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This paper studies the effect of channel estimation error and antenna diversity on multilevel quadrature amplitude modulation (M-QAM) systems over Rayleigh fading channels. Based on the characteristic function method, a general closed-form bit-error rate (BER) for M-QAM systems is presented. The effect of the inaccurate channel estimation on the performance for pilot-symbol-assisted modulation M-QAM systems with antenna diversity is investigated. Simulation results for M-QAM (M = 4, 16, 64, 256, etc.) show that the analytical method can accurately estimate the system performance. Moreover, numerical results show that with the antenna-diversity technique, the BER performance improves significantly, especially in perfect channel-estimation cases. It is also found that the channel-estimation error limits the benefit of antenna diversity. By increasing the length of the channel estimator and the amplitude of the pilot symbol, more accurate channel estimation can be achieved, so that the BER performance is improved.