To become a federal agent requires a bachelor's degree. Applicants must also pass a fitness test, background check, and may also be required to pass a polygraph, drug test and medical examination depending on which federal agency they are seeking employment with. Each agency also has age restrictions, with the DEA requiring applicants to be at least 21, while the FBI only accepts applicants who are at 23 to 37 years of age.
Many federal government departments employ agents to ensure the safety of the citizens of the United States and uphold specific areas of federal law. Requirements vary by agency, though all include a training period. Career options include working for the FBI (Federal Bureau of Investigation), DEA (Drug Enforcement Administration) or Border Patrol. These jobs might appeal to individuals with interests in law enforcement, investigative technique, and crime prevention.
|FBI Agent||DEA Agent||Border Patrol Agent|
|Education and Work Requirements||Bachelor's degree and 3+ years work experience or advanced degree and 2+ years work experience||Bachelor's degree or narcotics law enforcement work experience||N/A|
|Additional Requirements||Candidates between ages 23-37; pass fitness, vision, and hearing tests; complete background check||Candidates between ages 21-36; complete fitness training class; pass a background check, polygraph and drug test and psychological assessment||Candidates under age 40; Spanish fluency; Complete a background check, polygraph test, medical checkup and drug and fitness tests|
|Average Salary||$64,477 (2019)*||$66,129 (2019)*||$59,622 (2019)*|
Federal agents may work for many different government organizations; three of the largest are the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the Drug Enforcement Administration and the Border Patrol. While there are some similarities in their requirements and training, the majority of their job duties are vastly different.
Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) Agent
Agents with the FBI investigate crimes that violate federal law, such as drug trafficking across state lines, kidnapping and bank robbery. Agents may travel frequently around the country conducting surveillance and investigations of criminal activities that span several states.
FBI agents gather evidence, interview witnesses, execute search warrants and conduct surveillance. They may also play a role in the prosecution of criminals by testifying in court and providing the evidence used to convict criminals. Some agents work in the field gathering evidence and interviewing witnesses at the scene of a crime, while others specialize in cybercrimes and work in agency offices.
Candidates must have a college degree and work experience to be considered for a position with the FBI. Applicants with an undergraduate degree must have a minimum of three years of work experience, but those with a higher degree can qualify with two years of experience. Acceptable college degrees include electrical engineering, accounting, computer science and information technology. Those with a law degree or fluency in a foreign language may also qualify for an agency appointment.
Candidates must U.S. citizens between the ages of 23 and 37. Veterans older than 37 can qualify for agent positions but must obtain an age waiver from the FBI to be eligible.
Candidates must pass physical fitness, vision and hearing tests and must have their medical histories reviewed by the agency. They must also undergo an extensive background check.
U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) Agent
Agents with the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration investigate cases involving drug violations across state lines and internationally. They work with other local, state and federal agencies.
DEA agents investigate violations of drug laws, collect evidence, execute search warrants and seize assets connected with drug violations. Some agents may work to reduce illegal drug availability by destroying crops and training foreign law enforcement officials. They may work undercover and testify in court in the prosecution of criminals engaging in illegal drug activity.
The DEA requires that applicants be a minimum of 21 years of age and a maximum of 36 at the time of appointment. Candidates can qualify for a position with a bachelor's degree or specialized experience in narcotics law enforcement and investigation. The agency gives preferential treatment to applicants with a bachelor's degree in criminal justice, finance, accounting, computer science, engineering, political science, sociology, psychology or chemistry. Applicants with a law degree also qualify. The DEA will also consider those demonstrating accounting, pilot, military or technical skills through a bachelor's degree in the specialized skill and three years of work experience.
Prospective DEA agents must have good communication and analysis skills to work for the agency. They must also submit to a comprehensive background check, a physical fitness training class, a polygraph test, drug testing, psychological assessment and a vision and hearing test.
U.S. Border Patrol Agent
U.S. Border Patrol agents monitor and protect the boundaries and borders of the United States. They work for the U.S. Customs and Border Protection agency, which is part of the Department of Homeland Security.
Border Patrol agents monitor the U.S. border to prevent illegal smuggling and border crossings and to apprehend terrorists attempting to cross into the country. Agents use tracking and surveillance equipment and perform checks on individuals and locations to detect and apprehend individuals engaged in criminal activity.
Most applicants for an agent position must be under age 40 to qualify, but veterans and those with experience in federal law enforcement who are over 40 can meet eligibility requirements. The U.S. Border Patrol requires agents to speak Spanish fluently and pass a background check, polygraph test, medical checkup, drug test and fitness test.
Those who meet the requirements for an agent position must complete a paid training program covering immigration laws, marksmanship and physical fitness. Applicants may also complete an additional 40-day training in Spanish.
Salary Information and Employment Outlook
According to PayScale.com, FBI agents earn between $39,000-$119,000. Starting salary at the Drug Enforcement Administration is generally between $46,000-$101,000, based on prior qualifications. PayScale.com lists the salary range of border patrol agents as $39,000-$103,000 in 2019.
The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) predicts employment of detectives and criminal investigators, including federal agents, to increase by a rate of 3% from 2018-2028. Those with a bachelor's degree, the ability to speak more than one language and previous experience may have the best chance for employment with federal law enforcement agencies (BLS).
A career as a federal agent involves working for a federal agency to ensure national security and the enforcement of national laws. The FBI investigate federal crimes, the DEA agents enforce drug laws, and border patrol agents address border smuggling of illegal goods or terrorists. These jobs all require physical fitness and a knowledge of the law; border patrol agents are also required to be fluent in Spanish.