Thursday, November 10, 2011

A Quick Guide to QSLs and QSLing

A Quick Guide to QSLs and QSLing

With so many GVARC members getting on HF for the first time, a short review of QSL cards and practices may be helpful.

What’s a QSL?

On the air, the abbreviation "QSL" literally means "Can you acknowledge receipt." For about as long as hams have been contacting one another by radio, they have sought written confirmation of their contacts by means of QSL cards. For decades, "the final courtesy of a QSO is (was) a QSL." For most of us today, the automatic sending of QSL cards has become a casualty of high postage rates, but it’s still considered good form to reply to those QSLs you receive.

Collecting QSL cards that confirm meaningful contacts we have made is still a source of pleasure. In addition, most of the better-known and more prestigious operating awards, such as DX Century Club (DXCC), Worked All States (WAS) and Worked All Zones (WAZ), require written proof that the required contacts have been made, through the submission of QSL cards or the equivalent (see below).

QSLs are generally not exchanged for contacts made through repeaters (other than orbiting satellites), nor for those made through such media as Echolink. Such contacts, fun though they are, generally are not valid for operating award purposes.

Your Own QSLs

Designing QSL cards for your own station can also be fun. You can find, or make, QSLs to fit every need and every budget. If you only need a few cards at a time, making them on your computer might be the way to go, depending upon your desktop-publishing skills and software library. Some clubs and on-the-air groups, such as the FISTS CW Club and the Quarter Century Wireless Association, offer club QSL card designs at attractive prices. You can find QSL card printers by checking the classified ads in QST and Worldradio, as well as Google.

Most QSL printers offer stock designs that you can adapt for your own use, or will print your own custom design from your artwork. My own QSL card, for example, features a cartoon by the late Philip "Gil" Gildersleeve, W1CJD, originally published with the first article I wrote for QST when I was 17 years old. I’m sure glad I saved Gil’s original pen-and-ink drawing, which ARRL gave me permission to use.

Whatever the design, a QSL must state that it confirms a two-way contact and include the necessary information: both call signs, date and time of QSO (please use GMT/UTC, and remember that in most of the world, "3/2/07" means February 3, not March 2), signal report (RST), band and mode. If the QSO was made via satellite or some unusual propagation mode, that should be specified too. The QSL must also include your location. Since some hams collect counties and/or Maidenhead grid squares, it’s a good idea to include those too (Green Valley is in grid square DM41).

Sending and Receiving

Now that you have a supply of QSL cards, how do you send them? The simplest and most effective way, as well as the most expensive, is to send them direct via first class mail or international airmail. If you don’t already have the recipient’s address, you can generally find it on

You’ll soon find that many DX stations, especially those in rare locations, use volunteer "QSL managers" rather than handling their own cards. Many QSL managers are listed in the various DX bulletins, or you can often find them through or Google.

QSL managers, as well as most stations whose cards are likely to be sought after, will greatly appreciate your including a self-addressed envelope and return postage. If the addressee is outside the USA, you can use an International Reply Coupon from the Post Office, or simply include dollar bills (often referred to as "green stamps"). The latter, however, can be expensive. At this writing, airmail postage to the US from Germany, for example, costs 1.75 euros, which would require three "green stamps" at the current exchange rate of $1.32 to the euro.

In my experience, sending QSLs direct is by far the most effective way of getting one in return, but there are cheaper alternatives. ARRL and most other national radio societies maintain a system of QSL Bureaus for international (DX) contacts. To send QSLs via the ARRL outgoing bureau, go to, click on "Services," then "QSL Service," then select "Outgoing." You’ll find all the info you need, including the charges which are $5 per half-pound of cards.

The same Web site also has the information you’ll need to subscribe to the incoming bureau. This is strongly recommended for anyone who makes international contacts; ARRL membership is not required. Just select "Incoming" instead of "Outgoing." You’ll find that the address and procedures depend upon the number in your call sign, not your actual location. Since I’m W2RS, I subscribe through the North Jersey DX Association in New Jersey. If your call has a "7" in it, your incoming bureau is run by the Willamette Valley DX Club in Oregon.


There’s an even cheaper alternative, which I recommend in addition to (not instead of) the QSL bureau. It’s called Logbook of the World (LotW), and it’s also run by ARRL for members and non-members alike. LotW is a database that matches QSOs from electronic logs submitted by subscribers. Most computer-logging programs will produce output in LotW format (also called "Cabrillo" format) or, if you’re like me and still keep your log on paper (you do keep a log, don’t you?), the LotW software you download from ARRL allows you to enter QSO data manually. For more info, and to sign up, go to

The problem with LotW is that it’s still new, so many of the stations you work will not yet be participating. However, the database already includes over 75,000,000 QSOs and is growing rapidly. Most major DXpeditions are on the system, as are entries in ARRL contests. You should be too; signing up and submitting QSO data are free. You pay only if you submit LotW QSOs for an operating award, currently at 25 cents per QSO.

LotW is a highly secure system and should not be confused with, whose "eQSLs" are not accepted for ARRL and other major operating awards because they are too easy to forge. Yes, some hams have been known to cheat, and LotW is designed to make that as difficult as possible while still being easy to use for the rest of us.


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