Pros and Cons of Enlisting in the Coast Guard

How to Decide if the Coast Guard is Right for You

Graphics depicting pros and cons of enlisting in the Coast Guard

 Maritsa Patrinos / The Balance

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. 

The Coast Guard's enduring roles are maritime safety, security, and stewardship, and touts the motto "Semper Paratus," which means "Always Ready."

If the Coast Guard strikes your interest and you've thought about joining, read on to discover what it has to offer, weigh pros and cons, and learn more about the specifics of enlisting.

History of the Coast Guard

The Coast Guard was originally part of the Department of Transportation, but soon after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, president George W. Bush established the Department of Homeland Security, and the Coast Guard was transferred from civilian leadership to military leadership as part of DHS. Coast Guard roles were upgraded to encompass anti-terrorism and port protection, as well as other lifesaving, shipping security, and drug interdiction duties. 

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 in 1915.

Coast Guard Requirements

The Coast Guard is one of the more difficult branches to join because it accepts far fewer new recruits than the other branches of the military, and qualifying requirements are strict.

In addition to basic citizenship and physical fitness prerequisites, the Coast Guard sets academic standards as will. They require a minimum of 54 points on the Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery test, but you should do better in order to be competitive with fellow recruits. You will need a high school diploma or college degree. It will probably be difficult to be accepted with only a GED.

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 a shellfish allergy bars entry without exception.) Prior service applicants may be invited with some rules and restrictions.

Con

Indeed, the strict entry requirements might be considered a downside of joining the Coast Guard—perhaps slightly worrisome for those who do qualify, but a complete disappointment for those who don't.

Coast Guard Enlistment Incentives

The Coast Guard offers a small variety of enlistment incentives to entice qualified applicants to join. These are subject to change, so it is recommend to discuss current incentives with a recruiting officer.

Under the Coast Guard College Student Pre-Commissioning Initiative (CSPI), qualifying applicants are promised two years of enlisted pay, commission, and two years of college scholarship in exchange for three years of active duty service.

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 military branches, the Coast Guard offers accelerated pay grades for advanced enlistment rank up to E-3, for such things as college credits or JROTC. 

Pro

Incentives to joining the Coast Guard include scholarship money, GI-bill education benefits, and advanced paygrades for academic achievement.

Coast Guard Job Opportunities

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

  • Deck and 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 and Scientific: Food Service Specialist (FS), Health Services Technician (HS), Marine Science Technician (MST), Musician (MU), Public Affairs Specialist (PA), Storekeeper (SK) and Yeoman (YN)

Pro

The scope of Coast Guard work is vast, and during service you'll receive valuable experience that translates to a wide range of professional options in the civilian world.

Coast Guard Basic Training

As in all branches of the military, physical demands can be intense, and so new Coast Guard recruits are rigorously trained and tested at boot camp. The Coast Guard only has one location for enlisted basic training: Coast Guard Training Center Cape May in Cape May, New Jersey. 

In addition to strength an endurance requirements (push-ups, sit-ups, distance run or swim), all Coast Guard personnel must be able to demonstrate decent swimming skills; at boot camp you can expect to jump off a 5-foot platform into a pool, swim 100 meters, and tread water for five minutes. 

Specialized Training Units

Since the scope and jurisdiction of the Coast Guard work is so vast, many duties require highly specialized skills that not everyone can perform. If you

A Helicopter Rescue Specialist (or Search and Rescue Swimmer) engages in high-stakes, potentially dangerous, and often difficult search and rescue operations in heavy seas. Naturally, the training and qualifying test is grueling, with the additional exercises of pullups, underwater swims, buddy tows, and 500m swims. 

The Maritime Security Response Team (MSRT) is the SWAT Team of the Coast Guard and the only unit within the Coast Guard capable of counterterrorism efforts. The MSRT is trained in direct action missions, and to be the to be the first response to potential or actual terrorist threats. Enlistees who wish to join the MSRT must endure additional combat, warfare, and counterterrorism training. 

Coast Guard Assignments

The Coast Guard has installations, bases, and air stations throughout the continental United States on the East Coast, Gulf Coast, Great Lakes and Pacific. Depending upon what type of ship a Coast Guardsman is assigned to, they could live on that ship, or on the base if the ship is not big enough to accompany the crew full time. 

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. Typically, the factors that involve priority of assignments are the following: 

  • 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). Also, as with the rest of the branches, the Coast Guard has overseas assignments and special assignments (such as recruiting).

Pro
  • Wide variety of possible locations

  • Opportunities for overseas travel, and to see new places

Con
  • Little control over where you are stationed geographically

  • No choice in whether you're assigned on boat or on base

  • Involuntary deployment (Title 10)

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.

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.

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 has certain performance qualifications and nonresident exams required before a recruit is eligible.

In addition, members must have their commanding officer's approval and 6 months time-in-grade (TIG) or have completed technical training 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.)

Some ratings also have a sea time requirement for advancement.

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 advancement programs can change over time as they need more or fewer of different officer specialties.