Security Clearances: Active, Inactive & Interim

Updated: March 25, 2021
In this Article

    Many want to know about security clearances and the process required to obtain one. It only takes one time around the circuit, so to speak, with a background investigation and interviews, to understand how high-stakes the process can be depending on the clearance and the job.

    If you have never experienced this process, you could be forgiven for misunderstanding the process as a one-time-only experience but obtaining and maintaining your clearance requires additional vetting in some cases, and periodic reinvestigation in others.

    One misconception about security clearances is that they apply for life, and another one is that they can travel with you. The former is definitely not true, and the latter may or may not be true depending on circumstances.

    You can’t carry your clearance out of the military or federal workplace into the civilian job market, but you may be granted access to the same levels of clearance if you make a lateral job move in the military or within the DoD.

    Levels of Security Clearance

    The three basic levels of clearance are Confidential, Secret, and Top Secret, in that order of importance. Clearance levels are assigned to data, hardware, documents, and even work spaces depending on the amount of potential harm that could be caused by leaked information, accidental release of controlled information, etc.

    Clearances aren’t required by the military alone; many federal agencies including the Department of Energy, Department of Justice, and the Central Intelligence Agency also must classify and protect their resources in this way.

    Clearances require a variety of paperwork, details, and conditions to be met. Among the first you will encounter is a general requirement for citizenship; in most cases only legal U.S. citizens are allowed to be granted a Confidential, Secret, or Top Secret classification.


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    Interim Security Clearance

    Some federal employees and military members may be granted an interim security clearance to allow work to begin while the vetting process or investigations are underway for the full clearance.

    This allows the servicemember or federal employee to work in a specific job with the caveat that the clearance no longer applies when the employee quits or moves to a different position.

    Interim clearances are issued far more quickly than normal procedures allow but they are also usually for a lower level of access. You may be able to get an answer back on an interim clearance inquiry within 30 days; in some cases that review process may result in the interim clearance being denied.

    That does not automatically mean the applicant has a serious issue with their background check and it does not mean the full clearance process must stop in its tracks.  There may simply be an issue with the application that needs further development.

    Classification Levels Versus Status Levels

    You may be approved to possess a Confidential, Secret, or Top Secret clearance–these descriptors refer to the level of classification itself. But there is also a designator that will apply to your clearance that reflects the status of your clearance (rather than acting as a security clearance level itself). Your clearance must reflect one of three statuses:

    • Active
    • Current
    • Expired

    Active Security Clearances

    “Active” means access to classified material at the appropriate classification level has been granted and the employee’s handling of such material is ongoing. This is the state your clearance will be when you begin working with the controlled information, hardware, workspaces, etc.

    Current Security Clearances

    The “Current” clearance isn’t as straightforward as “Active”; those with Current clearances are said to be eligible to access sensitive information but cannot at the present time be considered so without being reinstated. You may have a clearance, but have since PCSed or taken a different position. You have two years to remain “Current” before your clearance reverts to “Expired” status.

    Active and Current statuses are considered easy to transfer to a new job where such transfers are permitted. But if you allow your clearance to hit Expired mode, it cannot be reinstated.

    That does NOT mean that you can never get the same clearance ever again, but it does mean you will have to submit to a new application and investigation as though you had not applied for one before.

    Expired Security Clearances

    Your security clearance is considered Expired if it has not been used in over two years. Reinstatement is not possible in such cases, but you can be reinvestigated anew and be issued a new clearance at the same level.

    Why is it important to avoid getting an expired clearance for some in the DoD or in uniform? Because regardless of the nature of your job as a Russian linguist, a long-haul comm technician, or as a member of the Office of Special Investigations (OSI) or Naval Criminal Investigative Service (NCIS), you cannot be considered for jobs that require clearances that are Active or Current.

    Timeframes For Security Clearances And Notification Procedures

    Those who have applied for security clearances used to have to wait for the results in a time frame measured over many months. That has changed a great deal and today’s processes may be completed in nine months or so depending on many variables. Some wait a year or longer for their investigations to be completed.

    Notification of the final outcome of your background investigation and other procedures comes by way of your Security Officer, command support staff, or your supervisor. You cannot access classified information without the clearance, but you must be given a security briefing as a condition of your initial access to the classified materials. Ask your supervisor about the scheduling and other details of your security briefing.


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    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