Working as an FBI special agent is one of the most coveted careers in law enforcement. As an FBI special agent in the Federal Bureau of Investigation, you have the opportunity not only to serve your country, work in homeland security, and protect your fellow citizens but also to help prevent some of the nation’s most serious crimes. Arguably the most important investigative organization in the country, the bureau employs special agents to investigate the criminals who commit federal crimes – crimes that violate federal law.
The FBI offers many different full-time jobs, but generally, in any role, you will help the FBI investigate crimes and criminals or maintain the security of the country in some capacity. Today’s FBI is staffed by 35,000 agents and other professionals “who work around the clock and across the globe” to protect the United States from criminals, espionage, cyberattacks, and terrorism. Agents investigate cases that involve financial and organized crime, fugitive threats, air piracy, foreign counterintelligence, white-collar crime, bribery, kidnapping, terrorism, drug trafficking, extortion, bank robberies, civil right violations, fraud, copyright infringement, and other violations of federal law.
Given the importance of an FBI special agent job, expect to come under intense scrutiny if you seek a position with the bureau. Getting hired as a special agent is an intense, time-consuming process.
FBI Special Agent Job Description
To ensure the bureau’s long-term success, the FBI needs agents who possess a broad range of education, experience, and skills. The FBI is the federal government’s primary investigative agency. It's agents investigate federal crimes and help maintain national security. FBI jobs are split into three categories: professional staff positions (including nurses, doctors, accountants, and linguists), intelligence analysts, and special agents. As a special agent, an individual follows one of five career paths that can lead to a job in intelligence, counterintelligence, counterterrorism, the investigation of major crimes (the primary function of the FBI), and cyberwarfare.
Important Skills and Characteristics
The personality traits and skills necessary to uphold the United States Constitution are as diverse as the applicants’ backgrounds. Successful candidates have impeccable moral character, flexibility, and deductive skills. They possess good judgment and can be discreet. They are emotionally mature and have a sense of integrity along with a diligent attitude. In addition, they are self-motivated but also have the ability to work cooperatively as a team.
Special agents must be available for assignments worldwide and be able to work a minimum of 50 hours a week that often include irregular hours and being on call 24/7, even on weekends and holidays. They must be able to carry firearms, use deadly force when necessary, and maintain a high level of physical fitness. Agents may need to execute search warrants involving high-profile criminals in dangerous real-life situations.
Major Job Duties & Responsibilities
FBI.gov reports that there’s no such thing as a “normal day” in the FBI. One day, you may be interviewing individuals, while on the next, you could be working undercover or conducting a wire-tapping investigation. Duties include report writing, surveillance, research, coordination with other agencies, computer skills, questioning and interviewing, the use of weapons, and practicing self-defense. Agents in scientific departments often work in the field collecting evidence and analyzing the data in the lab.
Qualifications to Join the FBI
Given the importance of an FBI special agent job, expect to come under intense scrutiny if you seek a position with the bureau. Getting hired as a special agent is an intense, time-consuming process that requires you to meet a number of minimum qualifications, some of which are quite specific and extremely demanding. Before you apply, research the general requirements to verify that you meet the basic qualifications. The FBI hires fewer than one out of every five of its applicants.
FBI applicants must be within a specific age range to qualify – between the ages of 23 and 36. Special agents in the bureau are required to retire at age 57, and you must have served a minimum of 20 years before you can retire. Since it often takes a year to complete the application process, you can’t apply if you’re older than 36.
Valid Driver’s License
As an FBI special agent, you are expected to drive, and, depending on your job duties, perhaps quite often. A former special agent told Business Insider that he traveled 25 to 35 percent of his time with the bureau. That means applicants need to be legally qualified to drive and have enough driving experience to ensure a safe driving record. You must have a valid driver’s license and have been driving for at least six months.
A high school diploma or GED is not enough to qualify for a job with the FBI; instead, a four-year degree bachelor's degree is the minimum level of education. Working as a special agent for the FBI requires critical thinking skills and the ability to learn quickly. Having a college degree is one of the most obvious ways to demonstrate these abilities. You must have a bachelor’s degree from an accredited four-year college.
Even with a four-year degree or military experience, applicants must have at least three years of previous work experience. However, with an advanced degree such as a master’s degree or a doctorate, only one year of work experience is required.
Agents have to be physically fit to meet the rigorous requirements of working for the FBI. You must be able to pass the FBI’s standardized Physical Fitness Test (PFT) and meet the FBI’s vision and hearing requirements. The test, which is famously difficult, also serves as a barometer of sorts, providing insight into the applicant’s physical – and mental – toughness for the job.
Successfully passing the PFT requires the completion of the following minimum skills, which are done in succession, with only five minutes’ rest between each event:
- Sit-ups– The maximum number of sit-ups you can complete in 1 minute.
- Sprinting– A timed 300-meter sprint.
- Pushups– The maximum number of pushups you can do in an untimed test.
- Running– A timed 1.5-mile run.
A fifth event is required for candidates in the Tactical Recruitment Program (TRP). You’ll get no longer than 5 minutes of rest between each event.
Vision, Hearing, and Immunization Requirements
In addition to the PFT, the FBI requires all applicants to meet the minimum vision, hearing, and immunization requirements. According to FBI.gov, the requirements include:
- You need 20/20 vision in one eye and at least 20/40 vision in the other eye – either uncorrected or with corrected vision.
- If you have distant visual acuity of more than or equal to 20/100, you need medical documentation stating that you have successfully worn soft contact lenses to correct your vision for a year with no serious problems.
- If you have had corrective surgery for vision acuity, wait at least six months after your surgery to apply. Before you apply, have an ophthalmology exam that demonstrates your eyesight is healed and has improved.
- If you are color blind, you must complete a Farnsworth D-15 color vision test at an FBI field office.
- If you have lost more than 25 decibels of your hearing ability at 1,000, 2,000, and 3,000 Hertz, no single value can be at 35 decibels. Additionally, no single reading can exceed 35 decibels at 500 Hertz or 45 decibels at 4,000 Hertz.
- If you fail the initial hearing test at the bureau field office, you are required to have more intensive testing at your own expense to demonstrate your hearing ability.
You must have had the following immunizations:
- Polio – four doses of the polio vaccine in childhood and/or a recent booster
- Meningitis (Menactra, Menveo, or Menomune) within the past five years
- Diphtheria, tetanus, and acellular pertussis vaccine, or DTaP, and tetanus-diphtheria and acellular pertussis booster, or Tdap, within the past 10 years
- Measles, mumps, rubella – two doses
- Hepatitis A and B
- Varicella or proof of immunity to chickenpox
Availability for Interviews & Testing
The application process requires multiple interviews, tests, and evaluations. You must make yourself available for each and have the ability to travel, at your own expense, to one of the 56 FBI field offices throughout the country – even if you live overseas.
“Experience, leadership, integrity, teamwork, and dedication” – all are characteristics common to successful servicemen and servicewomen, and those same traits lead to success within the FBI. As a result, the FBI “strongly encourages military and veteran candidates” to apply for open positions with the bureau.
Additionally, veterans who are discharged under honorable conditions and meet five characteristics gain what the FBI calls a “5-point preference” hiring advantage. Those preferences include service during a war; service between specific dates, including through the Gulf War, Operation Iraqi Freedom; or any campaign authorized by a campaign medal. If you are an active-duty military member, you must be able to complete your service within a year of your application to be eligible for a job with the FBI.
The FBI is highly selective in its acceptance policies; in fact, some characteristics disqualify you automatically from consideration. According to FBI.gov, disqualifying factors include:
You must be a U.S. citizen to qualify for a position at the FBI, including a special agent position. If you aren’t a citizen but on the path to citizenship, wait until you have obtained citizenship before you apply.
Use of Drugs and Failure to Pass an Official Drug Test
You must not have used illegal drugs within the last 10 years or marijuana for the previous three years, even if you live in a state with legalized marijuana. Additionally, you cannot have sold or been involved in the illegal distribution or manufacture of drugs. Without a prescription, you can’t have used anabolic steroids within the past 10 years. You must take a drug test when you apply for a job at the FBI, and if you fail it, it’s an automatic disqualification.
Felony Convictions or Serious Misdemeanors
If you want to work for the FBI, you cannot have been convicted of a felony. In addition, for special agent positions, you cannot have a conviction for a domestic violence misdemeanor or any serious misdemeanor.
Default on a Student Loan Administered by the U.S. Government
Many student loans are insured by the U.S. government. If you default on any student loan backed by the federal government, you are automatically disqualified from obtaining a position at the FBI.
Dishonorable Discharge From Military Service
Dishonorable discharge from any branch of the military means automatic disqualification from FBI employment. Even if you have a clean military record, your service can’t replace the four-year college degree requirement.
The FBI conducts a thorough investigation into the background history of every serious candidate, which means they interview your associates through the years. If you were previously affiliated with a gang, you will not be hired.
Poor Work History
Like most jobs, the bureau’s hiring protocols require the submission of previous work history and references. However, unlike many organizations, the FBI will check your references. If you have a poor work history, they will discover it, which means you likely will be disqualified.
Failure to Register With the Selective Service System
Although some exceptions exist, most male candidates who apply to the FBI must be registered with the Selective Service System (which you sign up for when you turn 18).
Failure to Pay Court-Ordered Child Support Payments
Parents who don’t pay their court-ordered child support are also disqualified from consideration.
Failure to File Federal, State, or Local Income Tax Returns
As a federal agency, the FBI takes government-mandated taxes seriously. If you haven’t filed your tax returns – federal or state – the FBI will deny your application.
Activities to Overthrow the U.S. Government by Force
Not many people fall into this category. If the FBI looks into your background and discovers that you knowingly or willfully attempted to overthrow the United States government in a forceful manner at any point in your life, you cannot become a special agent or work for the FBI in any capacity.
How to Become an FBI Agent
Becoming an FBI agent requires a number of steps.
1. Earn a Bachelor Degree From a U.S. Accredited College or University
All applicants must have a bachelor’s degree. Although the FBI prioritizes some degrees over others, the basic education requirements are a four-year college degree.
2. Complete at Least Three Years of Full-Time Professional Work Experience
Even with a bachelor’s degree and/or military experience, candidates also must have three years of work experience, which is up from the previous requirement of two years. However, if you have earned an advanced degree (at the master’s degree level or higher), one year of work experience is typically acceptable.
3. Meet the Physical Fitness Standards (PFT Self-Assessment)
Would-be agents train for the FBI’s physical fitness test, often participating in an intense training regimen for many weeks to become fit enough to pass the self-exam. The FBI provides resources to help you through the process. On the FBI fitness app, you can find videos and guidelines to help you train for the actual PFT.
4. Submit an Application With the Necessary Forms and Documentation
Apply for a special agent position online at FBIJobs.gov, the preferred method. All resumes should be formatted according to the FBI’s Federal Resume Template. Other required documents include your official or unofficial college transcript, and, for former members of the Armed Forces, a DD-214. Current servicepeople must submit their military enlistment contract.
5. Pass the Phase 1 Test
The exam is a computerized test administered in the presence of a proctor. The Phase I exam, which takes three hours to complete, assesses applicants in five areas: logic-based reasoning, figural reasoning, personality assessment, preferences and interests, and situational judgment. After you receive your invitation, you have 21 days to schedule the test. The exam is scored only on a pass/fail system, and you receive your score within an hour of completion of the test. Resources are available that help you study for the exam. Find sample questions here.
6. Submit Additional Required Information
After you complete the application and pass the Phase 1 exam, you will receive an email that tells you to submit the required information portion of the application, including the Physical Fitness Test (PFT) self-evaluation and the “Critical Skills and Self-Reported Language” portions of the exam.
7. Complete a “Meet & Greet” Session With a Processing Field Office (PFO)
The next step is an in-person session with FBI hiring personnel. They verify your information and evaluate it to determine if you meet the qualifications to enter the Phase 2 part of the application process.
8. Pass the Phase 2 Test
The Phase 2 test requires a writing assessment, which you sign up for at a local testing center within two weeks of your receipt of the invitation. If you pass it, you will be invited to attend an interview with three special agents at one of nine regional FBI locations.
9. Pass the Official Physical Fitness Test (PFT)
The PFT comprises four events that test your overall fitness level. You must perform each activity to the FBI’s exacting standards. First, you complete sit-ups, followed by a 300-meter sprint, which in turn is followed by continuous pushups. Next, you participate in a timed 1.5-mile run and complete pullups. You are required to achieve an overall score of 12.
10. Receive a Conditional Appointment Offer (CAO)
If you successfully make it through the PFT and Phase 2 portions of the application process, you will receive an offer. You have five days to accept.
11. Complete a Background Investigation
The background investigation is extensive, requiring between six months and 18 months to complete.
12. Successfully Complete the Basic Field Training Course (BFTC) at the FBI Academy
The BFTC, which lasts for 19 weeks, takes place at the FBI academy on the Marine Corps Base in Quantico, Virginia. Here, special agents are trained in firearms, investigative techniques, and defensive tactics. In addition, applicants learn safe driving techniques, survival skills, among other basic functions.
What It’s Like to Work for the FBI
No day is the same if you work for the FBI as a special agent. One day, you may be reviewing your cases, reading your emails and evidence, and dealing with administrative issues. Other days may be filled with interviews and document reviews. You may have to discuss criminal matters and strategies for ongoing cases with prosecutors. And, of course, on any given day, you may receive a dangerous assignment such as a search and rescue.
A Variety of Jobs & Career Paths
As a special agent, your primary mission is the fight against federal crimes. But many other opportunities exist in the FBI, including positions such as forensic accountants or intelligence analysts. You may work in surveillance, counterintelligence, cybercrime, or hostage negotiations. Alternately, you may work on cases that deal with drug trafficking, financial or organized crime, bribery, white-collar crime, terrorism, corruption, kidnapping, terrorism, drug trafficking, espionage, extortion, air piracy, bank robberies, civil right violations, fraud, and copyright infringement, among other crimes.
A Fulfilling Career in Public Service
Few jobs in law enforcement offer the variety, excitement, and fulfillment of working as a special agent in the FBI. You receive the opportunity to serve your country by apprehending criminals and kidnappers, dismantling gangs, identifying terrorists, and much more. You typically work a minimum 10-hour workday and complete a 50-hour week.
Many FBI special agents say that investigating federal crimes and criminals is more of a “calling” than it is a regular job. It’s difficult, challenging, and stressful – but also rewarding. One former special agent describes the job as “rewarding” and “prestigious.” He says that even now, in his retirement, if he tells people about his job with the FBI, “their eyes open and their expression changes. People really hold you up on a pedestal.”
If you want to serve your country and the FBI’s mission, a job as an FBI agent may be right for you. According to employee reviews on Glassdoor, the FBI is a "great learning experience" and “the best job in the world". As an FBI special agent, you will be at the “forefront of [the FBI’s] mission to get ahead of threats.”
FBI Agent Salary & Employment Outlook
The FBI offers a generous benefits package for all of its employees. You’ll have insurance, a 401(k) plan, paid time off, and a variety of other benefits. Glassdoor.com reports that a typical special agent earns about $137,000 after bonuses and other compensation are factored in. Salary ranges between $63,718 to $172,096. However, the pay is based upon location and availability. As of January 1, 2018, most civilian federal employees received an average 1.4 percent raise, and location salary increased another 0.5 percent in some areas.