Border Patrol Agent Job Description: What You’ll Do

Here’s What You’ll Do in a Career in Law Enforcement and Criminal Justice

A criminal justice degree can open the door to an exciting career as a border patrol agent with U.S. Customs and Border Protection. These highly skilled and specially trained agents protect the country's borders from terrorists, illegal drugs or weapons, human smugglers, and undocumented aliens. Agents can work in search and rescue, tactical response, investigative, K-9, and other related jobs. This resource offers more information on border patrol agents job descriptions, qualifications, and career advancement opportunities and how the degree prepares graduates for the challenges of the job.

What Are the Duties and Responsibilities
of a Border Patrol Agent?

U.S. Border Patrol Agents secure the 6,000 miles of land along the northern border of Canada and the southern border of Mexico. Many agents report the job to be mentally and physically challenging. Agents use a variety of methods to identify possible border breaches, including high-tech sensors in remote areas to identify tracks and evidence of crossings. Agents must carry firearms and complete training in hand-to-hand combat. Duties may include extended hours at traffic checkpoints, following tracks through rugged and inhospitable terrain, or working with animal partners as part of a horse or K-9 unit.

Agents need an understanding of both immigration and local laws along with relevant policies concerning the use of force.

Agents interview individuals apprehended along the border to provide information for immigration hearings or as evidence in criminal prosecutions. They must document evidence and seize contraband. Agents need an understanding of both immigration and local laws along with relevant policies concerning the use of force. They must file the proper paperwork, obtain warrants, testify in court, and enter pertinent information into databases. Working with U.S. Customs and Border Protection also requires foreign language skills, particularly Spanish. Many new agents take assignments along the southwest U.S. border, but job seniority often brings the opportunity to relocate.

Border Patrol Agent Education Requirements

While the entry-level border patrol agent job descriptions do not set specific educational requirements, criminal justice and law enforcement degrees prepare graduates for the responsibilities of a border patrol agent. Your degree can also replace all or a portion of the required work experience and enhance your application in the competitive hiring process.

Your level of education also determines your service grade. Government jobs use service grades to determine salary and eligibility for promotion or duty assignments. The educational requirement varies by service grade, with some levels requiring at least one year of graduate education in criminal justice or a closely related subject. Review the requirements carefully when selecting your program.

A criminal justice curriculum offers a holistic view of the entire criminal justice system, including the psychology of criminal behavior, administration and leadership, ethics, and the American legal system.

Law enforcement degrees specialize in concepts of policing, such as investigative techniques, documenting and securing evidence, and criminal procedures for arrests and charging suspects. A criminal justice curriculum offers a holistic view of the entire criminal justice system, including the psychology of criminal behavior, administration and leadership, ethics, and the American legal system. Elective courses or minors allow students to focus on a specific area or gain relevant skills in a foreign language, science, or technology. Learn more about earning a criminal justice degree here.

Many programs offer specializations in areas of homeland security, forensic technology, forensic psychology, and criminology. Schools offer degrees at the associate, bachelor’s, master’s, and doctorate level. Courses complement the bureau-specific knowledge and skills agents gain by attending the Border Patrol Academy, a 117-day residential program in New Mexico, and on-the-job training rotations.

Associate Degrees

An associate degree in criminal justice can serve as the first step toward your undergraduate degree. Offered by two-year and four-year colleges and universities, these programs often provide a foundation in criminal justice theories and concepts and satisfy most general education requirements, such as English and science courses. Most associate degrees require 60 credits. The degree can substitute six months of work experience toward the GL-5 border patrol agent requirements.

Community and junior colleges offer students lower average tuition than four-year universities. The National Center for Education Statistics found the average yearly cost of attending a two-year institution was $10,432 in 2015, compared to $26,120 for four-year schools. Make sure you choose a regionally accredited school, however. This independent quality assurance qualifies you to participate in federal student aid programs and simplifies the transfer process should you decide to transfer to a four-year school.

Bachelor's Degrees

A bachelor's degree in criminal justice builds on the theories studied at the associate degree level and provides opportunities for advanced study in criminal justice administration, law enforcement, or criminology. The interdisciplinary program draws on the fields of sociology, science, legal studies, and business. Many programs offer internships or practicums that build on the teamwork and people skills developed throughout the coursework. Students may also qualify for the CBP Pathways internship program for college juniors and seniors or a program specifically for recent college graduates.

The National Center for Education Statistics found the average cost of attending a four-year institution was $26,120 in 2015, though public schools often offer significant savings over private schools. The four-year degree requires 120 credits. Applicants to the GL-5 border patrol agent grade can substitute their bachelor's degree for the required one year of work experience. Students graduating with high academic achievement may qualify for the GL-7 grade.

Master's Degrees

Applicants to the GL-7 pay grade must demonstrate specialized work experience in law enforcement, but completing graduate-level coursework in criminal justice can take the place of this work requirement. U.S. Customs and Border Protection accepts 18 graduate credits or more in criminal justice, law enforcement, homeland security, forensic technology, or corrections and rehabilitation. Coursework includes the latest research and best practices in the criminal justice field and encourages the development of leadership abilities.

Most master's in criminal justice programs require 30 or more credits. Students attending school full time can graduate in as little as two years, though many schools offer part-time programs for students balancing their continued education with full-time careers. This flexibility allows students working as border patrol agents to complete a master's degree and advance their careers.

The cost of a graduate degree can vary widely, from a low of around $7,000 to upwards of $45,000. Students choosing an in-state public university often save significantly over students attending an out-of-state or private institution. Many schools, however, offer the same tuition to online students as they do residents of their state, regardless of where they live.

Other Requirements for Border Patrol Agents

Hiring officials for border patrol agent positions look beyond an applicant's education to find suitable agents. Individuals must meet physical fitness and age requirements, pass a qualification exam, and undergo an extensive background check. Applicants must also be U.S. citizens, meet residency requirements, and hold a valid driver's license.

Potential applicants meeting basic eligibility requirements advance to trainee status and attend the Border Patrol Academy.

As a law enforcement officer, all applicants must qualify to carry a weapon and cannot possess a criminal history involving domestic abuse, harboring an illegal alien, or illicit drug use. Most new border patrol agents take assignments along the southeastern border and may travel frequently. Applicants must agree to relocate as assigned.

Potential applicants meeting basic eligibility requirements advance to trainee status and attend the Border Patrol Academy. They must then pass courses in law, firearms instruction, tactical training, physical training, and Spanish. The foreign language training ensures new agents can communicate effectively in the field. The academy instructors utilize both classroom and field instruction throughout the program.

  • Not older than 40
  • U.S. citizen
  • Able to complete 25 sit-ups and 20 push-ups in one minute each and maintain 120-steps per minute for five minutes
  • Graduate from Border Patrol Academy
  • Valid driver's license
  • Criminal record check
  • Background investigation, including a polygraph examination
  • Medical exam, including sight and hearing screenings
  • Drug test

Qualities That Make a Great Border Patrol Agent

Being a successful border patrol agent requires more than enforcing laws and regulations. Agents serve and protect the citizens of the United States in stressful circumstances and must faithfully carry out their duties. Individuals who combine their criminal justice expertise and law enforcement training with the following personality traits have the potential to excel in their chosen career.

  • Integrity
  • Compassion
  • Emotional Maturity
  • Leadership
  • Teamwork
  • Communication
  • Good Judgement
  • Cooperative
  • Logical Reasoning
  • Independence

Salary for Border Patrol Agents

Compensation for Border Patrol Agents
Grade Base Salary Locality, Overtime, and Premium Pay
GL-5 $36,196 $19,667
GL-7 $41,204 $23,398
GL-9 $45,953 $26,666
GS-11 $53,805 $31,721
GS-12 $64,490 $36,642
Source: U.S. Customs and Border Protection

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Border Patrol Agent Salary Information Careers in Criminal Justice Online Bachelor's Degree in Law Enforcement