Both the requirements for and privileges granted to a licensee vary from country to country, but generally follow the international regulations and standards established by the International Telecommunications Union and World Radio Conferences. Most governments issue several different classes of license, usually structured to grant additional privileges to those who demonstrate additional knowledge and proficiency.
An individual granted an amateur radio license is referred to as an amateur radio operator. In most countries, an individual will be assigned a call sign with their license. In some countries, a separate "station license" is required for any station used by an amateur radio operator. Amateur radio licenses may also be granted to organizations or clubs. Some countries only allow ham radio operators to operate club stations. Others, such as Syria restrict all operation by foreigners to club stations only. Radio transmission permits are closely controlled by nations' governments because clandestine uses of radio can be made and because, in the HF portion of the radio spectrum, HF radio waves propagate beyond national boundaries by the laws of physics, making radio an international matter.
In most countries, prospective amateur radio operators are required to pass an examination that tests knowledge and understanding of the key concepts of electronics, radio equipment, antennas, radio propagation, RF safety, and the radio regulations of the government granting the license. These examinations are sets of questions typically posed in either a short answer or multiple-choice format, with a passing grade determined by the percentage of questions answered correctly. Depending on the radio regulations of the government in question, examinations can be administered by bureaucrats, non-paid certified examiners, or previously licensed amateur radio operators.
The ease with which an individual can acquire an amateur radio license varies from country to country. In some countries, examinations may be offered only once or twice a year in the national capital, and can be inordinately bureaucratic (for example in India) or challenging because some amateurs must undergo difficult security approval (as in Iran). A handful of countries, currently only Yemen and North Korea, simply do not issue amateur radio licenses to their citizens, although in both cases a limited number of foreign visitors have been permitted to obtain amateur licenses in the past decade. Some developing countries, especially those in Africa, Asia, and Latin America, require the payment of annual license fees that can be prohibitively expensive for most of their citizens. A few small countries may not have a national licensing process and may instead require prospective amateur radio operators to take the licensing examinations of a foreign country. In countries with the largest numbers of amateur radio licensees, such as Japan, the United States, Canada, and most of the countries in Europe, there are frequent license examinations opportunities in major cities.
In most large countries, several classes of amateur radio license are available. Typically, one class of license is intended for novices or beginners, another is intended for those with intermediate knowledge and skill, and one is reserved for those who have demonstrated a high level of knowledge and radiocommunications skill. An introductory license class (such as the "Technician Class" license in the United States, the "Basic Class" license in Canada, Grade II Restricted in India, or the "Foundation Class" license in the United Kingdom) will typically require the successful completion of a written or multiple choice examination, without any Morse code proficiency examination. Higher license classes generally require the completion of more demanding examinations, and may require that the person being tested demonstrate a basic level of proficiency in Morse code reception. The "First Class" license in Japan requires the ability to receive and copy Morse code sent at a rate of 25 words per minute. This is faster than the Indian Advanced Grade which requires a proficiency of 12 wpm, American "Amateur Extra" Class, which required 20 WPM from inception in 1964 until the "restructuring" in 2000, at which time it dropped to 5 WPM. American Morse Code requirements ended February 23, 2007, when new regulations took effect.
The granting of a separate license to a club or organization generally requires that an individual with a current and valid amateur radio license, who is in good standing with the telecommunications authority, assumes responsibility for any operations conducted under the club license of club call sign. A few countries may issue special licenses to novices or beginners that do not assign the individual a call sign, but require the newly-licensed individual to operate from stations licensed to a club or organization for a period of time before a higher class of license can be acquired.
In most countries, an amateur radio license issued to an individual assigns a call sign to that individual. An amateur radio operator uses a call sign on the air to legally identify the operator or station during any and all radiocommunication. In some countries, the call sign assigned to the station must always be used, whereas in other countries, the call sign of either the operator or the station may be used.
In most countries, an amateur radio license grants permission to the license holder to own, modify, and operate equipment that is not certified by a governmental regulatory agency. This encourages amateur radio operators to experiment with home-constructed or modified equipment. The use of such equipment must still satisfy national and international standards on spurious emissions.
The amount of output power and amateur radio licensee may legally use varies from country to country. For example, the highest license classes are permitted: 2 kilowatts in most countries of the former Yugoslavia, 1.5 kilowatts in the United States, 1 kilowatt in Belgium and Switzerland, 750 watts in Germany, 400 watts in India and Singapore, 500 watts in Italy and 150 watts in Oman. Lower license classes are often restricted to lower power limits. For example, the novice license class in the United Kingdom has a limit of just 10 watts.
In the countries where personal use of the radio spectrum was permitted at all, amateur radio licenses were generally not required until the 1930s. In the United States, amateur radio licenses have been required since 1912.