In the GS system, pay is based on three factors:

  1. Grade

  2. Step

  3. Location


Grades run from 1 to 15 with 15 receiving the highest pay. Your grade is based on education, experience, and position. Some positions are limited in terms of what grade they can be paid at. Also grades have minimum educational and experience requirements to qualify for the grade. Grade increases are considered a promotion even though your title may not change. Each grade increase equates to a 10-15% pay increase.


Step is based on how long you have worked for the federal government. Steps run from 1 to 10 with step 10 receiving the highest pay. Employees start at step 1 and move to step 2 after 1 year of service. As you move up in step the time intervals between step increases become longer. It takes 18 years of service to reach step 10. Each step increase equates to a 2-3% increase in pay. 


The final factor used to determine pay on the GS pay schedule is location. There are 34 different pay localities across the US. Each locality adds a different percentage to your base pay. Locality is designed to accommodate for higher costs of living in and around major cities. Locality rates are based on where you work, not where you live. If you do not work in or around a major metropolis you will fall under the “Rest of U.S.” locality area.


  • Grade increases are considered promotions and are linked to title, job responsibilities, education and experience

  • Steps are based on length of service within your current grade

  • Step increases are raises but are not considered promotions

  • Once you have worked the required length of time within the current grade and as long as you have received a satisfactory score on your performance review, you will automatically receive a step increase

    • the first three step increases occur every year

    • the next three step increases occur every two years

    • the final three step increases occur every three years

    • it takes 18 years to advance to step 10

  • Most employees start at step 1 but under some conditions you may be given a higher step to start

  • If you get a grade increase

    • your step will adjust, usually two steps lower in your new grade

    • For instance, if you are a GS-11, Step 7 and receive a promotion to GS-12 you will be at step 5 and will have to wait two years to receive a step increase, regardless of how long you were in the GS-11, Step 7 position

    • Your salary at the new grade will always be higher than it was at the lower grade regardless of step

Click on this link for a GS pay calculator. This will estimate your base pay and includes locality. You will need to know the GS grade and step of the position and the county of the installation you are applying at;

Plans, Policies and Operations