Pros and Cons of Enlisting in the Coast Guard

Is the Coast Guard the Right Military Service for You?

The Coast Guard is a maritime, military, multi-mission service unique among the U.S. military branches for having a maritime law enforcement mission (with jurisdiction in both domestic and international waters) and a federal regulatory agency mission as part of its mission set. 

Currently, the Coast Guard operates under the Department of Homeland Security during peacetime but can be transferred to the Department of the Navy by the President at any time, or by Congress during the time of war.

As one of the nation's five armed services, the Coast Guard has been involved in every war from 1790 to Iraq and Afghanistan. It was officially established as the Revenue Marine by the Continental Congress at the request of Alexander Hamilton. Its first purpose was to collect customs duties in the nation's seaports. By the 1860s, the service was known as the United States Revenue Cutter Service. The Coast Guard was formed from the merger of the Revenue Cutter Service and the United States Life-Saving Service on 28 January 1915.

The Coast Guard's enduring roles are maritime safety, security, and stewardship. To carry out those roles the Coast Guard has 11 statutory missions as defined in 6 U.S.C. § 468, which include enforcing U.S. law in the world's largest exclusive economic zone of 3.4 million square miles (8,800,000 km2). The Coast Guard motto is Semper Paratus, "Always Ready."

Recruiting Environment for the Coast Guard

The Coast Guard is one of the more difficult branches to join.  The Coast Guard has over 35,000 active-duty men and women, over 7,000 Reservists, and over 29,000 Auxiliary personnel, and enlists about 3,000 and 4,000 new recruits per year (compared to the Navy’s 38,400 new recruits per year).  

The Coast Guard prefers you correspond with them through their web chat with recruiters, and make an appointment to meet with a recruiter at the recruiting office.

The Coast Guard requires a minimum of 54 points on the Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery test.  However, your chances of joining are much better if you score higher. Like the other branches, the Coast Guard accepts very, very few recruits who don't have a high school diploma. If you have a GED, it is rare to be accepted.

You will have to undergo a credit check and pass a security clearance check. The Coast Guard generally approves the lowest rate of criminal history waivers and medical waivers (in fact, it is the only branch for which shellfish allergies is a non-waiverable condition). They invite prior service applicants with some rules and restrictions.

Coast Guard Enlistment Incentives

The Coast Guard offers a small variety of enlistment incentives to entice qualified applicants to join. They recommend discussing current incentives with a recruiting officer.

The Coast Guard participates in the Post-9/11 GI Bill, which provides up to 36 months of education benefits for 15 years after your release from active duty.

Like the other services, the Coast Guard offers advanced enlistment rank up to E-3, for such things as college credits or JROTC. 

Coast Guard Job Opportunities

The Coast Guard has 20 enlisted jobs (called ratings) divided into 4 categories: 

  • Deck & Ordnance - Maritime Enforcement Specialists (ME), Boatswain's Mate (BM), Gunner’s Mate (GM), Operations Specialist (OS), and Intelligence Specialist (IS).
  • Hull and Engineering – Damage Controlman (DC), Electrician’s Mate (EM), Electronics Technician (ET), Information System Technician (IT) and Machinery Technician (MK)
  • Aviation – Avionics Electrical Technician (AET), Aviation Maintenance Technician (AMT) and Aviation Survival Technician (AST)
  • Administrative & Scientific – Food Service Specialist (FS), Health Services Technician (HS), Marine Science Technician (MST), Musician (MU),  Public Affairs Specialist (PA), Storekeeper (SK) and Yeoman (YN)

While that doesn't seem like many jobs when compared to Navy, many of the older ratings were absorbed into other ratings – for example, the Sonar Technician (ST) rating was absorbed into the ET rating and OS rating.

Coast Guard Basic Training

The Coast Guard only has one location for enlisted basic training:  Coast Guard Training Center Cape May in Cape May, New Jersey.  The Coast Guard Training Center Cape May processes 3000 to 4000 recruits per year.

In order to graduate from Coast Guard basic training, the requirements are:


  • Sit-ups: 38 in one minute
  • Push-ups: 29 in one minute
  • 1.5-mile run: 12:51
  • Sit and Reach :  16.50”


  • Sit-ups: 32 in one minute
  • Push-ups: 15 in one minute
  • 1.5-mile run: 15:26
  • Sit and Reach:  19.29”

As well, all must be able to jump off a 5-foot platform into the pool, swim 100 meters, and tread water for five minutes.

Following graduation from recruit training, most members are sent to their first unit while they await orders to attend advanced training in Class "A" Schools.

The Coast Guard is different from the other military services, in that all of the outprocessing (assignment) actions are done before graduation, so recruits are free to depart Cape May immediately after the graduation ceremony.

Coast Guard Assignments

The Coast Guard has Installations, Bases, and Air Stations throughout the United States (CONUS) – East Coast, Gulf Coast, Great Lakes and Pacific. 

The Coast Guard operates a variety of platforms to conduct its daily business. Cutters and boats are used on the water and fixed and rotary wing (helicopters) aircraft are used in the air. A cutter is basically any CG vessel 65 feet in length or greater, having adequate accommodations for crew to live on board.

Larger cutters (over 179 feet in length) are under the control of Area Commands (Atlantic Area or Pacific Area). Cutters at or under 175 feet in length come under the control of District Commands. Cutters, usually have a motor surfboat and/or a rigid hull inflatable boat on board. Polar Class icebreakers also carry an Arctic Survey Boat (ASB) and Landing Craft.

All vessels under 65 feet in length are classified as boats and usually operate near shore and on inland waterways. They include motor lifeboats, motor surf boats, large utility boats, surf rescue boats, port security boats, aids to navigation boats and more. Sizes range from 64 feet in length down to 12 feet. The Coast Guard operates about 1,400 boats. 

The Coast Guard has about 200 fixed and rotary wing aircraft. These include C-130 Hercules turboprops, HU-25 Falcon jets, H-65 Dolphin and HH-60 Jayhawk helicopters.

Coast Guard personnel work with Assignment Officers to arrange assignments – these individuals are in charge of all assignments for a particular job community and rank (rate) range.  While the Coast Guard doesn’t have a set Sea/Shore rotation as does the Navy, I’m given to understand that the Assignment Offices have what is termed a Sea Duty Matrix – an internal process used for managing the non-traditional sea-going rates such as YN, SK, & HS.  The matrix is used to determine who should fairly be assigned to sea duty positions, and is based on factors such as [not inclusive]

  • Has the individual previously been assigned to a sea duty position as a rated individual
  • Has the individual been in the same geographic area
  • What is the individual’s rank

However, some ratings have a sea time requirement for advancement (your recruiter should have a list of which ratings require sea time).  As well, like the rest of the branches, the Coast Guard has overseas assignments and special assignments (such as recruiting).

Coast Guard Deployments

The vast majority of Coast Guard deployments are at sea on Coast Guard ships. Just as with the Navy, if you don't want to deploy on ships or submarines, don't join the Coast Guard.  Like the Navy, the larger ships are small cities and can deploy overseas. For instance, during the Iraq War, there were cutters assigned to the Persian Gulf.  Their mission:  port and harbor and waterway security. USCGC Wrangell (WPB-1332) was assigned to protect British minesweepers clearing the entrance to Umm Qasr.  USCGC Dallas (WHEC-716), positioned off the west coast of Syria, intercepted fugitives from Saddam Hussein's regime who were attempting to flee by sea.

As with members of the other Reserve Components, Coast Guard men and women are subject to involuntary mobilization under Title 10 for national security contingencies. However, unlike members of the other Reserve Components, Coast Guard Reservists can also be involuntarily mobilized for up to 60 days at a time for domestic contingencies, including natural disasters and terrorist attacks. For example, the Coast Guard mobilized approximately 700 reservists for Hurricanes  Katrina and Rita.

Promotions in the Coast Guard

Individuals enlisting in the Coast Guard can receive advanced promotion, up to the rank (rate) of Seaman (E-3), for such things as college credits, JROTC, Eagle Scout, Civil Air Patrol, etc. Coast Guard Enlisted are promoted to E-2 after the completion of boot camp, and while advancement to E-3 is virtually automatic, an E-2 is required to certain Performance Qualifications and Nonresident Exams prior to being declared eligible. In addition, members must have their CO's approval and 6 months time-in-grade (TIG) or have completed technical training - "A" School - to qualify for E-3. (in some cases you may also be eligible to advance to E-3 upon graduation from boot camp based on either enlisting for 6 years, or prior military experience.)

Enlisted promotions to the grades of E-4 through E-9 are based on competition for a limited number of vacancies.

Sailors are promoted to E-4 through E-6 based on a combination of basic eligibility requirements and a Coast Guard Service-Wide advancement test. 

Advancement to E7 is based on basic eligibility requirements, Service-Wide Final Multiple Score (FMS); the E-8 advancement process is basic eligibility requirements and the Service-Wide competition; the E9 advancement process is based on the basic eligibility requirements and the Master Chief Petty Officer Service-Wide competition.

In addition, some ratings have a sea time requirement for advancement – meaning that they must have served on a ship for a specific amount of time in one pay grade before they may be eligible to advance to the next paygrade.

Educational Opportunities in the Coast Guard

Of course, everyone who enlists on active duty is eligible for the G.I. Bill. Like the Navy, the Coast Guard offers a college fund for individuals who agree to enlist in jobs that the Coast Guard considers critically undermanned. The College Fund adds money to your monthly GI Bill entitlements. In 2014, the Coast Guard reinstated cost-sharing for its tuition assistance program.

Like all of the services, when you are off-duty, you can take college courses on campuses close to the base you are assigned to, or take advantage of courses offered on-base through the base education offices. Courses offered on-base are by actual colleges and universities, that are considered "military friendly," in that they generally give credit for military training, and usually have liberal credit transfer policies.

Enlisted Commissioning Programs in the Coast Guard

Like the other services, the Coast Guard offers a chance for qualified enlisted sailors to finish college and earn a commission as a Coast Guard Officer. The programs can change over time as they need more or fewer of different specialties. Here is a selection of those that have been offered.

  • Warrant Officer - allows senior enlistees – 8 years of service and E-6 or above (E-6 must be in the top 50% on the eligibility list for E-7) – to obtain appointments to commissioned warrant officer.
  • Direct Commission Engineer (DCE) - allows enlisted personnel with at least an associate's degrees in an engineering field to obtain temporary commissions.
  • Officer Candidate School (OCS) – a 17-week course of instruction which prepares graduates of civilian colleges and qualified enlisted personnel to serve effectively as Coast Guard officers.
  • Physician Assistant (PA) – 29 months long, at the end of which the selectee will not only be a qualified Physician Assistant, with a bachelor's and a master's degree but will receive a direct commission as an ensign in the Coast Guard.
  • Pre-Commissioning Program for Enlisted Personnel (PPEP) allows selected enlistees to attend college full-time for up to two years completely at the Coast Guard's expense, with the goal of qualifying for and attending OCS
  • Aviation Candidate (AVCAD) - provides an enlisted person an opportunity to become a Coast Guard aviator.
  • Selected Reserve Direct Commission (SRDC) – provides enlisted Reservists (or civilians) an opportunity to become commissioned officers.