How to become an FBI agent

The Federal Bureau of Investigation, also known as the FBI, is a national security organization tasked with protecting the United States from a wide range of threats, including but not limited to, terrorism, cyber-attacks, and hostage situations. Compared to typical law enforcement agency, the FBI functions at the federal level and has jurisdiction over crimes that go beyond the state borders.

Working for the FBI is depicted in films, television shows and even books as an extremely exciting, fulfilling, and dangerous career option. Unsurprisingly, many people want to pursue a career as an agent with the FBI. With plentiful opportunities to grow and join other subdivisions, the FBI can be a great agency to work for.

What does an FBI agent do?

Also known as special agents, an FBI agent has many responsibilities that can vary depending on level of experience, the division they work for, location, and their rank in the agency. Working with the FBI can be exciting as the jobs on offer tend to be far from a typical 9-5 job. The agency claims that there is no typical day for an agent, yet on any given day, an FBI agent may have the following duties:

  • Gather evidence on a cyber-attack on one of the nation’s biggest credit card companies. This may include looking into the IP address of where the attack came from, calculating who and what was affected, and the monetary damage caused
  • Conduct ongoing surveillance of a possible suspect who is a leader of a drug cartel by following them in cars, staking out during the night outside the suspect’s house, and wire-taping their phone calls
  • Collate information given by an informant about a murder committed by a known gang
  • Testify and present evidence in court
  • Completing paperwork on arrests
  • Interviewing witnesses from a bank robbery
  • Carrying out a search warrant
  • Assisting law enforcement agencies in local or state level investigations

The Federal Bureau of Investigation employees over 35,500 people in the U.S. and around the world.  The FBI may be known for their federal jurisdiction and powers, the FBI also have tabs state and county levels, as well as internationally. Agents may be required to travel for work, relocate, and even learn different languages. One day an agent might be working in a local state office, and the next they may be in a foreign country for an unspecified amount of time.

What type of person works as an FBI agent?

Similar to your typical law enforcement officer or similar occupation, an FBI agent requires a specific type of person who is willing to work hard and accept whatever the job brings. Typically, FBI agents can be characterized as:

  • being physically and mentally strong
  • able to adapt to frequent changes
  • possess a positive mindset and strong moral character
  • critical thinker
  • strong investigative skills
  • assertive

As is common in many law enforcement careers, FBI agents are expected to work long hours, weekends, holidays, and be on call for any type of situation. Gatherings with families can and will be missed and it may be a difficult career for those with families. As previously stated, some FBI positions may require travel and relocation, and this may be a hard decision to make for those with families. This can cause stress on spouses and extended family of special agents, leading to an increase likelihood of divorce and domestic altercations. On the flipside of this, Individuals who like to travel and explore the world may find the FBI to be a wonderful place to work.

Working as an FBI agent comes with risks as you will be a federal law enforcement agent dealing with crime, violence, drugs, career criminals and more. As such, you have to accept the risks of the job when you become an FBI agent and the emotional and mental stresses that come with this type of profession. Despite the risks, becoming an FBI agent is an honorable career that can be extremely rewarding. You will be part of an organization that helps protect the United States and its citizens, solves cases, and brings justice to victims, busts large crime rings, for instance.

To summarize, this job may appeal to individuals looking for a career that keeps them alert and challenged, is everchanging, and makes a difference to society. In a 2020 survey of FBI agents,  89% of responders reported that their job as an FBI agent had high meaning, and 92% said that they were highly satisfied with their career.

Education requirements

To apply to become an FBI agent, you need to hold a bachelor’s degree or higher (masters, doctorate). The higher the degree, the lower the experience requirement is to apply for the positions: that is, bachelor’s degree holders need 2 years of professional experience, and higher degree holders need only a single year.

As an elite team of agents dealing with high level crime, the prerequisite of a bachelor’s degree can ensure that have the knowledge needed to effectively communicate in both verbal and written formats, understand and apply research methods, solve problems, and deal with the requirements of the job. The agency does not specify a what type of major is needed, although a major in a relevant field is beneficial to your career. Criminal justice, sociology, security management, psychology, political science, cybersecurity, and forensic science are considered as relevant majors, although this list is not comprehensive. Additionally, with a higher education comes increased possibilities being promoted to higher positions with corresponding pay increases.

FBI academy training

Located in Quantico, Virginia, the FBI academy provides a 20 week extensive basic field training program.  This is where New Agent Trainees (NATs) begin a journey that ends in becoming an FBI special agent. Training consists of 800 hours covering in 4 categories: academics, case exercises, firearms training, and operational skills. The academy is run FBI agents who are experts in their specified field. The academy physically and mentally grueling, with long days of studying and training.

After the training period is completed and trainees are determined to have successfully passed all components, a graduation ceremony is conducted, and the new FBI agents are given their badges. For most academy graduates, the feeling resulting from the knowledge that they are graduates of such a renowned agency, having survived the training program, lengthy application process, while competing against thousands of applicants, is a feeling not soon forgotten.  They leave the academy and become part of an elite bureau with all the tools needed to be a successful FBI agent.

Salary and demand outlook for FBI agents

California, New York and Massachusetts pay the highest salaries in the United States, but when the cost of living is factored in these states fall several places. When you adjust the salary Texas and Illinois jump to the first and second places. This is due to California and New York’s notoriously expensive living expenses. Interestingly, Massachusetts is steady at number 3 with the salary adjustment taken into account despite being ranked as an expensive state. 

Like most law enforcement and government agencies, experience and salary have a strong correlation. There is not much distinction between education levels and salary, but when individuals have 5+ years of experience as an FBI agent they can likely see an increase in pay.

Highest salary states

1.

California

$79,175

Average salary

2.

New York

$77,097

Average salary

3.

Massachusetts

$76,511

Average salary

4.

District of Columbia

$76,283

Average salary

5.

New Jersey

$75,754

Average salary

6.

Illinois

$75,396

Average salary

7.

Texas

$74,890

Average salary

How experience affects earnings

Planning your career as an FBI agent

The FBI has various subdivisions that offer the possibilities of different areas to specialize in following training.  This includes, but is not limited to, cybersecurity, hostage rescue, Special Weapons and Tactics (SWAT), intelligence division, and human resources. Considering the breadth of opportunities to advance in your designated area of expertise and the vast number of units in the FBI, your career as an agent can continue until your retirement at 57 years old, which is the age of retirement enforced by the agency.

If you decide to not continue your career as an agent until you retire, there are other employment routes available. One option may be to join a local law enforcement agency, so you are closer to family and do not have to travel as much. Perhaps you can utilize the skills you learned from your time as an FBI agent to become a private investigator.  Other options may be to join other government agencies like the DEA, CIA or the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.

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Fun facts

  • Walt Disney was an FBI informant from 1940 until his death in 1966, providing the names of communist actors and animators.
  • Individuals on the FBI Most Wanted list are only removed if they are captured, die or the charges against them are dropped.
  • Before the early 1920’s, women were not allowed to join the FBI. Alaska Davidson, Jessie Duckstein and Lenore Houston were the first 3 women to serve as FBI agents.
  • The name “FBI” was not the first name of the bureau. In the early 1900’s, it was referred to as the “Special Agent Force” and then the Bureau of Investigation (BOI). In 1933 It was changed again to the DOI, or Division of Investigation. It was not until 1935 that the bureau was given its current name, Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI).

Why choose the FBI

The Federal Bureau of Investigation is truly a unique agency to work for. You can be part of a highly praised organization that prides itself on its agents who go above and beyond to keep society safe. With options to work locally or internationally, numerous units to choose from, a competitive salary, and a career that will always bring something new, the FBI has options for almost everyone. With hard work, commitment, and self-discipline, you too might have the chance to become the FBI’s next special agent.

FBI Agents Association (FBIAA)

Support and advocacy site for active and former FBI agents.

Federal Law Enforcement Officers Association

A volunteer organization that solely represents federal law enforcement officers.

Association of Former Intelligence Officers

Founded in 1975, this association is for former federal agents, with the additional goal of public education.

Federal Bureau of Investigation

The official government website for the FBI with information on resources, crime statistics, history, jobs, and news.