Vacation Time for Federal Employees [Ultimate Guide]

By Sam •  Updated: 11/02/21 

I didn’t want to write this post.

I know it’s going to make a whole bunch of people angry on the internet.

But here is the truth. I earn 50 days of paid time off per year.

Put differently, I earn 400 hours of leave out of a work year of 2087 hours. Or you could say that the government gives me 20% of my working hours as paid time off.

Want to know how this is even possible?

In this post I explain exactly how vacation time for federal employees works. By the end you should be able to understand how annual leave, sick leave, and federal holidays add up to a giant benefit of working for the federal government of the United States.

Table of Contents

Please do not confuse my personal blog for financial advice, tax advice or an official position of the U.S. Government. This post may contain affiliate links. If you make a purchase after clicking on a link, I get a small percentage of the sale at no additional cost to you.

How much vacation time do federal employees get?

Federal employees are not given a certain number of vacation days per year. Instead, federal employees earn annual leave each biweekly pay period. Earned annual leave can be used to take vacations.

The number of hours of annual leave depends on your seniority.

Unfortunately that means that new employees who just passed their background check and took the oath of office don’t earn a lot of vacation.

Federal employees with less than 3 years of service earn 4 hours of annual leave per pay period. (That’s equivalent to 13 days of vacation per year).

The next category of federal employees, with more than 3 years of service but less than 15 years of service earn 20 days of annual leave per year. They do this by earning 6 hours in every pay period except the pay period prior to the end of the year, in which they earn 10 hours. As a result, they earn 160 hours of annual leave (25*6+10).

Finally, employees with over 15 years of service earn 8 hours per pay period. Amazingly, they earn 26 days of vacation per year.

(One exception to this rule is members of the senior executive service (SES). They earn 8 hours of leave per pay period regardless of their seniority).

Amount of annual leave earned per pay period by federal employees.

Do federal employees need to use annual leave for holidays?

No. Federal employees do not need to use their annual leave on holidays. Instead, the government grants federal employees administrative leave for use on holidays.

Since Juneteenth was added as the newest federal holiday on June 17th of 2021, there are now 11 federal holidays.

Federal employees like me with over 15 years of service earn 26 days of vacation time and 11 paid holidays for a total of 37 days off.

Do federal employees need to use vacation time to go to doctor appointments?

No. Federal employees do not need to use vacation time to go to the doctor or to take their dependents to the doctor. Instead, federal employees are allowed to use their sick leave to visit the doctor.

All federal employees working a full-time schedule earn 4 hours of leave per pay period. Employees working part-time work schedules earn a prorated amount equivalent to 4 hours per 80 hours worked.

In total, between sick leave (13 days), holidays (11 days), and annual leave (13-26 days), civilian federal employees can earn up to 50 days of paid time off per year. (However, there are limitations on the use of sick leave).

How much leave can federal employees carry over to the next year?

Most federal employees can carry over 240 hours of accrued annual leave into the next year. (SES employees can carry over 720 hours of leave).

Before attempting to carry over a full 240 hours, you should know that the leave year ends on the last day of pay period 26 rather than December 31st.

People with many years of federal service frequently have “use or lose” annual leave. Employees must schedule use or lose before the end of the year. Each year, employees receive a date by which they need to have all their annual leave scheduled. If they schedule their leave by that date and end up needing to come to work for an emergency (or cannot use it because of a government shutdown), their unused annual leave can be restored the following year.

Are there restrictions on vacation time for federal employees?

Federal employees must ask their supervisor before taking annual leave and receive approval to take leave. Each office may have an informal policy for requesting leave.

However, you cannot go wrong by submitting an OPM-71 form to your supervisor, which is the official government wide form for requesting leave.

Some federal employees can work flexible work schedules. Federal employees with alternative work schedules may be able to extend their leave even further by working more hours in the beginning or end of pay periods where they use their vacation time.

What happens to unused vacation time when federal employees retire?

Federal employees in both the Federal Employee Retirement System (FERS) and Civil Service Retirement System (CSRS) have their leave paid out in a lump sum payment when they leave federal service.

Unused sick leave can be used to increase your annuity payment.

Does all of this vacation time for federal employees mean they are lazy?

There’s no question that federal employees earn a lot of non-taxable government benefits.

In addition to the generous amounts of vacation time, federal employees can participate in the Federal Employee Health Benefits Program (FEHB), the Federal Employee Group Life Insurance (FEGLI- the government term life insurance program), and the Thrift Savings Plan (TSP). Furthermore, they are some of the only people that get Martin Luther King Jr. Day off each year.

But as Darcy wrote when comparing public and private sector jobs, you need to look at the whole compensation picture. For example, certain federal employees don’t receive social security benefits. While there are lots of benefits for federal employees, their salaries may not be as high as corresponding jobs in the private sector.

Although government paid leave may be one of the biggest benefits of working for the federal government, it doesn’t mean that federal employees are lazy. It just means that the pay and compensation structure are different. And now there are many private sector jobs offering unlimited days of leave for their salaried employees.

Where can I get more information about vacation time for federal employees?

The office of personnel management (OPM) website is filled with amazing fact-sheets about leave for government employees. Not only that, but OPM sets official leave policies for all federal employees. If you are a federal employee, your specific agency may have its own fact sheets as well; it might be worth checking your intranet page.

Unfortunately, anyone who has tried to navigate the OPM website knows that it is quite difficult to find the information you are looking for. That’s why I tried to summarize the major facts in this article.

If you found the article helpful, please share it on social media. If you’d like to leave a comment, you can drop one on my YouTube channel.


Sam i.e. "Gov Worker" started working for the government at age 18 and loved it so much that he never left. He started GovernmentWorkerFI in 2019 to help fellow federal employees understand their benefits, take control of their finances, and live their best lives.

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