How to Become an Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms Officer


Career Path Guide for Working as an ATF Special Agent

Gathering evidence, preparing case reports, interviewing suspects and witnesses testifying in court, and putting your life at risk to enforce Federal laws are all things that you would do as an ATF - Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives special agent. Do you have what it takes?


To get into this unique and challenging field, you’ll need either an undergraduate degree, 3 years of relevant work experience, or an equivalent combination of the two. You’ll also need to be a U.S. citizen, be very physically fit, be able to pass a polygraph test, pass a drug test and pass a special assessment test.



Education & Experience Needed

To become an ATF special agent, you must have either completed a four-year bachelor’s degree in any field of study, or have 3 years of progressively responsible experience that demonstrates the ability to work in a criminal investigative or law enforcement field that requires knowledge and application of laws relating to criminal violations. 


Alternatively, education and experience can be combined to meet the minimum education and experience requirements. For example, you can have completed 2 years of undergraduate work and have 1.5 years of relevant work experience to meet the requirements. 


Please Note: The above qualifications are relevant to the 'Grade 5' level. Grades 7 & 9 require at least partial completion of a graduate degree and more specialized work experience, such as having participated in criminal investigations.





Special Qualifications

In addition to the education and experience requirements, you must almost meet certain conditions of employment to become an ATF special agent, including:


• Be at least 21 years of age and not older than 36 at the time of appointment to the service

• Be a U.S. citizen

• Possess a current and valid automobile operator's license

• Complete the ATF special agent applicant questionnaire

• Take and pass the ATF special agent exam

• Take and pass the ATF special agent applicant assessment test

• Take and pass the ATF Pre-employment Physical Task Test

• Appear for and successfully complete a field panel interview (a writing sample will be required)

• Be in compliance with ATF's drug policy for special agent applicants, which involves passing a drug test

• Take and pass a medical examination by an authorized Government physician and meet medical requirements

• Your weight must be in proportion to height

• Take and successfully complete a polygraph examination

• Successfully complete a background investigation for a top secret security clearance



ATF Special Agent Job Description

ATF special agents are highly trained federal officers are responsible for investigating violations of federal law within the areas of alcohol, firearms, explosives and tobacco diversion.


These investigations involve surveillance, interviewing suspects and witnesses, making arrests, obtaining and executing search warrants, and searching for physical evidence.



General Job Duties

Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives special agents are typically responsible for performing the following duties:


• Investigating criminal violations of Federal laws within the enforcement jurisdiction of the U.S. Department of Justice

• Conducting investigations of violations relating to explosives, firearms, arson, and alcohol and tobacco diversion

• Preparing concise criminal investigative case reports

• Testifying on behalf of the U.S. Federal government in court or before grand juries

• Gathering and analyzing evidence through investigative leads, seizures, arrests, execution of search warrants, and other means



Is This Career a Good Fit for You?

There’s no sense pursuing a career that you’re not a good fit for, as it can cost you a lot of wasted time and energy. To be well suited for a career as an alcohol, tobacco and firearms special agent, you need to have certain personal traits and characteristics, as well as professional interests, including:


• You’re not older than 37 years of age

• An interest in an exciting and rewarding career

• You’re physically and mentally tough

• You’re physically fit and can handle rigorous training 

• You’re willing to take personal risks at work

• You can handle irregular hours and extensive travel

• You’re willing to accept the possibility of being sent on assignment to any ATF field office in the U.S. or abroad 





ATF Special Agent Salary

The base pay for ATF special agents ranges from $34,865 to $57,093 annually. The maximum salary potential is from $73,846 - $96,004, excluding locality pay. In addition to the base salary, agents can earn additional compensation by way of:


• Locality Pay: Depending on location being served, agents receive an additional 14.3516% to 35.175% of their base salary. 


• Law Enforcement Availability Pay: Because of the work hours, among other factors, special agents receive 25% law enforcement availability pay, which is added to locality pay.


• Foreign Language Award Program: This program provides cash awards for ATF employees who possess and make substantial use of one or more foreign language(s) in the performance of their official duties. The amount of the award is based upon proficiency and substantial usage.



Benefits Package

In addition to the salary earned by alcohol, tobacco, firearms and explosives special agents, they earn several financial and other benefits, including:


• Annual leave (vacation time) is earned at the rate of 13-26 days per year, with a maximum accumulation of 240 hours per year.

• Sick leave is earned at the rate of 13 days per year and may be accumulated without limit.

• Paid holidays.

• Low cost health insurance with the option to choose from a variety of plans.

• Low cost life insurance.

• Federal Employee Retirement System (FERS) benefits. Special agents may retire at age 50 with 20 years of service. Age 57 is the mandatory retirement age, with 20 years of service.

• Tax-deferred Thrift Savings Plan (TSP).

• Health improvement (physical fitness) program.



Who Creates Jobs in This Field?

Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and explosives special agents are hired exclusively by the Federal Government of the United States, specifically by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, within the Department of Justice. The Bureau of ATF is headquartered in Washington, DC, and has field offices throughout the United States and its territories. 



Job Postings - Current Opportunities

Our job below board has "ATF Special Agent" postings in Canada, the United States.



Similar Professions in Our Database

Listed below are careers in our database that are similar in nature to Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives Officer (a.k.a. and ATF Special Agent), as they may be in the same field, or they may involve many of the same skills, competencies and/or responsibilities.


• Airport Security Officer 

• Border Services Officer

• Lawyer

• Police Detective

• Probation Officer

• Social Worker



Scholarships for Becoming an ATF Agent

The 'Relevant Fields of Study' section below shows fields of study relevant to a career as an Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives Officer. You can search for scholarships matched to those fields of study on our Criminology Scholarships and Criminal Justice Scholarships pages.


Success Tip: Be sure to apply for any scholarships that you even barely qualify for, as there are millions of dollars of scholarships that go unused every year due to a lack of applicants!




How to Become an ATF Special Agent




Please consult the following resources to learn more about what it takes to become an ATF Special Agent:


• The Balance Careers: “Become an ATF Special Agent.” Timothy Roufa. (March 26, 2018). The Balance. Retrieved September. 29, 2018.

• Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco & Firearms - Careers: Salary & Benefits.” (March 29, 2017). United States Department of Justice. Retrieved September. 29, 2018.

• Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco & Firearms - Careers: Becoming a Special Agent.” (August 15, 2018). United States Department of Justice. Retrieved September. 29, 2018.



Relevant Fields of Study

Studying one of the college/university majors listed below can be helpful for becoming an ATF special agent. Click on the links to find out what else you can do with these majors!


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