First, regulations and requirements change over time, so make sure you have up to date information before you start. This text started with an email in 1997. The most recent update was in January 2008.
In Canada, ham radio licensing consists of a certificate with various qualifications. Associated with this certificate is the callsign, which is roughly the equivalent of a licence plate, ones "name" on the air.
To get an Amateur Radio Operator Certificate a candidate must pass one or more examinations. These examinations cover various aspects of radio theory, regulations, safety procedures, and for one qualification, the sending and receiving of Morse code. There are three examinations, one for each of the "Qualifications" that may be received. They are the BASIC, ADVANCED and the 5 words per minute Morse code exam. One has to pass the BASIC exam and may then take either or both of the other two.
Passing the BASIC qualification with a minimum mark of 70% allows use of amateur frequencies and modes over 30MHz, 250W max power, using commercial transmitters/amplifiers only. If a mark of 80% or more is achieved, the additional frequencies below 30MHz may also be used. The test is 100 questions, multiple choice, with no penalty for guessing.
Passing the ADVANCED allows the use of more power (1KW) and allows the holder to build transmitters and sponsor club or repeater stations. The ADVANCED test emphasises the technical aspects of radio theory and practice. It is 50 questions as above, with a pass mark of 70%. If you passed the BASIC with less than 80%, passing the ADVANCED allows use of frequencies below 30 MHz.
There is also a 5 WPM Morse test available. It allows candidates who pass the BASIC with a mark under 80% access to amateur frequencies below 30 MHz. Equipment permitted depends on the other qualifications held. It may also be helpful if you are planning to get permission to operate from other countries (called reciprocal operating privileges). Passing this test requires both sending and receiving Morse code by for three minutes, with fewer than 5 errors in each.
After passing the BASIC exam, one may take either the ADVANCED, or Morse exam depending on what one wants to do. Many people are content with the privileges granted with just the BASIC, and stop there. Some do all three exams. There's no down side to trying.
A quick sidebar about the difference between frequencies above and below 30MHz is in order here. Those below 30MHz are the "short wave" bands, which are the parts of the spectrum that people traditionally associate with ham radio and long distance communications via the ionosphere. Frequencies above 30 MHz are used mostly, but not exclusively for local communications. That said, they are also used for long distance communications via amateur satellites, and radio to internet links.
Which examinations one tries depends on what they want to do in amateur radio. One can prepare for the examination(s) by taking a course, or by studying alone. In Ottawa, for example, there is usually a course offered each fall by The Ottawa Valley Mobile Radio Club (http://www.ovmrc.on.ca)
It runs one evening a week from about mid October for about 28 weeks and costs about $200. A course is a good idea if you are starting out with no background in electronics or radio. It also helps to fill in the gap between the knowledge required to get a certificate, and the practical, real world knowledge needed to become a confident, competent radio amateur. If you have some background, or are used to learning, i.e. still in school of some kind, it is feasible to learn the information needed by using one of the study guides published for that purpose.
Industry Canada also publishes various information sheets that are required reading. They are called RICs (radiocommunication information circulars) and RBR (Regulation by Reference). They deal with the regulations governing amateur radio in Canada, and the outline of what must be learned to pass the examination(s). The best way to find these is, to search through the RAC website (rac.ca) and follow the links there to Industry Canada.
There is no fee for the initial certificate, or callsign.
Where to contact to arrange to take the examination(s) depends on where you are (what city, etc.) There are two ways to write the examination(s) in Canada. The first is through the Industry Canada District Office in your area, details via the:
Amateur Radio Service Centre
P.O. Box 9654, Postal Station T
Ottawa, ON K1G 6K9
Telephone No.: 1-888-780-3333 (Toll-free)
Fax No .: 1-613-991-5575
Industry Canada charges a fee of $20. per exam if they have to conduct them.
The second way to write an exam is by contacting an "Accredited Examiner" in your area. The Industry Canada District Office has lists of these people for the area served by that office. There is also a list on the RAC website. Accredited examiners are volunteers who have been authorized by Industry Canada to conduct examinations for people at a mutually agreeable time and place. Some charge an examination fee, and others don't. (I am an accredited examiner, and don't charge.)
The question about what kind of radio I would recommend can only be answered when I know what you want to do with it.
For example, consider the following cases: Pat wants to talk to friends in the local area, check into a few local nets, connect a radio to the phone system to make "autopatches", or telephone calls from a hand held radio to other people around town. Pat is basically just interested in talking, and not so much interested in the hardware of radio for its own sake.
Bev, on the other hand wants to do all that, plus spend some time talking to the hams on board the space shuttle, and wants to use the amateur satellites too. Bev is more interested in microwaves and digital communication than sitting around just talking away the hours.
Bill wants to send radioteletype messages to his parents back in Norway, and to talk to other hams in various places in the world that he has visited, or "met" on the internet. He will likely want to use a single side band voice radio on 14 to 28 MHz for these activities.
Jane wants to do pretty much the same sort of thing, but is interested in converting second hand commercial surplus equipment for use on the amateur bands and maybe building a transmitter herself.
Pat needs a certificate with the BASIC qualification. Pat will probably spend under $200 for a hand held "walkie talkie" type radio such as the Yaesu VX 170 or Kenwood TH-K2. That will be Pat's only radio expense for many years. Eventually battery packs, improved antennas and a headset will find their way into the hamshack.
Bev needs a BASIC qualification, and maybe an ADVANCED qualification, but probably not. Bev will probably start with a used Yaesu FT736 for around $1500, or a newer "DC to Daylight" radio like the Icom IC7000 and end up spending more money on antennas, parts for preamplifiers and feed lines than on the radio.
Bill needs a BAISC qualification with at least 80% or BASIC and 5 WPM qualification. He will probably buy an Alinco DX-77 from a dealer for a bit under $850, and will spend more on computers than radios in his first year licensed.
Jane needs an ADVANCED qualification as well as the BASIC. By trading off knowledge with money, Jane will probably buy most of what she needs for less than $350 at a local ham radio flea market and off the internet, and spend more time building, modifying and just "playing" with radios than talking on them.
Note that each of them needs a BASIC qualification. It is the minimum requirement. The rest depends on what they want to do with their licence.
I hope this helps.. Mike Kelly VE3FFK. If I missed anything, or you still have questions, send me an e-mail to ve3ffk at rac dot ca