How long do you stay in the Air Force? This is a question everyone should know before signing an enlistment contract.

When joining the Air Force as an active duty enlisted airman, your initial enlistment as a first term airman will be for 4 or 6 years. After your first enlistment contract, you have the potential to reenlist or separate from the military. Reenlisting would mean choosing another 4 or 6 years. The people that decide to stay in usually stay in for 20 years of service to receive retirement benefits.

When gaining rank in the Air Force, higher tenure comes into play and has an effect on how many years you can stay in the military at a given rank. Most long term airmen leave the military at 20 years, but some high ranking enlisted members and officers stay. Pushing 30 years of service before retiring.

Enlisted Active Duty: 4 Years vs 6 Years

How long do you stay in the Air Force? This first depends on the enlistment contract you accept. Active duty first-term airmen initially enlist in the Air Force for either, 4 or 6 years. Depending on the decision you make when completing your enlistment paperwork with your recruiter.

If you’re joining the Air Force for 4 years expect to enter at the lowest rank (E-1) Airman Basic, unless you have specific previous experience. Some of the previous experience allowed is completing Junior Reserve Officer Training Corps (JROTC), being an Eagle Scout, or having specific amounts of college credits. Depending on your experience this could allow you to enter above the lowest Air Force rank. Potentially enlisting as an (E-2) Airman or (E-3) Airman First Class.

Air Force 4 year enlistment potential rank:

Eagle Scout or Girl Scout Gold Palm = (E-2) Airman

College credit, 20 semester hours or 30 quarter hours = (E-2) Airman

Complete JROTC = (E-3) Airman First Class

College credit, 45 semester hours or 67 quarter hours = (E-3) Airman First Class

Enlisting for 6 years allows you to enter the Air Force with a slightly higher rank. Meaning you start at (E-3) Airman First Class, making more money per month. No related skills or college credits are needed either. This is very enticing and a large reason why people choose to enlist for 6 years.

Some Air Force jobs require a 6 year contract in order to receive that specific Air Force Specialty Code. Tech school lengths for special operations jobs and other Air Force career fields are not sustainable with a 4 year contract. By the time you are fully trained and qualified your enlistment contract is nearly complete under a 4 year enlistment. To fulfill Air Force needs, a 6 year enlistment is required for these type of jobs.

Beyond specific Air Force jobs, a 6 year enlistment contract can be chosen over a 4 year contract. Again, the choice is made when filling out your contract with an Air Force recruiter.

After Your Service Commitment – Individual Ready Reserve

Taking the oath of enlistment commits all enlisted Air Force members to an initial 8 year military service obligation. Regardless of how many years you choose to enlist 4 or 6, you’ll have an inactive reserve service on top of your contract when leaving the military.

The keyword is “inactive” you are not expected to perform tasks in this state of reserve. This point of service is in case of drastic events, you potentially could be called back into service. Think of inactive reserve as another form of a draft.

For enlisted airmen, on top of your active duty service, you’ll still have years of an “inactive” Individual Ready Reserve service commitment. Signing up for 4 years will require you to serve an additional 4 years of inactive service, for a total of 8 years. While signing up for 6 years requires an additional 2 years of inactive reserve, also for a total of 8 years.

Air Force officers are transferred into an additional ready reserve after completing the initial 8 years. The Non-Obligated Non-Participating Ready Reserve Personnel Section (NNRPS) is an additional 2 years. This service commitment can be canceled by resigning as a commissioned officer.

While in the Air Force Individual Ready Reserve you are not paid because there is no training/work involved.

Enlistment Contract Extensions

How long can you stay in the Air Force? Sometimes it’s necessary to stay in the Air Force past your current term of service without re-enlisting. This can be done through an enlistment extension. Enlistment extensions can be voluntarily requested by you, or be required for specific reasons by the Air Force.

Enlistment extensions are completed in monthly increments and can be extended in some cases from 1 month to 36 or 48 months.

Requested Air Force extensions can be for medical reasons. If you plan to get out of the military while your spouse or yourself becomes pregnant, a pregnancy extension can be used. Your new date of separation would be one month after the delivery date. This extension is a huge advantage. Having a child while still in the Air Force is free from medical bills. While giving birth after separating from the military can be very costly.

Another reason to extend an enlistment contract would be to complete a deployment or temporary duty assignment. These type of orders are not given if they go beyond your current separation date. If you want to complete a specific assignment or deployment before you leave the military, an enlistment extension would be needed to complete the task.

Extensions required by the Air Force generally is for reasons like medical procedures and recovery, investigations, or to obtain a proper security clearance.

So when you ask, “how long do you stay in the Air Force?” it can be a matter of wanting to complete a given assignment, or not.

Air Force Retirement

How long do you have to be in the Air Force before you can retire? Generally, Air Force retirement is eligible after 20 years of service. However, some situations do allow airmen to retire before the full two-decade mark.

In 2013 and 2014 sequestration took a toll on the Air force. In layman’s terms, there were budget cuts and the Air Force incentivized airmen to retire/separate early from the military. There will always be instances of fluctuation between the total number of years required, but again, overall Air Force retirement requirements are set at the 20-year mark. Retiring before the 20-year mark lowers benefit amounts on a percentage scale.

Even retirement programs and pension amounts change over the years. However, as a general overview, Air Force retirement gives you a pension, medical benefits, and base privileges, among other benefits.

Air Force retirement pay depends on the number of years served, plus your rank when retiring. Going beyond 20 years offers a higher monthly pension. You can expect to retire with roughly 50% base pay as your monthly pension payout. Basically, you’d receive an amount equal to 50% of the paycheck you earned while serving your last few years before retirement.

Retiring from the military after 20 years as an enlisted (E-7) Master Sergeant you’d currently receive roughly $1,600 a month after taxes in retirement money. That’s around $20,000 a year.

Enlisted airmen and officers have separate career paths. This shows the difference in retirement income.

Retiring from the military after 20 years as an officer (O-5) Lieutenant Colonel you’d currently receive roughly $3,100 a month after taxes in retirement money. That’s around $38,000 a year.

Even if you don’t have a college degree to be an officer, enlisted airmen can still reach respectable amounts for a monthly pension.

Retiring from the military after 30 years as an enlisted (E-9) Chief Master Sergeant you’d currently receive roughly $3,600 a month after taxes in retirement money. That’s around $46,000 a year.

Having a monthly pension plus all the other retirement benefits pushes the total value of an Air Force retirement even higher.

Should You Reenlist Or Separate After Your First Enlistment

Whether you stay in the Air Force or get out, you’ll receive many military benefits after 4 years of service. Here are some of the benefits and ways you can use them.

Reasons To Reenlist

Beyond Air Force retirement benefits, here are two benefits to reenlisting any airman can use without having to retire from the military.

Let The Air Force Pay Your Mortgage – When buying a house, you as a military member will be granted a VA home loan. A benefit to this home loan is it offers a zero percent down payment. For living off base in the military, you’d be granted BAH as well, which is a housing allowance to pay a monthly rent/mortgage bill. This housing allowance is on top of your normal pay, and it is tax exempt.

Realistically, the Air Force can be paying off your mortgage while serving in the military. Keep in mind you can do this during your first term of service as well, reenlisting simply continues the mortgage paydown provided by the Air Force through BAH.

Transferring The Post 911 GI Bill To Kids- Another great benefit and reason to reenlist is directed towards your kids. If you have kids or plan to have kids, at some point you’ll think about their college education. The Post 911 GI Bill for your college education can be transferred to your children if certain criteria are met. You can transfer the Post 911 Bill entirely to your child or split it between multiple children. In order to transfer the Post 911 GI Bill a reenlistment for an additional 6 years would have to be completed.

Related article: Joining the Air Force in your 30’s

Reasons To Separate

Military benefits after 4 years of service come in all shapes and sizes. Most are direct benefits and a few are indirect and job specific. Here are two reasons to leave the military and pursue other avenues.

Using The Post 911 GI Bill – Many airmen join the Air Force to get a free education, maybe you’re one of them. After serving your first enlistment you’ll have the option to get out of the Air Force and use your hard earned Post 911 GI Bill.

Using your educational benefits pays for roughly 3 years towards your college education. On top of that, the Post 911 Bill pays a monthly housing allowance when specific conditions are met. Having a free education plus Veterans Affairs contributing to your living expenses helps put your focus back on learning.

To receive the complete amount of BAH housing allowance a full-time student status has to be met and classes have to be physically at the college campus. Being less than a full-time student still offers housing allowance, just not the full percentage.

Not all locations are allotted the same amount for BAH housing allowance either. It is location specific. You can enter in your potential school’s zip code into this housing allowance calculator to get current monthly allowance totals.

BAH is based off (E-5) Staff Sergeant pay with dependents for your educational housing. Also, It’s important to know taking online classes is different and offers a set rate pay.

Higher Paying Civilian Job – Depending on the Air Force job you receive, some jobs have the potential to make more money on the civilian side. Having strong transferable skills and a good resume with military service makes all the difference.

In the air traffic control career field 1C1X1 a first term airman with the rank of Staff Sergeant can make roughly $35,000 a year, not including benefits. Yet an ATC air traffic controller on the civilian side can make upwards of 6 figures a year. Some Air Force training is highly sought after and compensated well when transitioning from a military career to a civilian career.

To Wrap It Up

How long do you stay in the Air Force? A better question to ask is, how long do you want to stay in the Air Force?

If your goal is to just do one term of service and separate there are many valuable skills and benefits to receive. Or if you decide to go the long haul and make a career out of the military be ready to reap everything it has to offer.

So, how long do you want to be in the Air Force for?

Prepare for bmt with this related article: How hard is Air Force basic training?

Corey Porter

Corey Porter

Air Force Veteran

Corey is an Air Force veteran and the lead writer at Basic to Blues. He refueled fighter jets as a young airman and deployed twice to the Middle East. Now Corey can be found hiking in the Pacific Northwest.

Who the hell… POL!

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