What to Expect During a Security Clearance Process

Updated: March 25, 2021
In this Article

    There is a silly old adage that holds, “If you’ve done nothing wrong, you have nothing to worry about.” But it’s natural to be nervous about an experience that requires you to provide your personal history for the last five years or better even when you’ve got nothing to worry about.

    If you have never experienced a security clearance process, it’s understandable that you might feel intimidated or nervous about the process. This is normal, and even expected; but understanding how the process works really takes the mystery and fear out of the experience. To be completely honest, by the time the typical candidate is done with the security clearance process, they are likely a little bored by the paperwork, questions, and interviewing.

    What Is The Security Clearance Process?

    If you want to enter the United States military, you will be required to undergo a background check. This is NOT a security clearance process and you are not assigned a security clearance as a new recruit in basic training.

    But the process is similar in some ways–the recruiter has to check law enforcement records and other materials to insure each recruit meets standards.

    Once a military member is assigned a job that requires a security clearance of Confidential, Secret, or Top Secret, they will submit to an actual security clearance background investigation. This is also true for any federal hire who must have a clearance in order to fulfil job expectations.

    The process in both cases is dictated by the as-needed clearance level. Those who need Top Secret clearances will have more complete investigations than those who require Confidential clearances.

    In all cases, the clearance process is initiated by your chain of command. The employee or military member does not request or initiate a clearance process and the hiring agency will make the final determination as to whether the employee/troops requiring the investigations will be awarded the clearance and the responsibilities associated with them.


    What To Expect During The Security Clearance Process

    The first expectation to manage is the duration of this process. The paperwork alone is quite lengthy. Do not expect to get all your requirements accomplished in one sitting or a single interview.

    The clearance process includes a series of steps including:

    • A pre-investigation phase
    • An investigation phase
    • Adjudication
    • Reinvestigation

    A service member or federal hire will likely be accepted for a new job conditionally. If you do not pass the clearance process, the agency will make a determination on what to do next.

    During the pre-investigation phase, the chain of command or the federal agency determines the need for the investigation and clearance process. Does the new troop or new hire require access to classified information? At what level? Determining these boundaries is a key part of the pre-investigation phase.

    This is also the time when the applicant must complete the appropriate paperwork which may include:

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

    Before attempting to complete the documentation, new hires or new troops should familiarize themselves with the text of the 130-pages-plus Standard Form 86, which requests the background details needed to conduct the investigation. This form is, as you might guess, a very long document and can’t be approached “cold”.

    That means you’ll need to gather a lot of personal data in order to successfully complete the form. What kind?

    • Addresses and contact information for all addresses you have lived for at least the last five years
    • Names of roommates, cohabitants, significant others, etc. for at least the last five years
    • Information about schools attended for the last five years
    • Job information including addresses, phone numbers, contact information, etc. for at least the last five years
    • Information about ex-spouses where appropriate
    • Information about any aliases, alternate names, married names, etc.
    • Any information about past federal service
    • Any information about past incidents involving law enforcement where applicable
    • History of substance abuse issues or other relevant problems
    • Credit and financial data
    • Other information as required

    The text of SF 86 reminds applicants that some clearance processes will include an interview. This is the applicant’s opportunity to “update, clarify, and explain information on your form more completely, which often assists in completing your investigation”.

    The interview is not necessarily an indicator that you are “in trouble” with the process or that there are unanswered questions about your investigation that could make or break the approval of your clearance. Instead, view this interview as a way to put a human face on the data you submit as part of the investigation.

    The investigation phase can take longer than you might expect. Some get nervous in the waiting period, mistakenly assuming that the longer it takes to get through the investigation phase, the less likely the clearance is to be approved. But this process may involve interviews or other contacts with people you know and these can take time to arrange and accomplish. The duration of your investigation is not necessarily an indicator as to its status.

    And yes, the investigators may actually interview your parents, siblings, colleagues, co-workers, instructors, etc. It’s standard depending on how high your clearance needs to be.


    Security Clearance Rejection

    Rejection is not the same thing as being denied a clearance. The investigators may reject the submission if it does not have enough data or requires further development. Rejection is basically the investigators saying, “Try again” but this time with more complete information. Reasons why a clearance may be rejected include:

    • Missing employment information
    • Missing social security number of spouse or adult co-habitant
    • Missing information on relatives
    • Missing Selective Service registration details
    • Missing or incomplete information concerning debts
    • Missing or incomplete information on a bankruptcy
    • Missing education reference information
    • Missing or incomplete employment references
    • Incomplete explanation of employment history
    • Missing personal references
    • Missing or incomplete explanation of drug use


    The Adjudication Phase And Beyond

    After the investigation, the adjudication phase is the time where the results come back from the investigators and the agency must decide whether to approve or deny the clearance. The investigators deliver the information to the agency or chain of command; they do not make determinations for the agencies that request the services.

    While troops or employees are waiting out the investigation process, they may be provided interim approval or even an interim clearance so they can perform some duties ahead of formal recognition of the new worker’s clearance. In cases where the clearance is approved, the agency may add more responsibilities to the employee or service member commensurate with the new clearance.

    In cases where the employee or service member does NOT pass the clearance process, the hiring agency will have to decide what to do and those decisions are not standardized. They will depend on the needs of the agency, the circumstances involved, and other variables.


    Reinvestigation is the process required when enough time has elapsed since the original clearance’s approval, or when the employee or servicemember moves to a different agency and the clearance must be renewed or re-approved, etc. These may also be ordered in cases where there has been a break in service or duty. The requirements of the approving agency will be a key factor in whether you get reinvestigated or not.

    Reinvestigations basically involve submitting new information when required, comparing the previously submitted data with that generated since the first security clearance process. These can also be ordered in any situation where the employee may have lost the faith and confidence of the chain of command or the hiring agency.


    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 Veteran.com Team