Working HF bands, DX contacts and/or contests, at some point, you will receive QSL cards. Sooner than later you will have to decide on a QSL card and how you will handle QSLs.
It is courteous to send a return QSL card once one has been received.
First, the card. There are services online that allow you to design a card, they’ll print and send them to you. Search for “QSL Card Creator” or “QSL Design” for these services. Cost depends on: design complexity, colors/black and white, one or two sided, glossy/matted, number of cards, etc.
Others design their own card and print them at home as needed. You’ll need a design program, printer, and card stock (do not print them on regular paper). This method of having printed cards is referred to as “paper QSLing.”
For my card, I had a graphics designer create the front. A friend designed the back and printed the card.
Standard QSL card size is 3.5″ x 5.5″. At a minimum the card will contain call sign, grid square, and signal report. “Signal report” is usually a grid with details of the contact. Confirming a contact with your station:
- Confirming QSO with or similar would be your callsign.
- Day/Month/Year is the date the contact occurred (in GMT/UTC).
- Time (also in UTC).
- MHz is the specific frequency the contact was made like 7.268 or just the band (40 meters).
- RST S/R is your signal report (how well I copied you) like 59 (voice), 599 (CW/some digital modes), or other standardized designation like +03 for JT9. See ‘signal report’ section.
- Finally, Mode is the mode you made the contact. Examples: SSB for voice, FM for FM voice, CW for Morse Code. If a digital mode is used, that is the mode: JT65, PSK31, Olivia, etc.
Other common things to see on a QSL card: address, ITU/CQ zones or other designations (see ‘maps’ section), website, email, station details (radios, amplifiers, antenna(s)), pictures, images.
If you’re filling out a QSL card and make a mistake, use a new card and don’t try to salvage the mistake. Many take the QSL card as a sense of pride and will put alot of effort and money into making them nice. Others, not so much. It’s whatever you want your card to be. That is unless you don’t want to do paper QSLs.
Everyone has their own way of handling QSLs — whether personal preference or out of necessity due to political issues. Details are typically listed on their QRZ page or sometimes a website. Websites are often used with special event stations or popular DX stations. In general, the way a card was received is the way a return card should be sent. Always verify the contact with your log before sending a return QSL. It doesn’t happen often but do receive ones not in my log. The most common ways of QSLing I’ve seen are:
A station wanting your QSL card mails you their card to your listed address. You confirm with a return card back to their listed address. This is the fastest and most expensive way to send and receive cards especially factoring international postage. Here are some good tips for sending cards in the mail.
- You may decide to require a SASE (stamped envelope) so you don’t have to pay for return postage or instead require an SAE (addressed envelope) and pay return postage as a courtesy.
- Stations outside your country may require greenbacks (US $) to cover postage. U.S. dollars are universally exchanged. The standard number of greenbacks is 2 ($2). Check their QRZ or web for differing amounts.
- A station might ask for an IRC (International Reply Coupon). This is voucher for postage in a foreign country. Usage is rare because redeeming is difficult. Greenbacks are standard.
A Bureau/QSL Service is available for cards going outside your postal service. That is if you live in the US, you can’t use the Bureau to send your cards to another US state. They must be sent using USPS or similar another provider. Advantages of the Bureau are it costs alot less then direct mailing but it could take months or years before the DX station receives your QSL.
It works by writing out cards. Sending them along with a couple bucks to cover outgoing postage. The bureau will wait until it has enough cards from other hams for the same destination. Once it’s economically feasible to send a batch of cards to a receiving bureau they’ll send all cards at one.
Once received at the receiving bureau (also called a QSL Manager) they will sort and send your cards to you. The QSL Manager may ask for “supplies” to be kept on hand; envelopes with your address and prepaid postage. Other managers might ask for credit (cash, personal check) where they will deduct supply costs from your available credit for each batch of cards sent to you. All of this depends on the QSL Manager.
Electronic (LoTW, eqsl, HRDLog, Club Log, QRZ, etc)
A number of electronic QSLing services are available. Each service has their own method for setting up their account and uploading contacts.
The format for electronic logs are ADIF or Cabrillo format. It is consistent data formatting standard used in the submission of contest logs. Most common logging programs have built in interfaces that will generate Cabrillo data and will upload contacts automatically or upon request. Data from these services can be downloaded to your local logbook to confirm contacts.
LoTW (Logbook of The World, ARRL’s service) service I use requires a multi-step authentication process to setup an account. Their “TrustedQSL” application must be installed. You create a request for certificate (as in authentication and encryption certificate), they mail you a postcard to confirm your identity, then you get an activation code via email, after all of that is validated, then you get a certificate via email to install into TrustedQSL.
Hire a QSL manager
DX stations who tend to work many thousands of contacts just don’t have time to return all those QSL cards. They’ll hire someone else to do it for them. On the air or their QRZ page might say “QSL via WB9XXX QSL Manager.” This means they’ve hired WB9XXX to handle their QSLs. They are not quite the same as a bureau QSL Manager but perform similar duties. The DX station might pay them a nominal fee for printing, postage, and supplies. There maybe more than one manager for a DX station too. The DX station will upload or send their logs to their managers who might upload them to the electronic services and take care of paper cards. The managers take care of verifying and replying to requests.
When sending your QSL to one of these managers, check both the DX station’s QRZ and the manager’s QRZ page for QSL requirements. Send the QSL to the closest manager or one in your country if there are multiple. If you send the QSL request directly to the DX station, they may or may not forward the request to their manager.
The advantage of a QSL manager is a DX station might travel often, move frequently, or activate many different entities. The QSL manager serves as a consistent point of contact for QSLs. It eliminates the likelihood of your QSL getting missed if the station worked you last month had to move unexpectedly as part of their job. It’s usually quicker too because if the DX station is in another part of the world and their QSL manager is in the states, you’ll get your reply much quicker than waiting for international postal systems. This avoids corrupt postal systems too.
QRZ has a searchable database of QSL managers for DX stations. Put the DX call in the search and it will list their manager.
The other station may not want to deal with cards, postage, the bureau, computers, or corrupt entities… many reasons apply here. A station MAY NOT confirm your contact at all. Cards received at a bureau will be discarded.
Make your preferences known
If YOU want your QSLs handled a specific way or not at all, you need to make it abundantly clear on your QRZ profile and other usual places. Since it is personal preference, you may choose to refuse QSL Bureau cards, LoTW, and only will handle paper cards with or without return postage. Some only use LoTW so QSLing doesn’t cost them anything. Make a note stating something like ‘procedures not followed will not receive a return QSL,’ or ‘bureau cards will not be returned,’ ‘LOTW only,’ ‘NO QSL,’ etc.
Some stations you’ve contacted will not follow the preferences as outlined. They wanted to be friendly and send you a card even though you won’t reciprocate. It’s up to you to decide if you want to return their QSL.
Know that some stations simply cannot receive QSLs via certain methods. I’ve seen it posted on their QRZ page where a DX station lives in a country where the postal system is corrupt and will take anything of value (cash). Just because you want to use a certain method of QSLing doesn’t mean the other station will ever see your request due to corrupt governments, infrastructure, or geopolitical events. They’re doing you a favor by informing you so choose another method to send a QSL request or don’t send one at all.