Enlisted members make up most of the military workforce. They receive training in a job specialty and do most of the hands-on work. Usually, you’ll sign up for four years of active duty and two years inactive. After you’ve completed your active duty time, you can either extend your contract or re-enlist if you want to continue serving.
Officers make up a much smaller part of the workforce. To join as an officer, you typically must have a four-year college degree and complete an officer program. You compete for promotion to continue your career. Most officers are managers who plan and direct operations. Others are professionals like doctors and lawyers. Officers get paid more than enlisted members and enjoy certain other benefits.
You don’t have to join as an officer to become one though. You can join as an enlisted member and attend officer training later on.
Requirements for Joining the Military
The U.S. military has five branches of service: the Army, Navy, Air Force, Coast Guard, and Marine Corps. The requirements to join are similar for all five. The main differences are in age limits, test scores, and fitness levels. Men and women meet different fitness standards. Besides the requirements listed here, a branch may have other requirements.
Age Limits for Enlisting
You must be at least 17 to enlist in any branch of the active military. The oldest you can be to enlist for active duty in each branch is:
Each service has its own physical requirements and fitness standards. These depend on the demands of its mission. Even within the same branch, some jobs have tougher or extra requirements.
Steps for Joining the Military
Start by doing some research about your options for joining the military. Learn about the five active-duty branches and their part-time counterparts. Know the main differences between officers and enlisted members.
Once you know which branch you’re considering, contact a recruiter. A recruiter will give you an overview and answer your questions about that service. If you’re interested in more than one branch, contact a recruiter for each. If you’re interested in joining as an officer, the recruiter will explain any options you may be eligible for.
If you decide to enlist, you will report to a military entrance processing station (MEPS). You’ll spend a day or two completing pre-enlistment steps. These include taking the ASVAB, having a physical exam, meeting with a career counselor, and if you’re accepted,taking the oath of enlistment. From there you’ll receive orders for basic training, usually to start within a few weeks. If you enrolled in a delayed entry program, you’ll go home and get orders for basic training within a year.
Commissioned officers are the military’s managers and highest-ranking leaders. They oversee plans, direct operations, give orders, and command units. Some are doctors and lawyers. They typically have at least a bachelor’s degree.
Officers have authority over enlisted members. They have broader responsibilities and accountability. But they rely upon enlisted members’ technical skills and experience to get the job done.
Junior officers may lead platoons and command patrol boats. But a senior enlisted member is often their second in command.
Officers must get promoted at certain points to remain on active duty. This can be true for enlisted members too. But it is guaranteed for officers at a much earlier stage of their careers. In return for officers’ greater accountability and less job security, they get higher pay and some extra benefits. View a pay chart for officers (O) and enlisted members (E).
United States Merchant Marine Academy - Trains students for military and civilian careers. New graduates have two choices. They can join the Navy or the Coast Guard as an officer. Or they can get a job in the civilian maritime industry at sea or ashore.
Senior military colleges are civilian schools that combine higher education with military instruction. Students can become commissioned officers after graduating. But they only have to join the service if they’re received a military scholarship.
Reserve Officers Training Corps (ROTC)
Colleges and universities nationwide offer the Reserve Officers Training Corps (ROTC) program. The program pays for students’ tuition and prepares them to be military officers. In return, students commit to serving in the military afterward. Each service has its own ROTC program.
Officer Candidate School (OCS)
New four-year college graduates go to Officer Candidate School (OCS) to join as officers. Each service has its own OCS, which lasts around three to four months. Enlisted members can also apply to attend OCS and graduate as commissioned officers.
Direct commission officers are professionals with advanced training who join as military officers. They are usually doctors, lawyers, dentists, engineers, or chaplains.
Contact a recruiter for the service branch you’re interested in to learn more about officer programs:
Warrant officers are officers who advance from the upper enlisted ranks. They stay in their career fields. They rank above enlisted members and below commissioned officers. A Marine Corps E5 can compete for warrant officer. In the Army, Navy, and Coast Guard, you must be an E6. The Air Force doesn’t have warrant officers.
Non-commissioned officers (NCO) are higher-ranking enlisted members with demonstrated leadership abilities. Most services consider enlisted members at pay grade E4 to be NCOs. In the Air Force, you are an NCO at E5. The Army has two ranks at paygrade E4 - specialist and corporal. But a corporal is an NCO while a specialist is not.
Get a brief overview of the five service branches of the U.S. Armed Forces:
U.S. Air Force (USAF)
U.S. Army (USA)
U.S. Coast Guard (USCG)
U.S. Marine Corps (USMC)
U.S. Navy (USN)
The Air Force is part of the Department of Defense (DOD). It’s responsible for aerial military operations, defending U.S. airspace and air bases, and building landing strips. The Air Force Space Command is under this branch. Service members are known as airmen. The reserve components are Air National Guard and Air Force Reserve.
The Army is part of the DOD and is the largest of the five military branches. It handles major ground combat missions, especially operations that are ongoing. The Army Special Forces unit is known as the Green Berets for its headgear. Service members are known as soldiers. The reserve components are Army Reserve and Army National Guard.
The Coast Guard is part of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS). It’s responsible for maritime law enforcement, including drug smuggling. It manages maritime search and rescue and marine environmental protection. It also secures ports, waterways, and the coasts. Service members are known as Coast Guardsmen, nicknamed Coasties. The reserve component is Coast Guard Reserve.
The Marine Corps is part of the DOD. It provides land combat, sea-based, and air-ground operations support for the other branches during a mission. This branch also guards U.S. embassies around the world and the classified documents in those buildings. Marine Corps Special Operations Command (MARSOC) members are known as Raiders. All service members are referred to as Marines. The reserve component is Marine Corps Reserve.
The Navy is part of the DOD. It protects waterways (sea and ocean) outside of the Coast Guard’s jurisdiction. Navy warships provide the runways for aircraft to land and take off when at sea. Navy SEALs (sea, air, and land) are the special operations force for this branch. All service members are known as sailors. The reserve component is Navy Reserve.