Image of an airplane in flight and a soldier with the caption "can you join the Air Force with a felony."

Can you join the US Air Force (USAF) with a felony? Yes it is Possible to join the Air Force with a felony conviction but the USAF is the most difficult branch of the military to join with a felony record. With that being said MOST felons will NOT be eligible to have a USAF career, only a small percentage of felons will be accepted. There are a number of conditions and circumstances that will affect your ability to join as a felon.

Can You Join the Air Force with a Felony?

The United States Air Force (USAF) is the youngest, and arguably the pickiest, military branch. Founded in 1947, the Air Force has long distinguished itself as the go-to military branch for America’s smartest, tech-savvy young people.

In addition, the Air Force is responsible for America’s largest stockpile of nuclear weapons. With that much power at its disposal, the USAF needs to ensure that it chooses individuals with a high moral standing.

With or without a felony, the Air Force is one of the hardest military branches to get into. Why? Airmen love the Air Force so much that their reenlistment rate beats all other branches! This means that the USAF can be more selective than the other branches when accepting applicants, because it needs fewer new recruits than the Army or Navy. More Airmen staying in means less turnover and less vacancies.

Having said that, when dealing with the U.S Air Force, there can be a waiver for everything. This is especially true if the military is struggling to meet their recruiting goals.

A Booming Economy Means Fewer People Joining the Military

When the economy lags or goes into recession, many people turn to the military for financial stability.

However, when the U.S. job market is strong, college enrollments plummet and the U.S. military has trouble bringing in willing recruits. This is largely a result of high school graduates having their pick of a number of high paying civilian jobs immediately after graduation.

When the Air Force has trouble finding new recruits, all of the rules get thrown out the window. Think of the Air Force recruiting policy as more of a guideline rather than rules that are set in stone. This means that timing is everything.

Still, the USAF and other military branches put a strong emphasis on “Sound Moral Character.” But what does that mean?

What is “Sound Moral Character?”

Statistically, 1 in 3 adults has a criminal conviction in the United States. This means that there are approximately 70 million people who must contend with a less-than-stellar background check when applying for opportunities in the US Air Force.

The majority of those 70 million people want nothing more than to get on with their lives and be productive members of society.

Strictly defined, moral character is the existence of virtues such as integrity, courage, fortitude, honesty, and loyalty. In other words, it means that you’re a good person and a good citizen with a good head for what is right and wrong. Sound moral character also means that you have a respect for authority including state and federal law.

Armed conflict has its own set of laws called the Geneva Convention for Rules of Engagement that dictates the humane treatment of wounded or captured military personnel, medical personnel and non-military civilians during a war or armed conflicts.

In recent news, a decorated U.S. Navy SEAL was recently arrested for shooting civilians who were classified as “noncombatants.” At the time, he was serving as a medic with Naval Special Warfare Group One based out of San Diego.

This is what makes the United States different than some of its adversaries; the U.S. attempts to avoid civilian casualties in a time of war.

By and large, the Air Force wants individuals who won’t discredit the United States during times of armed conflict. But it’s more than that; the Air Force would prefer not to spend the time and money needed to deal with a “problem Airman.” There are studies that show a correlation between pre-service criminal history and in-service misconduct.

Therefore, in many cases, a felony conviction could prevent a person from joining the military.

So, is all hope lost? Not yet.

Enlistment Requirements Are Not Set in Stone

Recruitment standards are one of the few Pentagon regulations that are not set in stone. If needed in times of a shortage of Airmen, the Air Force lowers the fitness requirements to make more individuals eligible for enlistment. In addition, the Air Force is willing to consider Americans who have a criminal history, depending on the severity of the crime.

Called a “moral waiver” or “conduct waiver,” individuals with a criminal background can apply to be evaluated, depending on the type of felony conviction. An Air Force recruiter is typically the person who would walk an individual through the waiver process and acceptance depends on several factors:

  • What was your felony conviction was for? There is a big difference between armed robbery and drug possession.
  • Are you currently facing criminal proceedings?
  • Was your conviction as a minor or as an adult?
  • Are you currently on probation?
  • Was your crime a one-time offense, or are you a repeat offender?
Felony Expungement – In a number of states it is possible to have your felony conviction either expunged or sealed. Imagine having your record swiped clean! Learn more here.

The Air Force Category System

The AFRS Instruction 36-1901 is the policy that the US Air Force (USAF) has developed to instruct recruiters on how to deal with recruits who may have a criminal history. In this policy, the USAF has developed a classification system that breaks down crimes into five different categories.

Category 1- This category is for major crimes that involve harm to other people, with or without dangerous weapons. Crimes in this category are the most difficult to get a waiver for and must be approved by the Air Force Recruiting Service Commander or Vice Commander. Examples from this category could include murder, manslaughter, arson, aggravated assault and other serious felonies.

Category 2- This category is also considered for serious offenses, but the crimes may be slightly less serious than category 1. Crimes in this category can only be waived by recruiting group commanders.

This list is not all-inclusive but some offenses under Category 2 could include:

  • Arson.
  • Aggravated assault with a dangerous weapon, intentionally inflicting great bodily harm, with intent to commit a felony.
  • Attempting to commit a felony.
  • Breaking and entering a building with the intent to commit a felony.
  • Bribery.
  • Burglary.
  • Carrying a concealed firearm or unlawful carrying of a firearm.
  • Carrying a concealed weapon (other than firearm), possession of brass knuckles.
  • Child pornography offenses.
  • Conspiring to commit a felony.
  • Criminal Libel.
  • DUI or DWI: driving under the influence of, or while intoxicated or impaired by, alcohol or drugs.
  • Embezzlement.
  • Extortion.
  • Grand larceny.
  • Grand theft.
  • Housebreaking.
  • Indecent assault.
  • Involuntary manslaughter.
  • Leaving the scene of an accident (hit and run) involving personal injury.
  • Looting.
  • Marijuana: simple possession or use.
  • Negligent homicide.
  • Pandering.
  • Perjury.
  • Prostitution or soliciting to commit prostitution.
  • Riot.
  • Robbery.
  • Sedition or soliciting to commit sedition.
  • Selling, leasing or transferring a weapon to a minor or unauthorized individual.
  • Willfully discharging firearms so as to endanger life or shooting in public place.

Category 3 – Again, these are slightly less serious than category 2, but can be waived this time by Air Force Recruiting Squadron Commanders.

Some offenses under Category 3 could include:

  • Adultery.
  • Assault.
  • Breaking and entering a vehicle.
  • Conspiring to commit a misdemeanor.
  • Contributing to the delinquency of a minor (including purchase of alcoholic beverages).
  • Desecration of a grave.
  • Discharging a firearm through carelessness or within municipal limits.
  • Drunk in public, drunk and disorderly, public intoxication.
  • Failure to stop and render aid after an accident.
  • Indecent exposure.
  • Killing a domestic animal.
  • Liquor or alcoholic beverages: unlawful manufacture or sale.
  • Malicious mischief.
  • Resisting, fleeing, or eluding arrest.
  • Slander.
  • Shooting from a highway or on public road.
  • Stealing property or knowingly receiving stolen property.
  • Use of telephone or any electronic transmission method to abuse, annoy, harass, threaten, or torment another.
  • Wrongful appropriation of a motor vehicle, joyriding, or driving without the owner’s consent. If the intent was to permanently deprive the owner of the vehicle, treat as grand larceny or grand theft—auto.

Category 4- This category of crimes can be waived by the Air Force Recruiting Squadron Commander and he or she will also be looking for repeat criminal behavior; for instance, 3 offenses in a year may disqualify you. When in doubt, the Air Force will consider any offense in which local law allows for confinement for less than 4 months as a Category 4 offense.

Some offenses under Category 4 could include:

  • Abusive language under circumstances to provoke breach of peace.
  • Altered identification when intent is to purchase alcoholic beverages.
  • Careless or reckless driving.
  • Check: $50 or less, insufficient funds, or worthless.
  • Curfew violation.
  • Committing or creating nuisance.
  • Damaging road signs.
  • Fare evasion (including failure to pay turnstile fees).
  • Fighting, participating in a brawl.
  • Illegal betting or gambling: operating an illegal handbook, raffle, lottery, or punch board.
  • Juvenile noncriminal misconduct: beyond parental control, incorrigible, runaway, truant, or wayward.
  • Liquor or alcoholic beverages: unlawful possession or consumption in a public place.
  • Littering of dumping refuse near highway or another prohibited place.
  • Loitering.
  • Possession of indecent publications or pictures (other than child pornography).
  • Purchase, possession, or consumption of alcoholic beverages by a minor.
  • Racing, drag racing, contest for speed.
  • Shoplifting, larceny, petty larceny, theft, or petty theft (committed under age 14 or stolen goods valued at $50 or less).
  • Trespass on property.
  • Vagrancy.
  • Vandalism, defacing or injuring property.
  • Violation of fireworks law.
  • Violation of fish and game laws.

Category 5- This category is reserved for traffic offenses however, a pattern of irresponsible driving, for instance 5 traffic violations in a year, will require a waiver. A waiver for traffic offenses can be granted by the Air Force Recruiting Squadron Commander. Offenses in this category are the easiest to get a waiver for.

Some offenses under Category 5 could include:

  • Disobeying traffic lights, signs, or signals.
  • Driving on shoulder.
  • Driving uninsured vehicle.
  • Driving with blocked or impaired vision.
  • Driving with expired plates or without plates.
  • Driving without license in possession.
  • Driving without registration or with improper registration.
  • Driving wrong way on a one-way street.
  • Failure to display inspection sticker.
  • Failure to have vehicle under control.
  • Failure to keep right or in proper lane.
  • Failure to signal.
  • Failure to stop or yield to a pedestrian.
  • Failure to yield right-of-way.
  • Faulty equipment (defective exhaust, horn, lights, etc., illegal window tint).
  • Following too close.
  • Improper parking (does not include overtime parking).
  • Invalid or unofficial inspection sticker.
  • Leaving key in the ignition.
  • License plates improperly or not displayed.
  • Operating overloaded vehicle.
  • Playing vehicle radio or stereo too loud (noise or sound pollution).
  • Speeding.
  • Spinning wheels, improper start.
  • Seat-belt violation.

Was Your Felony a One-Time Offense, or are you a Repeat Offender?

One of the many variables that the Air Force looks for when considering a waiver is whether the felony was a one-time offense. Repeat felony offenders are a red flag to Air Force recruiters as this may signal a pattern of behavior that is not consistent with the values of the USAF.

Again, it is worth mentioning that all waivers are performed on a case by case basis. The best bet is to speak with an Air Force recruiter.

What Exactly Does the Air Force look For When Considering a Moral Waiver?

By now, we have established that you can, in fact, be accepted into the USAF with a prior felony conviction. But there are four primary factors that the USAF will look at closely when considering a waiver:

  • Absence of later violations
  • Evidence of rehabilitation
  • Satisfactory completion of a period probation or parole
  • Needs of the Air Force

All of the conditions listed show that the USAF is interested in evidence that you have rehabilitated yourself and are ready for active duty.

No doubt, the USAF can be a great place for a fresh start for a convicted felon who has been through a period of rehabilitation and has had no other criminal violations.

In fact, the most dynamic variable is always the “needs of the Air Force.” In times of lower enlistment or national crisis, the USAF has and will continue to allow people into the military who may not have been qualified otherwise.

In this sense, timing is everything. But it is important to note that of all of the military branches, the Air Force grants the least number of waivers. Less than 5% of the Air Force recruits need a moral waiver.

How do you Apply for a Moral Waiver with a Felony?

The process starts by speaking to an Air Force recruiter. The recruiter will ask the applicant if they have ever been arrested or convicted of a felony, what crimes they may have committed, including traffic violations, and ask about any juvenile crimes; even those that may have been sealed or expunged.

Once the applicant admits to having a criminal history, the recruiter will request a complete background check from local law enforcement agencies.

It is worth noting that the individual Air Force recruiters have no authority to waive a criminal offense. Waivers for more minor felonies can be granted by the local squadron commander. More serious offenses must get approved by the recruiting group commander or higher.

The good news is that the Air Force considers the “whole person” concept when approving waivers. Applicants who score well on their Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery, Armed Forces Qualification Test (ASVAB AFQT) have a higher chance of receiving a waiver.

In addition, applicants with outstanding high school grades or college credits will also benefit the waiver approval process.

The final piece to keep in mind is that there is no strict set of guidelines for this entire process. In a time of national crisis or war, the whole waiver process could be temporarily suspended. If an extremely big war broke out, the draft could even make a comeback.

The Appeals Process

If you need a waiver for criminal history, then you are already at a point where you do not meet the USAF standards for enlistment. In this sense, the waiver itself is the appeals process.

Unfortunately, there is no process to appeal a waiver that has been denied by the Air Force.

It is important to note that each waiver process is for one branch only. This means that a waiver that was denied by the Air Force does not disqualify you from other branches of service like the Army, Navy or Marine Corps.

In the event that a waiver was denied by your preferred branch of service, speak to a recruiter from another branch and go through the process again.

If that fails, it is possible that the timing is just not right. Either the military isn’t feeling the pressure to waive its standards, or the waiver approval authority, i.e. squadron commander, could have just been having a bad day. Wait a year and try again. With enough time, the squadron commander will have moved on to a new position and a new approval authority will fill their spot.

Can You Join the Air Force with a Felony? Yes You Can!

The military can be a phenomenal place for a fresh start. The esprit de corps and camaraderie can forge friendships that last a lifetime.

The structure and discipline found in the Air Force is also a great path to mental toughness and why many veterans are so successful in business and entrepreneurship when they leave the military.

The first step is to speak with an Air Force recruiter in your hometown and discuss your criminal history in detail. The “whole person” concept means that you will be evaluated not just on the bad things you may have done, but the good things as well.

Armed with the knowledge of the process, good timing and a little luck, the Air Force can be an excellent option for applicants with a felony.

Felony Expungement – In a number of states it is possible to have your felony conviction either expunged or sealed. Imagine having your record swiped clean! Learn more here.