Callsigns, callsigns and more callsigns...


A complete guide on how callsigns work, systematic callsigns
along with the vanity callsign process

Written by Brandin Hess, AL0B on January 24th, 2024



WRITER'S NOTE:  This page is definitely a work in progress.  It is a complete "data dump" of information that is typically presented in a classroom environment, but being made available to the amateur radio community to help educate and ensure amateur radio licensees are aware of the callsign system in the United States.  This page has not been edited for proper writing etiquette, nor does the writer assert any desire to forcibly do so.  This page will be updated as time permits, but is largely complete as it is now.

Part 1:  Systematic Callsigns for new licenses and upgrades

If you have landed on this page, chances are you might be interested in how callsigns work.  Well, I am glad you are here.  This page will cover some of the most detailed nuances surrounding amateur radio callsigns in the United States.  I'll be the first to tell anyone as I teach a license course how callsigns work, as many want to build pre-conceived notions that will endure numerous financial transactions with the Federal Communications Commission if proper education is not administered right from the top.  So, let's get to it.

From the beginning, amateur radio callsigns are first issued to licensees based on the U.S. state or territory listed on their 605 application.  To that end, here is a complete breakdown of how callsigns are issued:

New Technician and General in the Lower 48, Hawaii and Puerto Rico:  2x3 callsign ==> this means the first two characters will be letters that start with K or W, followed by a numeric value, zero through nine and three letters to complete the station license grant.  In essence, if you are in the Lower 48 living in the midwest, that is the FCC's 10th call district, meaning your callsign would have a "0" in it.  For example, you might have a callsign that looks like KF0ABC.  This is how a 2x3 callsign works anywhere in the Lower 48.  In Hawaii, new licensees are receiving callsigns that start with WH6 followed by three letters sequentially issued by the FCC.  Puerto Rico callsigns would start with KP3, KP4, WP3 or WP4 followed by three letters sequentially issued by the FCC.

New Amateur Extra class callsigns in the Lower 48, Hawaii or Puerto Rico:  2x2 callsign ==> this means the first two characters will be letters that start with A, K, N or W, followed by a numeric value, zero through nine and two letters sequentially issued to complete the station license grant.  Some call districts are not issuing sequential callsigns for Amateur Extra class licensees beginning with the letter "A".  Instead, they may be using the letters K, N or W.  Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands are the only two locations within the FCC's direct scope that never issue callsigns starting with the letter "A".  We really don't know what their reason is.

Now, let's talk about Alaska, American Samoa, Guam, the Northern Mariana Islands and U.S. Virgin Islands.  These places are kinda "special" per se.  All four of these places issue a 2x2 callsign for new Technician and General class licensees.  Elsewhere in the United States, a 2x2 callsign is restricted to Advanced class license holders and higher.  Of course, the Advanced class license is no longer issued but thousands of amateurs still hold an active license under that operator class.  These four U.S. locations are currently issuing new sequential callsigns to Technician and General class licensees starting with the letters K, N or W.  So, if you are on the U.S. mainland hearing a licensee from one of these locations, don't automatically assume they are an Advanced or Amateur Extra class license holder.  They could indeed only be a Technician class licensee! That gets mixed up a lot actually.

Here is a breakdown of callsign prefixes and such for the "special" places listed in the previous paragraph:

Alaska:  All callsigns start with AL, KL, NL or WL followed by a number (zero through nine) and 1, 2 or 3 letters (NOTE: Three letter suffixes are only attached to callsigns that start with KL or WL.)

American Samoa:  All callsigns start with AH8, KH8, NH8 or WH8, followed by 1, 2 or 3 letters (NOTE: Three letter suffixes are only attached to callsigns that start with K or W, however they are only issued to new clubs.)

Guam:  All callsigns start with AH2, KH2, NH2 or WH2, followed by 1, 2 or 3 letters (NOTE: Three letter suffixes are only attached to callsigns that start with K or W, however they are only issued to new clubs.)

Northern Mariana Islands:  All callsigns start with AH0, KH0, NH0 or WH0, followed by 1, 2 or 3 letters (NOTE: Three letter suffixes are only attached to callsigns that start with K or W, however they are only issued to new clubs.)

U.S. Virgin Islands:  All callsigns start with KP2, NP2 or WP2, followed by 1, 2 or 3 letters (NOTE: Three letter suffixes are only attached to callsigns that start with K or W, however they are only issued to new clubs.)

Anyone who gets their Amateur Extra class license in these places have the option of getting a 2x1 callsign systematically issued as indicated above, provided one is available.  At this time, Alaska and the Northern Mariana Islands are the only two places offering new 2x1 callsigns systematically.

Part 2:  How to select the correct Vanity Callsign

Let's first define what a "Vanity" callsign really is.  Simply put, it is a callsign you choose to appear in your amateur radio license grant from the FCC.  That's all.  Who is eligible to apply for a vanity callsign? Well, anyone with a valid amateur radio license can apply! Bearing that in mind, there are restrictions to the types of callsigns that can be issued based on the operating privileges of your amateur radio license.  Let's break this down:

If you hold an old Novice license, the only callsigns you can apply for must be 2x3.  More information on how those are constructed is in Part 1.

If you hold a Technician or General class license in the Lower 48 United States, you are eligible to apply for any 1x3 or 2x3 callsign.  1x3 callsigns are a letter, followed by a number and three letters of your choosing.  If you live in Alaska, American Samoa, Guam, the Northern Mariana Islands or U.S. Virgin Islands, you are eligible to apply for a 2x2 or 2x3 callsign of your choosing.

If you are the holder of an old Advanced class license, you are eligible to apply for any 1x3, 2x2 or 2x3 callsign as long as it doesn't start with the letter A.  The only exception to this is Alaska where Advanced class licensees can obtain a 2x2 callsign that starts with the letter A.  Keep in mind, geographical restrictions still apply in certain places.

If you're an Amateur Extra class license holder, you can apply for any valid U.S. callsign combination as long as it doesn't contain any restrictions based on your location.  Below is a table to help you understand this in detail.  Going from left to right, it shows the callsigns you can apply for based on your class of license and from top to bottom, the location of where you physically live.

Class of License
Novice3
Technician
General
Advanced3
Amateur Extra
Call Districts 1-10
2x3
1x3 or 2x3
1x3 or 2x3
1x3, 2x21 or 2x3
1x2, 2x1, 1x3, 2x2 or 2x3
Alaska
2x3
2x21 or 2x3
2x2 or 2x3
2x22 or 2x3
2x1, 2x2 or 2x3
American Samoa
2x3
2x21 or 2x3
2x21 or 2x3
2x21 or 2x3
2x1, 2x2 or 2x3
Guam
2x3
2x21 or 2x3
2x21 or 2x3
2x21 or 2x3
2x1, 2x2 or 2x3
Hawaii
2x3
2x3
2x3
2x21 or 2x3
2x1, 2x2 or 2x3
Northern Mariana Islands
2x3
2x21 or 2x3
2x21 or 2x3
2x21 or 2x3
2x1, 2x2 or 2x3
Puerto Rico
2x3
2x3
2x3
1x3, 2x21 or 2x3
2x1, 2x21 or 2x3
U.S. Virgin Islands
2x3
2x21 or 2x3
2x21 or 2x3
2x21 or 2x3
2x1, 2x21 or 2x3

1  Callsigns issued in these areas will not start with A.  They MUST start with K, N or W.

2  Callsigns issued here for this class of license may start with the letter A.

3  This class of license is no longer issued by the FCC, however those who still retain a license grant with these operating privileges may still keep and renew their license.

Be advised that callsigns issued outside Call Districts 1 through 10 are GEOGRAPHICALLY RESTRICTED to residents in these places.  This means if you are not a legally established resident and apply for a vanity callsign in any of these geographically restricted locations, your application will be dismissed and ultimately forfeit your $35 investment.  Be smart and don't waste your money!  Should you feel the need to get one of these callsigns and "relocate" to the U.S. mainland, you risk having problems with logging contacts electronically and creating a major headache for people who desire the original location of your vanity callsign.  You will also confuse operators who are overseas that are not familiar with the callsign rules here in the United States.  In essence, it's best to be honest and get a callsign from the region by which you live, however many know this isn't followed like it should be.

Part 3:  The Application Process

Applying for a vanity callsign starts in the FCC's ULS system.  You would need to login using the same credentials to access CORES.  Upon logging in, you will locate your amateur radio license and see a link on the right that invites you to apply for a Vanity callsign.  When you load the application, it'll begin populating your name and address.  From there, you will be asked to type in the callsigns that are being requested.  Applicants may apply for up to 25 callsigns in a single application.  Do keep in mind you must list the callsigns by order of your preference.  In essence, if you really want a particular callsign and it's listed as #9 on your application, your chances of getting it are slim if the other 8 callsigns previous to that one are available.  That is a common mistake!

Here are some other things to consider when applying for a callsign.  In some situations, there will be callsigns which are very popular and may end up with dozens of people trying to get it at the same time.  The winner of that "contest" is selected randomly by computer in Gettysburg, PA.  The only way you'll find out if a highly sought after callsign becomes yours is the automatically generated email showing it's been licensed to you.  The wait time is identical to any other callsign that has no competition.  So, in situations like this, it is highly recommended you have a few other callsigns listed in your application as alternates in case you don't get your first pick.  An important thing to also consider...make sure it's a valid U.S. callsign and hasn't been issued to anyone else!  Too many people screw that up and waste hundreds of dollars doing so.  Make sure your desired callsign(s) match your operator class of license and start with A, K, N or W and are formatted based on your frequency privileges.

Upon submitting your application, you will need to login to CORES and pay the $35 vanity license fee, just like you may have with your initial license.  Upon paying your application fee, the wait begins.  How long does it take for you to get your new callsign?  That depends on several factors.  First, it depends on how quickly you pay the $35 fee, followed by the day your application is initially processed after the fee is accepted in the ULS database.  Below is a table that clearly outlines how this works.

This table is accurate, provided there are no Federal holidays that occur any time during your wait period.

If you submit your application on:
Sunday
Monday
Tuesday
Wednesday
Thursday
Friday
Saturday
You will have your new callsign issued in:
19 days
18 days
18 days
20 days
19 days
18 days
20 days


Part 4:  Do you just want a new sequential callsign?

Sometimes, it is not out of the question for a licensee to simply ask for a new callsign that hasn't been issued to anyone else.  That is the systematic callsign system.  Just like new licensees, you will get a new callsign based on physical location and operator class.  Information on how all of that works is in Part 1 above.  Is there a FCC imposed fee to get a new systematic callsign?  Nope!  It's totally free!  There are two ways of getting a new systematic callsign.  You can apply for one through the ULS or submit a 605 application and have any VEC process it.  Keep in mind some VECs will charge an admninistrative fee to process this, so please check with them in advance before using them to file your application.

Part 5:  Vanity and Sequential Callsign Resources

Both links below will open in a separate tab.

AE7Q - Amateur Extra 7 Query Tools
Radio QTH