The following copyrighted article appeared in the June 2005 issue of CQ Amateur Radio Magazine (Hicksville, NY 11801, USA) and is being published here with permission.

June 2005 - CQ Amateur Radio - WASHINGTON READOUT - By Frederick O. Maia, W5YI

Your Amateur Radio Call Sign Questions Answered

Our mailbag indicates that there is lot of confusion surrounding how the FCC issues station call signs ...especially “Vanity” call signs. Like vanity automobile license plate, a vanity ham call sign is one that is selected by the user according to certain guidelines rather than from a sequential list of available call signs.

Thirty years ago it was possible to be assigned a preferential ham radio call sign if you knew the right people. Ham clubs, “deserving” amateurs ...even FCC officials who were licensed radio amateurs were able to get a specific call sign or format. Back in those days call signs could be assigned manually. A phone call to the right official frequently resulted in a “good” call sign being issued at no charge. It was this way for years. It all came to a screeching halt in the mid-1970's when an FCC licensing official (who ended up going to federal prison) crossed the line by accepting money in exchange for granting a 1-by-2 call sign.

The Group Call Sign System

The FCC responded to the scandal by eliminating all past station call sign policies and adopting a new Group Call Sign Assignment System. Effective March 24, 1978, all Amateur Radio call signs would be assigned “systematically” ...that is, in strict sequential order from predetermined call sign groups and blocks.

Extra Class amateurs were entitled to Group “A” call signs which contained all 1x2, most 2x1, and most “A” prefixed 2x2 call signs. Advanced Class got Group “B” call signs containing most K, N, and W prefixed 2x2 call signs. Generals and Technicians were entitled to a Group “C” call sign; all 1x3 call signs beginning with K, N or W. The Novice Class (Group “D”) contained most K and W prefixed 2x3 call signs. Group “E” call signs were to contain WC, WK, WM, and WT prefixed call signs for Races, Club, Military recreation and Temporary licenses. But Group “E” call signs were never implemented and to this day, these prefixes are not issued in a 2x3 format.

All amateurs were allowed to keep their existing call sign ...a change would only be made if requested by the licensee. Anyone upgrading or changing their radio district could either keep their present call sign or be assigned the next sequential one from the appropriate group. When all call signs are assigned from a specific group, the next assignment is made the next lower group.

These rules applied to the contiguous (lower 48) United States. States and territories located in the Pacific (mostly Hawaii and Guam), Atlantic (mostly Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands) and Alaska had different rules. They got assigned call signs with 2-letter prefixes. AH, KH, NH and WH were allocated to the Pacific area; KP, NP, WP to the Atlantic area and AL, KL, NL and WL to Alaska. The Group “A” 2x1's went to the Extra Class. AH, AL and KPx2 were allocated to Group “B” (Advanced). And KH, NH, WH, KL, NL, WL, NP and WP-by-2 went to Group “C” (Technicians and Generals.) Group “D” (Novices) got 2x3 calls beginning with KH, WH, KL, WL, KP and WP.

This answers one of the questions we received “How come a Technician in Alaska (or Hawaii) can obtain a 2x2 call sign, when only the Advanced and Extra Class amateurs in other states can get a 2x2?” The answer is,”That’s the way the FCC allocated the various call sign prefixes.” Single letter prefixes are only assigned to radioamateurs in the original 48 states. One-by-three format calls (available to Techs and higher classes elsewhere) are not available; so the FCC made 2x2's available.

Birth of Vanity Call Signs

In June 1990, retired Texas Extra Class amateur, Jim Wills N5HCT, filed a Petition for Rule Making suggesting that radio amateurs be allowed to choose a dormant station call sign upon paying $30. The petition was denied. But that did not stop Wills. He wrote his Congressman concerning the reassignment of unused call signs. On December 9, 1991, Congressman Ralph Hall wrote Wills back saying that he had contacted the FCC and that they were determining whether such a fee would collect enough money to pay for itself.

This was all happening at a time when a system was being developed to have the FCC's budget basically paid for by the various beneficiaries of their services. This was finalized when Congress added a new Section 9(a) to the Communications Act authorizing the Commission to collect annual regulatory fees to recover its operating costs. Neither the ARRL nor the FCC had advance knowledge of the short four-word “Amateur vanity call signs” that was added to the Schedule of Regulatory Fees at the last minute.

President Clinton signed the Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act (the official name of his Deficit Reduction’ Plan) into law on Tuesday, August 10, 1993 and with it, the provision for Vanity call signs became law (Public Law 103-66). A year later (December 23, 1994) the FCC Commissioners adopted final rules implementing vanity call signs in the Amateur Service.

On June 14, 1995, the FCC adopted a revised Schedule of Regulatory Fees for Fiscal Year (FY) 1995. The fee, which is reviewed and adjusted annually, also takes into consideration the total amount of funding that the FCC needs for its upcoming fiscal year. The first Vanity call sign was issued on May 31, 1996. The cost: $3 a year ...or $30.00 for a ten year term, just as Jim Wells had proposed.

The ARRL suggested gradually implementing Vanity call signs through a system of “starting gates.” Gate One allowed a previous holder to apply for that call sign or, where the holder is deceased, a close relative could apply. Gate Two would allow Amateur Extra Class operators to apply. Gate Three allow Advanced Class operators to apply. Gate Four opened the system to any licensee. A club station license trustee could also apply for the call sign of a deceased former holder.

A Vanity call sign is valid for a ten year term after which time another regulatory fee must be paid. The first Vanity call sign renewals will be coming up next year and the FCC is in the process of developing a program whereby these renewals can be handled by the various VECs.

Questions from readers...

Q: Does an applicant for a Vanity call sign have an advantage in getting a specific call sign if they file two or more applications for it?
A: Yes, they do. And the FCC is trying to close that loop hole. When more than one amateur applies for the same call sign, the winner is randomly chosen. The more “tickets” (applications) you have in the “lottery” the better your chances of winning.

Q: What are the most popular reasons why an amateur requests a Vanity call sign?
A: Most amateurs want a shorter call sign. It is easer to transmit (especially on CW) ...and a indication that the applicant has advanced up the licensing ladder. The second most requested Vanity call sign is one where the suffix contains the applicant’s initials. Other popular selections include keeping the same call sign suffix but changing the prefix and/or district numeral when an amateur moves to a new radio district. Obtaining a previously held (but now expired) call sign or one of a deceased family member are also very common. New ham clubs always get a 2x3 format call sign and most want it changed to something that is shorter and relates to their club. Existing clubs frequently change their club call to that of a deceased member. And many newcomers simply want to get rid of their K2x3 call sign to a more mainstream W or K prefixed 1x3 ...generally considered the mark of a more experienced ham.

Q: Is it possible to obtain an exotic call sign prefix (such as KH) without living in Hawaii?
A: Yes, it is. There never has been a requirement that you actually reside in a Pacific/Atlantic area or Alaska in order to obtain a non-contiguous USA call sign prefix. The FCC’s Vanity call sign requirement is that you must have a mailing address in the appropriate geographic area ...a place where you may receive mail from the FCC. A private post office box (such as those offered by Mail Boxes, Etc.) in Hawaii will suffice or you can use the address of a ham friend who will forward your mail to you. Many foreign amateurs have FCC call signs with their mail going to a U.S. business or friend who forwards their mail to them. There are also commercial maildrop and remailing services just about everywhere.

Q: The FCC is considering adding a new entry level ham class that allows HF voice operation without Morse proficiency. What call signs will they get?
A: Based on how fast the FCC moves, a new ham class with HF phone and no code is at least a year away. But the ARRL and the VECs both want it. The FCC could simply grant them Group “D” 2x3's (which would require no computer programming) ...or implement a new call sign format. The National Conference of VECs suggested to the FCC that beginning call signs might come from the allocated, but currently unused, NA-NZx3 letter suffix Group. Call signs are important to amateurs and the feeling is that many beginners will want to obtain a more traditional call by upgrading. Great Britain (where most call signs begin with “G”) elected to go with a unique new 2x3 call sign format beginning with “M3" when they implemented their beginning “Foundation” license.

Q: Why does it take exactly 18 days to issue a new Vanity call sign after the application is filed?
A: The FCC allows radioamateurs to file both paper and online (computer-to-computer) Vanity Call Sign applications. The Commission waits 18 days for paper applications to arrive and then blends them with electronically filed applications submitted on the same day. This way there is no advantage to filing electronically and everyone gets a fair chance at a specific call sign.

Q: How do you obtain the call sign of a deceased amateur whose call sign is still shown as active in the FCC database?
A: The call sign of a deceased amateur is generally available to anyone for reassignment two years after death. When the call sign is still shown in the FCC database of amateurs, it may be canceled from the database by submitting one of three documents to the FCC: a death certificate, a dated obituary or information from the Social Security Death Index (SSDI) showing the date of death. The SSDI information may be obtained online at: <>. To notify the FCC of a licensee's death, submit a signed request for license cancellation accompanied by a copy of the documentation to the: FCC - Amateur Section, 1270 Fairfield Road, Gettysburg, PA 17325-7245. File your request promptly after you confirm that the license status has been changed from “active” to “cancelled” from the licensee database. The call sign can not be held for you. Once it is cancelled, it is first come-first serve.

Q: I want to submit an application online for a vanity call sign, but it requires my entering both an FRN and a password. Where do I get them from?
A: You may file an application for a vanity station call sign by going to the FCC’s Universal Licensing System (ULS) website located on the Web at: <> and clicking on the “Online Filing” link. The next screen is the “License Manager” which requires that you enter your FRN (FCC Registration Number) and password to access your record. The FRN is a 10-digit unique identifying number that is assigned to anyone doing business with the Commission including ham operators. It can be found by doing a call sign search on most Amateur Radio operator databases ...such as those at: , , ...or by doing a “License Search” on the FCC’s ULS website. If you do not know your password, click on “Forgot your password?” on the “License Manager.” The next page will ask you for your name, Social Security Number (SSN), phone number and e-mail address. Click on the “Submit” button. You will then be given a 15-character tracking number starting with “HD” followed by seven zeros and six numbers. (Write down this tracking number.) FCC Technical Support with then e-mail a link where you can enter your 15-character tracking number. The next screen will list your password. If this proves to be too confusing, you can just telephone (toll free) to FCC Tech Support at (877) 480-3201 (push option one) and they will assist you in getting your password. Click on “Submit” after you have entered your FRN and password. The next screen will be your FCC record and will allow you to apply for a Vanity call sign by clicking on the “Request Vanity Call Sign” link on the right side of the page. Be aware that there is a regulatory fee when you apply for a Vanity call sign. Unlike all other Amateur Radio call signs, Vanity call signs are not free.

Q: I am a new Technician Class radioamateur and am authorized a 1-by-3 format call sign. There are plenty of unassigned 1x3 N, K and W prefixed 1x3 call signs available. Why was I issued a 2-by-3 Novice call sign?
A: When the FCC began issuing Group “C” call signs (back in 1978) they began with the “N” prefix, a radio district number and a three letter suffix. At the time, no Nx3 call signs had been assigned. When the FCC exhausted all Nx3 call signs they next went to Group “D” (2x3) call signs because their computer programming did not have the capability to go back and pick up unassigned K and W 1x3 calls. It has been that way ever since. You will have to request a Vanity call sign to get a 1x3 format.

Q: I recently renewed my Tech Plus license but when my new license arrived it said Technician and not Tech Plus. What happened?
A: We have answered this question before, but it still persists. As part of the last round of license restructuring, the FCC discontinued issuing new Novice, Tech Plus and Advanced Class licenses effective April 15, 2000. Novice and Advanced Class licenses were “grandfathered” (that is, they could be renewed indefinitely) but all Tech Plus licenses were renewed as Technician. Previous Tech Plus licensees still retain their HF voice and CW privileges which is authorized by their Certificate of Successful Completion of Examination (CSCE) showing they had previously passed a code test. Technician Class operators who pass a code exam also are given a CSCE by their VE team showing code credit. They too are authorized to operate on 80, 40, 15 and 10 meter CW and 10 meter phone (voice.)

Q: What is the best way to tell what call signs are available for reassignment?
A: The best way is to access the FCC’s Amateur Service database located on the Web at: <> and clicking on the “Search Licenses” link. Other online databases can tell you if a call sign is unassigned, but do not tell you if it as been dormant for the minimum 2 year period and in many cases it has not. Enter the call sign you want into the call sign search box. If your response is “No matches found” then the call sign is available now. An expired or canceled call sign is generally available for reassignment 2 years (plus one day) after expiration or cancellation. The FCC’s License Search will tell you which calls are still in the two year grace period. The FCC cancels all dormant call signs after two years of inactivity. Many times a call sign is cancelled before expiration ...such as when an amateur selects a new Vanity call sign. Their previous call sign is also available two years (plus one day) after cancellation.

Q: Why is it necessary to wait 2 years after the death of a radioamateur to apply for his call sign? He won’t be reclaiming it during the 2 year grace period for renewal.
A: In 1995, the FCC adopted specific guidelines concerning the reassignment of unused station calls under the Vanity Call Sign program. These rules were based on comments from the Amateur community. Suggestions included starting gates, a two-year period during which a vacated call sign is not assignable, and call sign format availability based on an applicant’s license class. The two year period was adopted to coincide with the grace period during which an expired call sign can be renewed and to allow former holders and close relatives of deceased former holders a priority period in which to apply for the call sign before it is made available to all other amateurs. Amateur radio clubs also do not have to wait two years to apply for a deceased member’s call sign providing a close relative of the deceased consents in writing to the call sign reassignment to the club. A close relative is defined as a spouse, child, grandchild, stepchild, parent, grandparent, stepparent, brother, sister, stepbrother, stepsister, aunt, uncle, niece, nephew, or in-law of the deceased. (You do not have to submit this letter to the FCC. Just keep it in your records in case the assignment is challenged.) Applicants for calls signs of deceased amateurs (including close relatives and club trustees) must hold an Amateur operator license of the appropriate class in order to request their call sign. A former holder of a call sign, however, need not be of the same or higher call sign group nor wait 2 years in order to reclaim his/her previous call sign.

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