How to Become an FBI Agent
On any given day, approximately 35,000 Americans can be found working in foreign and domestic roles for the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI). These brave individuals use their advanced skills and training to protect the United States and intercept plans to bring harm to the country. If you’ve ever wondered how to become an FBI agent, this guide is for you. While everyone has heard of the FBI’s special agents, many other roles exist, and you might be a great fit for one of them. Read on to learn more about potential careers, average salaries, ways of getting involved, and the educational requirements needed to work in the FBI.
While we often think about roles for spies and undercover agents when considering a career with the FBI, in reality, the agency requires professionals holding a wide range of skills and competencies. The organization offers several specialized paths to choose from, including:
- Surveillance: Surveillance professionals work in the U.S. and elsewhere to gather the intelligence that helps inform national security decisions. They build contacts and cultivate informants, use voice recording and photographic equipment to capture information, and report back to the FBI.
- Special Agent: Given the mental and physical taxation of special agent roles, applicants to these positions must go through a thorough and challenging process known as the Special Agent Selection Process. If they pass, newly-minted special agents take on short- and long-term assignments all around the world, based on agency needs.
- Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM): The FBI is always looking for professionals with knowledge of these four areas to help advance technologies, increase investigative services, and ensure best practices in laboratory settings. A few available job titles include information technology specialist, forensic examiner, and biologist.
- Arts & Communications: Professionals in these sectors help the FBI maintain clear communications, impactful branding, quality graphic design, and powerful imagery. They can work in the field or an office setting as audio-visual production specialists, forensic photographers, and public affairs professionals.
- Legal: Legal professionals in the FBI help ensure all of the agency’s activities and techniques pass scrutiny in areas of legality and legislation. Lawyers provide counsel and legal research for ongoing cases and advise on cases involving domestic and international laws.
FBI Agent Salary
FBI salaries follow the federal government’s general pay schedule for white-collar positions as set out by the U.S. Office of Personnel Management (OPM). As demonstrated in the General Schedule (GS), the government sets 15 grades of pay, each of which has 10 steps. Employees are hired at a certain grade and step based on their qualifications, experience level, and any special needs of the FBI that they might fulfill. They move up through steps and grades by building more experience and receiving favorable employee reviews.
Every FBI employee’s payment journey will be different, but the OPM notes as an example that it typically takes 18 years to move up through the 10 steps of a single grade. Special exceptions are sometimes made, making it possible for employees to move into a higher grade and begin working through the steps within that pay grade. Here are some common starting salaries for various FBI positions to give you a better sense of what to expect:
- Special Agent: GL-10 Step one, equivalent to $48,973. Most agents hit GL-13 ($76,687) within five years.
- IT Specialist: Between GS-7 and GS-9 ($49,081-$75,152), depending on experience. This role maxes out at GS-12 ($83,840).
- Crisis Management Specialist: Between GS-11 and GS-12 ($69,016-$107,542). This role maxes out at GS-13 ($99,691).
- Photographer: Between GS-10 and GS-11 ($57,088-$81,542). This role maxes out at GS-12 ($83,840).
- Supervisory Chemist: GS-14, Steps 1-10 ($108,002-$140,406). This position maxes out at GS-14 ($117,810).
Aside from base salaries, FBI agents stationed in Washington D.C. also receive locality pay and availability pay. To calculate the additional amount, multiply the base salary plus locality pay by 25%.
Steps to Become an FBI Agent
There are multiple paths to becoming an FBI agent. While you may have dreamed of working for the agency since you were a child, others may come into the role later in life. Because multiple ways of becoming an FBI agent exist, we’ve summed up a few of the most common below:
- Participate in student programs: Even while still in high school, students can participate in the FBI teen academy. Just ensure that you don’t do anything to disqualify yourself (e.g., using illegal drugs—including marijuana, even if legal in your state). At the collegiate level, internships and entry-level roles exist to help you begin your journey.
- Study a relevant topic: Criminal justice programs aren’t the only educational path that will qualify you for FBI work. You should consider majoring in a topic that instills in-demand skills. Majors currently highlighted by the agency include accounting, business, STEM, English, film, finance, foreign languages, human resources, information technology, journalism, law, marketing, public relations, and visual arts.
- Participate in the Collegiate Hiring Initiative: This program hires students from every degree level and helps them begin careers in exciting and relevant roles in the FBI. Many of the positions currently available focus on computer science, IT, electronics, finance, security, and human resources.
- Join the military: Many veterans continue in careers focused on serving the nation by joining the FBI after leaving the military. The agency offers several resources and programs to make the transition easier, including the Warriors Internship and the Wounded Warriors Internship.
- Build professional experience: If you don’t want to join the FBI straight out of school or the military, consider working elsewhere to gain skills that can benefit the agency. Think about how the skills gained in these roles can translate to agency work and try to find an employer that offers relevant tasks and assignments.
FBI Agent School: Degree Paths
FBI Agent School
After completing general education requirements and participating in the rigorous application process, the truly demanding part begins: FBI training.
Eligibility requirements vary based on the role at hand. Special agents, for instance, must:
- Be between 23-36 years old
- Possess at least a bachelor’s degree
- Participate in two years of full-time professional work experience (this is shortened to one year if you hold an advanced degree)
- Hold a valid driver’s license
- Meet physical fitness standards
- Pass all tests and interviews demonstrating core competencies in areas of collaboration, communication, flexibility, initiative, interpersonal abilities, leadership, organizing/planning, and problem-solving/judgment.
Once accepted to the training program, you will participate in approximately 800 hours of online and in-person courses. These modules focus on building skills in the following areas:
- Firearms: Regardless of FBI job type, all new agent trainees participate in a firearms training curriculum that focuses on gun safety, handling protocol, and live-fire training. Prepare to learn about marksmanship and basic shooting techniques then pass a qualifying exam. After completing approximately 110 hours of training and firing 5,000 rounds of ammunition, you will be issued a carbine, pistol, and shotgun.
- Physical Training: Because FBI agents can sometimes find themselves engaged in physical activities, they must demonstrate their ability to hold up against vigorous exercise. Plan to participate in several fitness-building programs before taking a standardized physical fitness test. To pass onto the next section of training, you must score at least 12 points with at least one point each in timed sit-ups, timed 300-meter sprints, push-ups, and a timed 1.5-mile run.
- Academics: To ensure all newly-minted agents possess a well-rounded set of knowledge, each recruit devotes time to learning about forensic science, law, ethics, investigative and intelligence methods, behavioral science, interrogation, and interviewing and report writing skills. You will also devote time to learning about counterterrorism protocols, cybersecurity, criminal investigations, and weapons of mass destruction.
- Operations: This practical, hands-on portion of training ensures you possess the skills needed to conduct searches, place handcuffs, drive tactically, and safely disarm suspects. Within these 90 hours of instruction and exercise, you also participate in a simulation that includes interviewing, arresting, and surveilling criminals.
- Case Exercises: Bringing home all you learn throughout training, case exercises put all your newfound knowledge to use. Each trainee is given an integrated case scenario. These often start with a criminal tip and culminate in arrests of actors playing the roles of criminals and/or terrorists. After finishing the case, trainees present their findings in a moot court.
After passing each section of training, you will qualify for graduation. The Director of the FBI swears in newly-minted agents and provides them with badges and credentials. As they leave the academy, agents receive their Bureau-issued firearms and move into their first assignment.
If you’re curious about how much higher education could cost you at any level, take a look at College Board’s 2018 Trends in College Pricing.
Because the vast majority of FBI roles require you to possess at least a bachelor’s degree, earning this credential represents a critical step in the process of becoming an agent. Criminal justice degrees offer a timeless option, given their focus on topics such as law enforcement, counterterrorism, homeland security, criminal behavior, and cybersecurity. We discuss these programs more in-depth in our bachelor’s in criminal justice guide.
Other traditional educational routes include sociology, psychology, pre-law, and criminology. If you want to work in a specialized role, however, consider pursuing a degree in that area. If your passions lie in computer science, pursue that type of degree, as the FBI has stated a need for qualified technology professionals.
Regardless of the program you pursue, bachelor’s degrees typically require four years of full-time study. Data from College Board shows that public institutions charged an average of $10,230 for the 2018-19 school year, while private non-profits charged $35,830 during the same time frame.
Depending on the type of agent you hope to become, a master’s degree may be necessary. If you want to work as a criminal profiler, for instance, you may want to pursue a master’s degree. To learn more, check out our comprehensive criminal profiler guide.
Many STEM roles require master’s degrees, as do legal positions. Most programs mandate that students complete coursework and participate in a final assignment—usually a thesis or a culminating project. Timelines for these programs vary significantly based on subject area. Some accelerated programs can be completed in just one year, while others may require up to four years of study. Public four-year institutions charged an average tuition of $8,850 during the 2018-2019 academic year, whereas private institutions charged $30,450.
Some agents decide to pursue doctoral degrees, giving them access to jobs in the highest echelons of the FBI. If you want to work in medicine, law, policy, or administration, a doctorate may serve you well. Common areas of study include political science, psychology, or behavioral sciences. Most doctorates require between four and seven years of study, depending on the type of degree and subject at hand. Aside from completing classes, learners frequently act as teachers and research assistants and write a dissertation. College Board found that public schools charged $11,120 for 2018-2019 tuition, while private institutions charged an average of up to $44,020.
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