What Nonmembers Need to Know About SAG-AFTRA

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Earning the coveted SAG-AFTRA card means more than just knowing you’ve made it as an actor—it also means having the power of a union behind you, guaranteed minimum earnings, and, of course, the ability to cast your vote at the SAG Awards. Here’s everything nonmembers need to know about the actors’ guild, including membership benefits and why you actually might want to put off joining.


What is SAG?


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SAG-AFTRA, or the Screen Actors Guild-American Federation of Television and Radio Artists, is a union representing more than 160,000 actors and performers working in screen, radio, and voiceover. SAG-AFTRA came into being after SAG and AFTRA enacted a historical merger in 2012 and became a single labor union representing the “faces and the voices that entertain and inform America and the world.”

Why should I join SAG?

Hollywood strikes 2023

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Joining SAG grants lifelong bragging rights as a significant milestone of professional achievement in the industry. It also entails multiple benefits for those working in entertainment, including:

  • Financial security: SAG negotiates contracts so that members are fairly compensated for their work, including minimum pay rates. It also offers pension plans so that members have financial security even after retiring from performing.
  • Health benefits: SAG members and their dependents are eligible for the union’s health plan.
  • Working conditions: Union contracts include stipulations about working conditions and safety protocols regulating audition and performance requirements.
  • Camaraderie: As evidenced in the historic 2023 Hollywood strike, membership in the union means being part of a team of like-minded individuals hoping to achieve similar goals.

How do I become SAG eligible?

actors on stage

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Meeting minimum membership requirements is the first step toward joining the union. Paths towards eligibility include:

The Taft-Hartley Act

The Taft-Hartley Act is legislation allowing nonmembers to be hired in productions under union contracts. Producers may hire nonunion actors if they demonstrate skills that cannot be found within the union talent pool. Actors with principal and speaking roles must complete at least one full day of work. Once hired, the actor becomes eligible for union membership.

That’s right: You don’t have to be a member of the union to get that first union job. You do have to be a good actor, though, as well as hardworking—and lucky. But you knew that already. Getting in this way is sometimes referred to as being Taft-Hartleyed.

Background vouchers

The rule is different if you’re working background; you must have completed three full working days to be considered eligible. Some background positions on union shows are considered union positions and others are not. You’ll get a SAG background voucher if you work a union background job, and your goal is to collect three union vouchers.

Content creation

SAG’s New Media, Special New Media, Ultra Low Budget, Moderate Low Budget, and Short Project agreements allow independent producers to make themselves eligible for membership if they hire other union members for the project.

So, if you’re really entrepreneurial, you can become a producer, finance a union production, and hire yourself. This is feasible if the production is for new media—and if your goal is to be a multitalented entertainment entrepreneur, it might be the right step for you. 


If you’re a member of sister unions Actors' Equity, ACTRA, AGMA, or AGVA for a year and at least one principal contract, you’re eligible for SAG membership. Equity-SAG reciprocity—otherwise known as Open Access—is a particularly popular means of gaining eligibility due to the crossover between stage and screen actors.

Upgrade to principal

If you're working a background job (or as an extra in a commercial), it’s sometimes possible to be upgraded to principal—for instance, if you’re directed to say a line of dialogue. This is rare, but if it happens, not only do you get paid more, but it also makes you SAG eligible.

Special cases

Finally, if the National Board determines that you’re “engaged in work that advances the [union’s] active organizing efforts or general goals,” it can decide to admit you. Don’t count on this one; the language is meant primarily to cover situations involving radio and TV broadcasters. (They, and recording artists, are covered by SAG-AFTRA.)

What should I consider before joining SAG?


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For some—maybe you—it might be too early to join SAG because you’re not just snagging a card, you’re signing on to a set of rules. Before joining, be sure to consider: 

Will I be impacted by Global Rule One?

Once you’re a member, you can’t work nonunion gigs anymore, under Global Rule One. That means nonunion movies, TV shows, commercials, internet projects, student films, and even industrials are off-limits starting the moment you join. Even if a show is shooting in Canada or overseas, you generally aren’t allowed to accept the gig if it’s nonunion.

You might think: That’s OK, because if I join SAG today, I’ll land an agent tomorrow and be booking jobs the day after that. 

Sadly, it doesn’t work that way. It’s tough to get an agent and even harder to get booked on union jobs. 

Should I take more time to build up credits?

If you don’t have the chops and some good credits, agents and union jobs will be hard to come by, even with that coveted card. And no, the union won’t help you find representation or get work. It’s just not one of the things it does. To build up those credits, you may need to keep working nonunion jobs, which you can’t do once you’ve joined. 

Am I required to join?

In some situations, you may have to join the union. If you are SAG eligible due to being a principal performer or working three union jobs, you have 30 days to perform in productions under SAG contracts; however, after the 30 days, you must join before taking another union job.



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  • How do I check my SAG eligibility? See if you’re eligible for membership using the online SAG eligibility checker.
  • Can I still audition for projects not under union contracts if I’m SAG-E? You can audition for both union and non-union projects while being SAG-E, but once you join the union, you may no longer audition or perform in non-union projects. 
  • What are some tips for becoming SAG eligible? Build your résumé by working on indie projects, student films, and other non-union projects; connect with other industry professionals by attending classes, workshops, and events; keep up-to-date with SAG projects and upcoming auditions; and stay committed to developing your craft. It’s also important to follow all SAG rules during a strike, even as a nonmember. During the 2023 strike, the union stated that it would not allow actors who cross picket lines future membership.

Once you’re in, you'll be part of a union that famously fights for wages, working conditions, residuals, and pension and health benefits for its members. Be proud of that SAG-AFTRA card—you worked hard for it!

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