How to Get a Security Clearance

Updated: March 25, 2021
In this Article

    Do you need to know how to get a security clearance? Many wonder about this process and it seems mysterious to most who have never experienced a background check and security clearance investigation. But the realities are mundane, even a bit disappointing to some who expect more cloak-and-dagger from the experience. What do you need to know about how to get a clearance?

    Security Clearance Basics

    A security clearance allows you access to classified information. Your basic level of clearance determines what classified or sensitive data you can access, but generally while you can review information classified at your level or below, you cannot access classified information that has been classified higher than your level.

    You can’t view ANY classified information just because you hold a security clearance; you only have permission to access the materials you need or are assigned to. You will likely require permission to look at classified data in other contexts even if you have the clearance to view and handle it.

    There are three basic security clearance levels. Before these levels there’s a different classification for much of the information a federal employee or military member may access.

    “For Official Use Only” is not a level of classification the way those listed below are, but it’s the first of many such restrictions you may encounter along the way. The three basic levels of clearance and classification are:

    • Confidential
    • Secret
    • Top Secret

    You apply for a clearance to access classified information when you have applied for a job and have accepted an offer. In most cases, especially in non-military circles, your offer of employment is likely to be conditional on your passing the background check and security clearance investigation.

    Can I Come To The Job Interview With A Clearance?

    If you held a clearance in a prior job or in the military, your clearance may or may not travel with you. Much depends on current policy, mission requirements, etc. If you do not or have not held a clearance of any kind, you’ll be required to undergo the process of the interview and background investigation.

    Some mistakenly believe that they should have the ability to apply for a clearance prior to seeking a federal job or joining the military. This is not true. You cannot apply for a clearance without a job offer–there is no provision in the federal government for assigning you a clearance without a need to use it.

    How To Get A Security Clearance

    If you are in the military, your chain of command will determine at what stage you must get a background investigation and have a security clearance interview and data gathering procedures started.

    New troops usually have to go through some professional military education and other training before they are asked to start the background check process. Civilians applying for federal jobs will have their requirements explained to them at the time the job is offered. Job seekers applying for positions that require a clearance investigation may be required to fill out SF Personnel Security Questionnaire Form 86.

    Military job seekers may experience a different type of background check than civilian hires but the basic experience will include an interview, forms to fill out, and statements from the applicant documenting home addresses, schools, jobs, friendships, and more from a set period of time–you will likely be required to supply information from the last ten years of your life.

    That is why it’s a good idea to start sifting through your personal records to remember names, addresses, phone numbers, dates, and other relevant information from your life. If you can’t remember an old address you lived at six years ago, you’ll need to find a way to locate that information for the process.

    Civilians may have some different forms to fill out, but essentially the concerns are the same. The U.S. Department of State official site explains this process on its official site–when a job seeker is given their conditional offer of employment, they are required to submit the form that best suits the position, which may be one of the following:

    • Questionnaire for National Security Positions
    • Questionnaire for Non-Sensitive Positions
    • Questionnaire for Public Trust Positions

    Like military background investigations performed ahead of being awarded a Confidential, Secret, or Top Secret clearance, you will be interviewed. No matter what stage of the process you are at, there are a few things to remember about providing data that will help you get closer to being approved.

    Am I Required To Submit Information For The Clearance?

    This is a bit of a trick question, since the standard answer is that providing your data is voluntary, but you won’t get the job if you can’t obtain a clearance. If you don’t submit the information your ability to get a security clearance may be compromised. So while you aren’t FORCED to provide details, you likely can’t be hired without doing so.

    What Happens If I Don’t Answer Certain Questions Honestly?

    Every single website, official or not, addressing background check issues gives the same exact advice. DO NOT LIE. Be honest as possible when answering interview questions and providing information on application forms and questionnaires.

    Some people mistakenly believe their word will be taken for details they provide but the opposite is true. When you give your personal details to the interviewer or list them in print as part of the forms you must complete, the information you provide is used as a starting point to begin the investigation. Your information will be checked against information provided by others.

    That process includes checking your fingerprints, your credit report, reviewing law enforcement databases, interviewing friends and relatives, and much more. Assume that every piece of information you provide will be vetted.

    Again, DO NOT LIE on your forms or to the interviewer. This is a major red flag in the screening process and is likely to delay the process and could lead to rejection of you as a job candidate depending on circumstances.

    How Much Detail Is Required?

    The agency employing you will determine some of what’s required but in general you should expect to provide the following information, paperwork, etc.:

    • Proof of citizenship status for yourself and your immediate family, spouse or cohabitant, if applicable
    • Employment history
    • Current and previous work location addresses
    • Supervisor names, addresses, and contact information
    • Personal residences to include a name, address, and phone number of a person who knew you at each address
    • Three personal references
    • College history including all educational Institutions, dates of attendance, address
    • Names addresses and contact information for a person who knew you at the school (instructor, student)
    • Relatives’ citizenship information
    • Any aliases used
    • “Foreign activities”
    • Selective Service ID number

    This is not a comprehensive list, but it does give an idea of the level of detail required.

    After The Interview

    In general you should expect to wait at least 120 days from the time you submitted all information and had your interview. You may be provided an interim clearance so you can perform some or all duties while you wait but this is largely dependent on who you work for, the mission requirements at the time, and other needs.

    Don’t expect to be given progress reports or updates on your investigation, you will be told after the process is complete whether more action is needed or you are going to be assigned a clearance.

    In some cases there may be a delay in concluding your background check. This happens for a variety of reasons but one of the most common is that the interviewee didn’t tell the truth or the whole truth during the screening process.

    That’s not the only reason, to be sure, but it’s one of the big ones. Don’t assume the interviewer/investigator thought you were lying in the process if you experience a delay, unless you actually did. There are other reasons why the process could be delayed.


    Security Clearance Jobs



    About The AuthorJoe Wallace is a 13-year veteran of the United States Air Force and a former reporter for Air Force Television News

    Written by Team