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Diplomatic Security Special Agent Career Guide

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Diplomatic Security (DS) Special Agents are vital assets to our nation’s security and are highly esteemed law enforcement professionals.

DS Special Agents are one of several types of Foreign Services members employed by the Bureau of Diplomatic Security, the law enforcement and security agency of the U.S. Department of State. They serve both overseas and domestically at foreign service posts.

While abroad, they advise U.S. Ambassadors on security matters and implement security programs at their assigned location. When at home, they protect visiting foreign dignitaries and U.S. officials and conduct a variety of security-related investigations. No matter where they work, DS Special Agents have the same objective: protect U.S. diplomatic missions, facilities, systems, information and personnel.

Agents should be prepared to work overseas for a large amount of their career and be frequently relocated. In exchange for their service, agents are eligible for a wide range of benefits, including paid housing and education for their dependents if they are stationed abroad.

In this Article

How to become a Diplomatic Security Special Agent in 7 steps

Decide if being a DS Special Agent is right for you.

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The life of a DS Special Agent can be demanding and unpredictable, but also incredibly rewarding. You may face life-threatening situations and must be willing to frequently relocate across the globe. If you want to safeguard U.S. diplomacy efforts and are willing to undergo months of rigorous training to do so, then being a special agent could be right for you.

Earn a bachelor’s degree.

male college graduate with diploma

The Bureau requires that Special Agents have at least a bachelor’s degree. There is no requirement for what subject you must study, but relevant fields such as criminal justice or international studies may be beneficial.

Gain experience.

woman security professional on computers

You must also have at least one year of work experience (or 18 credit hours of graduate-level study) to be considered for the position. Although there is no requirement for what that experience must be, applicants with specialized experience in security, law enforcement or the military are highly desired.

Apply to be a DS Special Agent.

woman getting application instructions

You can apply to be a Special Agent once you meet all the qualifications for the position. The application consists of several components that must be submitted together: an online examination, your resume and transcripts, a minimum qualifications checklist, a physical readiness test self-certification evaluation form, an accomplishments questionnaire and a statement of interest.

Complete the oral assessment, medical exam and qualify for security clearances.

man getting medical exam from female doctor

Candidates that are selected to advance in the application process must take an oral assessment. This assessment consists of a writing exercise and a structured interview to evaluate your competencies in the 12 dimensions of foreign service work.

If you are selected to advance past the oral assessment, you will be given a conditional offer of employment. The final step to confirm your position is to undergo a series of medical examinations and security clearances. You will receive an official offer of employment when these clearances are successfully completed.

Complete your training.

instructor with recruits on gun range

Now that you’ve accepted the job offer as a Special Agent, it’s time to train for what lies ahead. All DS Special Agents complete a seven-month training to teach the skills needed to be a successful agent, including security procedures, law enforcement techniques, firearm operations and more.

Start your career as a DS Special Agent.

security agent standing in front of car

It’s time to start your career after you complete your training. According to the Bureau, most agents will be assigned to one of the eight domestic field offices for the first three years of their employment. Afterwards, they may be assigned to a location abroad.

What do Diplomatic Security Special Agents do?

Upon completion of their seven-month training program, Diplomatic Security Special Agents are considered federal law enforcement officers and carry a firearm.

In most cases, Diplomatic Security Special Agents are assigned to a domestic location for the first three years of their career (including training). After that, many agents are given assignments overseas at embassies and related facilities.

Duties performed by Diplomatic Security Special Agents include but are not limited to:

  • Conduct protective security services for the Secretary of State, other U.S. government officials and visiting foreign dignitaries.
  • Protect Foreign Service personnel, facilities and sensitive information at their assigned post.
  • Lead U.S. diplomatic mission security programs abroad.
  • Conduct investigations such as counterintelligence, counterterrorism, criminal investigations (especially passport and visa fraud) and more.
  • Assessing physical security threats against U.S. interests, properties, systems and personnel abroad.
  • Conduct security training for U.S. foreign affairs personnel and local officials of foreign governments.
  • Respond to emergency situations which could demand the use of firearms, defensive tactics or medical procedures.

The role of a DS Special Agent is physically and mentally demanding. They may have to conduct raids, make arrests, restrain suspects, skillfully maneuver motor vehicles and perform other law enforcement functions that could involve life or death situations. Furthermore, Special Agents may have to endure uncomfortable working conditions such as long hours, lack of rest or meals and travel to environments with inclement weather, extreme heat or cold and pollution.

Education requirements

To be considered for a Diplomatic Security Special Agent position, you must earn a bachelor’s degree. There is no requirement for what type of bachelor’s degree you earn, but it would be beneficial to study topics relevant to a Special Agent. For example, you might choose to major in:

The Bureau also lists the following requirements to be considered for a Special Agent position:

  • Be a U.S. citizen and available for worldwide service.
  • At least 20 years old and not older than 36 years old.
  • Fit for physical exertion and pass a preemployment physical readiness test.
  • Be able to obtain/maintain a Top Secret Security Clearance and TS/SCI access.
  • Be able to obtain an appropriate Foreign Service Medical Clearance.
  • Be able to obtain a favorable Suitability Review Panel determination.
  • Be able to testify in court

Although DS Special Agents also need to have some work experience to be considered, postgraduate studies can satisfy this requirement. Having a master’s degree or higher in any of the subjects listed above could make you a competitive candidate. 

In addition, anyone with a career that involves extensive travel abroad would benefit from foreign language skills, and DS Special Agents are no exception. Although it is not required for consideration, having foreign language skills are highly sought after in Special Agents.

Other DS Special Agent requirements

Prospective Special Agents also need at least one year of work experience and/or academic achievements that reflect a progression of increasing responsibility. The Bureau desires candidates from diverse backgrounds and life experiences, so there’s no perfect job needed to become a Special Agent.

The biggest thing to keep in mind is that the Bureau evaluates your resume holistically to see if your experience demonstrates the knowledge, skills and abilities needed to be a successful agent. Therefore, it’s not surprising that the Bureau often favors experience in security, law enforcement and the military

DS Special Agents are competitive positions. Just because you may meet the minimum qualifications does not mean you will be automatically advanced in the application process. Applicants with more education and experience than what is required will generally be prioritized.

Median annual salary

The salaries of DS Special Agents are not reported by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). However, the BLS does list the median annual salary for detectives and criminal investigators.

Detectives and Criminal Investigators

National data

Median Salary: $86,280

Projected job growth: 1.5%

10th Percentile: $47,990

25th Percentile: $61,240

75th Percentile: $110,530

90th Percentile: $150,570

Projected job growth: 1.5%

State data

State Median Salary Bottom 10% Top 10%
Alabama $62,420 $40,150 $138,570
Alaska $141,210 $75,500 $165,690
Arizona $93,830 $55,000 $127,520
Arkansas $45,360 $36,310 $129,750
California $107,240 $73,320 $153,210
Colorado $92,440 $60,280 $147,370
Connecticut $92,070 $68,290 $150,820
Delaware $80,060 $58,070 $158,930
District of Columbia $142,420 $85,560 $175,340
Florida $74,120 $42,900 $149,410
Georgia $58,670 $39,070 $141,090
Hawaii $107,740 $94,490 $150,740
Idaho $66,990 $45,850 $125,820
Illinois $95,040 $62,650 $152,980
Indiana $61,500 $40,000 $134,910
Iowa $75,070 $52,350 $133,680
Kansas $58,880 $38,960 $96,430
Kentucky $58,430 $39,520 $141,540
Louisiana $53,320 $36,940 $137,610
Maine $72,180 $50,840 $112,530
Maryland $116,770 $59,070 $169,120
Massachusetts $93,220 $59,170 $158,480
Michigan $83,490 $63,590 $151,420
Minnesota $76,340 $53,900 $122,530
Mississippi $47,950 $35,000 $117,960
Missouri $72,740 $42,430 $139,360
Montana $89,940 $57,700 $129,750
Nebraska $79,480 $49,490 $138,490
Nevada $80,240 $53,390 $136,050
New Hampshire $75,470 $54,720 $145,270
New Jersey $98,320 $60,990 $163,240
New Mexico $81,660 $43,830 $99,990
New York $96,200 $61,410 $169,100
North Carolina $55,360 $43,400 $122,760
North Dakota $79,060 $48,030 $129,750
Ohio $76,270 $49,990 $137,970
Oklahoma $59,810 $43,260 $125,820
Oregon $95,220 $59,990 $147,260
Pennsylvania $86,280 $64,190 $142,000
Rhode Island $80,080 $70,160 $140,860
South Carolina $52,470 $40,980 $137,610
South Dakota $62,070 $46,450 $129,750
Tennessee $60,430 $41,880 $133,680
Texas $82,090 $46,550 $129,650
Utah $70,680 $43,820 $141,540
Vermont $95,220 $61,940 $141,540
Virginia $93,500 $48,270 $169,120
Washington $105,120 $74,590 $153,340
West Virginia $70,680 $41,700 $149,410
Wisconsin $83,010 $60,710 $98,180
Wyoming $70,480 $53,990 $133,680

Source: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) 2022 median salary; projected job growth through 2032. Actual salaries vary depending on location, level of education, years of experience, work environment, and other factors. Salaries may differ even more for those who are self-employed or work part time.

Special Agents are paid based on the most up-to-date Foreign Service Salary Schedule. Your experience, location and educational background will impact what pay level you start at.  

DS Special Agents are also eligible for several benefits and employment perks, such as:

  • Many professional development opportunities to expand your skills and learn a new language.
  • Federal benefits which include retirement plans, vacation and sick leave, and life and health insurance.
  • Law Enforcement Availability Pay, danger pay, moving expenses, rest and recuperation leave, paid housing or a housing allowance, and paid K-12 education for dependent children.

FAQ: DS Special Agent training and more 

What is the DS Special Agent physical fitness test?

All DS Special Agents must pass a pre-employment Physical Readiness Test (PRT) in order to demonstrate their physical competency. The test consists of doing push-ups, sit-ups and a 1.5 mile run. You will be scored differently depending on your age and gender.

What is the training process for DS Special Agents?

After accepting an offer of employment, DS Special Agents complete about seven months of specialized initial training. The first three months of that training takes place at the Federal Law Enforcement Training Center (FLETC) in Brunswick, Georgia. According to the Bureau, agents will be taught and tested on the following subjects: 

  • Criminal law
  • Federal court procedures
  • Use of firearms
  • Physical readiness
  • Personal defensive tactics
  • Driving skills
  • Emergency medical procedures
  • Protective security techniques
  • Criminal investigations

After their time at the FLETC, agents will complete an additional four months of DS Basic Special Agent training. Special Agents must complete additional training and refresher courses to maintain their skills throughout their career.

Are DS Special Agents diplomats?

The Bureau of Diplomatic Security refers to Special Agents as “Part diplomat, part law enforcement officer and part security expert” in their Special Agent brochure. Although their main objective is to serve and protect the diplomats, Special Agents do represent our nation abroad.

kendall upton

Written and reported by:

Kendall Upton

Staff Writer