Whether you’re looking for a career change or need a new identity after faking your own death, joining the French Foreign Legion might be the path for you. Founded in 1831 partly as a way to ship foreigners and troublemakers off to die in Algiers, the French Foreign Legion is still taking applicants of all nationalities who want to fight under the French flag, and still offering meager pay and French citizenship to those who survive.
Here’s how to enlist.
Wait, there’s still a French Foreign Legion?
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It feels like an anachronism, but the French Foreign Legion—the legendary last-stop military brigade for disgraced officers, French criminals, desperate foreigners, and foolish adventurers—still somehow exists in 2023, and if you’re a man between the ages of 17.5 and 39.5 (any man, from anywhere on earth) you are eligible to join the FFF ranks.
While it may have once been a suicide squad of disposable men, but the French Foreign Legion has since morphed into a seemingly “professional” fighting force of around 9,000 men from about 140 countries. They have served in Bosnia, Rwanda, Iraq, Somalia, and other high-conflict locations over the past 20 years. Whether they’re really bullet-sponges sent to die so French people don’t have to depends on your point-of-view, but no one every claimed it was going to be a walk in the park.
How do you join the French Foreign Legion?
If you’re looking for an online application form or even a phone number to call for more information, you’re out of luck: You can only join the French Foreign Legion by traveling to France and showing up at a recruiting center. They won’t help you get there, but they’re open 24/7, every day of the year. But before you get a tourist visa and hop on the next plane to Paris, you should understand the requirements. The FFF is not a “we’ll accept literally anyone” type of organization anymore.
Things that would prohibit you from military service in most countries won’t keep you out of the French Foreign Legion. You can be a convicted criminal, a deserter from another army, and even unvaccinated. But the Legion does have its own criteria, and they say they only accept about one out of eight applicants.
Can Americans join the French Foreign Legion?
Officially, there are no American members of the legion. Under U.S. law, an American citizen who joins a foreign military is abandoning their American citizenship. But since the Foreign Legion keeps its members’ identities secret, there is no way of knowing how many are (or were) American citizens. There are reports of legionnaires with American accents who say they are “from Micronesia.”
What are the basic requirements for joining the French Foreign Legion?
Along with having at least five years to devote to serving in the French military, the bare bones requirements for joining the French Foreign Legion as as follows:
- A valid passport
- A copy of your birth certificate that indicates you are between 17.5 and 39.5 years of age.
- A criminal background free of “murders, drug trafficking or other really serious crimes.” What constitutes “other serious crimes” isn’t specified, but many things that would be likely to keep you out of the U.S. Army wouldn’t prevent service in the French Foreign Legion.
- Being “physically fit” (more on that below)
- A BMI between 18 and 30
- Being able to read and write your native language.
The following will not be considered in your French Foreign Legion application:
- Whether you can speak French
- Social status
- Marital status
- Professional accomplishments
- Previous military assignment
How physically fit and/or healthy do you need to be to join the French Foreign Legion?
Would-be legionnaires must meet the following minimum physical fitness and health criteria:
- A score of at least 5-levels on the “Beep test.” (Although a score of 7 is recommended.)
- The ability to swim at least 25 meters, without support or safety equipment.
- Pull ups: The French Foreign Legion doesn’t set a minimum number of pull-ups anymore, but it is “an important element of the selection.” So try for 12 to 15 to be on the safe side?
- At least 40% healthy teeth—the maximum number of missing teeth allowed is 4 to 6.
- Relatively good eyesight.
Can I join the French Foreign Legion if I have tattoos?
As befits any collection of macho outcasts, tattoos are allowed, even encouraged, in the French Foreign Legion, but not just any tattoos. Nazi and racist tattoos are prohibited, as are large facial tattoos, although exceptions might be made for tribal tattoos.
They don’t want you in the French Foreign Legion if you have a, “stupid tattoo on your face/arms, even if it seems to be small.” That’s according to the French Foreign Legion’s official policy, which goes on to state: “if you have a little drop near your eye, you can try to join; if you have a vagina tattoo between your eyes, or a penis tattoo on your arm, stay at home.” Damn, that’s me out.
Do you really get a new identity when you join the French Foreign Legion?
A hundred years ago, anyone, even a murderer, could join the FFF and be granted a new identity. It doesn’t work like that now. Recruits have the option of serving under a false identity, but to receive credit for their courses and deployments (and, eventually, French citizenship), they must eventually be “rectified” and go back to their real name.
How rectification works in practice is unclear, as is how far the French Foreign Legion will go to protect the identities of its members. Presumably, a wanted murderer would be turned over to authorities, but if Mastercard’s collections department was looking for you, they’d be told, “I don’t know her.”
What are the advantages of joining the French Foreign Legion?
As it has been the case since its founding, if you have any other options, you’d probably be better off not joining the French Foreign Legion. The pay is lousy (they make the same as anyone in the French army), the work is grueling, the conditions are reportedly horrific to the point of illegality, and the soldiers really are sent on the most dangerous, deadly missions. But the French Foreign Legion does grant its members citizenship in France, and by extension every other E.U. nation, in exchange for years of service or suffering a serious injury.
This kind of last chance escapade led to glory for fictitious, nothing-to-lose-heroes like Beau Geste, but it’s more complicated in the real world, where victims of systemic oppression and petty criminals are way more likely to join up than aristocrats falsely accused of crimes.
But if you buy into the mythos of the Légion étrangère, it offers its soldiers a chance at redemption—or so says the commander of the organization. “That’s the secret of the Legion,” said General Alain Lardet. “Restarting, rebooting, getting back on one’s feet.”