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 four 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 six branches of service: the Army, Navy, Air Force, Coast Guard, Marine Corps, and Space Force. The requirements to join are similar for all six. 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: 31
Air Force: 39
Space Force: 39
Some branches have different age limits for their part-time Reserve and National Guard. Visit each service's recruiting website for its part-time age limits.
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
Air Force Active Duty: 1-800-423-USAF (1-800-423-8723)
Air Force Reserve: 1-800-257-1212
Air Force National Guard: 1-800-TO-GO-ANG (1-800-864-6264)
Army Active Duty & Army Reserve: 1-888-550-ARMY (1-888-550-2769)
Army National Guard: 1-800-GO-GUARD (1-800-464-8273)
Navy Active Duty and Reserve: 1-800-USA-NAVY (1-800-872-6289)
Marine Corps Active Duty and Reserve: 1-800-MARINES (1-800-627-4637)
Contact an Air Force recruiter: 1-800-423-USAF (1-800-423-8723)
Learn About the Military
Get a brief overview of the six 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)
U.S. Space Force (USSF)
The Air Force is part of the Department of Defense (DOD). It’s responsible for aerial military operations, defending U.S. air bases, and building landing strips. 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.
The Space Force is a new service, created in December 2019 from the former Air Force Space Command. The Space Force falls within the Department of the Air Force. It organizes, trains, and equips space forces to protect U.S. and allied interests in space and to provide space capabilities to the joint force.
Military members and veterans may qualify for a variety of military pay, retirement pay and military and retirement benefits, depending on their time in service.
Military.com has all the information you need to make the most of those military or veteran benefits. From retirement pay charts and active duty pay charts, to details on veteran benefits, to information about Tricare coverage and benefits, Military.com's benefits directory will give you the help you need.