Answer: No, a degree is not a requirement to become an ATF agent. However, prospective agents who have no prior experience in law enforcement or criminal justice do need a four-year degree to begin at Grade 5, the minimum grade for this position.2 A combination of education and experience is also sufficient to meet the requirements for each pay grade. To qualify for the highest pay grade with no prior experience, agents must possess a master’s degree or equivalent in criminal justice or a related field.
Special agents with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives (ATF) investigate violations of federal laws that are related to firearms, explosives, arson, alcohol, and tobacco. Although the headquarters of the ATF are located in Washington DC, the Bureau has field offices all over the US, so ATF agents may be placed in a variety of locations across the US or even overseas.
Career Description, Duties, and Common Tasks
ATF agents conduct surveillance, execute search warrants, collect physical evidence related to their cases, arrest perpetrators, and interview suspects and witnesses. They may also be called to testify for the Federal Government or before grand juries in a court of law. In addition to these fieldwork duties, ATF agents also prepare reports about criminal investigations and provide court testimony. They typically work regular business hours between 8:30 AM and 5:00 PM, but their hours will vary by assignment. ATF agents should also expect substantial travel as part of their position.
Steps for Becoming an ATF Agent
To be considered for a career as an ATF agent, an applicant must be an American citizen, be between the ages of 21 and 37, and have a valid driver’s license. Candidates also must possess a proportionate weight to height ratio and be physically fit. Experience and education (or a combination) will determine the starting pay grade for each agent. Once the minimum requirements are met, the following steps are required to begin a career in ATF.
- Attend a degree program or gain experience in a related field.*
- Apply by completing the ATF special agent application questionnaire.
- Take and pass the ATF special agent exam.
- Take and pass the ATF special agent applicant assessment test.
- Take and pass the ATF Pre-employment Physical Task Test.
- Attend a field panel interview and submit a writing sample.
- Take and pass a drug test, polygraph exam, background investigation, and a medical examination by an authorized government physician.
- Get hired as an ATF agent.
- Undergo job training while working as an agent.
*While a degree is not required to become an ATF agent, either a degree, experience in a related field, or a suitable combination of the two is required for the position and will determine an agent’s pay grade. For more information on education and experience needed for this job, see the Special Agent Informational Packet provided by the ATF Bureau.
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ATF Agent Job Training
To qualify for agent jobs, candidates must either have a bachelor’s degree or three years of work experience (including at least one year of criminal investigative or law enforcement experience). As a result, agents will already have had some training and exposure in the field prior to beginning the ATF’s formal training program. Most ATF agents continue earning further training and education throughout their careers. Rookie agents will often be paired with more experienced agents in the beginning, while they learn the ropes of the job.
Other Helpful Skills and Experience
Since ATF agents spend much of their time in the field, they must be in excellent physical shape. The ATF website says they must be “tough both physically and mentally” in order to successfully perform the duties required of them. ATF agents must be comfortable with being in risky and sometimes dangerous situations, be able to endure rigorous training, and be comfortable with working an irregular schedule. They also must be adaptable to change since they are subject to reassignment at any time.
ATF Agent Salary and Job Outlook
The ATF is a government organization and follows the federal General Schedule to determine employee pay. According to the ATF, the base yearly salary range for an entry-level ATF agent starts at Grade 5, Step 1 ($34,865) and goes to Grade 9, Step 10 ($57,093), but with a full promotion potential to Grade 13.1 This does not include locality pay or Law Enforcement Availability Pay (LEA), which together can add up to 50% to the base salary. Agents may also qualify for substantial bonuses based on fluency in and duty-related use of a foreign language. ATF agents receive health insurance, vacation and sick time, and other benefits typical for government employees.
If you are interested in a career as an ATF agent, you may also be interested in learning more about the related careers below.
Frequently Asked Questions
Do I need a degree to become an ATF agent?
I have an arrest record. Can I still apply to become an ATF agent?
Answer: Yes. The agency will consider all applicants on a case-by-case basis, so your arrest record will not necessarily preclude you from being hired.
- Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF): The ATF aims to protect the public from crimes related to firearms, explosives, and arson. The ATF also advocates for the avoidance of alcohol and tobacco products.
- ATF Recruiter Contacts: List of ATF recruiters to contact in your area if you are interested in becoming an agent.
99 New York Avenue, NE
Washington, DC 20226
1. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, Salary & Benefits: https://www.atf.gov/careers/salary-benefits
2. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, Special Agent Informational Packet: https://www.atf.gov/resource-center/docs/atfp23104sainfopacket2014pdf/download
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