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Operating practices for Radio Amateurs

How to operate on amateur bands
RST Codes
Phonetic Alphabet
Listen First
Making a contact
Signing off
Making a Morse contact
General Information
Using Repeaters


Amateur Radio is a fascinating hobby with many facets that can be practised by all amateurs alike. All the different things that make up this hobby culminate in contacting other persons with the same basic interest and, above all, the contacts made will contribute towards friendship and goodwill to each other. In these times of stress and strife, we all need to make friends more than ever before, and we can only promote goodwill by being on our best behaviour whenever we pick up the microphone, the Morse key or use a computer in Amateur Radio. Politeness is the key to good operating.

In the same way that we have Traffic rules for road usage, and the Law of the Land for the good of the community, so there are Regulations and Operating Procedures governing our hobby, designed for us to obey, in order to make it easier to live with our fellow man. The Regulations are the Law, and the Operating Procedures mutually agreed "rules". Both are designed to make our hobby such a pleasure.

IARU (International Amateur Radio Union) Regional Band Plans have been worked out to help all users of the Amateur Bands to share out the available space to best effect. Always obey them! The observance of the guidelines in this book will help to keep Amateur Radio something we can be proud of and our compliance with these rules will ensure that we can all enjoy our hobby without any detriment to others.

Operating procedures vary according to whichever band is in use and what is happening on that band, at that time. A local contact on 2m will be different from one with a "DX-pedition" station on 20 meters.

Many new Radio Amateurs start with telephony (Phone) yet use the Q-code which is meant for Morse Code (CW) use, and not for Phone. On phone there is little point in saying "there is some QRM on your signal" instead of simply saying "there is some interference on your signal". Many new Licensees seem to think that they should use the Q-Code simply because they are Radio Amateurs. However, there is a case for using Q-Codes on telephony if the operators do not share a common language. When they both converse in the same language, there is little point in using signals designed and intended for Morse Code (CW) use.

As a prelude to becoming a Ham, people should serve a basic training as a Short-wave Listener, both on the Broadcast bands and Amateur Radio bands, and have some knowledge which will help them considerably when going on the air for the first time. Today, there is a tendency for new Radio Amateurs to come straight into Amateur Radio, never having heard an Amateur contact being made before obtaining their Licences, and they are therefore unfamiliar with basic procedures.


Once you have written your RAE exam there is time to get acquainted with Ham Radio before you actually get a Licence/call sign, as this may take several weeks. If you have joined the S.A Radio League you will have a Call Book, so get busy and look up in your call area for any stations located near you, and then go along and introduce yourself to the operator of that station and ask him for assistance by way of listening to other amateurs, or even to learn Morse Code. This will help you get the "feel of amateur radio".

Once you have been issued with a Licence, it is essential that you know how to operate your equipment, and how to operate on the Amateur Bands, before attempting to go on the air. It is essential that you listen to amateurs making contacts, to learn how these are conducted. Get help if you are unsure of your equipment and how to operate it, as mistakes can be very costly these days. Don't take chances with your equipment. Please remember to only use sufficient power to make the contact correctly. Excessive use of power can very often cause more problems than the use of that power can justify.

In order to conduct a QSO with other radio amateur stations it is essential that you know and understand certain "codes". The RST System is internationally recognised and has definitions intended to convey something to the distant listener. Many amateur transceivers have "S" meters, which are intended to give signal strength readings, but they are not all calibrated to a specific standard. Thus, meter readings mean different things on different sets. It is, for instance, common to find that a perfectly audible signal hardly moves the "S" meter needle and a Novice will therefore give a signal report of S0 or S1, which misleads the other station. The value of "S" units is really what you hear and should be used as such. It might be that the signal mentioned above, warranted a report of "S3" meaning "weak signals", rather than "S1" meaning "faint signals barely perceptible". A meter indicating S5 may well be very loud and an S9 report would be in order.


Readability Signal Strength
R1 Unreadable S1 Faint signals, barely perceptible
R2 Barely readable S2 Very weak signals
R3 Readable with difficulty S3 Weak Signals
R4 Readable with no difficulty S4 Fair signals
R5 Perfectly readable S5 Fairly good signals
S6 Good signals
S7 Moderately good signals
S8 Strong signals
S9 Extremely strong signals
T1 Extremely rough hissing note
T2 Very rough AC note, no trace of musicality
T3 Rough, low pitched AC note, slightly musical
T4 Rough AC note, moderately musical
T5 Musically modulated note
T6 Modulated note, slight trace of whistle
T7 Near DC note, smooth ripple
T8 Good DC note, just a trace of ripple
T9 Purest DC note

Give honest reports at all times. Do not try to make the other fellow feel good by giving an inflated or incorrect report.


A Alpha Al-Fah N November No-Vem-Ber
B Bravo Brah-Voh O Oscar Oss-Cah
C Charlie Char-lee P Papa Pah-Pah
D Delta Dell-Ta Q Quebec Kwee-Beck
E Echo Eck-Oh R Romeo Row-Me-Oh
F Foxtrot Foks-Trot S Sierra See-Air-Rah
G Golf Golf T Tango Tan-Go
H Hotel Hoh-Tell U Uniform You-Nee-Form
I India In-dee-Ah V Victor Vik-Tor
J Juliet Jew-Lee-Et W Whiskey Wiss-Key
K Kilo Key-Loh X X-ray Ecks-Ray
L Lima Lee-Mah Y Yankee Yang-key
M Mike Mike Z Zulu Zoo-Loo


The elementary rule for the transmitting Ham is "listen first". It is only by listening that one can get some idea of basic facts such as what propagation is like on a band, and whether a particular frequency is in use. Remember a frequency may sound clear to you but a weak distant station may be using the frequency. Listening at various times builds up an understanding of how conditions vary at different times of the day, night and year. By listening, one hears actual contacts and learns the normal procedures, remembering to only learn and use the correct ones.

For a basic contact, there are two options - either to reply to a CQ call, or to call CQ oneself. CQ is the internationally used call for "I seek you", i.e. a general call to anyone listening that you wish to have a contact. For the beginner, it is better, at first, to reply to calls from other stations in order to be sure that the transmitter and antenna are working as they should. Few things are more frustrating to the newcomer than to call CQ and not receive any replies and assume his signal may not be getting out.

Speak clearly and slowly, especially when giving your call sign. If the person to whom you are talking does not speak your language very well, try to use simple words and phrases. Slang words may confuse them Use standard International Phonetics provided in this book.


It is essential that procedures are adhered to, as they are the basis of Telephony (Phone) contacts, AND Morse (CW) contacts -it is just the mode used, that changes. They apply to all bands. Once gain please do NOT use Q codes when communicating by Phone unless there is a language difficulty. Laugh if you wish to do so but do not use "Hi" as laughter on phone contacts.

a) Before calling for another station on a clear frequency:

Listen and ascertain that the frequency is not in use. This means listening for more than just a couple of seconds - listen for at least as long as one would expect an average transmission to last, for the type of activity on the band. Just to be sure, say "Is this frequency in use?". Only proceed if no reply is received.

b) A typical "local" contact - S. Africa and surrounding countries:

"CQ, CQ, CQ, this is ZS5XYZ, - Zulu Sierra Five X ray Yankee Zulu, CQ, CQ, CQ, CQ, this is ZS5XYZ calling CQ and standing by for a call."

The CQ is said up to three times in one transmission. If there is no reply try again. You do not need to send your call sign three times.

c) Seeking a Foreign contact (Outside the above area - DX):

"CQ DX, CQ DX, CQ DX, this is ZS5XYZ - Zulu Sierra Five X Ray Yankee Zulu calling CQ DX and standing by for a call."

Local operators should not answer this call because you are looking for foreign stations - DX.

Do not call "CQ DX" more than three times in each attempt, and do not give your call sign more than three times in each call. Repeat as often as necessary or until a contact is made.

d) Seeking a specific station:

Let us assume that W6FR is a specific station that you wish to contact:

"W6FR, W6FR, W6FR, this is ZS5XYZ, Zulu Sierra Five X Ray Yankee Zulu calling and standing by."

Repeat until a reply is received. Once that station has answered your call you may then proceed to greet the caller and give him your particulars as follows:

"W6FR this is ZS5XYZ. Good Morning (afternoon/night) OM, (unless the name is known). The name here is Rob - Romeo Oscar Bravo and I am located in Durban - South Africa. W6FR this is ZS5XYZ".

Wait for his reply and make notes of what his replies are. You cannot remember everything. Make notes. The use of the term Old Man in Ham Radio is not derogative. You do not know his name so cannot use it. The term OM or Old Man is used internationally when a name is not known.

When he puts it over to you he may give you a signal report (RST) and the weather or other information. You can then reply with his signal report, your weather and time of day and any other pertinent information. The ice has now been broken! You can then continue the contact in the way you desire. Remember, if you just establish contact, exchange reports and leave it at that it is possible that the other party will simply do likewise, and sign off, asking you to QSL. If you wish to pursue the contact ask some questions which need a reply. I suggest you prepare a list to be used until you are familiar with amateur radio conversations (QSO's).

Please remember that if you wish to QSL (exchange cards), say so. If you do NOT wish to QSL, say so. QSL cards may be mailed direct to the other station or sent via a QSL Bureau. The SARL has a Bureau for members. Be definite about how you wish to QSL. Some stations only QSL via a QSL manager who handles the mail for him. Get the correct information. Most QSL Cards to a Manager must be sent direct and not via the local QSL Bureau. If you do not follow QSL instructions you may not receive QSL cards in return and your card may never reach the correct destination.

Remember that you are required to give your call sign as frequently as required by the Regulations (once each over) and preferably at the end of the over. e.g. "W6FR from ZS5XYZ".

e) Answering a CQ Call transmitted by another station:

Listen carefully and get the Call Sign of the other station. Write it down. If that station is putting out a general CQ wait until he stands by, then answer with your Call Sign once or twice as stated previously and then listen. Do not call for long as he may have answered someone else. Often you cannot hear the other station due to many factors.

Do not answer calls made for a specific area other than your area. In other words if a station is calling "CQ Italy" he does not want African stations but only Italian stations to reply. Wait for your turn.

Once you have made contact write down ALL the relevant information directly into your Station Log Book and you won't forget to enter it.

f) Contacting a station already in contact with another station:

If the station you wish to call is already in contact with another station, wait until he has finished his QSO unless you know both stations and wish to join both of them and take care not to interrupt the trend of the QSO by butting in.


When signing off with any station you should thank the other station for the contact, mention about QSL Cards and the method you intend using to get the card to, or, from him, give him "good wishes" and a final "good-bye". Note that "good-bye and good wishes" is indicated by the numbers "73" when using Morse Code. When this expression is used on Phone, it should not be said as "73"s" but as "73". "73's" means "best wisheses". Here is an example of signing off:

"W6FR this is ZS5XYZ. Marv, thanks for the most pleasant contact, I hope to meet you again soon. W6FR this is ZS5XYZ off and clear and listening for your final."

The final courtesy of a QSO is the QSL card sent away to the other station. (if this was agreed on).


Now using CW the procedure is exactly the same but the "language" used is slightly different and one has to be careful. Do not transmit at speeds faster than you can receive. Speeding up the initial procedures can result in the answering station sending at that speed. Likewise, do not answer a transmitting station at his speed unless you can copy at that speed - call or answer at your own normal sending and receiving speed. A good operator at the other end will slow down for you.

Local Call: "CQ CQ CQ de ZS6XYZ ZS6XYZ ZS6XYZ AR K".

"de" means "from", and the "ARK" means the other station may begin transmitting.

Foreign Call: "CQ DX, CQ DX, CQ DX de ZS6XYZ ZS6XYZ ZS6XYZ AR K"

Then would follow: "W6FR de ZS6XYZ GM/A/E (his time) .... (his name if he gave it) es tnx fer call. My name is Jack es QTH Durban. Ur RST 599 with QSB. Hw copy? AR W6FR de ZS6XYZ KN " (Note that once contact is established KN is sent at the end of each transmission to indicate that only the station being talked to should answer).

"ZS6XYZ de W6FR GE (remember time differences) es mny tnx fer rpt. Name hr es Marv es QTH California. Ur sigs 599 with QRM. Tx hr is ..... wid 100W to dipole at 20 metres. Wx hr is fine. AR ZS6XYZ de W6FR KN __ __"

At the end of each station's last transmission, the letters VA or SK should be sent after the call signs. This means the contact has ended.


Learn good procedures - they are the mark of a good operator and no one really likes to listen to a poor or mediocre operator. Make yourself a good operator and you will feel proud about yourself.

Remember, whatever band you are using, your conversation is NOT private and thousands of listeners could be listening to you. Some may not be friendly to Amateur Radio for some reason. Don't behave in a way that a poor opinion of amateurs is confirmed in the minds of any listeners.

Never talk about Politics, Race, Religion, Sex or any other matter which may be offensive to the person to whom you are talking or to other persons. These are argumentative subjects and can cause problems.

If you saw two complete strangers talking to each other in the street, you would not butt into their conversation, and the same applies when you are on the air, except during nets when you may announce your call sign during breaks, and then wait to be invited in.

Never tune up your transmitter on the air. Use a dummy load and then do the final adjustment on the air quickly.


This depends on the situation after the last contact is completed as well as the situation on the frequency in use.

If you answered another station's call and have signed off with that station, it is good manners to move off "his" frequency to another frequency and make a call again. If however, it was "your" frequency then you can call again.

Please don't stand on your "rights" to a frequency. Use common-sense. If the other station is a "rare" or DX station then it is courteous to leave the frequency. If not another "CQ" call may be made as soon as the frequency is clear.


A repeater is an unmanned station usually located on a HIGH SITE such as the top of a hill or a tall building. Very often there are several repeaters on one HIGH SITE. Repeaters are designed to relay the weak or strong signals from Mobiles (vehicles) or Hand-Held transceivers over a far greater area than would normally be possible without it. In fact the mobile stations coverage area becomes that of the repeater.

The repeater consists of a receiver (the Input) and a transmitter (the Output) and some control gear known as "the logic". With the aid of special filters, it is able to transmit and receive at the same time. Unlike most types of operating, you will need to transmit on one frequency (the Input frequency) and receive on a different frequency (the Output frequency). Amateur Radio 2 meter repeaters have the Input frequency 600 kHz lower than the Output frequency.

To conserve the repeater's power the repeater remains in the receive mode until the transmitter is switched on when required for use (Accessed). To `access' a repeater, make sure that your receiver and transmitter are on the correct frequencies, then say "ZS4XX on frequency" or "ZS4XX standing by for a call". Do NOT say "ZS4XX listening" and release the PTT button (Press to talk) and expect someone to come back to you. You simply said `you were listening' and did not ask for a contact.

If correctly accessed, the repeater will have relayed your signal. If no one replies to your call, it will drop out after a few seconds.

It is important to realise that you are listening to the repeater's transmitter, relaying whatever signals it can hear, be it yours or someone else's. You are not hearing the mobile station directly, so it is no good giving a signal report in the usual way. Reports are limited to estimating how strong the mobile is at the repeater's receiver. The Input. There are three levels: :"Full quieting" meaning that there is no background noise, "Smooth noise" meaning that there is a little hiss on the signal, and "Rough Noise" meaning that it is difficult to understand the station because of background noise. These reports are only useful, however, if the repeater has a strong signal with you.

It is often a good idea to listen on the Input frequency to check whether a station can be heard without the aid of the repeater. It is not good practice to use a repeater when a direct contact (Simplex) can be made and the repeater is very active. Move to a simplex frequency and leave the repeater open for other, not so fortunate stations, to use.

Each repeater is shared by hundreds of operators, so transmissions must be kept short - preferably not longer than two to three minutes - and a pause of a second or two should be left between before transmitting to allow any other stations to make short or urgent calls. Every repeater has its own characteristics. The Golden Rule is: "listen carefully before transmitting".

Remember not to shout into the microphone and to get the correct position of your mouth in relation to YOUR microphone, for best speech quality. Do some tests with a good operator.

Using high power does not necessarily help. Remember that no matter what enters the repeater the output power remains the same - the power set for the repeater output. High Power can also cause problems when used in the vicinity of other repeaters. Use only enough power to access the repeater you are using well. Remember that when using Satellites you are communicating via a repeater that is programmed for a shut down if excessive power is used into the Satellite. In all cases of repeater use only sufficient power to make the contact properly.


Before attempting to transmit, ensure that:

1. Your transmitter and receiver are on the correct frequency.

2. Your peak deviation is correctly set.

3. Check that you will only access the repeater that you wish to use. This is especially important when conditions are very good.

4. Listen to the repeater before you transmit to make sure that it is not in use. If you hear a local station you wish to call, listen on the input frequency to see whether the stations is within simplex range before calling.

5. Unless you are specifically calling a particular station, simply announce that you are on frequency and available for a call. One announcement is usually sufficient. If you are calling a specific station give that stations' call sign followed by your own call sign e.g. "ZS2XYZ from ZS2WW".

6. Once contact is established:

(a) At the end of each over give his call sign followed by your call sign e.g. "ZS2XYZ from ZS2WW."

(b) Change frequency to a simplex channel (frequency) at the first opportunity especially if you are operating a fixed (base) station and wish to have a long conversation with the station.

(c) Keep your overs short and to the point.

(d) Do not monopolise the repeater as others may want to use it.

(e) Do not call "break break". In emergencies call "ZS4XYZ with traffic".

(f) If your signal is very noisy into the repeater, or if you are only opening the repeater squelch intermittently, finish the contact and try later when you are putting a better signal into the repeater.

7. If the repeater is busy, emergency calls may be made by tail-ending during the one to three second break and announcing:

(a) That you have emergency traffic, and

(b) Which facilities you wish a station to provide.

In "risk of life or emergency" situations, this will normally require a telephone call by the other station to the Emergency Services such as Police or ambulance etc.. Do not reply to an emergency call if you cannot provide the service requested. Only you can determine what an "emergency" is. Use your common sense. Imagine these two scenario.

(1) A woman and two small children in a car breaks down in a public street not far from a Service Station in a built up area. This is not an Emergency situation in its normal context.

(2) The same woman breaks down on a highway where there are no houses, service stations or anyone to turn to for assistance and where she is vulnerable to possible attack. This is an Emergency situation.

In the same way a vehicle breaks down in the middle of a off ramp from a freeway at NON peak period. No emergency. If the same situation occurs at near peak hour times this could be construed as an emergency because if not cleared may cause a massive build up and possible accident.

No hard rules can be laid down in this regard but YOU MUST USE YOUR COMMON SENSE AND TREAT EACH CASE ON ITS MERITS.

Once again if you are not in a position to go to the assistance of the emergency caller directly, leave the call to a station that has a telephone available or other facilities available. Time taken up when you cannot be of useful assistance may cost a life.

Well let me hasten to tell you that we have only really glanced over the entire subject of Operating Procedures because there are always special cases to be considered. These must be looked at logically and in a gentlemanly way, and then the answer should be obvious to you. Nothing in this world ever "entitles" you to do any act or thing which impinges on the rightful pleasures of other users of the radio spectrum or is an act which if done to you, you would find objectionable. Do the right things and Ham Radio will be pleasurable and you will enjoy it.


Copyright 1997-2006  South African Radio League
Last modified: 14 April 2003