Tattoos are commonly seen on many Airmen – but the US Air Force’s tattoo policy differs from the policies of other US Armed Services branches.

Some Airmen have ink from long before they enlisted, and others have great pride in the new tattoos they get to commemorate the time they spent in the Air Force.

However, there are certain restrictions on what is permitted within the Dress and Personal appearance instructions. Regardless of how many tattoos you have, if you’re considering joining the Air Force you’ll want to read up on US Air Force tattoo regulations. For example, head and neck tattoos are banned. Other rules are more difficult to understand, like the often-frustrating 25 percent rule. For a successful career in the Air Force without any surprises, confirm that your ink meets all US Air Force regulations before enlisting.

Current Tattoo Regulations For The US Air Force

Similar to other military branches, any tattoo that has a negative impact on morale, discipline, or good order is prohibited. Keep in mind that tattoos of a nature to bring discredit upon the Air Force are included in the above categories, and are similarly banned. Designs that advocate sexual, racial, ethnic, or religious discrimination are likewise prohibited, both in and out of uniform. These rules may seem obvious, but some tattoos may include symbols or design elements that can easily violate the regulations. Prospective Airmen should use their best judgment when evaluating their tattoos.

Any tattoos above the collarbone, such as on the neck, head, face, tongue, lips, and/or scalp, are prohibited. For example, a tattoo that can be seen on the neck while wearing an open collar, front-fastening, blue or utility uniform is not permitted. But, cosmetic tattooing is allowed when it’s needed to correct a medical condition, illness, or injury. Women are also permitted to have permanent makeup, like eyebrows and eyeliner, as long as the cosmetic tattooing looks natural and is of a conservative, tasteful nature. Additionally, tattoos on otherwise permissible areas of the body cannot be seen through the fabric of your uniform.

Lastly, the Air Force regulates the size of your ink. The rule states that “excessive” tattoos cannot be exposed or visible (including through the uniform) while wearing any and all uniform combinations, except the physical training uniform. The Air Force defines “excessive” as any tattoo that is larger than 25 percent of the exposed body part and that is visible when in uniform. For example, a tattoo on your hand can’t exceed 25 percent of the exposed hand, because the hand is considered a separate body part when wearing a long sleeved uniform shirt. Your tattoos will be measured and reviewed using very specific calculations.

It’s also important to note that more restrictive regulations can be applied in locations where normal Air Force standards may offend cultural sensitivities, such as overseas. Stricter standards can also be applied to Airmen performing highly visible special mission requirements or special duty positions. Permanently assigned recruiters, the reserve officer training corps, Officer Training School, the U.S. Air Force Academy, and other areas may have different rules and regulations. If you’d like your career path to include these positions consider speaking with your recruiter about whether your tattoos will be problematic.

How US Air Force Tattoo Regulations Have Changed

The United States Air Force last changed its tattoo policy on May 28, 2015, but the changes were primarily interim updates. The last major policy change was on July 18, 2011, when the 25 percent rule went into effect. The 2015 clarifications added authorizations for cosmetic tattoos for medical reasons for both men and women. These changes also permit cosmetic tattoos for non-medical conditions such as eyebrows and eyeliner for women, bringing the Air Force’s policies in line with other Services.

The Air Force’s tattoo policies haven’t always been so straightforward and reasonably fair, though. In November 2009 there was a policy change stating that potential recruits could not enter the service if they had a tattoo on their saluting (right) arm. More than two dozen recruits who were waiting for their basic training slots to open up would have been affected. The policy lasted a short two weeks before it was changed.

Like other military branches, the US Air Force has always enforced appearance policies. These regulations set standards that help maintain the honorable and professional appearance of American Airmen. Air Force leaders understand that tattoos are more popular than ever before and that extremely strict regulations would have forced otherwise qualified recruits to explore other careers. Still, if you want to join the Air Force and are thinking about new tattoo designs or you have existing body art, it’s a good idea to determine whether the designs meet Air Force standards.

What To Do If Your Tattoos Don’t Pass US Air Force Standards

If you’re planning to enlist in the Air Force but have tattoos on your neck, head, face, tongue, lips, and/or scalp they’ll have to be removed before enlisting. If you have tattoos that are visible when wearing any/all combinations the Air Force uniform and they are larger than 25 percent of the exposed area, you may also need to have those completely or partially removed. If you have tattoos that are inappropriate they can sometimes be covered with another tattoo.

Steer clear of harsh methods of removal, like vanishing creams, because these can cause permanent skin damage that looks like branding. Using makeup to cover non-compliant tattoos isn’t the best option, either, and it’s in your best interest to seek out a more permanent solution before joining the US Air Force. Your best, safest option is to receive high-quality, professional laser treatments from a facility with a strong track record of successful removals.

Zapatat Offers Steep Military Discounts For US Airmen

Zapatat provides affordable, professional laser tattoo removal treatments for everyone – combined with a military discount of 15% for active duty military members, veterans, and their spouses, you just can’t go wrong. If you’re in the process of enlisting, you’re still eligible for the military discount. Just have your recruiter call one of our locations, or bring in a written note stating that you’ll be an active duty Airman soon enough.

For speedy tattoo removal, you’ll be very impressed with Zapatat’s ART™ (R20) Fast Tattoo Removal – the world’s fastest tattoo removal treatment. Just one session lightens tattoos by 50-85% with no scarring or side effects. Since each session is like 6-7 standard laser removal sessions, you’ll get your tattoo removed in fewer visits at a very affordable cost.

Learn more about Zapatat’s ART℠ tattoo removal treatment and our generous military discount – or, just call us at 703-248-0909 to schedule your free consultation at our Arlington and Newport News locations.


    • Air Force Dress & Personal Appearance Regulations.

    • Updated Dress & Appearance Standards.

    • Air Force nixes tattoo policy after two weeks. (December 8, 2009)