What Does a U.S. Border Patrol Agent Do?

Learn About the Salary, Required Skills, & More

A day in the life of a U.S. border patrol agent: Watch the border and stand guard, detect, track, and apprehend suspected smugglers and illegal border crossers, use electronic surveillance equipment and respond to sensor alarms, perform traffic observations and checkpoints

The Balance / Jo Zixuan Zhou

United States border patrol agents secure the country's international land borders and coastal waters between Ports of Entry. They're part of the U.S. Customs and Border Protection unit of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. Their primary focus is to apprehend or stop illegal border crossers, criminals, and potential terrorists from entering the U.S. and carrying out illegal activities and attacks.

U.S. Border Patrol Agent Duties & Responsibilities

The job of a border patrol agent often includes:

  • Watching the border and standing guard
  • Detecting, tracking, and apprehending suspected smugglers and illegal border crossers
  • Gathering intelligence
  • Using electronic surveillance equipment and responding to sensor alarms
  • Performing traffic observations and checkpoints
  • Performing city patrols and other law enforcement duties
  • Writing reports
  • Making arrests

Border patrol agents work closely with other local and federal agencies, such as customs enforcement, the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) and Immigration and Custom Enforcement (ICE) agents to ensure legal immigrants, enterprises, and commerce remain as unimpeded as possible while at the same time preventing illegal activities like drug trade and human trafficking.

Agents work across the U.S. along more than 6,000 miles of Mexican and Canadian land borders and more than 2,000 miles of coastal borders, from Florida to California, as well as Puerto Rico. They work in shifts to ensure 24-hour coverage and may be assigned to remote locations throughout the country.

As border patrol agents advance in their careers, they may have the chance to join specialty areas, such as horse patrol, the K-9 unit, the mobile response team, the Honor Guard, the National Pistol Team, and more.

Border Patrol Agent Salary

A border patrol agent's salary depends on their grade level and step, according to U.S. Customs and Border Protection. As of 2019, pay for border patrol agents ranged from $55,863 per year at the lowest grade and step and went up to $101,132 per year for the highest grade and step.

Some border patrol agents may receive pay on top of their salary depending on where they live, called locality pay. In addition, agents may be eligible for premium pay for working Sunday, night, and holiday shifts, as well as cash awards for outstanding job performance. Agents also receive generous government retirement pay and insurance rates.

Education, Training, & Certification

To qualify as a candidate for employment as a border patrol agent, applicant's must be under the age of 40, be eligible for Veteran's Preference or have previous federal law enforcement experience.

Candidates must also be U.S. residents and citizens, hold a valid driver license, and be able to pass a rigorous background investigation, including a polygraph exam, and a medical examination. In addition, candidates must speak fluent Spanish or at least be able to learn to speak Spanish.

  • Education: A college education is not required to become a U.S. Border Patrol agent, though there may be salary incentives available for those with at least a bachelor's degree.
  • Training and Certification: Upon appointment as a border patrol intern, applicants undergo extensive training at the United States Border Patrol Academy in Artesia, New Mexico. The training includes a 58-day basic academy, with courses in immigration and nationality law, applied authority, and operations. Additionally, interns who do not speak Spanish are required to take an 8-week Spanish Task-Based Language Training Program. Students who fail to meet any of the academic standards, including language proficiency, are dismissed.

Border Patrol Agent Skills & Competencies

To be successful in this role, you’ll generally need the following skills and qualities: 

  • Physical fitness: Border patrol agents officers must be fit enough to carry out all of the tasks of the job, which includes running and standing for long periods of time.
  • Observation skills: Agents must stay alert to detect and track possible threats.
  • Decision-making skills: Border patrol agents must be able to quickly decide when and how to respond to potentially threatening situations.

Job Outlook

The U.S. Customs and Border Protection will continue to hire agents as long as there is a need—and it looks like it will be for the foreseeable future. The agency says that on a typical day, it makes more than 900 apprehensions and seizes more than 9,000 pounds of illegal drugs at the border.

Work Environment

Border patrol agents work in a host of environments, including some undesirable locations. They work in all weather conditions and in high-pressure, high-stress, and sometimes dangerous situations. The job can be tough on both physical and mental levels.

Work Schedule

Border patrol agents are needed around the clock, and they often work in shifts. They may be required to work on nights, weekends, and holidays.

How to Get the Job

According to U.S. Customs and Border Protection, becoming a border patrol agent is a nine-step process:

1) Apply

Search USAJobs.gov for listings.

2) Border Patrol Entrance Exam

This measures your ability to perform the job functions.

3) Qualifications review

You need to submit a resume that meets certain specifications.

4) Background investigation

This includes four elements: preliminary vetting checks, a polygraph examination, the investigation itself, and the final determination.

5) Medical exam

You must be medically qualified to perform the job's duties.

6) Fitness tests

You must be able to carry out certain physical tasks and stay in shape for training.

7) Structured interview

A board of current Border Patrol Agents will review your readiness.

8) Polygraph exam

This interview lasts four to six hours.

9) Drug test

You must test negative for drugs in order to be considered.

Comparing Similar Jobs

People who are interested in becoming border control agents may also consider other careers with U.S. Customs and Border Protection:

  • Field operations officer
  • Agricultural specialist
  • Air interdiction agent
  • Aviation enforcement agent
  • Aviation enforcement agent