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Amateur radio, often called ham radio, is both a hobby and a service in which participants, called hams," use various types of radio communications equipment to communicate with other radio amateurs for public service, recreation and self-training.

Amateur radio operators enjoy personal (and often worldwide) wireless communications with each other and are able to support their communities with emergency and disaster communications if necessary, while increasing their personal knowledge of electronics and radio theory. An estimated six million people throughout the world are regularly involved with amateur radio.

The term "amateur" is not a reflection on the skills of the participants, which are often quite advanced; rather, "amateur" indicates that amateur communications are not allowed to be made for commercial or money-making purposes.

In all countries, amateur radio operators are required to pass a licensing exam displaying knowledge and understanding of key concepts. In response, hams are granted operating privileges in larger segments of the radio frequency spectrum using a wide variety of communication techniques with higher power levels permitted. This practice is in contrast to unlicensed personal radio services such as CB radio, Multi-Use Radio Service, or Family Radio Service/PMR446 that require type-approved equipment restricted in frequency range and power.

Amateur radio licensing in the United States serves as an example of the way some countries award different levels of amateur radio licenses based on technical knowledge. Three sequential levels of licensing exams (Technician Class, General Class and Amateur Extra Class) are currently offered, which allow operators who pass them access to larger portions of the Amateur Radio spectrum and more desirable callsigns.

Upon licensing, a radio amateur's national government issues a unique callsign to the radio amateur. The holder of a callsign uses it on the air to legally identify the operator or station during any and all radio communication.

Amateurs have access to frequency allocations throughout the RF spectrum, enabling choice of frequency to enable effective communication whether across a city, a region, a country, a continent or the whole world regardless of season or time day or night. The shortwave bands, or HF, can allow worldwide communication, the VHF and UHF bands offer excellent regional communication, and the broad microwave bands have enough space, or bandwidth, for television (known as SSTV and FSTV) transmissions and high-speed data networks. The international symbol for amateur radio, included in the logos of many IARU member societies. The diamond holds a circuit diagram featuring components common to every radio: an antenna, inductor and ground.

Although allowable power levels are moderate by commercial standards, they are sufficient to enable global communication. Power limits vary from country to country and between license classes within a country. For example, the power limits for the highest available license classes in a few selected countries are:
  • 2.25 kW in Canada,
  • was 2 kW in the former Yugoslavia,
  • 1.5 kW in the United States,
  • 1 kW in Belgium and Switzerland,
  • 750 W in Germany,
  • 500 W in Italy,
  • 400 W in Australia, India and the United Kingdom, and
  • 150 W in Oma
The International Telecommunication Union (ITU) governs the allocation of communications frequencies worldwide, with participation by each nation's communications regulation authority. National communications regulators have some liberty to restrict access to these frequencies or to award additional allocations as long as radio services in other countries do not suffer interference. In some countries, specific emission types are restricted to certain parts of the radio spectrum, and in most other countries, International Amateur Radio Union (IARU) member societies adopt voluntary plans to ensure the most effective use of spectrum.

The term Ham was defined as "a poor operator. A 'plug.'" in G. M. Dodge's The Telegraph Instructor even before radio. The definition has never changed in wire telegraphy. The first wireless operators were landline telegraphers who left their offices to go to sea or to man the coastal stations. They brought with them their language and much of the tradition of their older profession.

In those early days, spark was king and every station occupied the same wavelength--or, more accurately perhaps, every station occupied the whole spectrum with its broad spark signal. Government stations, ships, coastal stations and the increasingly numerous amateur operators all competed for time and signal supremacy in each other's receivers. Many of the amateur stations were very powerful. Two amateurs, working across town, could effectively jam all the other operators in the area. When this happened, frustrated commercial operators would call the ship whose weaker signals had been blotted out by the amateurs and say "SRI OM THOSE #&$!@ HAMS ARE JAMMING YOU."

Amateurs, possibly unfamiliar with the real meaning of the term, picked it up and applied it to themselves in true "Yankee Doodle" fashion and wore it with pride. As the years advanced, the original meaning has completely disappeared.