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Enlisted vs Officer – What are the Differences? 2023

difference between enlisted and officer
Enlisted vs Officer

Enlisted vs Officer: The United States military has over 2 million personnel serving in its ranks. Among these ranks are six branches, hundreds of jobs, and countless opportunities. 

But no matter which branch you serve in, what job you have, or where you’re located, there are just two distinct groups of service members that make up the ranks: enlisted and officers.

To the untrained eye, those might just seem like two different words. What’s the big deal, right? For those in the know, those two simple words mean a hell of a difference.

The Impact of Choosing Enlisted or Officer 

The choice to join as an enlisted or officer will ultimately shape the fate of a service member’s career, determining their quality of life, responsibilities, opportunities, pay, and a whole lot more. With that said

  • What exactly is the difference between enlisted and officers
  • Is one better than the other? 
  • What does each of them do? 
  • And most importantly, what does one’s career look like? 

We will cover enlisted vs officer, answer all those questions for you, and cover several factors you absolutely should consider: 

  • Timelines and educational requirements
  • Commitments 
  • Roles 
  • Responsibilities 
  • Quality of Life 
  • Pay.

Difference Between Enlisted and Officers: Basics

Let’s kick things off with the basics. In a nutshell, enlisted personnel are the backbone of the US military and makeup approximately 80% of its ranks. Officers, on the other hand, can be viewed as managers or leaders and makeup 20% of the US military.

  • Another way of putting it is that the officers are like the CEOs and department heads of a corporation making decisions, and the enlisted are the supervisors and workers who carry out those decisions.
  • This isn’t to say that enlisted personnel doesn’t lead; quite the contrary. Remember, they are the backbone of the military.
  • Both enlisted personnel and officers have unique ranks of hierarchy, which indicate their level of seniority, leadership, and responsibility.

Enlisted vs Officer Pay Grade

Military Enlisted and Officer ranks are associated with a pay grade. These pay grades all start with a letter and end with a number. 

  • The letters are E for enlisted, W for warrant officer, and O for commissioned officers.
  • The numbers go from E1 to E9, W1 to W5, and O1 to O10, respectively. Obviously, the higher the number, the higher the rank.

Enlisted vs Officer Ranks Hierarchy

Officers outrank all enlisted military members, no matter how long they have served. For example, an E9 who has served over 30 years will be outranked by a 22-year-old O1 who is fresh out of officer training.

  • That might seem surprising, but it’s just the way the military works. But don’t get it twisted. It’s not like that butter bar will be barking orders to that E9 because that E9 answers to someone much higher than them.
  • As part of the US military’s customs and courtesies, all personnel, whether they’re enlisted or officers, salute superior officers and address them as sir or ma’am. So if an E1 walks by an O1, they will salute that officer, and the officer will return the salute.

Preventing Fraternization 

Generally speaking, enlisted and officers are pretty segregated in the military.

  • While they work together, their uniforms can be different; they typically go to different training programs, are housed differently, and are not allowed to be buddy-buddy or get into relationships with each other. That’s called fraternization.
  • There are obviously exceptions to this, like if you knew them before you joined, etc.

Respect and Experience 

Make no mistake, even though officers outrank and are in charge of the enlisted, they still respect, appreciate, and learn from them.

  • As we said earlier, enlisted personnel are often considered the backbone of the US military and do a lot of the dirty work.
  • Senior enlisted military members often advise junior and senior officers because they bring value to the table with their experience and years of service.

Enlisted Vs Officer Opportunities

The decision to go enlisted vs officer will affect your career path and the opportunities you’ll have during your service.

  • While you can always enlist first and become an officer later (this is called a Mustang), that choice will still inevitably change your path.
  • As we briefly mentioned before, officers are like managers and enlisted are like workers. In other words, enlisted personnel have specialties and perform specific job functions, whereas officers manage those enlisted personnel, plan missions, provide orders, and assign tasks.
  • Additionally, enlisted personnel will have plenty of opportunities to fine-tune their skills and become subject matter experts in their specialties while also fitting into leadership roles and responsibilities. Officers will also receive plenty of leadership training and experience to better prepare them to lead larger bodies of personnel.

Enlisted vs Officer Educational Requirements 

Enlisted members make up most of the military workforce. They receive training in a job specialty, and they do most of the hands-on work.

In order to enlist, you have to be 17 years old with a GED or a high school diploma.  Though plenty of enlisted members have bachelor’s and or master’s degrees.

Enlisted personnel, on the other hand, are not, though plenty may still have bachelor’s and or master’s degrees.

Non-US citizens can enlist as long as they have their permanent residence card or a green card, and they must speak, read, and write English fluently.

Officers make up a much smaller part of the workforce. To join as an officer, you typically must have a four-year college degree and complete an officer program. There are five paths to an officer commission:

  • Service academies or senior military colleges
  • Reserve Officer Training Corps, or ROTC
  • Officer Candidate School, or OCS
  • Direct commissions
  • Enlisted for officer opportunities.

There is a third, but rare, opportunity for joining the military, and that is to come in for Warrant Officer flight training. 

This very selective program is unofficially called “from high school to flight school.” Usually, Warrant Officers are officers who advance from the upper enlisted ranks. 

They stay in the same career field. A Marine Corps E5 can compete for Warrant Officer school, and in the Army, Navy, and Coast Guard, you must be an E6. The Air Force does not have Warrant Officers.

Additionally, the job you choose will depend on other requirements like security clearances, fiscal standards, and medical standards.

At the end of the day, just understand that joining as an officer will be more competitive in any aspect of the military compared to enlisting. 

This is due to the fact that there are fewer billets for officers than there are for enlisted, and more is expected of officers.

Difference between Officer and Enlisted Requirements Summary

  • As far as the requirements go, enlisted personnel do not require a college degree, and they need a high school diploma or GED with some college credits,
  • Whereas officers must have a bachelor’s degree to commission.

Difference Between Officer And Enlisted: Career Opportunities 

Officer Career Opportunities

Because of the degree requirement for officers, there are plenty of jobs that enlisted personnel are simply barred from doing, even if they have a degree.

  • For example, US military pilots, except for warrant officers for the army, must all be commissioned officers.
  • You can be an E5 with a private pilot’s license and a Ph.D. in aeronautics all you want, but you will not be flying any US military aircraft unless you become an officer.

Enlisted Career Opportunities 

When you flip the coin to enlist, while you might not be able to be a pilot, the sky is the limit with opportunities here, no pun intended.

  • Not only do you have the option to commission if there’s an officer job you really want, but if you can think of a career field, chances are there’s something for you.
  • The six branches of the US military afford many different opportunities and areas of work for all types of people, from cooks to intelligence, special operations, and language specialists. We could go on and on.

The bottom line is that the opportunities for enlisted and officer personnel can vary widely depending on the community you choose.

Career Progression: Enlisted Vs. Officer

With opportunities covered, let’s move on to career progression.

If the stars align and you’re not precluded, you can always commission after you enlist, and some officers even decommission and serve as enlisted. But that’s generally not recommended or an ideal position to be in.

While career progression can arguably be folded into opportunities, we believe this is an important topic to discuss on its own merit.

The career progressions of enlisted vs officers have some similarities but differ in their execution. Let us explain.

Flexibility in Enlisting and Commissioning

Assuming you rank up, the longer you’re in the US military, the more responsibilities you get. Whether that’s an E6 running a platoon or an O5 captaining a warship, you gradually take on more oversight and administrative work.

Career Progression for Enlisted Personnel

Noncommissioned Officer (NCO)

  • For enlisted personnel, your first true leadership and oversight experience begins when you become an NCO, which stands for noncommissioned officer.
  • Depending on the branch, this will either be at E4 or E5. While you still have your day-to-day hands-on duties, you will begin to take responsibility for those under you as well.

Senior Noncommissioned Officer

  • As you progress up the ranks, you become a senior noncommissioned officer and will be given less hands-on work and more administrative stuff.

Career Progression for Officers

Military Officers generally start right off the bat with supervisory positions, albeit on a smaller scale compared to the higher officer ranks. 

As they progress through the ranks, they assume more and more oversight, up to the point where they can be in charge of entire continental regions. This isn’t to say that enlisted personnel can’t reach a similar height.

Enlisted Presence at Every Command Level

While officers may have the opportunity to be in charge of an entire military branch, senior enlisted personnel are right by officers’ sides at every command level. 

For example, you can see this with the highest-ranking officer of the US military, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

Alongside him is the highest-ranking enlisted member of the US military, the Senior Enlisted Advisor to the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. 

No matter how high you go, there will always be someone enlisted representing the enlisted service members.

With all of that said the main takeaway that you should get from this section is that although both enlisted and officer personnel tend to get less hands-on as time goes on, it generally happens a lot sooner for officers.

Understanding Career Progression: The Navy Seals Example

Enlisted Navy Seals

  • To highlight this point, we’ll talk about the Navy Seals. If you enlist as a SEAL, you can stay operational for multiple tours, even as you progress through the ranks.

Officer Navy Seals

  • But for officers, once they do a tour or two and hit O3, maybe O4, they’re done being operational and will take on more administrative work.

Whether it’s the Seals, Infantry, or Intelligence, you need to understand the roles that enlisted and officers play to see what your career progression will look like.

Enlisted vs Officer Pay: A Comparison

With career progression covered, let’s move on to pay. This section should be relatively quick, as it’s pretty straightforward. Officers make more than enlisted personnel.

When I joined the military, I had no idea what I was going to get paid. I wanted to serve; money wasn’t even a consideration. Looking back, I was very naive, so I want you to know what you’re going to get into.

Comparing Base Pay

  • To compare, an active duty E3 fresh out of boot camp in 2023 makes $2,259.99 of base pay a month. Whereas a fresh active duty O1 makes $3,637.26 of base pay a month.

Additional Allowances: Basic Allowance for Housing (BAH)

  • Not only that, but officers are entitled to BAH, or Basic Allowance for Housing, right off the bat. In a nutshell, BAH is a monthly stipend scaled to the cost of living in your zip code, so you can live out of town. 
  • Enlisted personnel must wait to get BAH once they rank up anywhere from E4 to E6, depending on the branch or if they get married.

Pay Comparison for Later Careers

The difference between enlisted and officers in Military pay is much more complex than just base pay and BAH, but that can be an article on its own.

To show you how much pay can contrast later in your career, let’s take an active duty E7 with 20 years and an active duty O5 with 20 years, both stationed at Nowhere, Kentucky. Both also have dependents.

  • According to the 2023 pay scales, the E7 gets $5,473.30 of monthly base pay with $1,668 in BAH.
  • And the O5 gets $10,544.62 of monthly base pay and $2,145 in BAH.
  • That’s a monthly difference of $5,548 or $66,580 annually

Remember, if you plan on doing your 20 and retiring, your pension is partially dependent on how much money you made in your last three years of service, so this is all food for thought.

Enlisted Men Pay Table

Rank20-Year Salary30-Year Retirement PayTotal Lifetime Pay
E8$848,000$761,000$1.6 million

Officers Pay Table

Rank20-Year Salary30-Year Retirement PayTotal Lifetime Pay
O5$1.5 million$1.3 million$2.8 million

Training and Requirements for Enlisted and Officers

With pay covered, let’s move on to training and requirements. With the exception of some special operations communities, enlisted and officer trainees receive their training separately in different schools.

Everyone’s military career starts with some boot camp or basic training. For the enlisted personnel, it’s called exactly that: boot camp or basic training.

Officers, on the other hand, have a bit fancier names for their training. Generally, they can go to Officer Candidate School, ROTC, or one of the five service academies.

Post-Basic Training for Enlisted and Officers

Once an enlisted service member finishes their boot camp, they move on to receive training in the specific job they signed up for with others who also joined with the same contract. 

The length of job training is highly dependent on the job they selected. Some schools can be a couple of months, or some can be several years.

Post-Basic Training for Military Officers

The same goes for officers, although they are also taught how to lead in the specific capacity they will be serving in. 

The length of their training pipelines is also dependent on the career field they choose, as a pilot’s training will be completely different from an infantry officer’s training.

Difference Between Officer And Enlisted: Commitments

Usually, enlisted service members sign up for four years of active duty and two years of inactive duty. After you have completed your active-duty time, you can either extend your contract or re-enlist if you want to continue serving.

Military Officers accepting ROTC scholarships or appointments at the military academies get four years of free tuition at the university and owe eight years of service upon graduation. 

Usually, those eight years of service are three years of active duty and five years in the Individual Ready Reserve. That’s a twelve-year commitment, something not to be taken lightly.

Roles and Responsibilities

If the stars align and you’re not precluded, you can always commission after you enlist, and some officers even decommission and serve as enlisted. But that’s generally not recommended or an ideal position to be in.

The enlisted forces are the most important part of the military. In most cases, enlisted service personnel perform jobs specific to their own occupational specialties as opposed to the more generalized command responsibilities of commissioned officers. 

Commissioned officers are the military’s managers and highest-ranking leaders. They oversee plans, direct operations, give orders, and command units. Officers have authority over enlisted members. 

They have broader responsibilities and accountability, but they rely on enlisted members’ technical skills and experience to get the job done. As an enlisted service member, your responsibilities will grow over the years. 

As a junior officer, you have major responsibilities from day one. Thankfully, junior officers are always paired with a senior non-commissioned officer who can help mold and mentor them.

Quality of Life

There are several ways to look at the quality of life differences between enlisted and officer ranks. Everything is a matter of perspective, so what may be terrible for me might be great for you. But let’s start with stability. 

For the most part, enlisted members have a bit more job stability. They can stay in the same unit for several years and at the same base for decades. Officers change jobs almost every year and move from base to base, on average, every two years.

Career fields

Enlisted service members usually get to work within their career fields. An infantryman will stay in an infantry job for 20 years; an intel analyst will work as an intel analyst her whole career. 

Officers get to work in their career fields at the beginning of their careers and then frequently get branch immaterial leadership jobs that don’t require expertise, just all-around leadership and management skills.

Desk jobs

Enlisted service members do a lot more manual labor and work than officers. Officers and some senior NCOs spend a ridiculous amount of time these days on the computer.


The goal of this article was to introduce the basic concepts of the differences between enlisted and officers in the US military. We hope this article achieved that goal and that some of you got something out of it.

If you’re reading this and are interested in joining the military, we highly recommend you weigh your options and determine what you want your life to look like throughout your prospective military career.

Another way that differentiates members of the US military, as well as their day-to-day lives and their time served, is whether they are active duty or reservists.

If you’d like to know the differences between active duty and the reserves, you’re in luck. We’ve done a post on that. The link to that post will be in the description below. 

That’s it for differences between enlisted vs officers in the US military. Some key considerations you need to think about if you are deciding to enlist in the military or get a commission as an officer. Thanks for reading.

George N.