Which Military Branch Has The Best Benefits (2023)

If you’re considering a military career, you may wonder which military service has the best pay and benefits. Is it the Army, Navy, Air Force, Marines, Coast Guard or Space Force?

At a basic pay level, the answer is simple. The military pays the same regardless of branch, according to your pay grade and years of service. Your rank determines your pay grade. Ranks vary across military services, but pay grades do not.

There is also no fundamental advantage in joining one service over the other regarding which benefits you’ll receive.

Our military pay calculator shows how much you would make in any military branch according to your pay grade and years of service. You can also view your basic allowance for housing (BAH) by entering a ZIP code.

While basic pay and allowances are the same across military services, some incentive pays and bonuses might vary. However, this is primarily due to your career field, not your branch of service. Your career field is also a major determining factor in promotion rates.

Here is an explanation of how allowances and incentive pay affect your military compensation.

Allowances in Addition to Basic Pay

Basic pay is only part of the military pay equation. You may also qualify for other allowances based on your pay grade, living situation and how many dependents you have.

Like basic pay, these allowances are the same regardless of branch of service.

Below is an explanation of some of the allowances you will receive in the military.

Housing Allowance

Unless you live in a barracks or other government-owned housing, you will qualify for basic allowance for housing (BAH). BAH is tax-exempt; you don’t have to pay federal, state or social security taxes on it.

The DOD calculates BAH rates based on surveys of rental prices in a geographic area. If your service assigns you to Huntsville, Alabama, your BAH will be lower than if you’re based in Los Angeles, California.

If you believe the Air Force pays a differential to stay in “substandard” Army or Marine Corps barracks, you’ve fallen for a myth as old as military service itself. It isn’t true.

Meal Allowance

As a service member, the military compensates you for your meals through basic allowance for subsistence (BAS). You receive the same rate regardless of pay grade, number of dependents or years of service.

You can find current BAS rates for officers and enlisted members posted here. BAS is also a tax-exempt allowance.

Overseas Cost of Living Allowance

If you serve in one of more than 600 overseas locations, including Alaska and Hawaii, your military branch will pay you an overseas cost-of-living allowance (COLA). Overseas COLA is another tax-exempt allowance. It’s intended to offset the price difference in products overseas versus in the continental United States (CONUS).

Tax Savings

BAS and BAH comprise approximately 30% of total pay and allowances for many military members. The nontaxable nature of these allowances creates a tax benefit compared to the civilian world, where you pay taxes on all of your income.

CONUS COLA Allowance

You might also receive continental U.S. COLAif you’re assigned to one of 20 counties or 21 military housing areas in CONUS, where consumer prices are more than 8% higher than national averages.

Surprise! Your CONUS COLA is not a tax-exempt allowance. That’s because, in 1986, Congress passed a law making every new military allowance taxable. CONUS COLA was authorized in 1995, making it one of the newly taxable allowances.

Other Allowances

Depending on your personal situation, you may be entitled to one or more of these additional allowances:

  • Clothing allowance offsets the cost of clothing or uniforms required for your job. All service members receive an initial clothing allowance, but only enlisted members receive annual replacement clothing allowances. Depending on their duty positions, both enlisted personnel and officers may qualify for an extra clothing allowance.
  • Dislocation allowance is a partial reimbursement for expenses associated with permanent change of station (PCS) moves.
  • The family separation allowance compensates some service members whose dependents can not accompany them on a tour of duty.
  • Family supplemental subsistence allowance assists service members and families with food-related expenses if they otherwise qualify for food aid programs. This allows service members and their families to receive an additional food allowance instead of relying on the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Progam (SNAP), formerly known as food stamps.

Do Any Services Have Higher Allowances?

No. Allowances are the same in all six branches of service. This includes BAS, COLA and BAH.

BAH is the only allowance that may vary. However, since DOD specifically calculates BAH to offset housing costs, you won’t have a relative advantage to your income by living in a higher BAH area since your housing cost will also be higher.

In the Navy, for example, you might live coastal, which tends to have higher BAH rates, but your housing costs will likely absorb this extra money – not your bank account.

Special and Incentive Pays

Each military service uses special and incentive (S&I) pays to meet recruiting and retention goals, especially in critical or understaffed career fields. While services have flexibility in setting their incentives, the DOD sets statutory limits on the maximum they can pay for each category.

S&I pay includes bonuses for enlistment and re-enlistment and some officer programs. The services pay the highest bonuses for career fields that are hard to fill and retain people in.

Service branches can pay other discretionary bonuses associated with enlistment on top of the enlistment bonus itself. For example, in April 2022, the Navy announced it would offer a $25,000 bonus to recruits who shipped to basic training by June. Also, according to GoArmy.com, the army is offering enlistment bonuses up to $50,000 and quick ship bonuses of up to $40,000. Foreign language bonuses are also common.

You can learn about different S&I pays, including bonuses, from the official S&I index.

Note that S&I pay and enlistment bonuses are taxable.

What Career Fields Have the Best Bonuses?

In all military branches, the career fields that pay the highest bonuses – or even any bonus at all – can change daily. Talk to your recruiter or reenlistment counselor to find out which occupations offer the best bonuses and match your interests, skills and aptitudes.

While the DOD prescribes maximums for S&I pay, individual services determine the actual rates. Some incentives, like foreign language pay, are the same across all services. Others, like enlistment bonuses, may vary by branch and component. For example, if one state’s National Guard is having trouble retaining service members, it may offer a higher reenlistment bonus than active duty or even other states.

Something Else to Remember About Bonuses

If you are considering joining the military or reenlisting because you have a pressing financial need and envision getting that fat bonus in a few weeks, think again. Bonus payments are usually contingent on completing your entire training pipeline. In some cases, that can take two years or more.

Furthermore, once you qualify for your bonus, your military service may pay it in prorated amounts over the course of your enlistment contract.

Read your contract carefully and be sure you understand what you are signing up for and when your service will pay you.

Other S&I Pay

In addition to bonuses, here is a list of some other S&I payments authorized for all services:

Hazardous S&I Pays

  • Hazardous duty incentive pays (HDIP)
  • Flying duty, crew members
  • Flying duty, non-crew members
  • Parachute duty pay
  • Demolition duty pay
  • Pressure chamber duty pay
  • Acceleration and deceleration duty pay
  • Thermal stress duty pay
  • Flight deck duty pay
  • Toxic pesticides/dangerous organisms personal exposure pay
  • Toxic fuel/propellants and chemical munitions exposure duty pay
  • Maritime interdiction operations
  • Hostile fire/imminent danger pay

Arduous Duty S&I Pays

  • Hardship duty pay

Assignment S&I Pays

  • Assignment incentive pay (AIP)
  • Overseas tour extension incentive pay (OTEIP)

Career Incentive S&I Pays

  • Aviation career incentive pay (ACIP)
  • Submarine duty incentive pay (SUBPAY)
  • Diving duty pay
  • Career sea pay (CSP)
  • Career enlisted flyer incentive pay (CEFIP)
  • Enlistment bonus (EB)
  • Nuclear officer accession bonus
  • Accession bonus for new officers in critical skills
  • Accession bonus for members appointed as a commissioned officer after completing officer candidate school

Proficiency S&I Pays

  • Foreign language proficiency pay (FLPP)

Retention S&I Pays

  • Aviation continuation pay (ACP)
  • Selective re-enlistment bonus (SRB)
  • Nuclear officers extending period of active duty
  • Nuclear career annual incentive bonus
  • Special warfare officer continuation pay
  • Surface warfare officer (SWO) continuation pay
  • Judge advocate continuation pay (JACP)
  • Critical skills retention bonus (CSRB) or bonus for assignment to high priority unit

Responsibility S&I Pays

  • Officers holding positions of unusual responsibility
  • Special duty assignment pay for enlisted members

Rehabilitation S&I Pays

  • Combat-related injury rehabilitation pay

Skill Conversion S&I Pays

  • Incentive bonus for conversion to military occupational specialty to ease personnel shortage

Transfer Between Services S&I Pays

  • Incentive bonus for transfer between Armed Forces

Medical S&I Pays

  • Multi-year retention bonus for medical officers
  • Multi-year retention bonus for dental officers
  • Medical officer variable special pay (VSP)
  • Medical officer additional special pay (ASP)
  • Medical officer board certification pay (BCP)
  • Medical officer incentive special pay (ISP)
  • Optometrist regular special pay
  • Optometrist retention special pay
  • Dental officer variable special pay (VSP)
  • Dental officer additional special pay (ASP)
  • Dental officer board certification pay (BCP)
  • Dental officer oral and maxillofacial surgeon incentive special pay (ISP)
  • Nonphysician health care providers board certification pay (BCP)
  • Registered nurse accession bonus
  • Certified registered nurse anesthetists (CRNA) incentive special pay
  • Dental officer accession bonus
  • Pharmacy officer retention special pay
  • Pharmacy officer accession bonus
  • Accession bonus for dental officers in critically short wartime specialties
  • Veterinary Corps officer special pay
  • Veterinary Corps officer board-certified pay (BCP)

What Service Has the Best Bonuses?

Each of the services creates its own S&I pay structure, including bonuses, according to its needs. Currently, the Army boasts enlistment bonuses of up to $50,000, as do the Navy and the Air Force.

Current Marine incentives seem to max out at $8,000, but more might be available under specific circumstances. The Coast Guard pays bonuses of $40,000 to some enlistees.

Retention bonuses for all services can be hundreds of thousands of dollars. This is a combination of a $90,000 career field bonus plus other retention incentives. With the career field bonus and other incentives, enlisted airmen can receive up to $360,000 in total retention bonuses. The Space Force is following the Air Force structure for now.

These bonuses apply to active duty. The reserves and National Guard also offer different bonuses and other incentives such as increased education benefits for in-state tuition expenses.

The bonuses listed here are current as of publication. Keep in mind that even if a military service authorized bonuses for the current fiscal year, they will not continue filling the positions or paying the bonuses once they’ve filled their quotas.

The best way to look at bonuses is to understand they are fluid and meant to address shortfalls in manning and encourage retention. They can and do change often.

If maxing out your bonus is the goal, speak to recruiters of all six services to figure out which will offer you the best deal at that time.

Other Benefits of Military Service

The military has several benefits that may be available to you. Your military service may entitle you to some or all of the following:

The Bottom Line

As you advance in your military career, you will earn promotions and possibly bonuses. Current staffing needs determine the rates of both. Promotion rates and bonuses are force-shaping tools for the services.

When a career field falls short of its recruiting needs, the service provides incentives. When enough people sign on the dotted line, these incentives disappear. In the end, all the services pay similarly for the talent they need at that time.

To maximize your total career compensation, try to qualify for the hardest, persistently understaffed career fields, and be prepared to put in a lot of work. While the needs of the services change frequently, some persistently understaffed areas include special warfare, medical and linguist, and talent fields like culinary arts and music.

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Which Military Branch Has The Best Benefits? ›

The Marines, Coast Guard, and Space Force are the branches of the military that have the best benefits. They also are the branches of the military that have the best pay. Nearly all branches of the military pay new recruits relatively the same pay ranges and benefits plans.

Which military branch is the best to join? ›

The Army is perfect for those that are looking to experience new places and travel the world, as t he Army has bases all over the world. In addition to world travel, the Army has a great amount of job opportunities and career advancement for those looking to build a successful military career.

Which branch of the military is the happiest? ›

According to the rankings, the Air Force is among the Top 10 happiest places to work. The Navy made the Top 20, followed by the Marine Corps and Army, respectively, both of which placed in the Top 35. The Department of Defense and Army National Guard also made the list.

Who has better benefits Army or Air Force? ›

Because both the Army and the Air Force are branches with the United States Armed Forces, the pay and benefits are the same. In both branches, you're paid based on your rank. The pay rates for each rank are the same in the Army or the Air Force.

Which branch has the best bonuses? ›

Navy Enlistment Bonus

Highly skilled jobs that involve considerable risk pay the highest enlistment bonuses. For example, Navy divers and special warfare operators can receive a ​$36,000​ enlistment and those in the nuclear field can qualify for ​$38,000​.

What is the hardest military to join? ›

The hardest military branch to get into in terms of education requirements is the Air Force. The military branch with the toughest basic training is the Marine Corps. The hardest military branch for non-males because of exclusivity and male dominance is the Marine Corps. What is the smallest military branch?

What branch pays the most? ›

On average, however, the Air Force is the military branch that has the highest pay because, in the Air Force, there are more opportunities to be promoted to the next rank, which leads to many recruits becoming officers. This, in turn, increases the average salary a little bit compared to the other military branches.

What military has the most benefits? ›

The Marines provide a full benefits package that includes salary, medical insurance, housing, vacation time, and other common benefits. A crucial benefit is the career skills one can develop when joining the Marines. These include things like discipline, leadership, and honor.

What is the lowest paying military branch? ›

E-1: $20,340. E-1 is the lowest enlisted rank in the US military: Airman Basic (Air Force), Private (Army/Marine Corps), Seaman Recruit (Navy). Service members usually hold this rank through basic training, and automatically promote to the next rank after six months of service.

What pays more Army or military? ›

The most basic and straightforward answer is that they all pay the same rate. Your basic military pay is determined by designation (enlisted, warrant officer, officer) and rank, not by which branch you serve.

Which branch promotes the fastest? ›

The Army is generally the branch of the military that promotes the fastest. That said, your military job and advanced education you have will impact your ability to be promoted. A college degree can help you get promoted, regardless of your branch. However, specialized career fields often don't promote quickly.

What branch gets promoted the fastest? ›

Among officers, however, Air Force promotes faster than Army and Marine Corps peers through 20 years' service, and even surpasses Navy's pace over a typical 24-year officer career, service promotion data show.

Which branch has the best housing? ›

Rod Powers was a retired Air Force First Sergeant with 22 years of active duty service. The Air Force has the reputation of having the best quality of life programs (dormitories, family housing, on-base shopping and services, and recreation) of all the military service branches.

What is the most safest military branch? ›

Safest Military Jobs
  • Army.
  • Marine Corps.
  • Navy.
  • Air Force.
  • Coast Guard.
Nov 26, 2020

Which military branch has the highest depression rate? ›

Depression was more prevalent among those in the Marine Corps, Army, and Navy than in the Air Force and Coast Guard (Figure 1); among enlisted personnel (relative to officers); and among women (relative to men). GAD, one of the most common anxiety disorders, is characterized by frequent and excessive worry.

What branch of military sees most combat? ›

The Marine Corps is often first on the ground in combat situations.

Which boot camp is hardest? ›

The Coast Guard has eight weeks designated for boot camp, which is conducted in Cape May, NJ. Many recruits count the first week of Coast Guard training as the most challenging. The first week is when physical conditioning begins, and recruits begin rigorous classroom work.

What is the #1 highest paid position? ›

So, given below is an updated list of the most paid jobs in the world.
  1. Chief Executive Officer (CEO) ...
  2. Medical Professionals. ...
  3. Corporate Lawyer. ...
  4. Investment Banker. ...
  5. Data Scientist. ...
  6. Project Manager. ...
  7. Senior Software Engineer. ...
  8. Web Developers.
Jun 15, 2023

What is the easiest branch to get into? ›

The Air Force is reported to be the “easiest” branch when it comes to physical challenges and difficulties. Next to the Coast Guard, Air Force members are among the least likely to see combat.

Is military benefits for life? ›

After your service in the Army is complete, you'll enjoy a lifetime of benefits such as exclusive employment resources, pension plans, health care, and much more.

Is 20 years in the military worth it? ›

It's an ASSET that you've earned in service to our great nation: an asset that both you and your family has sacrificed for. In fact, it's a tremendous asset with significant value. For the average retiring officer (let's say an O5 with 20 years), the military pension amount is valued at well over a million dollars.

Who has the best military and why? ›

1. United States Of America. US Military has the biggest defence budget in the world. They are known for their most powerful Air Force on the planet, named as United States Air Force (USAF).

Do you get paid in basic training? ›

Yes, you do get paid in Basic Training on the first and fifteenth of every month. The amount depends on your rank. See salaries by rank on the Money & Pay page. You're welcome to send money home via cash or check.

Which military branch has the least jobs? ›

Look for the job you want to learn

The Marine Corps has some 180 jobs to choose from, the Army offers more than 150, the Navy offers at least 93 different jobs (or ratings), the Air Force lists 135, the Coast Guard offers 24, and the newest branch, the Space Force, currently offers at least 16.

What military branch has the most females? ›

Similar shares of men and women currently serve in the Army, which is the largest active-duty branch of the military, and in the Navy. But women are more likely than men to be in the Air Force; nearly one-third (31%) of military women are in the Air Force compared with 22% of men.

What pays better Marines or Army? ›

The military pays the same regardless of branch, according to your pay grade and years of service. Your rank determines your pay grade. Ranks vary across military services, but pay grades do not.

Who pays more Marines or Army? ›

The Army and the Marine Corps have the same pay. All of the branches of the U.S. military use the same pay structure based on years of service and pay grade.

What does a 4 star general make in retirement? ›

This means that a four-star general or admiral with 40 years of service will receive about $237,144 a year during retirement. That's $50,000 more than he or she would have received while on active duty. (Previously, generals and admirals' pensions were capped at 75 percent of their pay).

Which branch is hardest to rank up? ›

There's a great argument that the Marine Corps has the hardest military training of anyone, and here's why. Of course, when you reach the top, you can find them becoming SEALs or a part of the Marine Raider Regiment (MRR), but the training of any Marine is some of the hardest military training in the world.

What branch has the most opportunities? ›

The Army is the largest branch of the U.S. military and as such has the biggest selection of jobs. Each military occupational specialty (MOS) has its own required ASVAB score and some have additional qualification factors.

Which branch gets the most sleep? ›

By contrast, members of the Air Force report significantly higher rates of sleep compared with other military branches. There may be cultural and operational explanations for these sleep differences across branches – and leadership may even play a role in whether service members obtain sufficient sleep.

Which branch has the nicest bases? ›

It is commonly understood that within the military that the Navy has the best base locations in the US Armed Forces. Although there are minor exceptions, every Navy base is on a coast. So, if you want to serve and the beach life calls to you, consider joining the Navy.

Which military branch is easier to get into? ›

With the lower minimum AFQT score requirement and a greater likelihood of waiving past minor offenses, the Army is considered the easiest to get into in terms of military branches. Related Article – Can You Join The Military With A Felony?

What is the hardest boot camp? ›

#1. US Marine Corps. The Marine Corps' boot camp length is 13 weeks. Also, the 13 weeks of boot camp break down into four different phases.

What boot camp is the easiest? ›

At the background clearance check stage, joining the Army or Navy is typically easier. At the ASVAB stage, joining either Army or Air Force is usually more straightforward. At the basic training stage, joining Air Force tends to be less challenging.

What pays best in the military? ›

Highest-paying Military Career Jobs
  • Aircraft Launch and Recovery Officers. ...
  • Armored Assault Vehicle Officers. ...
  • Artillery and Missile Officers. ...
  • Command and Control Center Officers. ...
  • Infantry Officers. ...
  • Special Forces Officers. ...
  • Military Officer Special and Tactical Operations Leaders. ...
  • Medical, Pharmacy, and Dental Services.


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