How to Become an ATF Agent

A career as an agent, also called a “special agent,” for the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) is challenging, exciting, sometimes dangerous, and rewarding.  Special agents protect the public from terrorism and violent crime by investigating violations of Federal law, finding evidence of crimes, and making arrests.

Personality traits needed to become an ATF agent

Some people are not cut out to become ATF agents. You have to be a special kind of person. You may be a good candidate if you have the following qualities:

  • You are physically and mentally tough.
  • You thrive in challenging situations.
  • You are willing to take personal risks.
  • You are able to travel extensively and work irregular hours.

What you must do before applying to be an ATF agent

You need to complete the minimum required education and/or experience before you can apply for a Special Agent’s job at the ATF. You must do ONE of the following three things:

  • Complete a BA degree at a 4-year college, or
  • Complete three years of progressively responsible work in law enforcement or criminal investigations, or
  • Complete a combination of education and work experience.

Applicants who have completed a BA degree with high grades or who are in a national honor society may be eligible to apply for positions at a higher grade level. Applicants who have at least one year of graduate studies in a related field or higher-level related work experience, or some combination of the two, may be eligible to apply at a higher level.

What subjects you should study to become an ATF Agent

If you want to apply at the entry level (GL-05) based on your completing a BA or combining college course work with work experience, there are no restrictions on what courses you may take, and you may select a major in any subject that interests you.

If you want to apply for a higher level (GL-07) based on completing a BA with outstanding achievement in your college coursework, then there are restrictions on what majors you may select. You must major in criminal justice, political science, sociology, psychology, or in another field that is closely related to the work you will do as an ATF agent.

If you want to apply for a higher level (GL-07 or GL-09) based on your completing graduate-level work, there are also restrictions on what you can study. Your graduate studies must be in one of the same fields that are listed above. If you are planning to go to graduate school in a particular field, you should select your undergraduate courses with an eye towards being admitted to the graduate school program of your choice. Sometimes, but not always, that means completing an undergraduate major in the same field as your graduate work.

Other requirements for becoming an ATF agent

In addition to having the right kind of personality and completing the required education and/or work experience, you must also meet these requirements:

  • You must be a U.S. citizen.
  • You must be 21 to 36 years old at the time you are appointed to the position.
  • You cannot be overweight.
  • You must pass several ATF exams and an interview conducted by a panel.
  • You must pass a medical exam, including meeting requirements for vision and hearing.
  • You must take a polygraph exam, a drug test, and qualify for a top secret security clearance.

Advantages of being an ATF agent

Being an ATF special agent is an exciting, fast-paced law enforcement career that may take you anywhere in the world. It provides the satisfaction of helping keep the country safe. Agents also receive excellent federal benefits and a 25 percent law enforcement availability bonus added to their pay.  However, overall, being an ATF agent is a challenging and rewarding career, focused on helping enforce laws and keeping our communities safe.

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