If you’re considering a career in the military, deciding which branch to join is maybe the most exciting question you’ll face. Besides the choice between the Army, Navy, Air Force, Marine Corps, Coast Guard or Space Force, there’s much to weigh when making a decision including job choices, duty stations, travel opportunities, and more.
Of course, military service in any branch comes with a long list of benefits. In fact, there is some variation in the benefits offered so it’s best to compare which military branch has the best offerings for your lifestyle and long-term goals.
Military Branches and Basic Pay
When it comes to your basic pay, the military branches are all the same. A look at military pay charts shows that military pay is based on a pay grade, or rank, and years of service. In terms of your base pay, there is no fundamental advantage to opting for one branch of service over another.
Special and Incentive Pay
While basic pay levels are consistent between the branches and are linked to pay grade and years of service, there are opportunities to earn more money through Special and Inventive Pay, or S&I. S&I allows for additional pay that is used by the individual branches to address specific manning needs and other force-management issues that cannot be addressed strictly through basic pay. This type of military incentive pay can also be used to improve recruiting and retention by increasing compensation for those who choose to work in key occupation specialties or critical skill areas. Many of the jobs that qualify for S&I take place in hazardous and dangerous conditions, with examples including crew members on a Navy flight deck, those who work with demolition units, or others who handle or are exposed to toxic fuels or chemicals.
Military Bonus Pay
One way the military branches not only compete with each other for qualified and skilled candidates, but also to retain personnel and keep them from departing for civilian jobs, is through the lure of a military singing bonus. Each branch has its own bonus program, and the levels can be quite lucrative, with mission-essential careers bringing a bonus of up to $40,000. In fact, the Army offers up to $50,000 for new enlistees on a two-year contract who opt into certain in-demand career fields. Unfortunately, no matter the branch, not all job fields qualify for an enlistment or retention bonus, and when they are awarded depends on the demand of a field at a given time and staffing goals.
Which Military Branch Has the Best Bonus Pay?
Trying to pinpoint which branch offers the best military bonus pay is something of a moving target, as these bonus levels can change daily or could be withdrawn altogether. Each branch creates its own bonus structure according to its needs. The Army, Navy and Air Force are offering enlistment bonuses of up to $50,000 for some fields, while the Marine Corps has bonuses that top out at around $8,000. The Coast Guard will pay up to $40,000 for some enlistees who opt for active-duty service.
Retention bonuses for active-duty personnel in all the branches can add up to hundreds of thousands of dollars, mainly through career field bonuses and other incentives.
The best place to start nailing down an answer to what’s available is by speaking with a reenlistment advisor or a recruiter. Ask questions about bonus levels based on your job field (or desired job field) and what’s offered for your interests and special skills.
Remember, some bonus pay levels, like enlistment or reenlistment bonuses, may vary by branch and job field.
Aside from the basic pay you earn with every check, the second-most-important area of your compensation is tied to allowances. Allowances are money provided for specific needs like food, housing or clothing. You get these when the government does not provide for that specific need. For example, service members with families not living in government housing would receive an allowance to help them obtain and pay for commercial housing. Most allowances are not taxable.
Again, these levels typically do not vary between the six branches of services (although the Basic Allowance for Housing, or BAH, can be higher depending on cost of living in a particular location).
Education Benefits by Branch
No matter the branch, any conversation about a military career will include a review of military education benefits. Programs like the G.I. Bill or other tuition assistance programs are available to all who serve and can set you up with the funds and support to pay for the next leg of your education.
What you may not know is that each of the military branches also offer additional educational programs, which serve as another way to attract (and retain) qualified candidates into service. These educational benefits vary by branch, so it’s a good idea to look into what each has to offer before making a decision on where to sign.
Army Education Benefits
Active-duty and reserve officers in the Army can pursue a graduate-level education through the Advanced Civil School program. The ACS fully covers tuition at approved civilian schools. Once enrolled, participants are allowed the time to pursue a degree. While ACS is primarily offered to both commissioned and warrant officers, some non-commissioned officers may also be eligible.
Another Army-specific program is the Funded Legal Education Program (FLEP), which selects 25 participants each year to attend law school. Upon graduation, participants receive a guaranteed JAG Corps posting. FLEP is open to active-duty and non-commissioned officers and requires an additional commitment of service.
Navy Education Benefits
Serving in the Navy means the possibility for months-long deployments aboard a ship in locations around the world, so that’s a perfect opportunity for furthering your education. The Navy College Program for Afloat College Education is a cooperative partnership with a variety of reputable, accredited universities in which participants can take offline remote classes while at sea for extended periods. Additionally, it covers up to 100 percent of tuition for courses, or up to $4,500 per year.
Typically aimed at enlisted personnel, the Navy’s Nurse Candidate Program offers financial support to those who want to attend nursing school. In return, participants sign on for service as a commissioned nurse officer for between four and five years following graduation.
The Navy also offers its Funded Legal Education Training that offers participants a path through law school as part of its In-Service Procurement Program for the Judge Advocate General Corps. ISSP is offered only to enlisted personnel in pay grades E-5 through E-7. There are two paths through the ISSP: participants can pay for the program themselves, or apply to the FLET and have the Navy cover the costs.
Marine Corps Education Benefits
Education benefits offered by the Marine Corps are extensive. Marines are not only eligible to take any program offered by the Navy (see above), the branch also offers some of its own programs for officers and enlisted personnel.
For starters, officers can earn a graduate degree through the Special Education Program or the Advanced Degree Program. SEP covers tuition and fees and offers a stipend for books and supplies. ADP requires that participants cover their own way, though you can use G.I. Bill benefits if you’re eligible. Opting for these programs means you’ll pursue a degree in a field that’s in demand and you’ll also have to extend your service commitment.
The Staff Noncommissioned Officer Degree Completion Program is specifically for enlisted personnel in grades E-6 through E-8, aimed at helping them finish a baccalaureate degree. This program does not offer tuition coverage or funds for books and supplies, and it’s for those who have already completed two years of their college education. Upon completion of a degree, participants are guaranteed work in their area of expertise.
Air Force Education Benefits
The Air Force may have the clearest path toward furthering your education. The branch has its own college, the Community College of the Air Force, with every enlisted airman enrolled on the first day of basic training. The CCAF is the world’s largest community college and is fully accredited by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools. You’ll automatically earn credits as you attend Air Force technical schools aligned with your job field, all aimed at an associate’s degree in your work specialty. You can continue that work toward your bachelor’s degree through a variety of online schools with as many as 350 training choices.
The Air Force also offers its Technical Degree Sponsorship Program, aimed at increasing the number of officers with electrical and computer engineering degrees. While tuition and other costs aren’t covered by TDSP, participants are paid while they study and have a guaranteed engineering officer position waiting after completion of the program. Enlisted personnel who sign up for TDSP must complete Officer Training School and agree to a four-year active-duty commitment.
Space Force Education Benefits
Space Force guardians are eligible for the education programs offered through its sister branch, the Air Force (see above). Scholarships are available to those who wish to further their education, along with 100 percent tuition assistance through the Air Force Tuition Assistance Program.
Coast Guard Education Benefits
Education benefits offered by the Coast Guard are somewhat unique among the military branches. The Coast Guard Mutual Assistance is a nonprofit that offers a variety of assistance programs and supports active-duty members, family members, civilian Coast Guard employees, auxiliarists, and even retirees. CGMA educational benefits includes the Supplemental Education Grant, offering up to $500 annually toward schooling; the Stafford/Plus Loan Fee Reimbursement, which refunds costs associated with federal student loan applications; the Education Loan Program, which loans up to $3,000 to boost other military education benefits; and no-cost tutoring services.
The Coast Guard also offers its College Student Pre-commissioning Initiative, its version of the Reserve Officer Training Corps. Participants can earn a bachelor’s degree, qualify for full tuition assistance, earn a commission as a Coast Guard officer, and earn money and benefits while they attend school.
Choosing the Military Branch with the Best Benefits
Choosing a military branch with the best benefits boils down to a personal choice. Opting for a career in an in-demand and understaffed career field could bring large bonuses and faster promotion rates. You might also choose a branch with a path toward a high-quality, low-cost education that also checks the boxes for large bonuses and more. Really, it’s a matter of considering the many options and finding what fits best.
About The Author
Craig Richardson is a military veteran who started his journalism career while serving in the Navy. Following overseas deployments to the Med and Middle East, including service in Operation Desert Storm, he left for the private sector but continued with journalism. He has worked for several publishers and news organizations over nearly 30 years and continued to cover stories with ties to veterans and military affairs throughout his career.
- Bledsoe, E. (2022, October 2) Which Military Branch Has the Best Benefits? Retrieved from https://www.thesoldiersproject.org/which-military-branch-has-the-best-benefits/
- Williams, J. (2019, October 10) A Complete Guide to Choosing Which Branch of the Military to Join. Retrieved from https://www.medalsofamerica.com/blog/complete-guide-choosing-which-branch-military-serve/
- Tennyson, T. (2022, April 29) Which Military Branch Has the Best Pay and Benefits? Retrieved from https://veteran.com/military-branch-best-benefits/
- N.A. (ND) Military Compensation Special and Incentive Pay Index. Retrieved from https://militarypay.defense.gov/Pay/Special-and-Incentive-Pays/Index/
- N.A. (ND) Military Compensation Special and Incentive Pay. Retrieved from https://militarypay.defense.gov/Pay/Special-and-Incentive-Pays/
- N.A. (ND) Military Compensation Allowances. Retrieved from https://militarypay.defense.gov/Pay/Allowances.aspx
- Wilson, S. (2022, June 13) A Guide to the Unique Military Education Benefits Offered by Each Service Branch. Retrieved from https://www.militarysupportivecolleges.com/education-benefits-guide/military-education-benefits-each-service-branch/
- N.A. (ND) Join the U.S. Space Force. Retrieved from https://www.spaceforce.com/military-careers