Getting Started With CW

Fred Beatty, K8AJX


On the Air

Okay, the time has come! You probably have been listening by now to CW QSOs on the air. If you haven’t, we suggest you do so. The initial and concluding parts of the conversation contain the prosigns that we have listed and mentioned previously. They are listed below. For further expansion, go to This website contains a lot of useful information on operating practices. For our immediate purposes, click on “General Operating” and then the subheading, “CW Prosigns and Abbreviations.” For your convenience, we have summarized the most used ones below.

  CQ dah-di-dah-dit dah-dah-di-dah Want a QSO, anyone answer
  DE dah-di-dit dit This is (callsign)
  AR di-dah-di-dah-dit (no space) Go ahead (first call to a station)
  BT dah-di-di-di-dah (no space) Pause between thoughts
  R di-dah-dit    Roger (I understood)
  TU dah di-di-dah Thank you
  BK dah-di-di-dit dah-di-dah Break in. I want to interrupt.
Go ahead.
  AS di-dah-di-di-dit Stand by a moment
  K dah-di-dah Go ahead, breakers welcome
  KN dah-di-dah-dah-dit (no space) Go ahead, breakers not welcome
  SK di-di-di-dah-di-dah (no space) End of conversation (QSO)
  73 dah-dah-di-di-dit di-di-di-dah-dah Best wishes
  CL dah-di-dah-dit di-dah-di-dit Closing the station

Finally, let’s look at commonly used Q signals on the air by CW operators. A complete chart of them is at, but we have also summarized the most used ones below.

  QRL? Is the frequency in use?
  QRL The frequency is in use
  QRM Interference on the frequency
  QRN Static on the band
  QRS Please slow your sending speed
  QRT Shutting down the station
  QRX Stand-by a moment
  QRZ Who is calling?
  QSB Signals are fading
  QSL(?) I copied. Did you copy? Confirmation.
  QSO Conversation/contact on the air
  QSY Change frequency

Keep these handy for quick reference.

Okay, now you are ready to take the plunge. First, be sure that you operate within the frequency privileges of your license. If you have forgotten the CW bands or are unsure of them, see the ARRL band chart at If you haven’t done so already, start by listening to CW QSOs. Find the ones that are at a speed that you can copy to get a feel for the average contact. You might want to write down the copy to begin with, but over time you will learn to “copy in your head.”

It is nice to have a friend who is a ham and is willing to make your first (and maybe even more) CW contact. You can set up a sked (scheduled meeting on the air) with him/her. If not, you will find most beginning CW operators tend to stay in the range of 30 to 50 kHz above the bottom of a band, so that is a good area to start looking for your first contact. Just listen for a station calling “CQ.” Most of the time that will be three “CQs” followed by “DE” (“this is”) and the sending stations callsign in a sequence that is repeated two or three times. The operator will sign with “K.” Go back to him with his call followed by “DE” and your call, then “K.” He will respond with the same call sign sequence, an “R” or two indicating he copied you, and then with your signal report (at the ARRL Quick Reference Operating Aids site, ). He will also give you his location (QTH) and name/operator. Then he will turn it back to you.

You are probably sweating and in a semi-panic if you are like most of us in our first CW QSO. Take it slow and easy. The other station will understand, as we have all been there. Send his call sign and then yours, as he did, then give him his RST report, your QTH (city and state), and your name. Then sign it back to him. There you are . . . your first QSO! If you make a mistake, incidentally, just send a quick series of dots or didit, a space, and another didit. And don’t fret when you do make a mistake. We all do and think nothing of it when another operator does.

Does it end there? Sometimes, when the other station comes back with “tnx for the QSO and 73 (best wishes).” But often stations in QSO (contact/conversation) will exchange their rig and antenna and the weather. Some also will add how long they have been licensed and their age. Some also include their job or, if they retired, what they did for a living before retirement. And so on.

As you progress, you will encounter foreign stations (DX) and might be wondering about language issues.  Not to worry.  They all are sufficiently competent in English to carry on a QSO and the exchanges are the same as for American stations.  Rarer DX stations are sometimes more abbreviated so that they can make as many contacts as possible.  When you encounter one of them, they will just send your signal report and BK, relying on their call sign to indicate what country they are in.  In those cases, reply with his report and your state.  He will normally come back with TU and 73 and you can do the same.

So, there it is.  Wow!  It has been a long, but fruitful and rewarding road, hasn’t it?  Before you hit the airwaves, though, there are a few things for you to keep in mind.

Next Page: Final Thoughts