Obtain a Security Clearance

A security clearance is required to access confidential information. If you’re a government employee or work for certain government contractors, then you may need a clearance. Unfortunately, you can’t get a security clearance on your own. Instead, you must be sponsored by a government agency or by an appropriate employer. After you apply, an investigator will perform a background check and review any security concerns that turn up.


Applying for a Security Clearance

  1. Identify the clearance level you need. There are three levels of security clearances: confidential, secret, and top secret.[1] Identify which one you need.
    • Confidential. You can access material that could cause measurable damage if improperly disclosed. Most military personnel get this clearance.
    • Secret. You can gain access to material that could cause serious damage to national security if it were disclosed improperly.
    • Top secret. You can access to information or material that could cause exceptionally grave damage to the nation’s security if improperly disclosed.
  2. Complete the questionnaire. You will need to complete the Personal Security Questionnaire, SF-86, online.[2] This form will ask for substantial amounts of information, such as where you’ve lived and worked for the past 10 years and your relationship with family members. Answer all questions honestly and thoroughly.[3]
    • Talk to your company’s Facility Security Officer (FSO) for information on accessing the questionnaire.
  3. Choose your references wisely. The application will request work, school, and personal references. It will also ask for the names of neighbors and landlords. If possible, you should avoid naming family members. Also try not to list someone as a reference more than once.
    • For personal references, you should name at least one person who has known you for the past seven years. This person should also know your other friends.[4]
    • After you complete the questionnaire, the FSO will review it and then forward it to the Department of Defense Central Adjudication Facilities (DoDCAF). If they approve it, they forward it on to the Office of Personnel Management (OPM), which will conduct your background check.[5]

Undergoing a Background Check

  1. Give fingerprints. A background check must be performed before you can be approved for a clearance. You will be told where to go to give your fingerprints. You may need to go to the police station, or the agency requiring the clearance might fingerprint you.[6]
  2. Identify what will be checked. The investigator will perform a criminal and credit check. They will also send inquiries to employers, schools, and references to confirm information. If you are seeking a Top Secret clearance, then the investigator may also interview employers, references, and others.[7]
    • Investigators can also look at your social media profiles, such as Twitter, Facebook, or Instagram.[8] Make your profiles private if you don’t want anyone seeing anything embarrassing.
  3. Attend an interview. Within a few weeks of submitting your application, you will attend an interview with the investigator.[9] You will go through the information on your application. The interviewer may also ask you to bring supporting documents, such as your Social Security card, passport, or birth certificate.
    • You will also be asked questions about anything from your background check that has raised a security concern.
  4. Show allegiance to the U.S. You’ll raise a security concern if you’ve ever associated with people trying to overthrow the U.S. government, or if you have close ties with non-citizens. For example, you might be currently living with a non-citizen or have a family member who has close ties to a foreign country.[10] You can expect the investigator to ask you questions about these circumstances.
    • You won’t automatically be disqualified from a security clearance for these reasons. For example, you might have been involved in seditious activities mostly out of curiosity and only for a brief period of time.
    • The government might need to investigate any non-citizen you are close with to determine they are not an agent of a foreign power.
  5. Discuss any substance abuse issues. Alcohol and substance abuse are red flags for the investigator. You may need to discuss these issues, especially if you’ve been diagnosed as dependent on drugs or alcohol or been convicted of a crime while high or intoxicated.[11]
    • You can lessen the seriousness by showing that your involvement was not recent or that it was an isolated incident.
    • Also let the investigator know if you’ve completed a treatment program, such as Alcoholics Anonymous.
  6. Prove emotional stability. The investigator will look to see whether you have engaged in a pattern of behavior that shows emotional instability. Examples include compulsive sexual behavior, failure to take prescription medications, or high-risk and aggressive behavior.[12]
    • You should explain to the investigator that there is no current problem. Ideally, you will also have a recent opinion from mental health professional stating that your behavior is not likely to occur again.
    • You should also explain if your past behavior resulted from a temporary problem, such as a divorce or the death of a loved one.
  7. Discuss any financial difficulties. Financial difficulties can raise red flags for an investigator, because someone who is financially distressed is more likely to disclose confidential information for money. A history of defaulting on loans will cause concern.[13]
    • You can lessen the seriousness of financial difficulties by pointing out how they were beyond your control. For example, you might have gone into debt because of a medical emergency or unemployment.
    • You can also explain how you made a good faith effort to pay your debts back.
  8. Answer questions about your criminal history. The investigator will closely review your entire criminal history, so be prepared to discuss any crime you have been convicted of or even charged with.
    • Try to put your criminal history in context. For example, explain if the behavior was isolated and a long time ago. These facts can lessen any security concerns the investigator will have.[14]
    • If you were acquitted, point out that fact. However, you shouldn’t insist you were innocent if you were convicted. That sounds like you are trying to avoid responsibility for the crime.
    • Also explain how you have rehabilitated yourself. For example, point to your solid work history and recent clean criminal record.

Receiving Your Clearance

  1. Receive an interim security clearance. Your hiring office might request that you receive an interim security clearance. They are given only in exceptional circumstances, but you can get one within a few weeks of submitting your complete security package.[15]
    • Your FSO should be able to tell you whether they are seeking an interim security clearance.
  2. Wait for your clearance. DoD CAF reviews the results of the investigation and decides to either grant you a clearance or not. It shouldn’t take longer than three months to receive your clearance, from start to finish.
  3. Contest a denial. You will receive a Statement of Reasons (SOR) if you are denied. This document will identify every reason that has prevented you from obtaining a clearance. You’ll also be told how to submit a written rebuttal and/or request a hearing.[16]
    • In your rebuttal, you will need to explain or deny each reason stated in the SOR. For example, you might be denied because you have a home in foreclosure. You can provide context by showing how an illness caused you to fall behind on your mortgage payments. Find supporting documentation, such as medical records.
    • Consider hiring an attorney or security clearance consultation to help you respond to the denial. It’s possible to convince the agency that you are qualified for a security clearance, but you’ll probably need expert help.
  4. Undergo periodic investigation. Your clearance is only good for a certain amount of time. Before it expires, you must submit a new security package and have another background check. You will be reinvestigated according to the following timetable:[17]
    • Confidential clearance: every 15 years.
    • Secret clearance: every 10 years.
    • Top secret clearance: every 5 years.


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