Hero Image How to Become an FBI Agent: Career Guide

How to Become an FBI Agent: Career Guide

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The FBI is one of the United States’ frontline criminal justice agencies, protecting the country from threats and investigating serious crimes. TV shows and movies may offer an exaggerated portrayal of FBI agents’ duties, but the Bureau does perform exciting, potentially dangerous work that falls far outside the realm of most typical career paths. FBI agents may find themselves gathering intelligence to thwart terrorist threats, investigating organized crime, or pursuing criminals with the aid of other state and local law officials.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics projects career opportunities for criminal investigators to grow by 5% from 2018-2028. This guide offers an overview of how to become an FBI agent, including educational requirements and an outline of the rigorous screening process applicants must complete. You’ll also find information on typical FBI agent salaries and what it takes to advance in this unique and exciting career path.

What Does an FBI Agent Do?

The job duties of an FBI agent vary depending on the case they’re working, the skills they possess, and the role they play at the bureau. Each day or case can lead to taking on different tasks, and even the bureau even admits that there’s no “typical day” — as there is always something new to the job. 

That said, there are some duties you can expect to encounter in a role at the FBI. These include testifying in court, collaborating with other agents on various tasks, working with sources to follow leads on crimes, making arrests, and paperwork — because there’s always paperwork. 

Your role in the FBI can also vary based on what part of the field you’re in and where you’re located. Some agents may spend more time in an office while working in a local capacity, whereas others may spend less time working from a home base. 

But, whether you work in a local, national, or international capacity, the same thing is true: Being an FBI agent is an exciting and rewarding — though potentially dangerous — opportunity, one that offers a way to protect your community and your country. The FBI is comprised of a highly skilled and highly trained force with a goal of protecting people from issues like cyber crime, counterterrorism, and organized crime. 

This job requires a great amount of time and dedication, but can be worth the sacrifices for the right candidates.

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Career Description, Duties, and Common Tasks

FBI agents perform a variety of roles, so duties and responsibilities vary from agent to agent. In general, however, the Bureau works to investigate and address threats to national security in the United States, both through gathering intelligence and investigating specific crimes. Accordingly, active agents may perform a wide assortment of tasks to aid in these goals, including gathering intelligence, conducting surveillance, executing search warrants, and making arrests.

The FBI divides its investigations into several major areas, including cybercrime, white-collar crime, foreign counterintelligence, and domestic and international terrorism. Agents may investigate crimes in the field or perform administrative and managerial roles, such as training or public affairs.

Few agents join the FBI seeking a typical job, and the work can be both unpredictable and demanding. Most agents are expected to work at least 50 hours each week and be on call 24/7. Since major criminal activities and threats can occur at any time, agents frequently work on weekends and holidays. Agents must also be willing to carry a firearm, use deadly force, and expose themselves to potential bodily harm.

Steps to Become an FBI Agent

  • MEET GENERAL ELIGIBILITY REQUIREMENTS

    The FBI maintains an extensive list of general eligibility requirements for employment. Applicants must be between 23-36 years old, hold U.S. citizenship, and have a clean criminal record with no felony convictions.

  • OBTAIN A BACHELOR’S DEGREE

    All FBI agents must hold a bachelor’s degree at minimum, and many possess a master’s degree or higher. FBI agents often earn degrees in fields such as criminal justice or political science, though the Bureau does not maintain any specific academic major requirements for applicants.

  • OBTAIN PROFESSIONAL EXPERIENCE

    Applicants must possess at least two years of full-time professional work experience. Those who hold a master’s degree or higher can apply with only one year of professional experience.

  • COMPLETE THE AGENT SELECTION PROCESS

    Potential FBI agents must submit to multiple rounds of testing and interviews. Phase I testing primarily measures logic-based reasoning, situational judgement, and personality traits. Successful candidates then move on to Phase II testing, which includes a structured interview. Candidates must also pass a physical fitness test, a drug test, a polygraph test, and a background investigation.

  • COMPLETE BASIC FIELD TRAINING

    After completing all other steps, candidates report to the FBI Academy in Quantico, Virginia, to complete the 20-week basic field training course.

  • FBI Agent Job Training

    As an incoming FBI agent, you’ll have to complete new agent training as part of the bureau’s basic field training course. Lasting 20 weeks and including more than 800 hours of instruction, field training features four major concentrations: academics, case exercises, firearms training, and operational skills.

    The academic concentration explores a broad selection of subjects, including law, behavioral science, ethics, and forensic science. Students gain specialized skills in interviewing, report writing, interrogating, and investigating. These lessons prepare candidates to perform criminal investigations and run counterintelligence and counterterrorism operations.

    The operations skills concentration encompasses the hands-on work of the FBI, including surveillance, operations planning, and tactical driving. Much of this experiential training occurs at the FBI’s Hogan’s Alley, an elaborate mock town that enables students to develop their skills through simulated exercises.

    Firearms training is another major component of an agent’s education. Building knowledge in the fundamentals of marksmanship, the firearms training curriculum includes weapons orientation, firearms safety, weapon handling skills, and live fire training. Students complete a total of 110 hours of firearm instruction across 28 training sessions.

    Case exercises integrate all aspects of training in complex simulations. Using the Hogan’s Alley environment, these exercises simulate the major steps of an FBI investigation, from an initial tip all the way through the arrest of multiple subjects.

    Other Helpful Skills and Experience

    While FBI agents need an uncommon set of skills, some aspects of the job are similar to any other government agency. The FBI lists eight core competencies that define special agents, including collaboration, communication, adaptability, interpersonal ability, and leadership. The Bureau encourages applicants to demonstrate evidence of these soft skills on their resume.

    Along with general soft skills, the unique nature of FBI work requires certain other specialized skills. For example, proficiency in a language other than English can be very valuable, particularly for agents interested in pursuing counterterrorism and counterintelligence work. Fluency in languages such as Chinese, Russian, and Arabic may be particularly useful for FBI agents.

    The FBI investigates many types of crimes, and the agency looks for applicants with specialized skills and work experience in fields that may be useful to investigations. For example, candidates with strong IT skills may be tapped to investigate cybercrime.

    The FBI also recognizes the value of military and law enforcement training, and many agents emerge from these agencies. Certain positions, such as the FBI’s Hostage Rescue Team, require a minimum of three years of military or law enforcement experience.

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    Salary and Career Outlook

    The average FBI salary isn’t cut and dry like it is in other fields, in major part because there are several unique factors to consider. For starters, new special agents are paid on the GL schedule for federal law enforcement officers, which means they enter at pay level GL-10 — or $52,440 per year as of 2021 — during their academy training at Quantico. 

    Upon completion of training, FBI agent salary levels are dictated by field office assignment. After a two-year probationary period, agents transition to the general schedule pay scale, with most agents achieving a GS-13 pay level — a minimum of $79,468 per year — within five years of service.

    CareerAverage Annual Salary
    Entry-Level FBI Agent$52,440
    Mid- to Senior-Level FBI Agent$79,468

    Most criminal investigators advance through job experience rather than additional education. FBI agents with specialized skills or relevant professional backgrounds may be able to advance to specialized positions that command higher salary levels. Some agents may achieve higher salaries in supervisory positions.

    The BLS projects that positions for all criminal investigators (including FBI agents) will grow by 5% from 2018-2028, which is about as fast as the national average. Even as crime rates fall, the demand for public safety and specialized investigations is likely to remain constant, ensuring employment for FBI agents in the future. However, FBI jobs will likely remain competitive due to low employee turnover and the specialized nature of the work.

    Frequently Asked Questions


    • What is a typical day for an FBI agent?


      The varied nature of the job means that FBI agents may have fewer “typical days” than most workers. However, agents often spend their days investigating crimes, interviewing sources, and gathering evidence. Agents may specialize in one area of investigation, such as intelligence analysis or forensic accounting. They typically work at least 50 hours per week and may have highly irregular hours, including weekends and holidays.


    • What is the training for an FBI agent?


      New agents complete a rigorous basic field training course at the FBI Academy in Quantico, Virginia. Lasting 20 weeks, the training features more than 800 hours of instruction in four key areas: academics, operational skills, firearms, and case exercises. Simulations and other hands-on training exercises form a significant part of the training curriculum.


    • How much do FBI agents make?


      The salary earned by FBI agents varies based on experience, position, and assignment location, among other factors. All agents enter the Bureau at a minimum pay level of GL-10, or $52,440 per year as of 2021, and most achieve a GS-13 pay level, or $79,468 per year as of 2021, within five years of service. The BLS reports that the average annual salary for all types of crime investigators was $89,300 as of May 2020.


    • Do I need to know a foreign language to become an FBI agent?


      No, it’s not required to know a foreign language to be in the FBI. That said, it can be of great help to know one or more foreign languages if you want to work for the FBI — especially if you want to work in a field like counterterrorism that deals with people from other nations.


    • Are there any education requirements for becoming an FBI agent?


      Yes, there are education requirements to join the FBI. You must have a bachelor’s degree to join the FBI as an agent, though there’s no specification on what your major must be. That said, a major in a field like criminal justice or computer technology can be extremely useful in your role at the FBI.


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