How to Become an FBI Agent: Career Guide

Written By Staff Writers

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.

Career Description, Duties, and Common Tasks

FBI Agent

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

Incoming FBI agents 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.

Salary and Career Outlook

New special agents are paid on the GL schedule for federal law enforcement officers, entering at pay level GL-10 ($51,921/year as of 2020) during their academy training at Quantico. Upon completion of training, 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 (minimum $78,681/year) within five years of service.

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?

Salaries for FBI agents vary based on experience, position, and assignment location. All agents enter the Bureau at a minimum pay level of GL-10 ($51,921/year as of 2020), and most achieve a GS-13 pay level ($78,681/year as of 2020) within five years of service. The BLS reports an average annual salary of $63,380 for all types of criminal investigators.

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