Customs Agent: Career Guide
Employed by US Customs and Border Protection, a division of the Department of Homeland Security, US customs agents, or customs and border protection officers, enforce laws related to the importing and exporting of goods into and out of the United States. Customs agents examine luggage and investigate shipments of goods, ships, aircraft, and other vehicles for contraband that individuals attempt to smuggle into the country.
Career Description, Duties, and Common Tasks
Customs agents investigate drug and arms smuggling as well as money laundering and other types of fraud. Customs agents sometimes work undercover and often perform searches and seizures. They usually work rotating shifts, since borders and ports are open 24 hours a day. This can be a dangerous, even life-threatening job, but customs agents are highly trained to handle critical situations.
Steps for Becoming a Customs Agent
Candidates who have taken courses in a foreign language, law, and/or business are preferred. Prospective customs agents generally need some experience related to law enforcement – criminal investigation, in particular. Successful candidates must be physically fit, patient, and have the ability to communicate effectively with people from diverse backgrounds. First, prospective customs agents must meet eligibility requirements, including:
- Being a minimum of 21 years of age and a US resident for at least the previous three years
- Holding US citizenship
- Passing physical and written exams
- Submitting to a background check and a drug test
If all minimum requirements have been met, the following steps are required to become a customs agent:
- Attend a degree program or gain experience in a related field.*
- Apply on the US Customs and Border Protection website.
- Take and pass the entrance exam.
- Undergo a background investigation.
- Take and pass two physical fitness tests, consisting of sit-ups, push-ups, and timed runs.
- Take and pass a medical exam that includes a vision and hearing test.
- Be interviewed in a structured interview.
- Take and pass a polygraph exam.
- Take and pass a drug test.
- Be hired as a customs agent.
- Attend 15 weeks of training at the US Customs and Border Protection Academy of the Federal Law Enforcement Training Center in Glynco, Georgia.
*Entry-level customs agents must meet the hiring qualifications for GL-05 or above on the federal General Schedule (GS). As a result, customs agents should have a bachelor's degree, unless they have significant work experience showing a high aptitude for the job. Prospective customs agents with a master's degree typically qualify for a higher salary tier.
Customs Agent Job Training
Training encompasses classroom instruction and hands-on exercises in such areas as inspection techniques and firearms. Customs agents assigned to Florida, the Southwest, or Puerto Rico may be required to complete an additional six weeks of training in the Spanish language unless they pass a fluency exam.
Other Helpful Skills and Experience
Seasoned customs agents may enjoy advancement opportunities. Because US Customs and Border Protection works with other agencies, such as the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), standout customs agents may earn special assignments that sometimes include service abroad. Customs agents may be assigned to posts at any entry point in the United States, including Alaska, Hawaii, or Florida.
Possible Job Titles for This Career
- Customs Agent
- Customs and Border Patrol Agent
- Customs and Border Protection Officers
- Customs Officer
Customs Agent Salary and Job Outlook
The salary for new customs agents is based on the government's General Schedule pay scale. You can find the current General Schedule pay rates at the US Office of Personnel Management website.1 Like most federal workers, customs agents receive a benefits package, including health and life insurance, paid vacations and sick leave, and retirement plans. The outlook for customs agents is influenced by the number of goods that are imported and exported and the rapid growth of global trade. That, combined with the increased efforts to deter terrorism, means the government will continue to have a strong need for skilled professionals to work in customs.
If you are interested in becoming a customs agent, you may also be interested in these related careers:
- Border Patrol Agent
- Customs and Border Protection Officer
- Police Officer
- Transportation Security Screener
- Security Guard
- Criminal Investigator
- Private Investigator
- Information Security Officer
Frequently Asked Questions
Question: How long does the application process generally take?
Answer: The application process can take up to a year or even longer, due to the extensive background investigation.
Question: What is included in a background investigation?
Answer: Prospective customs agents should be prepared to undergo an investigation that covers citizenship verification of candidate and all family members; confirmation of residencies; a credit check; a criminal check; education, employment, and military service (if applicable) verification; character background interviews with current and/or ex-spouse(s), family members, and other affiliates; and a personal interview.
Question: Is such a thorough background check and interview process mandatory?
Answer: Yes. Any customs agent candidate who declines to participate in this process will have their tentative offer of employment rescinded.
Question: Is a polygraph exam part of the background investigation?
Answer: Yes, a polygraph test is a mandatory part of the hiring process.
- Association of Former Customs Special Agents (AFCSA): A professional organization for former customs special agents and customs officers.
- Frontline: An official publication of the US Customs and Border Protection offered in digital format.
- US Customs and Border Protection: The official website of US Customs and Border Protection, including career opportunities and information for international travelers.
1300 Pennsylvania Ave NW
Washington, DC 20229
Facebook (Department of Homeland Security): https://www.facebook.com/homelandsecurity/posts/594616770550963
1. US Office of Personnel Management, 2019 General Schedule Locality Pay Tables: https://www.opm.gov/policy-data-oversight/pay-leave/salaries-wages/2012/general-schedule/gs.pdf
2. US Customs and Border Protection: https://www.cbp.gov/