Become an ATF Special Agent

ATF special agents holding up rifles they confiscated during a raid.

Stefan Zaklin / Stringer / Getty Images

The Federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives (ATF) has a long history of service within the United States. Originally established as a regulatory and revenue enforcement agency to collect taxes and tariffs on intoxicating beverages and tobacco products, the ATF has grown into one of the most important law enforcement organizations within the United States Federal Government. It's also become a popular career choice for individuals looking for jobs in criminal justice and criminology, leading many to wonder just how to become an ATF agent.

Federal law enforcement jobs in general and special agent careers, in particular, often come with higher relative pay and excellent health and retirement benefits. Because of this, ATF agent careers and other federal jobs are highly sought after and highly competitive. That means there will be a lot of hoops to jump through to get hired. It also means you'll have to work hard both academically and physically to make sure you're the best candidate for the job.

Minimum Requirements

Before you even apply for a job as an ATF agent, you'll want to make sure you meet the minimum requirements. These are the bare minimum qualifications you need to have just to be considered. If you don't meet the minimum requirements, your application won't get a second look. To be considered for a job as an ATF agent, you must, at a minimum:

  • Be a U.S. citizen
  • Be between 21 and 37 years old (some exceptions to the maximum age are granted for military veterans, current federal law enforcement officers, and other federal employees)
  • Hold a valid driver license
  • Hold either a four-year degree from an accredited institution, three years of relevant professional work experience - such as working as a police detective - or a combination of education and work experience.
  • Be ready and willing to work nearly anywhere.

Remember, those are just the minimum requirements. Just because you meet them in no way guarantees you will get hired, or even advance in the hiring process. There are several steps you'll have to take. Meeting the minimums simply gets your foot in the door and a chance to participate in the testing and evaluation process. From here, if you have the credentials, you'll progress to the ATF special agent applicant questionnaire, the special agent exam, the pre-employment physical task test, and a polygraph exam and thorough background investigation.

Applicant Questionnaire

One of the first tasks you'll have to perform when you apply is to complete the ATF Special Agent Applicant Questionnaire. It is a comprehensive supplemental application that provides the foundation for the pending background check. The questionnaire will ask about past drug use, criminal history, previous employers, and addresses, as well as other information relevant to your character and past performance.

Agent Exam

The ATF employs a basic abilities test to ensure its applicants possess the skills and mental ability necessary for the job. The special agent exam is divided into three sections: Part A, Part B, and Part C. Each part measures a different skill.

Part A tests applicants' verbal reasoning and will require applicants to read various paragraphs and then answer multiple-choice questions based on the information they read. Part B measures quantitative reasoning and requires applicants to demonstrate basic arithmetic skills.

Applicants may have to calculate dollar amounts or other basic mathematical problems based on the information provided on the test. Part C of the special agent exam tests applicants' investigative reasoning. In this section, applicants are provided information about a case and are asked to apply their investigative skills and demonstrate the ability to deduce information from the facts provided

Assessment Test

In addition to the written special agent exam, applicants will also participate in the ATF Special Agent Applicant Assessment Test. This exam is a psychological assessment that measures your personality and preference. The purpose of the assessment is to help determine candidates' suitability for a career as an ATF agent.

Pre-Employment Physical Task Test

After successful completion of the examinations, you'll need to demonstrate your physical abilities by participating in the ATF Special Agent Pre-Employment Physical Task Test. The physical task test consists of timed sit-ups timed push-ups and a timed 1.5-mile run. Specific requirements vary by gender and age. To help you get an idea of where you need to be physically, here's what the ATF requires:

  • 1-minute sit-ups - Men:
    • Age 21-29: 40
    • Age 30-39: 36
    • Age 40 +: 31
  • 1-minute sit-ups - Women:
    • Age 21-29: 35
    • Age 30-39: 27
    • Age 40 +: 22
  • 1-minute pushups - Men:
    • Age 21-29: 33
    • Age 30-39: 27
    • Age 40 +: 21
  • 1-minute pushups - Women:
    • Age 21-29: 16
    • Age 30-39: 14
    • Age 40 +: 11
  • 1.5-mile run - Men:
    • Age 21-29: 12 minutes
    • Age 30-39: 13 minutes
    • Age 40 +: 14 minutes
  • 1.5-mile run - Women:
    • Age 21-29: 16 minutes
    • Age 30-39: 17 minutes
    • Age 40 +: 18 minutes

If you're not in shape, you need to be in, start working now to get there. Be sure to check with your doctor before you begin any exercise regimen to make sure your body can handle it, and start working on building your strength and endurance. You'll want to work hard to make sure you're physically able to compete.

Oral Interview Panel

After the physical assessment, it's not over yet. The next step is the oral interview panel, where your communication skills will be evaluated. In addition to the oral interview, a writing sample will also be required, so make sure your English skills are up to speed.

Background Investigation

It's not all about passing tests. Just because you have the mental and physical ability to do the job, you still need to demonstrate that you have the character necessary to adhere to the high ethical standards that come with the privilege of authority. A thorough background investigation will be conducted, which will include employment verifications, a polygraph exam, and a criminal and credit history check.

Medical Testing

The dangers of law enforcement careers are everywhere, and agents must be in good health to be able to perform and to survive. Because of this, a thorough medical exam is required. The exam will include a standard physical, and your blood pressure and heart will be checked. You'll also need to submit to a vision test and a hearing test. Your uncorrected vision must be 20/100 and the corrected vision must be 20/20 in at least one eye and at least 20/30 in the other. Depth perception, peripheral vision, and the ability to distinguish colors will also be tested. Finally, any hearing loss cannot be greater than 30 decibels.

The Federal Law Enforcement Training Center and ATF Academy

If you can advance through the hiring process and receive a job offer, you still have a few more hurdles ahead. All newly hired agents - except for those hired from other federal investigative agencies - must attend a 12-week Criminal Investigators Training Program (CITP) at the Federal Law Enforcement Training Center in Glynco, Georgia.

After completion of the CITP, agent trainees must then attend the ATF-specific Special Agent Basic Training. This 15-week program is extremely tough, both physically and mentally, and provides new agents with the knowledge and skills they will need to carry out the mission of the ATF.

Becoming an ATF Special Agent

It takes hard work, dedication, and determination to become a special agent with the ATF. Between the lengthy and in-depth job application, the long hiring process, the grueling assessments, and the difficult training program, only the best and most qualified candidates will find success in landing one of these exciting and rewarding jobs.

If you have what it takes, though, the salary and benefits—not to mention the challenges and rewards of this important career—make it well worth the effort, and you may find that working as an ATF special agent is the perfect criminology career for you.