What Are the Qualifications to Become an ATF Agent?

Read for an overview on the education and examination requirements to become an ATF agent. Get the facts on the application process and salary expectations. Schools offering Law Enforcement degrees can also be found in these popular choices.

ATF Agent Overview

ATF agents are tasked with conducting and overseeing investigations on behalf of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives (ATF). They are in charge of gathering evidence, interrogating witnesses, and making arrests for gun-, explosives-, or alcohol-related crimes. The table below is a general overview of the requirements, responsibilities, and salary expectations for those interested in pursuing a career in this field.

Education Bachelor's degree required
Areas of Study Criminal justice, psychology, sociology, or a related area
Skills Critical thinking, active listening, complex problem solving
Average Salary (2019) $85,640* (for all federal special agents)
Career Outlook (2016 - 2026) 5% growth** (for all detectives and criminal investigators)

Sources: *Payscale.com **U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics

What Does a Day in the Life of an ATF Agent Look Like?

Because ATF agents are tasked with the field work of investigating crimes, they are often required to work unpredictable hours and travel across the country or abroad to work directly on cases. Assignments may change at any time, which means agents could be asked to relocate their place of residence depending on the needs of the bureau. Because the job involves the pursuit and apprehension of suspected criminals, ATF agents must also be in excellent physical condition.

What Are the General Requirements to Become an ATF Agent?

To initiate recruitment as an ATF agent, you must be between 21 and 36 years of age, be physically fit (described as having a weight proportional to your height), have no history of drug use, have a valid driver's license, and be a U.S. citizen. Your physical health will be further evaluated during the pre-employment physical task test, which involves sit-ups, push-ups, and a variety of other exercises. Your drug history will be verified with a drug test and several questions in a polygraph exam. The polygraph exam may also include other questions about your personal and employment history. All candidates must also complete a federal criminal background check.

Are There Any Education Requirements?

All candidates must hold a bachelor's degree from an accredited institution in any field of study. Though an advanced degree is not required, candidates with master's or other advanced degrees in criminal justice, psychology, or sociology are eligible for higher classifications and salary ranges. In addition, candidates who are fluent in a foreign language are eligible for bonus cash awards.

Does the Process Involve Any Examinations?

Beyond the pre-employment physical task test, candidates are required to complete two additional examinations and a field panel interview. The special agent exam evaluates verbal, quantitative, and investigative reasoning in a standardized test-like format, with multiple-choice questions on all sections. Each section includes a long-form explanation describing a typical situation an agent might encounter in the field and then asks direct questions relating to the situation. A collection of sample questions and other preparation materials are available on the ATF website. In addition to the special agent test, candidates must also complete the special agent candidate assessment.

How Do I Begin the Application Process?

If you meet all eligibility requirements, visit the ATF website for a list of recruiters in your city or state. The website also has contact information for several recruitment hotlines and information packets related to the application process. Packets include additional background on what to expect from each examination, the recruitment timeline, and specific salary expectations by educational background and grade level.

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