Was the RAE Exam Easier than Today’s Exams?

From 2004, UK amateur radio licences are in 3-tiers: Foundation, Intermediate and Full. Before then, it was the RAE (Radio Amateurs’ Examination). In response to recent online conversations, this page takes a quick look at the RAE and how it compares to the 2019 syllabus.

What was the RAE Exam?

From 1979 to 2003, this was a multiple-choice test (before then, it was a written exam. Until 1998, the paper was in two parts: Part 1 (Licencing conditions, interference, EMC), and Part 2 (procedures and theory). Candidates took both papers in a single sitting. If they failed one of the two papers, they wouldn’t need to take the other paper again. Between 1998 and 2002, the two papers were merged into a single paper.

The one-paper system ran from 1998 to 2003, when City & Guilds ceased running the RAE, leading to RSGB introducing Foundation, Intermediate & Full.

What was covered at RAE?

We looked at the last RAE Exam, the December 2003 RAE. and compared it to today’s syllabus:

  • 52% of the RAE exam would be covered off in today’s Foundation
  • 34% would today be classed as Intermediate
  • 14%, mostly electronics theory, would fall under “Full”
RAE Exam Composition
RAE Exam – Content Breakdown based on 2020 Syllabus


Was the RAE easier than today’s exams?

From reviewing several RAE papers, yes, it would appear so – as demonstrated in the following table:

RAE (2003) vs Full (2020) Comparison Table
RAE (2003) vs Full (2020) Comparison Table

Based on our review of the December 2003 RAE, over half of the RAE questions were equivalent to today’s Foundation. Only 14% of questions fell into the “Full” category, meaning that under RAE, 11 Full questions were asked, compared to 60 today.

Number of questions - RAE vs. 3-tier
Number of questions – RAE vs. 3-tier

Back under RAE, several topics weren’t covered, including frequency synthesis, semiconductors, Software-defined Radios, Digital Voice, Digital Data, A-to-D conversion, Direct digital synthesis, Fourier transform, Data modes, Digital TV EMC, and other topics. Other sections, such as Safety, EMC and Operating Procedures were smaller under RAE, and there were no practicals.

From our article Getting a Full Amateur Radio Licence – Then and Now, by every other measurable criterion, getting a Full licence today is much harder.

 2003 RAE 7650 Exam2020 Three-tier System
Number of exams13
Exam Fee£29.50£97.50
Exam Time2 hours and 15 minutes4 hours 30 minutes (excluding practicals)
Syllabus8 sections 10 sections. 


What of the RAE written exam?

One commenter below has referred us to his exam in 1973. We went back to the 1973 RAE paper to see how it compares to today’s exams.

Before 1979, the RAE was a single-paper eight-question written exam. It was almost entirely focussed on electronics and transmitter construction, as opposed to the broader syllabus introduced back in the 80s. This perhaps reflects that before the 80s, amateurs made their own homebrew transmitters, hence the focus on circuit design.

From reviewing the paper, you can immediately see that there were no questions on band plans, EMC, antennas, safety or operating procedures, and almost nothing on licensing – all topics that are mandatory today, even at Foundation! Of course, there were no practicals back then, and the syllabus has grown significantly since the 1970s. (A separate Morse test was required for a Full Class A – without that, you’d get a Class B)

The topics covered back in the 1970s would compare to sections 2 and 3 of today’s syllabus, which equates to just over 31% what’s asked currently for a Full licence. Most of the topics covered in this exam would be considered Intermediate-level today. As most radio amateurs no longer design and construct transistor or valve transmitters, it could be argued that this exam was for a different era in amateur radio’s history.

For those keen to check, here is a breakdown of the 1973 RAE paper:

Q. 1Two questions: How to fill in a log, and the Supervision clause. This was 15% of the exam, and today would be two marks at Foundation (syllabus 1B1 and 7A5)
Q. 2VFO Stability – This is Intermediate-level (2I5)
Q. 3VFO Tuning Coils & Screening – VFOs and the basics of coils are Intermediate (2I5, 2D4)
Q. 4Phase and Impedance. 3 of the 4 items are Intermediate (2E2 and 2E3), with one Full (2E6)
Q. 5Transmitter box diagram. This would be equivalent to Intermediate box diagram in Table 3b today. Some sub-questions are Intermediate (buffer amp 3C2, filter 3G2), and some full (amplifier class 2I4)
Q. 6Basics of a transistor or valve amplifier? That’s Intermediate 2I3 and 2I4. Valves are now obsolete.
Q. 7Superhet. Some of this is Intermediate-level (3I) and some is Full-level (3I)
Q. 8Fading. That’s all Intermediate (5B3)
Q. 9Wavemeters are now out-of-scope. Closest would be checking for spurious emissions and harmonics (Intermediate 6D3)
Q. 10Balanced vs Unbalanced feeder and impedance – That’s Foundation (4A1 and 4C5)

Given that candidates could pick their topics on the written test, it seems that a pass could be achieved on the old RAE written exam with the knowledge taught in just three of the ten sections of today’s Intermediate syllabus!


RAE 2003 Exam breakdown

If you’d like to check for yourself, here’s how we broke down the questions from the December 2003 RAE

RAE QuestionSectionFoundation SyllabusIntermediate SyllabusFull Syllabus
22Operating 7E1 
25Electronics 2I1 
26Electronics  2H1
27Electronics 2H1 
28Electronics  2G1
29Electronics 2I3 
30Electronics 2J4 
31Electronics  2J3
32Electronics  2I3
33Electronics 3I3 
34Electronics  3I4
35Electronics 3L1 
36Electronics  3C3
37Electronics 2i4 
38Transmitters 3A3 
39Transmitters 6D4 
40Transmitters 3G5 
42Transmitters 3G4 
43Transmitters 3G2 
47Transmitters 3A3 
48Transmitters  3F
49Transmitters 3H4 
51Transmitters  3G
52Transmitters 3H 
53Transmitters 3H 
55EMC 3C 
57EMC 6B2 
63EMC 6D1 
66Electronics 2G1 
68Antennas 5A4 
70Propagation 5B3 
72Antennas 4C5 
73Antennas  4A3
75Construction 9A2 
77Construction 2J4 
78Construction 3C 
79Construction 6D4 
80Construction  9A8

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