Join the Military

Learn how you can enter the United States military as an officer or enlisted member.

Join the Military as an Enlisted Member

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:

  • Coast Guard: 27

  • Marines: 29

  • Navy: 34

  • Army: 35

  • Air Force: 39

The branches have different age limits for their part-time Reserve and National Guard. See them all in this chart of military age requirements by service.

Requirements for Enlisting If You Are Not a U.S. Citizen

You do not have to be a U.S. citizen to enlist in the military, but you may have fewer options. If you are not a U.S. citizen, you must:

  • Have a permanent resident card, also known as a Green Card

  • Currently live in the U.S.

  • Speak, read, and write English fluently

Educational and Testing Requirements for Enlisting

You must take the Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery (ASVAB) test. The ASVAB has 10 subtests.

  • Your scores on four of those make up your Armed Forces Qualification Test (AFQT) score. This score determines which branch(es) you may join. Each branch has its own lowest score for joining.

  • Your scores on all 10 subtests determine which job specialties you qualify for..

You can prepare for the ASVAB by taking sample questions.

You must have a high school diploma or a GED to enlist. The services accept only a small number of people with GEDs each year. You can increase your chances of qualifying with a GED by:

  • Earning some college credits and/or

  • Scoring well on the Armed Forces Qualification Test (AFQT)

Health and Fitness Requirements for Enlisting

You must pass a military entrance medical exam. This includes a physical exam, hearing test, vision test, and height/weight measurements.

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.

Contact a Recruiter or Apply Online

Army

Air Force

Navy

Marine Corps

Coast Guard

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Military Service Academies and Other Ways to Become a Military Officer

You can become an officer in the U.S. military by graduating from one of the U.S. service academies. The academies are colleges that train future commissioned officers.

Benefits and Commitments

  • Tuition, room, and board are free.
  • You get paid while you are attending.
  • You must serve for several years in the military after you graduate, unless you go to the Merchant Marine Academy—then you have other options.

Five Service Academies

There are five military academies:

How to Get Into a Military Academy

To be accepted into any service academy except for the Coast Guard Academy, you must first be nominated to the school by either:

  • A U.S. senator
  • A U.S. representative
  • The vice president of the U.S., who can nominate applicants to any academy except the Merchant Marine Academy.

For more information, contact your senator, representative, or the vice president.

How to Get Into the Coast Guard Academy

Submit an application directly. You don't need to be nominated.

Other Ways to Become a Military Officer

You can also earn an officer commission through:

Contact a recruiter for the Department of Defense service branch you are interested in to learn more about these programs:

For U.S. Coast Guard officer programs, contact Coast Guard Recruiting.

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Learn About the Military

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. 

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Last Updated: November 05, 2018