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Why do some citizens have to register for the draft?


  • A draft is a call for military service by eligible groups who have been required to register with the government.
  • With only a few exceptions, cisgender men from the ages of eighteen to twenty-five are required by law to register with the government for selective service in case the country needs to draft men for military service.
  • Although the US military has been all-volunteer since 1973, an Act of Congress could reinstate a draft in the case of a national emergency.

What is the purpose of the draft?

Conscription, or the draft, refers to the mandatory requirement of military service by individuals. Registering for the draft is an extension of one of the obligations that the government requires citizens to meet: to defend the United States when called upon. However, the requirement to register with the selective service is not limited to American citizens!
The federal government uses the draft to find eligible men to serve in the United States armed forces. This usually happens if the armed forces are not large enough to provide the necessary number of soldiers to fight a war. However, the federal government has only used the draft a handful of times.

The history of the draft and selective service

The federal government first used the draft in 1863 during the Civil War, but compulsory military service was not new. During the colonial period, in the Plymouth Colony, eligible men who could fight were required to train and perform military service if they were needed. Both the Confederate Army and the US Army instituted drafts to meet their needs.
During World War I, President Woodrow Wilson signed the 1917 Selective Service Act to prepare for US entry into the war. This was the first time the government used a system similar to what we know as the modern draft. The US government drafted over 2.8 million men 1 of the twenty-four million men 2 who registered into the Armed Forces.
Young men registering for military conscription
In 1917, President Woodrow Wilson required that men between the ages of eighteen and forty-five register for the draft. The men pictured above are giving their information to register for military conscription. Photo provided by the Library of Congress, posted on Wikimedia Commons
Prior to World War II, the US government had only instituted the draft during wartime. President Roosevelt established the first peacetime draft by signing the Selective Training and Service Act of 1940 in response to World War II. By the end of the war, the government required all men between the ages of twenty-one and sixty-five to register for the draft. Around thirty-four million men registered for selective service by the end of the war, and approximately ten million ended up serving in the military.3
Probably the most popular and memorable use of the draft would have to be the Vietnam War. During the Vietnam War, the United States military drafted around 1.9 million men 4 between August 1964 and February 1973. As the war continued, many Americans protested the draft by burning draft cards and marching in the streets. The growing opposition led to the end of the draft in 1973. The US military has been all-volunteer since, but an act of Congress could reinstate a draft in the case of a national emergency.

The draft today

In 1980, the Carter administration reinstituted the draft. The Selective Service Act of 1980 required that eligible men register with the Selective Service System (SSS), an agency of the US government whose purpose is to keep up to date information on those who could potentially be drafted into military service. It did not require men to serve in the military.
Currently, there is not an active draft, meaning that once you register, it is not expected that you’ll be forced to serve in the military. So, what did the Selective Service Act of 1980 do? It created a plan to draft in case there is an emergency that requires more manpower than the US military currently has.

Who is required to sign up for selective service?

Seal for the US Selective Service System
The Selective Service System seal, provided by the Selective Service Publications
Generally, if you were assigned male at birth, currently live in the United States and are between the ages of eighteen and twenty-five, you must, by law, register with the government for selective service.5 However, there are some notable exceptions that keep people from having to register:

Sex observed at birth

The federal government exempts people who are observed to be female at birth. This includes transgender [dw: a person whose gender identity differs from the sex assigned to them at birth] men (people assigned female at birth, but identify as men). However, this means transgender women (people assigned male at birth, but identify as women) are required to register for the selective service.

Military service

People currently serving in the armed forces and Coast Guard or in military officer training are not required to register. However, if they leave before they turn twenty-six, they must register within thirty days of release.

Immigration status

All men who are living in the United States, citizen or immigrant (documented or undocumented) must register for the selective service. This includes refugees and dual national citizens. However, lawful visa holders and seasonal workers are not required to register.

Confinement status

People imprisoned or confined to a hospital or institution for medical reasons do not have to register. However, like the military service exemption, if a person is released before they turn twenty-six, they have to register for selective service within thirty days of their release.


There are certain disabilities that exempt individuals from registering for the selective service. Disabilities that continually confine a person to their home, a hospital, or a mental institution, preclude a person from having to register for the draft.

How do you register for selective service?

People who are required to register can do so online, through the mail, or while applying for federal student aid. Once registered, individuals receive a proof of registration and have to keep their contact information up to date until they reach twenty-six years old.
Nothing else happens unless a national emergency causes Congress and the president to call a draft. If that happens, registered people will be called in through a lottery system and examined for fitness for military service. Once there, a person can claim that they are a conscientious objector to war, meaning that they object to serving in armed forces for moral or religious reasons. However, a person can only claim that at the time of a draft, not during registration. They will either be deferred, exempted from, or inducted into military service.

What happens if you don’t register?

If the government requires you to register and you decide not to, you could face a number of consequences. One, you will not be eligible for federal student aid, job training, or a federal job. The government could prosecute you and fine you up to $250,000 and/or send you to jail for up to five years.
If you are an immigrant, you will no longer be eligible for citizenship which could lead to your deportation.

Is the draft fair?

Throughout United States history, many people have questioned the fairness of a military draft. During the Civil War, people could pay a fee and buy themselves out of the war. This gave an unfair advantage to wealthier people and led to several draft riots during the war. Mainly led by working class immigrants, their argument was that the draft unfairly targeted poor people.
Although World War I saw the end of the practice of buying a replacement for conscription, some exemptions still benefited wealthier people over working class individuals in later drafts. For example, during the first couple of the years of the Vietnam War, if you were attending college, you did not have to serve even if your number was called.
If the federal government instituted a draft today, college students would only be allowed to defer until the end of the semester and then they would have to join a military service. If a person is a senior, the government would allow them to finish out the academic year before they had to sign up. 6

What do you think?

  • Do you think the US military needs a draft system? Why or why not?
  • Do you think that people assigned female at birth (
    women and transgender men) should be required to register for selective service?
  • In their Strategic Plan, the SSS states as a goal: “to ensure a ready and capable system that provides a fair and equitable draft.” Is the Selective Service System fair and equitable? Why or why not?
Article written by Sharon Necaise. This article is licensed under a CC-BY-NC-SA 4.0 license.


  1. Selective Service System, "Induction Statistics," https://www.sss.gov/history-and-records/induction-statistics/
  2. National Archives, "World War I Draft Registration Cards," 2019, https://www.archives.gov/research/military/ww1/draft-registration
  3. The National World War II Museum: New Orleans, "Research Starters: The Draft and World War II," https://www.nationalww2museum.org/students-teachers/student-resources/research-starters/draft-and-wwii
  4. Selective Service System, "Induction Statistics," https://www.sss.gov/history-and-records/induction-statistics/
  5. Selective Service System, "Selective Service - Who Must Register," 2020, https://www.sss.gov/wp-content/uploads/2020/02/WhoMustRegisterChart.pdf
  6. Selective Service System, "Changes From Vietnam to Now," https://www.sss.gov/history-and-records/changes-from-vietnam-to-now/

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