The channel is broadcast as part of the wifi protocol, and most wifi cards have a "promiscuous mode" that allows them to listen too all traffic on a channel, regardless of which MAC address it's addressed to.
There's widely available software that's free that allows anyone to do this. Wireshark is a popular choice. If the traffic is encrypted, the password would have to be cracked (if possible) before the sniffed data could be decrypted.
There's no need to associate with the AP in any way, and it's not possible to detect someone sniffing network packets if done entirely passively.