What is a Special Agent?

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

A special agent is someone who works for a government agency in an investigative capacity. The term “special agent” is often used specifically in reference to representatives of American government agencies, such as Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) special agents, although agents of other governments may be referred to as special agents as well. A career as a special agent usually requires citizenship with the government the agent works for, along with the ability to pass a background check and physical exam.

Special agents spend some of their time in the field investigating crime scenes.
Special agents spend some of their time in the field investigating crime scenes.

Numerous government employees can be referred to as agents, but the title of special agent is reserved for employees who engage in investigative duties. For example, a regular Internal Revenue Service agent might work in the office, auditing tax returns, while a special agent actively investigates suspected violations of the law. Special agents often spend time in the field, following up on leads, meeting with informers, and investigating crime scenes, although they also work in the office conducting analysis and preparing reports.

Special agents may work for the United States Secret Service.
Special agents may work for the United States Secret Service.

Special agents work to enforce the laws of a nation on the national level, leaving local law enforcement issues to individual police departments and investigative agencies. They are also involved in national security issues, monitoring ongoing situations, conducting investigations to look for threats, and protecting national borders. Special agents can be involved in criminal investigations, drug enforcement, investigations into financial crimes, anti-terrorism units, and a variety of other tasks.

The term "special agent" is commonly used in reference to FBI agents.
The term "special agent" is commonly used in reference to FBI agents.

To work as a special agent, someone may need to qualify for employment as a regular agent first, working his or her way up the ranks and eventually applying to become a special agent. Other agencies hire special agents directly, often preferring people with a military or law enforcement background, or a high level of education. The requirements for different kinds of special agents can vary considerably; the IRS, for example, likes people with an accounting background, while the Secret Service may look for ex-police and ex-military.

The salary for a special agent is dependent on his or her pay grade and experience level. Special agents generally receive salary bonuses if they have additional skills such as the ability to communicate in a foreign language, and they may be encouraged to pursue continuing education to increase their skillset. In addition to providing support for continuing education, government agencies also provide benefits like relocation assistance, health benefits, payments into pension plans, paid time off, and access to banks and insurance companies which cater to government employees.

Special agents must pass a physical exam.
Special agents must pass a physical exam.
Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a wiseGEEK researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

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Discussion Comments


I always liked the conspiracy theory that there was a secret government agency as well as the ones that are open.

The Men in Black is one theory, although not the only one. They aren't always in charge of aliens or paranormal activity either. Sometimes they are in charge of assassinations and so on. I read a kids series where they had a secret agency that trained children as agents that could work undercover.

I've seen it a couple of times in films too. Like in Fringe, or Alias.

I just love the thought of there being another layer to life. Like magic, but something more realistic and possible.

I don't really believe in any particular theory though, I just like the thought of them.


This is the kind of job that often gets glamorized on television. But, at the same time there is some truth to it. I've heard that special agents have to be really cagey about everything.

In one case, a friend of mine knew a married couple, each of whom was in a different agency and could never talk about their day at work for fear of spilling the wrong secret! I guess they joked about the latest X-Files film instead.

But, I'm sure, most of the time this kind of job just has huge amounts of paperwork, like any other government job.

Even the secret service probably has to spend 60% of their time doing paperwork, although they probably have some compensations!


I had a friend who wanted to be a special agent and she told me that if she applied for the job and they did the background check that I might get a call.

I never did get one, but she told me a few other people did. They were asked mostly about who she had hung out with and what they used to do together. The point was, apparently, to try and get them to name people she herself had not named on her application, so that they could talk to people who she might have been trying to hide from the agency.

My friend had once done pot and told me about it and she told me if they asked that I should tell them, as they don't mind that people have tried it in the past so much, but do mind if they try to lie about it.

It seems like quite a thorough background check and one I wouldn't enjoy going through myself!

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