There are two main paths to join the Merchant Marines. The first path is to attend a maritime academy, such as the United States Merchant Marine Academy (USMMA). Acceptance to the USMMA is limited, and there are only a handful of other maritime academies in the United States. The other method of joining the Merchant Marines involves going to work on a US flagged vessel as an Ordinary Seaman. Your progression through the Merchant Marines on this path will lead you to become an Able Seaman, after which you may choose to become a licensed officer.
The US Merchant Marines is the fleet of civilian vessels that are owned by Americans, flagged in the US, and engaged in either national or international trade. A number of vessels are also operated directly by the United States government, which are collectively known as the federal fleet. Men and women who join the Merchant Marines are known as mariners and are not uniformed members of the armed forces. During wartime, this fleet can and has been used to deliver supplies and deploy troops, at which point it can be considered a branch of the US Navy. Though the correct term is "Merchant Marine", the informal term "Merchant Marines" is sometimes used, especially by older mariners.
One way to begin a career in the Merchant Marines is to attend a maritime academy. The United States Merchant Marine Academy in particular will provide you with a commission in the US Navy Reserve in addition to certification as a Third Mate or Third Assistant Engineer upon graduation. In order to enroll in the USMMA, you will need to obtain a recommendation from a US senator or representative. Other maritime academies offer various opportunities to qualify for the US Coast Guard administered Third Mate or Third Assistant Engineer tests, and typically do not require that you serve upon graduation.
The other way to join the Merchant Marines is to join a crew as an Ordinary Seaman. To do this, you will first need to obtain a Merchant Mariner's Credential (MMC) from the US Coast Guard, after which you can seek employment as an Ordinary Seaman. After you have logged enough hours as an Ordinary Seaman, you can attempt to become an Able Seaman. This position will allow you to take on more responsibilities, and you may be able to obtain much of the necessary experience to eventually become a licensed officer. You may choose to pursue a career as a deck officer or engineer, depending on your interests.