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How to Become a Spy

First Things First

The most important qualification to become a spy

The first thing is you must realise if you are going to become a spy is that the things you see spies doing in films and on television or read about in novels are not even slightly realistic. You will not kill people. You will not drive fast cars. Attractive foreigners will not attempt to seduce you. You will not defuse bombs with only seconds to spare. For many intelligence roles you probably won’t even get a gun.

How not to be a Spy

This is not what being a spy is about.

Most people realise that James Bond and Jason Bourne are not realistic, but even supposedly realistic spies, like the ones John le Carré writes about, are not much like real spying.

Here’s what Somerset Maugham, who was a spy for MI6, said about being a real spy in his novel Ashenden:

The work of the agent in the Intelligence Department is on the whole extremely monotonous. A lot of it is uncommonly useless.

One movie that was quite realistic was Complicit. It might be worth watching that.

So, let’s summarise the most important lesson about becoming a spy: there will be no guns, no fighting, no fast cars and no sexy foreign agents. Instead, there will be lots of normal, boring hard work, like any job.

Are you sure you want to do this?

Becoming a Spy: Before you apply

Still here? Right, let’s talk about how to become a spy, or as they’re really called an intelligence officer.


Intelligence agencies have lots of other roles besides intelligence officer. Translators, analysts, and IT work are less glamorous, but just as vital.

Basic requirements to become a spy

  • Don’t get in trouble with the law. Any criminal record is likely to end your application.
  • Don’t do drugs. They often give drug tests to applicants. They do not tolerate drug addiction.
  • Go to university. Most intelligence organisations expect their officers to have a good education. MI6, for example, requires a minimum of an upper-second class degree.
  • Be ready to travel. Most spies have to travel to foreign countries. There are roles without travel, but you will limit your chances.
  • Be a citizen. You must be a citizen of your country and so must the rest of your close family.

So those are the basic criteria. But getting a job in intelligence is very competitive. The CIA alone receives over 10,000 applications a month. So you need to do more to stand out. Here are a few suggestions:

Becoming a Spy: Some things that might help

  • Learn a foreign language Preferably the language of your country’s enemies. Even better, learn a relatively obscure language – you will have less competition.
  • Do some sport. Being fit won’t do any harm, and it looks good on your CV.
  • Don’t tell your friends you’re applying. Spying is about being discrete. If you can’t keep your friends unaware, then you will not make it.
  • Show you can work long hours. Get a job that shows your discipline and commitment. Being a spy is not a 9-5 job. Often a case really is a matter of life and death and you won’t be able to go home until you resolve it.
  • Show leadership. Military service might be an advantage here or some other leadership position.
  • Don’t hide things. If you dabbled with drugs or have a minor conviction they will find out, and if you try to hide it, they will think you’re unreliable and untrustworthy.
  • Keep out of debt. Some debt is okay, but don’t show any sign of financial irresponsibility, you could be vulnerable to pressure or bribery.

Becoming a Spy: The Application Process

The application process for an intelligence officer position is much like that for any job, with rounds of interviews and tests. There is though one big difference: extensive checks into your character, reliability and judgement. Some intelligence organisations call this a background check, others call it positive vetting, national security vetting or developed vetting.

What is vetting?

Vetting builds a complete a picture of you to make sure you won’t be a security risk. This to make sure that nothing in your life will make you vulnerable to bribery or blackmail. You’ll need to give evidence of your:

  • Family background
  • Drug use and any other addictions (e.g. gambling)
  • Mental health
  • Finances
  • Political views
  • Travel to foreign countries

All the information you offer will be double checked and you’ll need to show proof. For example, all the following documents:

  • Identity Documents
  • Marriage/partnership documents
  • References for employment, education and character
  • Bills
  • Bank, savings, loans and other credit details accounts


Referees are people who have known you well for a major part of your life. Remember, the intelligence agency will interview all of your referees, and the interviews are in-depth and interrogative. Make sure your referees know you well enough to answer the questions.

How to become a spy for the USA

CIA Motto: The Truth Shall Make You Free

How to join the CIA

If you want to become a spy for the CIA, apply here: CIA’s careers page.

How to join the FBI

To work in counterintelligence for the FBI, see the FBI’s careers page.

How to join the NSA

And if signals intelligence is what you’re interesting in, then check out the NSA’s careers page.

How to become a spy for Britain

MI6 Motto: Semper Occultus, Always Secret

How to join MI6

If you want to become a spy for MI6, then click MI6 Careers.

How to join MI5

If you’d like to work in British counterintelligence, then head for MI5’s careers page. 

How to join GCHQ

Britain’s equivalent of the NSA is GCHQ. If you’d like to apply, then try GCHQ’s careers page

How to become a spy for India

R&AW Motto The Law Protects When it is Protected

How to join R&AW

The Research and Analysis Wing doesn’t have a website, so it’s harder to apply to become a spy for them. However, jobs advertised as Deputy Field Officer, Cabinet Secretariat, Government of India are thought to be recruiting for R&AW. See Cabinet Secretariat job vacancies. Otherwise entrance through the National Academy of Administration may be possible.

How to become a spy for Australia

How to join ASIS

ASIS is the Australian Secret Intelligence Service, Australia’s equivalent of MI6 and the CIA. To apply click ASIS’s careers page.

How to join ASIO

If you’d like to work for the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation, i.e. counterintelligence, then head for ASIO’s careers page.

How to join ASD

Australia’s equivalent of the NSA and GCHQ is the Australian Signals Directorate. If you’d like to apply, then try ASD’s careers page

How to become a spy for Canada

How to join CSIS

CSIS is the Canadian Secret Intelligence Service. To apply click CSIS’s careers page.

How to join CSEC

Canada’s equivalent of the NSA and GCHQ is the Communications Security Establishment Canada. If you’d like to apply, then try CSEC’s careers page.

Don’t give up the day job

Remember, becoming an intelligence officer can take a long time. With all the interviews and background checks it can take six months, a year, or even two years to become a spy.

If you need something to read in between all the interviews, tests and vetting then you should check out my spy thriller A Kill in the Morning by clicking here or on the cover:
A Kill in the Morning by Graeme Shimmin

Good luck!

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