Jobs and Careers in Public Safety: Border Patrol Officers


School Subjects:

  • Geography
  • Government
  • Foreign language

Personal Skills:

  • Leadership/management


  • Indoors and outdoors
  • Primarily multiple locations

Minimum Education level:

  • High school diploma

Salary Range:

  • $29,000 to $38,000 to $57,000

Certification or Licensing:

  • Recommended


  • Faster than the average


Border patrol officers patrol more than 8,000 miles of border between the United States and Canada and between the United States and Mexico, as well as the coastal areas of the Gulf of Mexico and Florida. It is their duty to enforce laws regulating the entry of aliens and products into the United States. They are employed by the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) [formerly known as The Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS)], part of the of the United States Justice Department and Dept. of Homeland Security. Specifically, Border patrol officers -- as well as other immigration Officers are -- handled by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).


As long as civilizations have created borders for their countries, people have guarded those borders and fought over them. All over the world, societies have created rules and regulations for entry into their communities. Some welcome strangers from other lands, but other societies only allow foreigners to live among them briefly before requiring them to leave. The borders between the United States and its northern and southern neighbors have been peacefully maintained almost continuously since the founding of the countries.

However, federal immigration laws make it necessary for border patrol officers to protect the citizens of the United States by patrolling its borders. Their job is to prevent illegal entry at all of the borders and to arrest or deport those who attempt to enter illegally In recent years, an increase in narcotics trafficking has made the job of the border patrol officer even more challenging. In addition to preventing the entry of aliens, border patrol officers also prevent the entry of illegal substances.

The Job

Border patrol officers are federal law enforcement officers. The laws that they are hired to enforce deal with immigration and customs. U.S. immigration law states that people wishing to enter the United States must apply to the government for permission to do so. Those who want to work, study or vacation in the United States must have appropriate visas. Those who want to move here and stay must apply for citizenship. Customs laws regulate materials, crops, and goods entering the United States. To ensure that foreigners follow these rules, border patrol officers are stationed at every border entry point of the United States.

Members of the border patrol cover the border on foot, on horseback, in cars or jeeps, in motor boats, in airplanes, and, most recently, on mountain- bikes. They track people near the borders to detect those who attempt to enter the country illegally. They may question people who live or work near the border to help identify illegal aliens. When border patrol officers find violators of U.S. immigration laws, they are authorized to apprehend and detain the violators. They may deport, or return to their country illegal aliens or arrest anyone who is assisting foreigners to enter the country illegally

Border patrol officers work with local and state law enforcement agencies in discharging their duties. Although the uniformed patrol is directed from Washington, DC, the patrol must have a good working relationship with officials in all of the border states. Local and state agencies can be very helpful to border patrol officers, primarily because these agencies are aware of the peculiarities of the terrain in their area, and they are familiar with the operating procedures of potential aliens or drug smugglers.

Border patrol officers work 24 hours a day along the borders with Mexico and Canada. During this time they may be called upon to do “just about anything you can imagine,” according to Paul Nordstrom, 26, a four year GS-7 border patrol agent at Truth or Consequences, New Mexico. “I’ve worked with snow rescues of illegal aliens, catching convicted murderers, apprehending stolen vehicles,” he says. He has escaped gunfire more than once. At night, border patrol officers may use night-vision goggles to spot trespassers. In rugged areas that are difficult to patrol on foot or on horse back, helicopters are used for greater coverage. At regular border crossing points, officers check all incoming vehicles for people or materials hidden in car trunks or truck compartments.

The prevention of drug smuggling has become a major part of the border patrol officer’s work. The increase in drug traffic from Central and South America has led to increased efforts by ICE to control the border with Mexico. Drug-sniffing dogs have been added to the patrol’s arsenal. Work for border patrol officers has become more dangerous in recent years, and all officers are specially trained in the use of firearms.

Some employees of ICE may specialize in areas of immigration or customs. Immigration inspectors enforce laws pertaining to border crossing. They work at airports, seaports, and border crossing points and may question people arriving in the United States by boats, trains, or airplanes. They arrest violators of entry or immigration laws.

Customs officers work to prevent the import of contraband, or illegal merchandise. Most of their work is involved with illegal narcotics. Customs officers search the cargo of ships and airplanes; baggage in cars, trucks, trains, or buses; and mail. They work with travelers as well as with the crews of ships or airplanes. If they discover evidence of drug smuggling or other customs violations, they are responsible for apprehending the offenders.

Occasionally, border patrol officers may also be called upon to help local law enforcement groups in their work. This may involve searching for lost hikers or travelers in rugged wilderness areas of the northern or southern United States.


High School

The minimum educational requirement for anyone wishing to train as a border patrol officer is a high school diploma, although a bachelor’s degree is preferred. If you are still in high school, take geography, social studies, and government courses. This will help give you a general background for the field. Take a foreign language class, specifically, Spanish; fluency in this language will give you an advantage over other job applicants.

Postsecondary Training

College majors in criminal justice, law, and sociology are highly regarded as preparation for this field, as is previous military training or law enforcement experience. Knowledge of Spanish and other languages is also helpful.

Other Requirements

Border patrol officers must be U.S. citizens. Test scores on an entrance exam admit potential patrol officers to the training program. Successful completion of post-academy courses during the one-year probation period following training, as well as acceptable scores on two mandatory tests in Spanish and Law, is required before placement. Good character references are important, and civil service tests are also sometimes required.


Because of the nature of border patrol work, you will not be able to receive direct experience. Courses in immigration law, Spanish, and criminal justice are helpful, however, as is a good sense of direction, geography, and experience hiking in and knowledge of wilderness areas. Also, since the job can be very demanding physically, you should build your stamina and strength by exercising regularly School and local libraries may have books containing information on criminal justice and law enforcement.


Border patrol officers are employed by the federal government. After training and completion of the one-year probation period, a border patrol officer may be appointed to one of four states in California, Texas, Arizona, or New Mexico. These Southwest border states are the largest employers of nearly 150 stations throughout the United States and Puerto Rico. While employment at these sites tends to fluctuate depending on the employers’ perception of need for a given area each year, the larger sites employ anywhere from 100 to 1,000 officers and recent improvements in funding have guaranteed a steady increase for both officers and support staff nationwide.

An officer’s placement is determined at the time of graduation. An individual may request relocation at this time, but at the risk of termination. Though not all states are equipped with border patrol stations, all are required to have at least two immigration stations. Upon promotion, supervisory or investigative positions with the ICE may be available in these areas.

Starting Out

Prospective border patrol officers must pass an entrance exam before being accepted into a 16-week training course at one of three Border Patrol Academies: the Federal Law Enforcement Training Center in Glynco, Georgia; an Advanced Training Facility in Artesia, New Mexico; or the Satellite Training Facility in Charleston, South Carolina. The course teaches the basics of the immigration laws the officers will uphold. They undergo physical training and instruction in law enforcement and the safe use of firearms. Border patrol officer trainees are also taught Spanish as part of their training.

After graduation from the Border Patrol Academy, agents return to their duty stations for a one-year probation period, where they will continue their academic and field training under the supervision of a sector training officer. Two mandatory tests in Spanish and law are administered at 6 and 10 months. All agents must pass these mandatory exams or they will be refused admittance into the border patrol.

Once they complete the course, they will be stationed along the Mexican border. Border patrol officers take orders from their sector chiefs. Border patrol officers generally enter at the GS-5 or GS-7 levels, depending on the level of their education. Entry at the GS-7 level is generally restricted as part of the Outstanding Scholar’s Program, which requires a grade-point average of 3.5 or higher during specified periods of an applicant’s college career.


After their first year, all border patrol officers advance to the GS-9 journey man level. From there, they may compete for positions at the GS-1 1 level. With experience and training, border patrol officers can advance to other positions. They may become immigration inspectors or examiners, deportation officers, or special agents. Some border patrol officers concentrate on the prevention of drug smuggling. They may advance to become plainclothes investigators who spend months or even years cracking a smuggling ring. They may lead criminal investigations into an alien’s background, especially if there is suspicion of drug involvement. Others may prefer the immigration area and work checking passports and visas at border crossings. Border patrol officers may also advance to supervisory positions.

With experience, some border patrol officers leave the front lines and work in the service areas of ICE. They may interview people who wish to become naturalized citizens or administer examinations or interviews. Many of the higher echelon jobs for border patrol officers require fluency in Spanish. Advancement within the border patrol comes with satisfactory work. To rise to supervisory positions, however, border patrol officers must be able to work competitively. These positions are earned based on the agency’s needs as well as on merit.


Border patrol officers begin at either the GS-5 or GS-7 grade, depending on their level of education. In 1999 these grades paid $27,549 to $34,285 and $31,392 to $39,702 per year, respectively GS-9 or journeyman salaries paid approximately $35,000 to $45,000 per year. The highest nonsupervisory grade for a border patrol officer is GS-11, which paid between $41,000 and $53,000 in 1999. Officers in certain cities, such as New York, Los Angeles, Boston, San Francisco, Chicago, Washington, DC, and others are entitled to receive additional locality pay, which adds roughly 16 percent to the base salary Law enforcement officials employed by the federal government are also entitled to additional pay of 25 percent of their base salary Overtime and pay differentials for night, weekend, and holiday work can also greatly increase an officer’s salary

As federal workers, border patrol officers enjoy generous benefits, including health and life insurance, pension plans, and paid holidays, sick leave, and vacations.

Work Environment

The work of a border patrol officer can he tiring and stressful. Because officers must cover the borders continuously, hours are irregular and shills tend to vary. “Balancing shift work and having to adjust to that in your family is difficult,” says Paul. Most border patrol officers spend more time outdoors in jeeps, cars, helicopters, or on horseback than they do in offices. Still, there is a great deal of paperwork to process on each person detained; that usually requires several hours. The work may be dangerous, and many decisions must be made quickly Border patrol officers must confront many people throughout their shift, and they must remain alert for potential illegal entry into the United States. Many people who attempt to enter the United States illegally have undergone extreme risk and hardship. Border patrol officers encounter emotionally intense situations just as frequently as hostile, violent ones. For example, illegal aliens suffer extremes of heat and discomfort of crowding into the back of a hot, airless truck in order to enter the United States; returning to their country is oftentimes as uncomfortable. Border patrol officers must be able to cope with the stress and trauma of such situations. Finally, most of those who attempt to enter the country illegally will do so again and again. Even as agents prevent one group from entering the country, elsewhere several other groups of illegal aliens may be successfully crossing the border. Border patrol officers must be able to work at what may, at times, seem a futile and frustrating task.

Despite the difficulty of the job, work as a border patrol officer can be very rewarding. Border patrol officers perform a necessary function and know they are contributing to the safety of our society


Employment for border patrol officers is expected to increase faster than average through 2011. There has been growing public support of drug prevention activities, including the prevention of drug smuggling. Public sup port of the war on drugs has enabled the ICE to continue to increase its surveillance of U.S. borders. In addition, growing concerns over the level of illegal immigration have created demands for more border patrol officers.

For More Information

Visit the ICE Web site for information about applying for employment with ICE, plus a list of frequently asked questions and answers. During open enrollment periods, call 912-757-3001, extension 0960, to be sent information on testing. When the recruiting period is closed, call 202-616-1964 for recorded information on the next hiring period.

Immigration and Customs Enforcement

425 1 Street, NW

Washington, DC 20536

Tel: 202-514-2000


Information about entrance requirements, training, and career opportunities for all government jobs can be obtained from the U.S. Office of Personnel Management. Write them or use their telephone system, Career America Connection Line, or email address to access bulletins, job lists, or qualifying screening exams.

U.S. Office of Personnel Management

Career America Connection Line

Theodore Roosevelt Federal Building

1900 E Street, NW Room 1416

Washington, DC 20415-0001

Tel: 912-757-3000


The following Web site has all the information you need on the history, mission, and organization of the border patrol, complete with links to other sites, an on line museum, email addresses of more than 100 agents and trainees nationwide, a library of articles on the border patrol, short stories, journal entries written by officers, and more.

The Unofficial U.S. Border Patrol Web Site


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