FBI Agent: Career Guide

The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) is the principal investigative arm of the Department of Justice, charged with defending the United States from domestic terrorism and enforcing federal laws. It employs over 35,000 individuals with diverse backgrounds and skills who investigate crimes related to over 200 categories of federal law.1 This overview covers how a candidate may qualify to become an FBI agent, in addition to requirements, career description, job outlook, and salary information. The Federal Bureau of Investigation is frequently recruiting for new special agents throughout the country. Individuals with FBI experience may also find opportunities in the private sector including employment by government contractors and corporations.

Career Description, Duties, and Common Tasks

The main job activities of an FBI special agent involve investigating crimes and enforcing federal laws. This can include interviewing sources and conducting surveillance activities, such as monitoring court authorized wire-tapping or working undercover. FBI special agents must be willing to participate in arrests, raids, search warrants, and other dangerous activities. They may be involved in the investigation of large-scale criminal activities such as organized crime, drug trafficking, terrorism, and cybercrime. Additionally, the FBI is involved in investigating incidents such as airplane hijackings and terrorist threats.

The job of an FBI agent can be stressful and cause hardships. Although the scheduled workweek might be 50 hours, many work more than that. A special agent is considered on duty 24 hours a day, seven days a week and may work holidays. Further, agents may be often placed in atypical situations, including dealing with people in traumatic situations and crime scenes that can be grisly and involve death. Agents may be transferred to any of the 56 field offices in the US or overseas for a temporary or extended period.

Steps for Becoming an FBI Agent

A candidate must possess the right education, background, and mental and physical traits to even have a chance at becoming an FBI agent. Prospective FBI agents must have a bachelor's degree a with an overall GPA of 3.0 or higher and three years of related work experience, or an advanced degree (master's degree or higher) and two years of related work experience. Many agents have studied criminal justice, political science, engineering, computer science, or accounting, and some have completed a law degree. The FBI considers applicants' fluency in a foreign language as a particular strength and often seeks applicants who speak specific languages such as Arabic, Farsi, Chinese, Korean, and Russian. In addition to education and work experience, candidates should be physically fit, have a strong mental attitude, be willing to be placed in dangerous situations, and be committed to the enforcement of laws and to protecting people. FBI special agent recruits must be US citizens and be at least 23 years old and under 37 years old (unless granted a waiver).

The application process is very extensive and includes interviews, written tests, polygraph tests, a background check, and drug tests. Applicants must sign a release to allow the FBI to review their medical records, employment records, military records, law enforcement records, credit records, and other records. FBI Special Agents must acquire and maintain a top-secret security clearance. If you are planning to become an FBI agent, you should expect a process similar to the following:

  1. Acquire the education and/or experience needed to become an FBI agent.
  2. Complete a self-Physical Fitness Test (self-PFT).
  3. Submit an application on the FBI website.
  4. Be invited to take and pass the Phase I Test, a three-hour exam focused on reasoning and cognitive abilities.
  5. Complete a Meet and Greet Interview.
  6. Be invited to take and pass the Phase II Tests and an official Physical Fitness Test.
  7. Receive a Conditional Appointment Offer (CAO).
  8. Undergo a background investigation.
  9. Receive orders to report to the 21-week FBI Academy in Quantico, Virginia to be trained as a New Agent Trainee (NAT).
  10. Graduate from the Basic Field Training Course (BFTC) to your assigned Field Office on a specified date.
  11. Receive on-the-job training to gain hands-on experience for 18 months during a probationary period.
Did you know? The FBI's top priorities include protecting the United States from cyber-based attacks and high-technology crimes.

Other Helpful Skills and Experience

Veterans who have served on active duty are given preference over non-veterans for open FBI Special Agent positions. Knowing a foreign language or having expertise in specific areas such as accounting, piloting a helicopter, law enforcement, engineering, physical science, or IT networking may put you ahead of other applicants. The FBI looks for college graduates who have developed research and analytical skills.

Possible Job Titles for This Career

  • Cyber Special Agent
  • FBI Agent
  • FBI Investigator
  • FBI Special Agent

FBI Agent Salary and Job Outlook

The pay range for FBI agents is based on the federal government's General Schedule (GS) pay scale. According to OPM.gov, FBI special agent trainees are paid as GS-10, step 1 and can advance to the GS-13 level in non-supervisory positions and higher in supervisory positions. FBI agents may also receive a locality adjustment depending on the location of employment and availability pay of 25% of their base salary for unscheduled duty. In addition to their salary, FBI agents receive several benefits including health insurance, retirement benefits after 20 years of service, and paid vacations and holidays.

The outlook for FBI agent employment may be influenced by factors such as congressional funding, the growth in cyber crimes, and the rate of retirement of current FBI agents. The Bureau of Labor Statistics projects employment growth of 7% for all detectives and criminal investigators in the decade from 2016 to 2026.2

Related Careers

Interested in other related careers?

Did you know?Around 35,000 people work for the FBI, spread out between headquarters in Washington DC, 56 field offices, and 350 satellite offices across the US and in more than 60 international offices in embassies around the world.1

Expert Advice for Prospective FBI Agents

Jason R. Collins Discusses the Role of the FBI Intelligence Analysts Association and Provides Intelligence Analyst Career InsightsJason R. Collins, the National Spokesperson for the FBI Intelligence Analysts Association, shares what the FBI is looking for in employees.

Frequently Asked Questions

Question: What is a typical day for an FBI agent?

Answer: According to FBI.gov, days are varied and can include a wide range of activities such as testifying in court, executing a search warrant, gathering evidence, completing paperwork, and meeting with sources. FBI agents may work irregular hours and can spend a lot of time outside the office.

Question: What is the training for an FBI Special Agent?

Answer: Once you are accepted as a new agent, you attend a 21-week training course at the FBI Academy in Virginia. The intensive course provides training in firearms, defensive tactics, investigative techniques, driving techniques, and survival. There is also a mock town known as Hogan's Alley that was built with the help of Hollywood set designers to provide a realistic training environment.

Question: How much do FBI Special Agents make?

Answer: FBI Special Agent trainees start at GS-10, step 1 of the federal government's General Schedule pay scale and can receive additional pay based on location and working extra hours. You can view the current General Schedule pay table at the US Office of Personnel Management website.

Question: How many hours do FBI Special Agents work per week?

Answer: FBI Special Agents work a minimum of 50 hours per week and often 70-90 hours per week.

Additional Resources

  • FBI Jobs: The FBI's career site for learning about opportunities in the FBI including their internship program and employee benefits.

1. FBI Facts and Figures: https://www.fbi.gov/about/mission
2. Bureau of Labor Statistics Occupational Outlook Handbook, Police and Detectives: https://www.bls.gov/ooh/protective-service/police-and-detectives.htm#tab-6

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