Which Military Branch Has the Best Pay and Benefits?

Updated: December 15, 2023
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    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. COLA if 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

    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

    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.

    Written by Teresa Tennyson

    Teresa Tennyson is a journalist for Veteran.com. She is a retired army officer who served in several countries in the Middle East. Tennyson has a bachelor’s degree in political science from Arizona State University and a master’s degree in business administration with a finance certificate from UCLA.