Get started in ham radio for £0
IC 7800Interested to find out more about amateur radio? but don't want to spend on a big fancy radio?
You can make your first steps without spending anything! ...and straight away.
Most of the time playing radio is spent listening, so let's not worry about the transmitting bit yet. You can listen and tune across most of the amateur bands, in fact most of the short wave and VHF/UHF bands too, straight from the PC, tablet or phone you are using right now.

SDR (Software Defined Radio) has been with us for some time now, this is where the hardware (physical radio bits and pieces) are minimised and most of the processing, number crunching and user interface (knobs & dials) are replaced by your computer. This makes it versatile, you can change the radio layout on your screen to suit yourself and receive updates for your setup.

SDR waterfallNow for the interesting bit... Radio clubs, societies and individual around the world have set up remote radio stations that allow access from the internet, many free to use for receiving.
These can be displayed in your browser and use of the keyboard & mouse to move frequency, change bands, apply filters, etc. Many have alternate mobile phone friendly versions too. They will have a similar layout to that shown here, with buttons for all the different operating modes (AM, FM, SSB, etc) zoom in or out for ease of tuning and the ability to change frequency, in this case by sliding with the mouse (or finger on tablets/phones). The signals are displayed in 'waterfall' fashion, this is more useful than just numeric frequency display and signal meter as with traditional analogue radios, as you can see the incoming signals across a big piece of the band rather than one single frequency. Also see the signal over time, enabling you to easily glance up and down the band for activity.
The 'fatter' signals are speech, the thinner signals either digital/teletype signals or morse code (CW) which is still very popular among radio amateurs.
WebSDR is a website that lists many of the more useful online radios that you can use. Please note occasionally you may have to adjust your browser settings in order for things to run properly, usually the audio.
Useful if you are in the UK is the SDR radio setup at Hack Green, Nantwich, Cheshire.
Their short wave (HF) receiver can be found here
Their VHF/UHF receiver for more local traffic here where you can listen to local chat on the popular 2m (144-146Mhz) band and 70cm (430-434Mhz) band. The calling frequency on 2m being 145.500, above that you will also hear repeater stations where the signal is relayed from hilltop stations to improve range, mostly for mobile stations.

Morse code (CW) on the SDR's.
mores code agent appMorse code agent appTowards the lower end of, mostly the HF bands, you will see the thinner intermittent trails of morse signals. These need not be a mystery to you, you can use a phone app like Morse Code Agent, hold your phone near the PC or radio speaker and if the signal is strong enough and clear enough it will decode for you. Some patience will be required, the app takes a while to lock on and the morse needs to be consistent.
So now your well on the way to experiencing amateur radio without spending anything.
There are phone apps for exploring some of the digital modes you may hear, such as DroidRTTY which will decode the RTTY (Radio teletype) signals by listening to the tones from the PC/Radio speaker. RTTY originated in the days of electromechanical typing machines that send out two different tones using the 'Baudot' code, when PCs came about these replaced the big mechanical machines and it is still in popular use on the short wave (HF) bands. There is also DroidPSK that does similar but with PSK (Phase shift keying) a more modern teletype signal that takes up less band space. These apps are certainly available for android phones, not sure if there is an iphone version available.

Got you interested?

Now, if you want to spend just a little bit of money, to dip your feet in, you could consider buying your own SDR receiver. This can be surprisingly inexpensive. There is a device that was originally manufactured primarily for the use as a TV receiver 'dongle' to plug into a PC/laptop and sold for around RTL dongle$25-30. Then some enterprising amateur found out with some additional software it could be made to stretch over quite a large amount of the radio spectrum. You can read some of its history here Several software variants appeared, enabling use as a radio or spectrum analyser.
It has given birth to a whole branch industry and some very expensive upmarket SDR radios are available today. Typing RTL SDR into google will reveal a whole world of variants based on the hardware original found in this device. The original dongle had low frequency limitations, you will find some variants with additional hardware giving you a larger frequency range.
The original device became rare, but you might find one on ebay or similar sources. I have certainly seen updated versions on Amazon for around £15-20. One of the best online SDRs (Hack Green) was originally built using RTL dongles!
Putting a long wire into the little SMA antenna socket of your RTL device and using some of the free radio software widely available is all you need to start receiving. If using on VHF/UHF a shorter whip antenna would be more useful, they often come with a small antenna that will receive on VHF/UHF.

Transmitting options
The options for newcomers to radio are limited, but do exist. The first and most obvious is PMR 446. This is in the UHF band just above the amateur 70cm frequencies. So has very similar properties. There are 16 channels that anyone can use without a license, type approved equipment is normally PMR 446 radiossold in walkie-talkie pairs with 8 channels (the original allocation). The only restriction is that you cannot modify the equipment and must use the original supplied antenna. There is a healthy following and lots of information on the internet. However with all such services you will occasionally find abusive users, specially in urban areas. But selective frequency use and use of selective calling (CTCSS tones) if fitted will help with this.

Citizens Band Radio. Very often where radio started for recent radio amateurs. The allocation around 27Mhz just below the amateur 10m (28-30Mhz) allocation. The CB movement in the UK started with the import of equipment from the US, at that time there was no official allocation and using them was illegal, probably part of the allure. In 1981 after much lobbying the government released 40 channels that could be used with CB radioapproved equipment marked 27/81 using 4watts of FM, under licence. They also released 20 frequencies around 934Mhz although these were eventually withdrawn due to commercial demand (mobile phone, etc). By 2006 the license was abandoned and by 2014 AM and SSB use was permitted, providing you used 'legal' equipment that was duty paid at import. Many amateur radio operators came from CB origins and some still use 27Mhz as well as their amateur allocations. World wide communication is possible on 27Mhz under the right ionospheric conditions which are affected by season and the 11 year sun spot cycle.
Next steps
Ready to move on? Avoid purchasing mistakes.
The advantages of joining a radio club are multifold.
They can help you achieve the next step, the basic Foundation License. This will give you access to almost all popular amateur radio bands with minimal study, many clubs run a course and also provide the examination required on site.
Visit Radio Rallies, for example West Manchester Radio Club run the Red Rose Rally twice a year where there are vendors of radio equipment, also a bring and buy run by the club.
xmas partyThe weekly club meets are laid back casual events with plenty of experienced radio amateurs to answer your questions and provide guidence.
Clubs, like West Manchester have a fully equipt shack where you can get your first taste of action on the air. Not to forget outdoor field events where family members are welcome.
Did we mention we have a licenced bar and biannual parties too?
For info on West Manchester's activities contact our secretary here