems to imply that something happened to slow down the rate of new licenses.

Over the last ten years, Technician licenses have grown slightly as a percent of the total, going from 47% to 49%. So about half of US licenses are Technician. The grandfathered Novice and Advanced class licenses are in a slow decline and currently represent 2% and 8% (respectively) of the total licenses. The percent of General licenses has grown slightly over the past ten years, from 21% to 23%. Extra class licenses showed the most growth over the decade, going from 15% to 19% of total licenses.

While it’s encouraging to see continued growth in the number of ham radio licenses, these statistics immediately raise a number of questions:

  • How many of these licensees are Silent Keys and their FCC license is just clocking time until it hits the 10 year expiration date?
  • Given the aging ham population, when will we hit a demographic brick wall and see the number of licenses decline?
  • How many of these licensees are actively involved in ham radio? I have a number of friends that keep their FCC license current but are never on the air.

Clearly, the 10 year license term will tend to mask any decline for a while but it seems that sooner or later the numbers will flatten off and probably start to decline. I don’t know of anyone that has collected and analyzed the age distribution of hams, so I am basing this on what I see at radio club meetings and major ham radio events.

How many of these licensees are active? Really difficult to say. It seems that in the 21st century, people have many activities to choose from and their interest in any one of them may fade in and out. Not everyone is a Full Up 24/7 Ham Radio Enthusiast.

In the mean time, I am going to keep teaching Tech license classes and helping people get started in a hobby that I find to be a lot of fun. Remember the The Universal Purpose of Amateur Radio: To Have Fun Messing Around with Radios.

73, Bob K0NR

Bob Witte, KØNR, is a regular contributor to AmateurRadio.com and writes from Colorado, USA. Contact him at [email protected].

17 Responses to “What? A Record Level of US Ham Licenses?”

  • Peter kg5wy:

    My belief is that the tests have become Soooo easy that anyone can become a ham. T.Q.s are taught instead of learning the theory, and rules & regs are not understood. Just listen to 14.313.
    There are ads with promises for a passing a test in 2 days.
    And now there is no respect for the Morse code by hams that didn’t have to take the test.
    Just my 2 cents.
    I’ll get of the soap box now.

  • The 10 year license expiration lag has been around for decades so I don’t think it’s masking anything, or at least not anything more statistically than it was 20 years ago. Also, amateurs may die with 10 years or 10 months left on their licenses so there isn’t a definite 10 year lag with each license expiration.

    There’s been a steady stream of pre-baby boomer SKs and I think the effect of aging baby boomers passing is going to be more distributed over time as we’ve undoubtedly lost some early (i.e. heart attacks) and some are going to live longer due to advancements in medicine and lifestyle changes made since the previous generation. But there will be a statistical “hump” that is going to make its way through the next 25 years, no doubt about. But at least we’ve got the numbers going in the right direction for now.

    The inactive amateur observation is one I’ve often thought about. I’ve theorized that perhaps only 25% of amateurs are active.

  • Peter, there’s a difference between not learning the code and not having “respect” for it. I’ve found that despite not having to take a CW test, people become interested in CW in due time, usually after they’ve seen what can be done with it and they’ve explored other facets of the hobby. I think ones who don’t “respect” CW are few are far between and it’s unfair to paint this generation of amateurs who had no choice in the matter as the FCC and essentially the rest of the world doesn’t test for CW anymore.

    Other modes undoubtedly have lower barriers to entry and are initially more appealing to new licensees. It’s our responsibility to show these new licensees the magic of CW at club meetings and Field Days, and in contests or while hiking or DXing. The last thing we want to do is create a cultural entry barrier by alienating these new licensees.

  • Todd KD0TLS:

    How many of these newly-licensed hams are just “preppers”?

    Licenses don’t talk; people do. Death isn’t the sole problem, either. Many spend several years in nursing homes where they can’t get on the air, yet they aren’t “silent key”.

    I see a brick wall looming ten years ahead, with local repeater infrastructure falling into disrepair in many areas, a whole lot of elderly hams’ living situations changing into something that doesn’t support HF (condos, retirement communities, etc), and increasing restrictions on towers and antennae in general. The hobby will survive beyond that, but it’ll be *very* different.

    We are basically blowing that lead time in a futile effort to keep the ham radio paradigm of thirty years ago alive, and in shouting down anyone that speaks heresy by pointing that out. Gloat and flame, and tell each other that you have the moral high ground. The next step will be to quibble over the meaning of the word “dead” when people say, “I thought ham radio was dead”.

    But, yeah, good news.

  • At the risk of hypocritically painting a group with a wide brush, I think these preppers in general aren’t active, but even worse they don’t have a love for radio or technology. Radio is yet another tool like a weapon, power generator, shelter, or inflated gold coins. They’re not contributing to the radio art, the amateur radio community, and the long term viability of amateur radio. You’re not going to see a prepper developing a new protocol or mode, and probably not building equipment or getting people into the hobby outside of other preppers.

    I don’t think HOAs and restrictions on towers are going to radically change the hobby. There’s always been some level of challenge in building a station, and this is part of the charm of amateur radio. If anything we’re going to see more of a chasm between the super stations (the contesters who drop several hundred grand on a station) and what the normal Joe Sixpack can build and operate. It actually wouldn’t be a bad hobby if all of us had to operate QRP with stealth antennas, though it sure would be nice to have a better solar cycle to support it.

    Repeaters have been dying for 15 years, despite many of them still running. Many repeaters are just cherchunker reflectors. (Ironically it takes an act of Congress to get an open 2m frequency here in the east for a new repeater.) I wouldn’t cite repeaters to gauge the health and vitality of amateur radio or think that repeaters are an alternative to an HF-challenged QTH. If anything we should be looking towards club maintained HF remote stations, and use 2m for linking to them.

  • Jason KF5OUD:

    I attended one of those two day classes that was done for hospitals in my area. I studied for about a month before and breezed through the Tech test and then passed the General test. I had thought about amateur radio about 15 years ago but didn’t follow through with it( I was a teenager ha). I mainly did this for being prepared but I have embraced many areas of amateur radio and absolutely love it. I’m active in EMCOMM for my county and get on HF sometimes to make contacts. I’ve had my license for two years and a week doesn’t go by without me doing something with radio.

    There are many that may take the tech test and have little to add to the hobby. I also think some, like me, will do it for one reason and gain many hours of fun from other areas of amateur radio. Those that don’t will be silent and fade away in the static.

  • Don N4KC:

    No stats to back this up–and I am a research guy by trade, among other careers–but I suspect about the same percentage of preppers, EMCOMs, and storm-spotters will move on to become more involved in the hobby as would the general population who get interested and get a ticket. I don’t care what attracts them to the hobby, but once they pass the exam and get a radio of some kind, we should evangelize to them just a bit and urge them to consider more of what ham radio offers. They’ll either take the bait or not.

    I also hope I never hear that old saw about eliminating the code test being the ruination of the hobby. Or no longer having to draw a schematic of a Colpitts oscillator on the exam. The test is what it is and those taking it have no choice in the matter.

    OK, so some of them, the day they get their license, can’t build an amp from old TV parts or a 5-element beam from piano wire and 2X2s. Those with a technical curiosity will continue to learn as they pursue that aspect of amateur radio. Those who don’t–who have just as much business being a ham as anybody else–can go a different direction.

    I also hope not to hear any more of that “the Internet and smart phones mean nobody under the age of 40 will ever want to become a ham” QRM! I think Bob’s post above and the stats behind it show it is still a vibrant hobby and continues to grow.


    Don N4KC

  • Richard KWØU:

    Good discussion. One way to gauge overall hamming could be to go through the number of hits licensee pages have on QRZ. There is a counter on each one. People never on the air might be in the 2, maybe 3 digit range, since only a few people would have looked them up. Fairly active ones are well in 4 (several thousand), and superstations or dxpeditions 5 or 6 digits (W1AW is in the later, with over 400k). Unfortunately I don’t know of any way to collect this data without an impossible amount of work, but if it could be found (and even better, correlated with license class) we could get a pretty good picture of activity. But spot checking might give at least a sense of the situation.

  • Frank Howell K4FMH:

    There are many ways to do ham radio. Take a look at the Delta Division website…soon the 2013 Survey Report will be posted…the 2011 is there now. I prepared both reports. There is a significant group in the four Delta Division states who are “late in life” hams. The demography of amateur radio is of great interest to me as I’m a professional demographer (write books, articles; journal editor; book series editor for Springer Media). Our problem is data…especially age! I hope to do more with this and am actively working with Joe Speroni…who moved into a condo this past year BTW.

    73 de Frank K4FMH

  • Don AE7QL:

    Until I moved to Colorado about six months ago…was active on HF, 2M and a VE in the local club in Idaho. Loved the hobby in the almost four years I lived there…because I could talk to Hams, learn from them and try to make the hobby better.

    I moved here…either the repeaters are private repeaters or no one will talk to you. Unlike the club in Idaho…I have never met a more bunch of unfriendly people. Because of the local club can’t get enough VE’s to help administer exams…I was asked to help proctor upcoming exams. If the club had been more friendly…I would have been more than happy to help…but not now. Still love the hobby and am thinking of paying my membership fees to my old club and be able to get the help and friendship I never found locally.

    To sum up…at least here locally…we have met the enemy and it is us.

  • K4TOJ - Tom:

    I’m one of those who got his ticket after finding out you didn’t need to know the CW any longer. I got my General in 2010. Skipped the Technician since I studied for both since DX was my ultimate goal. When I was younger, I was a SWL and used CB before it got out of hand. I learned a lot about the theory then and even started studying for my ticket. Never got the hang of CW as I had other interests that were more important to me at the time like computers. Today, I have my DXCC and participate in a few contests per year. I also help the local club with field day and several races we help provide communications for.

    Quite frankly, I take great offense to hams like Peter kg5wy who compare people like me to the VERY FEW people who transmit on 14.313. I’m surprised he didn’t think to quote the repeater in the LA area as well that has the worst people as well.

    The FCC exams for getting your ticket from the Technician through Extra, that I hold today, are difficult enough to obtain. You do need to know and understand some key things about our hobby to even think about passing any part of it. Who cares if you don’t have to test how many words per min you can do CW? That’s just learning a set of patterns, NOTHING to do with theory! How many different modes do we have outside of CW? Should we test for all of them before you can be licensed?

    I’m one of the younger ones and really enjoy the hobby. I know how to use my radios. I know how to build an antenna that will allow me to do what I want to do with the hobby. I refuse to allow people like Peter kg5wy to turn me away as I have thick skin so to speak, but I fear that people like him do get to many who decide to go off and do something else.

    As for the main purpose of this article, it is interesting to me that the curve has turned so positive since the code was no longer a requirement. I also believe that a portion of that was for people who have gotten used to being able to communicate with cell phones, email, etc. and really feel hollow when the technology fails them. For instance, the one big reason I got in to the hobby was to have a way to communicate a fairly good distance when the easy technology (cell phones) failed. Traveling on some roads with my family, it becomes obvious that cell service doesn’t exist everywhere. I didn’t want to be stuck somewhere and not be able to communicate if we needed help. My use of the hobby grew from there.


  • john mann KK4ITN:

    Respect: Listen to it when a DX station appears on HF. Every other RESPECTFUL EXTRA fires up their linear,turns their beam, drops their teeth,and turns into a hateful,mean,old cootie.

    HAVING FUN: Theres no fun when the ‘regulars’ have “THERE” net and will interfere with anyone calling CQ. They will do anything to get you off,after all it’s their sked time, and you best not interfer!

    TEN YEARS: Will tell the tale. Every 85 year old’s rigs will be on e-bay!

    TELL ME THIS: Total population v. ham licenses?

    If your just a General class operator and trying to upgrade, why has the ARRL made the test so difficult? To get more hams? YEA RIGHT.

    Why do stations use cut cw or cooties? ANSWER=So cw readers and button pushers computers can’t understand them.

    BUGS=Most can’t send with them. Talk about cw requirements and stick your chest out extras – How about RE-TESTING and see if you can answer some of the questions, or even understand the question.

    I think they call it ‘arm chair quarter backing’.

    OFF MY CHEST NOW-Im better-turning on the rig and back to 14.050 calling CW.

  • Cut CW exists to save time. It takes less time to send a N than a 9. CW readers can read an N just as easily as a 9. A human interpreting it correctly is another story.

    I have to chuckle about your bugs observation. I don’t think I’ve ever heard a good bug op. There’s something horribly wrong with a 12:1 dah to dit ratio 🙂

  • peter kg5wy:


  • Paul WA4JCR:

    HAM is transitioning from 24/7 voice communications to intermittent, pre-planned events with hacked-together radios using SDR and the like.

    The old style, massive antennas in backyards, is disappearing. If you 80 year olds don’t want to modernize, we don’t care – you’ll all be dead in 15 years anyway. Nothing you say or do will change the path of the future.

  • Fred Taylor:

    The increase may be due to the fact that new hobbies, such as FPV R/C flying, require a license to operate some equipment. In fact, that is the reason I will be taking the test next week. I already knew a lot of the basic electronics info but I enjoyed learning about the HAM hobby and although I don’t think it’s for me I’m sure others will be drawn in without expecting to find a new hobby.

  • Phil KB9PED:

    I believe ham radio is dying, do to all the old timer clicks. They often give new hams a hard time, is asking questions about things, they no but checking your call sign. but on the other side of the coin, if we the people do not use ham radio, the goverment will pull all the frequencies from use from the people.

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