Prior Service Definitions

Updated: May 11, 2020
In this Article

    Many people join the military, separate from service, and later decide they want to rejoin the military as a prior service enlistee. Some do this because they want to join a different branch of military service; they served in the Army but decide to try a career in the Air Force instead.

    Rejoining the military is not necessarily easy, but it is often possible for those who want to explore the option, meet current requirements, and can fill a needed career field slot. The most important thing to know before you try to rejoin the military as prior service?

    Which branch you want to go to (your original service choice, or “cross-service” into a different military service) and what their requirements are for doing so. Those requirements, as well as each branch’s definition of acceptable prior service are very important.

    The other thing to remember is that those who don’t qualify as prior service may not be barred from rejoining but they may have to attend boot camp or some other type of re-entry training as a condition of enlistment.

    Reasons Why Some Choose To Come Back As Prior Service Military

    Some want to come back to continue serving in uniform in their original choice of military service, while others may wish to join a different branch. Yes, we mentioned that above, but in the era of the United States Space Force (USSF) some Army, Navy, and Marine Corps troops may be tempted to try working in a space-related career field.

    It’s tempting for some to consider such a move because Space Force is symbolic of the evolution of military efforts similar to when the Army embraced airpower, submarines became part of the country’s nuclear deterrent, etc.

    There are plenty of motivations like those mentioned above, but one common practice is for an enlisted service member to leave military service, complete a college degree program, and return to military life with the intent on becoming an officer.

    Others may not want to embrace that career path, but choose one that is available from one branch of service that wasn’t offered by their prior branch. You can’t become a Navy SEAL while serving in the Army, an Airborne Ranger program isn’t operated by the Coast Guard, etc.

    What You Need To Know About Prior Service

    Each branch of the military has its own unique regulations for troops who want to rejoin as prior service candidates. What’s more, each service may have specific guidelines depending on:

    • The branch of military service you wish to join now
    • The branch of military service you previously served in

    Why? Because depending on which branch you choose, you may be required to enter some form of basic training environment or similar orientation program for prior service recruits. One good example is the requirements of the U.S. Marines; the USMC official site advises that Marine Corps boot camp may be unavoidable even for prior service enlistees. In general, if you join a new branch of service and enter with a different career field than your previous one, you may be required to attend boot camp, a truncated version, or an alternate program. But not always. You will need to discuss this with a recruiter since standards are subject to revision without notice based on mission requirements, current DoD policies, and other variables.

    Not All Prior Military Can Re-Join

    Some who wish to return to life in uniform may not be permitted to do so due to age, medical reasons, or overcrowding in certain career fields. But the main reason you may be screened OUT of returning to military service is simpler–each service has its own quota for prior service recruits; once that number is reached each year, the application process may be closed or kept operational for future reference.

    The bottom line–if you get denied a slot as prior military, ask if you can apply again next year and whether the reason for the denial was related to the quota issue.


    Examples Of Prior Service Definitions

    How does each branch of military service define “prior service”? The definition itself is subject to change depending on DoD policy, but in general the following guidance is an excellent place to begin learning what it takes to rejoin the military after separating.

    National Guard

    Joining the National Guard as a prior service member includes the following requirements:

    • All applicants must qualify for “non-regular retired pay” by age 60
    • Must meet Guard height/weight/fitness standards
    • The applicant must meet education standards for the chosen career field or MOS
    • Discharge paperwork is required; furnish your most current DD 214, NGB22, or discharge order
    • You must have an approved DD Form 368 Conditional Release

    Those who have a five-year or more break in service may be required to attend Basic Combat Training or similar courses.


    Each branch of the Reserve has its own rules, but here’s a good example of what to expect when applying for a Reserve slot as an enlisted member:

    • You must be discharged from your current component of the Army, Army Reserve or Army National Guard
    • You must be at least 18 and not have reached your 55th birthday
    • You must be at least an SPC or the equivalent rank for other branches
    • You must have less than 15 years of active federal service
    • You must be eligible for reenlistment or extension
    • You must meet the medical fitness standards BEFORE entering into new service
    • You must pass a Defense Central Investigative Index
    • You were not relieved from any duty assignment for cause 36 months before you apply
    • You must NOT have been involuntarily removed from Active Duty

    United States Army

    Prior service applicants with the Army must have more than 180 days of military service, or be a graduate of military job-training (MOS/AFSC/Rating), regardless of time-in-service.

    Applicants who have less than 180 days of military service, (and/or have not completed military job-training) may be processed as “Glossary Prior Service,” and will be recruited the same as non-prior service applicants.

    Air Force

    To enter the Air Force as a prior service candidate you must:

    • Have served at least 24 months of Active Duty service
    • Those who served less than 24 months of Active Duty are processed as “previous service” and are handled the same as brand new recruits

    Navy and Marine Corps

    Navy guidelines for prior service include a requirement of 180 consecutive days or more of active duty service. Those who do not meet this requirement are processed the same as new recruits.

    Marine Corps standards for prior service include:

    • Anyone who successfully completed the recruit/basic training in their former service
    • Those who did not complete recruit/basic training, AND who have been given a DD Form 214 and assigned a reenlistment code
    • Anyone who has fulfilled their military service obligation as a member of the Guard or a “Guard Component”

    Coast Guard

    The Coast Guard official site advises, “Prior service personnel from any U.S. Armed Forces component may be eligible to enlist under the open rate list.” To qualify, the following must be met:

    • At the time of separation, the applicant “must have held the rate listed on the ORL or a comparable military occupational specialty”
    • E-3s and below may not have more than six years prior active military
    • Applicants E-4 or above cannot have more than 14 years of prior active service

    These guidelines also include a requirement to enter Coast Guard service as an E-3 in prior service situations, “…Due to the extremely diverse training Coast Guard enlistees get in the early years after recruitment,” prior service enlistees affected by this rule “will still keep your longevity pay for total years of service.” This, the Coast Guard advises, is dependent on the needs of the service. It does not function as a guarantee for enlistment.

    About The AuthorJoe Wallace is a 13-year veteran of the United States Air Force and a former reporter for Air Force Television News

    Written by Team