What is a TSA agent?
Transportation security administration (TSA) agents provide security and protection for travelers and help prevent dangerous materials and people from entering major transportation hubs. TSA agents are able to detect hazardous substances and weapons on people and inside luggage. The majority of TSA agents work at airports, but they can also be found working at railways, subways, and other transport hubs.
A typical day as a TSA agent may include assisting passengers through x-ray machines, inspecting luggage, maintaining traffic flow through security points, responding to passenger inquiries, and reporting security threats, vulnerabilities, and weaknesses. They use a number of tools, such as trained dogs, cameras, hand-held metal detectors, and surveillance equipment to identify possible threats.
Qualifications and eligibility
TSA agents need to have a certain skill set in order to be successful. They must be adaptable and able to quickly respond to threats. They must also possess strong customer service skills. TSA agents work directly with the public and see a diverse group of people every day. It is important that they have the skills to interact with, speak to, and assist travelers. TSA agents need to be observant and have excellent attention to detail. This is especially true when scanning luggage or detecting suspicious behavior from travelers.
The TSA is always introducing new policies and technologies, and a TSA agent needs to be a fast learner and pick up new procedures quickly. Being a TSA agent can be stressful at times. They may have to handle dangerous material, subdue out of control travelers, deescalate possible threats, and more. Agents have to be able to work well under pressure.
The educational requirement for a TSA agent is a high school diploma or a GED.
To be eligible to become a TSA agent, some requirements will vary depending on the position and rank, but the minimum requirements include:
- Must be a United States citizen
- Must be at least 18 years old
- Must possess a high school diploma or equivalent
- Must pass a drug screening
- Must pass a medical evaluation
- Pass a background investigation, which includes a credit check and a criminal check
Most TSA agents work indoors at a transportation hub such as an airport or a train station, although some occasionally work outdoors. The working conditions can vary by day and the work can be tedious but can also be unpredictable at times. TSA agents need to be ever alert and ready to react quickly to possible threats. They wear a uniform distinguishing them from other workers and passengers. They may also wear safety attire, such as latex gloves and face masks at times. They can be exposed to loud noise levels for extended periods. They typically stand for long periods and interact with passengers by screening individuals, scanning luggage, or directing passengers as to what to do or where to go.
TSA agents can be exposed to contaminants and radiation from x-ray machines. Because they work directly with the public and come in contact with many different people from a wide range of different areas and backgrounds, they can be exposed to diseases and infections passengers might be carrying. They may also work in very bright or dim light.
Typical work hours
TSA agents typically work a set schedule and most work at least 40 hours a week. Their schedules may include weekends, nights, and holidays. Occasional overtime is sometimes required.
Types of TSA agents
TSA agents perform a variety of functions. Some of the common types of TSA agents include:
- Carry-On Bag Screener – search for explosives and other various dangerous objects.
- Checked Baggage Screener – screens for explosives and other dangerous objects. Suspicious bags may be tagged for a further physical bag search.
- Pat-Down Screener – checks for prohibited items concealed on an individual.
- X-Ray Imaging/ Metal Detector Screener – uses state-of-the-art imaging technology and walk-through metal detectors for passenger screening.
- Pre-Airport Arrival Screener – identifies high-risk passengers before they arrive at the airport by matching profiles against trusted traveler lists.
The earning potential for a TSA agent can vary greatly depending on geographic location, education, experience, certifications, and acquired skills.
- According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the median annual wage for transportation security screeners was $45,470 in May 2021. The lowest 10 percent earned less than $39,330, and the highest 10 percent earned more than $55,870.
- The highest annual wages for TSA agents as:
- Washington – $62,568
- New York – $58,703
- California – $56,492
- Idaho – $56,178
- New Hampshire – $55,491
- The states with the lowest annual wages are:
- Illinois – $42,290
- Missouri – $42,070
- Georgia – $41,113
- Louisiana – $39,957
- North Carolina – $38,380
- Per the BLS, the top paying metropolitan areas for TSA agents are:
- San Francisco-Oakland-Hayward, CA – $59,120
- Riverside-San Bernardino-Ontario, CA – $50,150
- Denver-Aurora-Lakewood, CO – $49,980
- Boston-Cambridge-Nashua, MA-NH – $49,650
- Los Angeles-Long Beach-Anaheim, CA – $49,380
The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics predicts that the employment for transportation security screeners will grow by approximately 3% through 2026, which is slower than the average for all occupations. Most of the openings are expected to come from replacing workers who transfer to different occupations or retire.
There are many career paths a TSA agent can take, and the path you choose will depend on your education, experience, interests, and opportunities. Some common careers TSA agents can advance into include:
- Lead Transportation Security Officer
- Supervisory Transportation Security Officer
- Transportation Security Manager
- Assistant Federal Security Director
- Federal Air Marshal
- Supervisory Federal Air Marshal
- Criminal Investigation Officer
- Transportation Security Specialization
- Transportation Assistance Officer
- Security Assistance Officer
- Personnel Security Officer
- Training Specialists and Instructors
- Canine Handler
- Mission Support – Program Analyst
- Scheduling Operations Officer
- Aviation Regulatory Inspector
- Transportation Security Inspector of Cargo
- Intelligence Operations Specialist
Steps to becoming a TSA agent
Here are the typical steps to becoming a TSA agent:
1. Get the needed education
To become a TSA agent, you will need to have at least a high school diploma or GED. A college degree is not required, but it can be beneficial and give you an advantage over your competition. You can earn either an associate’s or bachelor’s degree. Majors that can be helpful include criminal justice, criminology, political science, and sociology.
2. Get relevant experience
Gaining relevant experience is a great way to show potential employers your dedication and that you are prepared for the role. Opportunities such as working as a security guard or school resource officer may help you develop the valuable skills you’ll need. Another excellent way to gain experience is by having military experience or working in law enforcement.
3. Apply for internships
Three internship programs are available for aspiring TSA agents, all of which are offered by the federal government. The Student Career Experience Program and the Student Temporary Employment Program offer paid internships, while the Student Volunteer Service Program is unpaid. You must be at least 16 years of age, enrolled in an accredited U.S. high school, tech school, or college, and have a GPA of at least 2.0 to be eligible.
4. Conduct your job search
Besides looking on popular job boards like Indeed and LinkedIn, you can look on U.S. government websites and the TSA website.
5. Meet the requirements
You’ll have to meet certain requirements to qualify for a position as a TSA agent. Besides having a high school diploma, you must be at least 18 years old, be a U.S. citizen, and have proficiency in the English language. Other requirements include passing a background check, a color vision exam, a credit check, a criminal check, and a drug screening.
6. Get the training
Once you’ve found a job, met the requirements, and you’ve been hired, your next step is to complete your training. The TSA Online Learning Center (OLC) administers all TSA learning and development programs. The TSA Screener Training Program includes study in x-ray operation, passenger screening, property searching, checked baggage searching, and operating machines that test for explosives. You also may learn how to use bottle liquid scanners and how to detect explosives. You are required to complete more than 120 hours of classroom, online, and on-the-job training and successfully pass a number of tests before you can work as a TSA agent.
7. Maintain your certification
Although no name is given to the OLC certification, TSA agents need to be re-certified by completing an annual process of written tests, image interpretation tests, and third-party evaluations to ensure that they are up-to-date with the latest security protocols and technologies.
8. Other certifications
Other certifications you can earn as a TSA agent that can help advance your career include:
TSA Homeland Security Certificate Program – offered by Des Moines Area Community College, this program is available to TSA employees with at least 6 months of employment and is available through the TSA OLC. The program helps give you a deeper understanding of how TSA and your actions individually affect others. It also shows your commitment to your career and can lead to opportunities for advancement within TSA. It’s only available to current TSA employees. This certificate is paid for by the TSA, and it covers three separate courses. You will take these courses:
- CRJ 301 – Introduction to Homeland Security
- CRJ 303 – Intelligence Analysis and Security Management
- CRJ 302 – Transportation and Border Security
Certificate in Airport Security – offered by the Airports Council International’s Online Learning Centre. This certificate consists of an introduction to aviation security, basic security measures, understanding threat and risk assessment, and security technologies and their capabilities.
Tips for becoming a TSA agent
If you are planning to become a TSA agent, there are a few things you can do to get ahead of the game. Here are some tips for becoming a TSA agent:
- Start out by getting your high school diploma or your GED. Make sure you also look closely at the eligibility requirements and make sure that you are eligible before applying for a position.
- Keep an eye out for TSA hiring events. The TSA runs these events throughout the United States periodically. This can help make the application process easier and faster for you. You also have the opportunity to learn more about the job of a TSA agent and ask questions.
- Make sure you have the right qualifications. If you are friendly, have excellent observation skills, you’re detail oriented, you have good customer service skills, and you work well under pressure, you have the right combination of skills for this job.
- Search for jobs on the TSA website. The application process is more than just uploading your resume, so become familiar with the steps needed to apply for open positions. You can also search for jobs on your local airport’s website or through job boards.
- Consider getting a college degree. Many schools offer associate’s and bachelor’s degrees in criminal justice, criminology, political science, sociology, and other related majors that can be helpful.
TSA agent FAQs