How to Become an ATF Agent: Step-by-Step Career Guide

Find out how to become an ATF special agent. Research the education and training requirements and learn about the experience you need to advance your career in federal law enforcement. View article »

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  • 0:03 Become an ATF Special Agent
  • 0:36 Career Requirements
  • 2:15 Step 1: Obtain a…
  • 3:15 Step 2: Requirements and Tests
  • 4:29 Step 3: Complete ATF Training
  • 5:40 Step 4: Advance as a…

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Video Transcript

Become an ATF Special Agent

The U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, which is known as the ATF, utilizes special agents to investigate federal violations under its jurisdiction. These highly trained agents conduct surveillance, interview witnesses and suspects, obtain and execute search warrants, collect evidence and make arrests. As federal law enforcement officers, ATF special agents are at high risk for stress and physical harm. They sometimes have to travel a great deal and work outside in all types of weather and terrain.

Career Requirements

Degree Level Bachelor's degree or at least three years' specialized work experience
Degree Field Criminal Justice, criminology, law enforcement or a major relating to these fields
Licensure and Certification Certification required
Experience At least three years of criminal investigative experience or law enforcement work in surveillance
Key Skills Multi-tasking ability, sound judgment, perceptive nature, excellent physical condition, strong investigative techniques, strong reasoning and decision-making skills, online and database research skills, experience with firearms, tactical and self-defense training, ability to identify firearms and explosives
Salary $76,873 (median annual salary for federal agents as of 2016)
$33,829-$42,948 (ATF base annual salary as of 2013)

Sources: U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF);; U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS)

A career as an ATF special agent will require a bachelor's degree or at least three years of specialized work experience in the areas of criminal investigation or law enforcement work in surveillance. The degree field for this line of work would likely be criminal justice, criminology, law enforcement or a major relating to these fields. Certification as an ATF agent entails a valid driver's license, successful completion of various ATF special agent exams and U.S. citizenship. Applicants must also be between the ages of 21 and 37, submit to drug and polygraph tests, pass a background security clearance check and have a body weight that the ATF considers proportional to that applicant's height.

An individual seeking this type of career should consider some of the key skills that are necessary qualities for an ATF agent: multi-tasking ability, sound judgment and a perceptive nature. Applicants must also be in excellent physical condition, demonstrate strong investigative techniques and have strong reasoning and decision-making skills. Online and database research skills are required, as is experience with firearms, tactical and self-defense training and firearms and explosives identification.

The website reports that, as of October 2016, the median annual salary for a federal agent is $76,873. However, the ATF website states that the base annual salary for an ATF agent as of 2013 was between $33,829 and $42,948.

Step 1: Obtain a Bachelor's Degree

Individuals interested in becoming an ATF special agent should pursue a bachelor's degree from an accredited university. A degree in criminology or criminal justice provides the educational background needed for this job. Core coursework in these degree programs could cover subjects such as research methods, criminal justice, the criminal court system, law enforcement, corrections and criminal investigation. The ATF noted that applicants with a combination of college courses and work experience must have at least one year of experience that involves investigation of criminal violations.

Along with earning a degree, students should seek an internship. Some college programs offer internships with regional ATF offices. ATF interns work daily with special agents and police officers who conduct surveillance and the purchase of contraband. Interns will also learn about the administrative requirements of federal law enforcement. Students should apply for these internships at least two terms before the desired period.

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Step 2: Requirements and Tests

Along with the educational requirements, applicants must be U.S. citizens between the ages of 21 and 37. Individual will need to undergo medical, drug and polygraph tests and successfully complete a background check for a top-secret security clearance. Because the job of an ATF special agent is physically demanding, dangerous and life threatening, applicants must be in excellent physical condition. Applicants must first demonstrate their physical fitness by passing a pre-employment physical test that requires meeting minimum targets for sit-ups, push-ups and a 1.5-mile run.

Being in top physical condition prior to applying for an ATF agent position will be a plus. Applicants should work out to condition their bodies and ensure that they can meet the demanding physical requirements of the job.

After meeting eligibility requirements, applicants need to pass various questionnaires and exams. Individuals need to complete an ATF special agent questionnaire and then pass an ATF special agent exam. This three-part test focuses on verbal reasoning, quantitative reasoning and investigating reasoning. Individuals must also pass an applicant assessment test as well as a field panel interview that includes a writing sample.

Step 3: Complete ATF Training

Candidates who advance further in the hiring process must graduate from ATF basic training, which is a two-part, 27-week program. First, candidates complete a 12-week Criminal Investigators Training Program where they can learn fundamental training in the concepts, techniques and methods of conducting criminal investigations. Topics include surveillance, crime scene management, firearm handling, tactical driving skills, federal court procedures and photography.

The second part of ATF basic training is the 15-week Special Agent Basic Training, where candidates meet the foundational requirements of new ATF special agent trainees. This training phase is more intensive and demanding and covers a range of topics such as explosives, fire and arson analysis, firearms and ammunition identification, firearms trafficking, field operations, undercover procedures, close quarters countermeasures and report writing.

Classes on constitutional law and federal criminal law are also included. Upon graduation from ATF basic training, candidates become ATF Special Agent Trainees and are assigned to an ATF office in the U.S. or its territories.

Step 4: Advance as a Federal Agent

Although other federal organizations (such as the FBI, CIA and the Department of Defense) generally do their best never to poach a trained employee from another federal organization, special agents who eventually decide to retire from their roles in the ATF are often highly attractive candidates for related government agencies. ATF training equips an individual for high-stress and physically challenging work, and this permits them to pursue options in a wide variety of occupations involving law enforcement, the armed services or special security. The ATF is a major and influential government institution, so simply working to rise through the agency's internal ranks provides highly promising opportunities for advancement as well.

A career as an ATF special agent will involve working in a high-stress environment that's physically and mentally demanding and requires extensive knowledge in areas such as federal law enforcement, firearms and firearms identification and criminal investigation. These agents gain this knowledge and experience through a combination of traditional education, internships and extensive classroom and hands-on training.

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