Foreign Area Officer (aka Getting Paid to be an Expert)

Hello cyberspace!  Katie here, coming at you with a little bit more incentive to go military, or even just military related.  A lot of agencies and services have realized the importance of having individuals specialized in certain areas of the world.  It makes sense.  This carries the potential to save the government money and time in the long run, and you avoid messy and confusing turnovers.  Let’s face it:  going from South America to Asia is a bit of a leap.  It helps if you’ve got staff already well versed and experienced.

Foreign Area Officer (FAO) is all the rage these days with government agencies and services.  They tend to be selected for one specific area, Northeast Asia for example, and rarely will leave that geographic region.  They typically act as liaisons due to their acute understanding of a culture, but that doesn’t mean they get pigeon-holed into any particular line of work.  FAOs can come from a variety of backgrounds within each agency or service, which means a wide range of capability.  To say a FAO just does (insert job description here) would be selling the profession short.

I won’t lie to you, this is not a “straight out of college” deal.  Most agencies and departments require that you spend a few years getting used to regular business, but already having that East Asian-related degree definitely makes you more appealing than your average liberal arts major.

The Navy’s policy towards going FAO is a bit loose:  the day you can submit your package is not specified but is dependent upon your designation (ie. Supply, Surface Warfare, etc) and whether your prior commitments are satisfied.  Depending on when you switch, you might be enticed with packages for a bonus or a higher degree and you can almost always expect some additional and more intensive language training.  The Navy, for example, takes puts its FAOs through the Defense Language Institute (DLI) and the Navy Postgraduate School (NPS) before allowing them to deploy to their respective regions.

Since FAO is so new, you can expect changes to occur in the various programs as everyone overcomes the growing pains.  Eventually there might evolve a set timeline, but in the meantime things are very open.  As with everything else, positions are dependent upon demand.  A lot of focus is being placed on the Middle East so you can expect employers being more anxious with FAOs in that region than others.  Forewarning you all, it is common belief that if you are proficient in one area, you can just as easily become proficient in another.  Don’t be surprised if someone tries to get you to learn a new language/culture/region because you’ve already excelled at something different.

If going FAO sounds enticing to you, then your best bet is to a pick a few agencies and services that you are interested in and start applying for entry-level positions.  Always pick those that you want to be a part of separately from your desire to be a FAO.   Once hired, ask about their policy about going FAO and, when the time comes, apply.  But always bear in mind that good things come to those who wait!

Some helpful links to my favorite service and agency (naturally they are both maritime-related!): (Foreign Area Officers Association) (Article with a good background for the Navy program) … ogram.aspx (Description for NCIS)



Katie McDaniel graduated from Gettysburg College with a BA in Japanese Studies and a minor in Political Science (2009).  After working a year with ESE elementary students, she was commissioned an officer in the Navy through Navy Officer Candidate School (OCS).

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4 Responses to Foreign Area Officer (aka Getting Paid to be an Expert)

  1. Bryan says:

    I thought the only way you could be a Foreign Area Officer was to be selected after reaching O-3 in the military. Diplomats — Foreign SERVICE Officers — are mostly Department of State employees (Commerce, USAID, and Agriculture are a minority). There’s a separate process for them.

  2. kachmcd says:

    Hey, Bryan!

    Thanks for the question! If you read the article, it described how the process is different depending on your background. The only common trend is that you satisfy your original obligations – which, at a minimum, is four years. Yes, that takes most into O-3 (two years apiece for O-1 and O-2 for the Navy), unless you’re very determined not to become an O-3, in which case you probably wouldn’t get picked up for FAO anyway! Since every agency/service/branch is unique, they will obviously go through different processes, but the outcome is pretty much the same!

    Hope that helps you!

  3. Jeffrey says:

    I am going through Air Force now as an enlisted and hope to become an officer soon in the next 4-6 years. I have my BA in political science. I can speak and write Cantonese and Mandarin well and learning Korean now. Problem is that I am only a green card holder. I got my green card 3 years ago and been living in the US since I was 11. What are my chance to become FAO? slim? or?


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