If we talk on amateur radio, we might exchange QSL cards.

On the back, I’ll write the UTC (universal date and time), frequency and mode (voice, CW, PSK) and some brief remarks. When a ham (amateur radio operator) receives a QSL card, after checking their ham radio logbook to confirm the contact, he or she would send a QSL card in return.

In recent years, the practice has become mostly virtual through the Internet. Websites such as eQSL.cc and LoTW (Logbook of The World, an arrl.org – American Radio Relay League – automated service) accept log files from registered operators and their computers do the match-up. After logging in, individual hams such as myself can then look to see which of their QSOs (conversations) have been confirmed (QSL’ed). Each station can, if they wish, print the other station’s QSL card.

But while this is efficient and free, it’s just not the same as going to the mailbox in your front yard and discovering a card from the other side of the world!

So, in addition to logging my conversations at those two websites, I’ll also be sending out old school QSL cards and, for those I receive in return, I’ve hung an (old school) cork board on the wall. I’ll post those cards where I can see them when operating the radio.

Amateur radio stations in obscure locations – I worked FR5AB on Reunion Island off the east coast of Africa last month – use these same electronic services for the bulk of their QSLs. For them, some of which make hundreds of contacts during various contests, simply cannot afford the cost of postage. So, if you want a real QSL card from them, some will “QSL Direct” through the mail if you send them a card first, and others say they will only “QSL by the Bureau” for actual cards.

“QSL Direct” means using the mail but, for locations outside of North America, the practice is for the North American station (operator) to bear the burden of expense both ways. For the FR5AB contact I made last month, for example, I’ll put my filled-in QSL card in the mail along with a return envelope and two “green stamps” – US Dollars – for his use in sending his QSL card to me.

Years ago, hams would use IRCs (International Reply Coupons) which guaranteed sufficient postage for the card from anywhere in the world, but several countries have since opted out or have pushed the little used program into some dusty corner of only a few post offices in the country. The US is in the latter category so IRCs have mostly fallen out of favor.

Today, common practice is to send cash since US currency is relatively easy to exchange in most foreign countries. The two bucks is enough to cover the postage for a postcard from anywhere in the world, and includes a little extra “for the bother.”

Even so, overseas stations that have a lot of conversations may still find direct QSLing a burden. Some of these have hundreds of contacts per month. Many of these use a “bureau” instead.

A bureau in this sense is a collection point – a service and a mailing address – that receives cards for a given station and puts them in a pile. Periodically, they bundle up all the cards and ship them off to the station. Operators at that station then go through the pile, fill-in QSL cards for the return trip, and send that pile of returning QSL cards to the bureau. The bureau then sends the cards back out to the individual stations that started the exchange. The entire process can take several weeks or months, depending on the volume and locations involved.

The ARRL runs the biggest set of bureaus, one for each different part of the world. Hams who want to use the bureau pay a small fee to support the work.

Alternatively, some stations use private QSL managers who are simply radio amateurs who provide the service, often through friendship. The process is similar to the bureaus but more focused – some handle as few as a single remote station.

(Invariably there are curmudgeons who just don’t want to exchange QSLs under any circumstances. Why they even bother to get on the air, I don’t know but, well, I guess it takes all types to make a world.)

So, how to you know which QSL method should be used for a given station?

You look them up at QRZ.com – (QRZ means “Who is this?”). That website has become the de facto place for all ham radio stations to put their details such as name, address, QSL preferences and other details they wish to share. My entry includes a little about my professional career, the fact that I am now retired, my background in ham radio and a picture of my QSL card.

73s! (That’s ham talk for “Best Regards!”)


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