How to Get Security Clearance

It is a matter of national security. You may remember that phrase. Movies used it many times. Yet, security clearance is a serious subject.

What Is Security Clearance?

The U.S. State Department provides info on security clearance. Security clearance is a status granted to you which allows you to have access to classified information or to restricted areas, after completion of a thorough background check. This applies to the national gov’t. It also holds true for other forms of security clearance.

People who wish to access classified information may need to meet specific rules to do so. Getting that information is called having security clearance. People may need to have screenings to qualify for it. There are many factors that play a role in that process.

Types of Security Clearance

Several types of clearance may be provided. There are three related to the federal government. This usually includes non sensitive positions. Public trust positions are another. National security positions are a third type.

The people who hold these positions may need to have some level of clearance. Each one must typically complete a background check. Different types of background checks may be necessary.

Low level security clearance may need an automated check of a person’s history. Those who need a secret clearance may need formal interviews. This may include interviewing people where a person lived or worked. It may also go back a long time. This may be necessary in national security positions.

There are four types of security related to national security positions. Here is a look at them. They are also called levels of security clearance.

Confidential Clearance

Confidential is one security clearance type. It typically lets people have access to info that could cause damage to national security. That may happen if it was disclosed without authorization. Confidential security is reinvestigated every 15 years.

Confidential security may be the easiest to get. It is still not simple. The Defense Investigative Service may handle this type of work. Some agencies may do the investigation themselves. The FBI and DoE often do their own.

Secret Clearance

Another type of security is called secret. This is typically a bit of a higher type of security clearance. This type of clearance likely gives access to info that may cause damage to national security. It is  rather confidential in this way. It could be dangerous to the country if info is disclosed without authorization. And, it could cause “serious” damage. This type of security is reinvestigated every 10 years.

This security level is sometimes called ordinary secret. This takes more time. There is often military involvement. The military may handle some of the background work. The CIA or NSA typically handle this.

Top Secret Clearance

The next type of security is top secret. It is a higher level of security protection. Top secret info access is typically given to only a select few. This type of info may cause grave damage to national security if someone discloses it. Reinvestigation occurs every 5 years.

The difference in Secret and Top Security is details. Top Secret is more expansive. The investigation may go deeper into your past. It may look at more people. And, it may include more relatives, friends or coworkers.

Sensitive Compartmented Information Clearance

This type of classified info may come from sensitive intelligence sources. It may come from sensitive methods. This is usually the very highest level of security clearance. The Director of National Intelligence controls access to this type of info.

This security is typically limited. Only a few people may receive it. The background screening is extensive. It may include continual monitoring in some situations. This includes when there is extreme sensitive info.

Another type of security clearance is interim security clearance. It is not a specific type or level of security. Rather, it is typically a short term access point. Interim clearance is rare. An executive order may allow it.

This type of security clearance is usually given for a short period of time. A complete security package may be  submitted. Then, this type of clearance may be  given for less than 90 days. A person may receive this for a short period of time. This may be given until more significant research is obtained. It is typically given before a background check completed. It is usually given on very limited basis.

Here is another example. This breaks down the types of security clearance a bit more. It has five tiers of clearance.

InvestigationPosition RequirementReinvestigationForm
Tier 1NACILow Risk, Non-Sensitive, including HSPD-12 CredentialingNoneNoneSF85P
Tier 2MBIModerate Risk Public Trust (MRPT)Tier 2RNACLCSF85P
Tier 3NACLC & ANACINon-Critical Sensitive National Security, including Secret & “L” access eligibilityTier 3RNACLCSF86
Tier 4BIHigh Risk Public Trust (HRPT)Tier 4RPRISF85P
Tier 5SSBICritical Sensitive and Special Sensitive National Security, including Top Secret, SCI, and “Q” access eligibilityTier 5RSSBI-PR & PPRSF86

Who Needs Security Clearance?

Many people need security clearance. Few receive it. One common time it is necessary is when a person is working for a company that is working with the government. The company may be sending or receiving info from the government. This may be for a variety of needs.

The person working for the company may need access to info to help with decisions or design. They must typically work through national security clearance to get that info.

Other reasons someone may need security clearance are for the work they do within the government. Some military professionals may need it.

Many people work in secured facilities. These people must typically have access to info. They may come into contact with sensitive info. That is why they need security clearance.

A security clearance may be  necessary whenever a job needs access to info or data that could be used improperly. Any position that could bring adverse effects on national security could need this clearance.

Who May Qualify for a Security Clearance?

Access to classified information is not easy to get. Eligibility is typically based on many factors. The federal government tends to makes these decisions. Rules may change at any time.

The Bureau of Human Resources determines if a government position needs security clearance. This applies to any position in the Department of State. They base this decision on the tasks of the job. This includes duties and responsibilities.

Some positions likely need access to classified info. That is when the Dept. needs a background investigation. This process may only happen  if a person receives a conditional offer on a job.

People working in the military may also go through a similar process. Personnel working in the military typically need this type of clearance. It applies in situations where the work they do needs access to sensitive info. Military service may be  one of the more common reasons to have it.

Some people working outside of the U.S. government may need it as well. This may include defense contractors. People working for defense contractors may need personnel security clearance. This typically depends on the type of work they do.

Defense contractors in a sensitive position may need this type of clearance. This may include positions in military medical fields. It may also apply to jobs in education or telecommunication. Any position where sensitive information that could cause serious damage is present may need this.

How to Get Security Clearance

The process may differ from one position to the next. Most people hired for a federal job may need a basic background check. This may look at credit histories. It may consider criminal histories. The goal is reliable, trustworthy people. It also may include people of good conduct and character. Another factor is being loyal to the United States. 

Security clearance is more than a basic background check. It generally includes a look at how trustworthy a person is. It also looks at their reliability. A full background investigation helps determine this.

Federal agencies may need security clearance. They do this if the role and mission of the applicant relates to security. Some dept. of the federal government that may need this include:

  • Intelligence community. This includes National Security Agency (NSA). It includes the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA).
  • Federal law enforcement agencies. This includes Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA). Naval Criminal Investigative services (NCIS) is another. The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) is one of the largest.
  • Civilian Military Agencies. This includes Defense Security Service. It also includes the Defense Intelligence Agency.
  • Diplomatic Agencies. This includes the State Department. It also may include the United States Agency for International Development.

People working in these groups may need security clearance. Some may not. Those in non-sensitive positions may not need this. A background check could still be necessary.

A company contracting with the federal government must abide by various rules. Employees of that company may need to have a security clearance. You may need to go through this process to get a job with that company. This is typically necessary when the company has access to sensitive info.

It is important to know this. The company itself may not give security clearance. They cannot approve someone. No individual can do this either. That applies even if they have a contract in place with the government. They also cannot seek out security clearance. The government has to do that first.

Here is how this works. You apply for a job with the company. The company has a contract in place with the government. You have an interview. You discuss the job. No info is provided that violates security clearance.

The company may then decide to work with you. You may want to take the job. The company may contact the government agency. The agency may then contact you. They typically work to get you security clearance. It’s complex and thorough.

The Background Investigation Process

Here is how the process works. A person typically applies for a job. They may have an interview. They may then have an initial background check. The agency may offer an initial conditional offer. They likely agree to the offer. The agency typically provides that job offer contingent on security clearance.

All parties are usually in favor of moving forward. The applicant agrees to the background investigation. The agency starts the process.

This is how the background investigation typically goes. The process begins with completing Standard Form 86. It is also called the Questionnaire for National Security Positions. This may be updated from time to time.

The Department of State (DOS) may need specific forms. If so, applicants must typically submit info to the agency. This may start with the human resource department. They submit the completed security package. This goes to the Office of Personnel Security and Suitability. It is part of the State Department. The Office of Personnel Management also is included.

Then, they review the security package. They first do so to make sure it is complete. It is then typically put into the case management system.

The agency then record checks the info. They scan all fingerprints into the system. The process looks at details every step of the way.

The agency generally assigns a case manager. This person handles the direct background investigation. This may include key events. It also may include researching contacts. This may include the past and present history of the applicant.

An in-person interview occurs. This may be  done by the agency. It may be done by an investigator. Most often it happens in a few weeks but may take longer.

The investigator goes to work. He or she verifies all info provided. This includes previous addresses. It likely includes info on schools and employment. The investigator may talk to neighbors. They may speak to supervisors. Sometimes they may speak to co-workers. Classmates may be on the list.

The investigator also may contact references listed in the security package. They verify the accuracy of most details.

Then, he or she may contact law enforcement. These agencies typically provide info on any contact the person had with law enforcement agencies. This may include where a person lived. It may also include where a person went to school. Areas where he or she worked may also have this type of check.

This process takes time. It is very thorough.

The investigator then creates a report. They document everything in this report. It is given to the security clearance adjudicators. They review the info.

They consider the National Security Adjudicative Guidelines. And, they determine if the report meets the requirements of those rules. Adjudication may take time. It may be more complex is some cases.

The applicant could then learn of the outcome. The security clearance process may yield a negative result. If so, the security officer provides details of the concerns. Most government agency rules are very specific.

A person may fail the investigation process for many reasons. Personal conduct may be a factor. Mental health concerns may be a factor. More information may be necessary. Applicants receive the security clearance application details. They may learn what happened.

A person may pass the security questionnaire. They may pass the whole process. That means the agency could hire the person for the job.

Do you plan to apply to a job like this? You could speed up the process. Be sure to have all info needed on hand. Complete all forms completely. Check out the SF-85 security forms. View the SF-86 security questionnaire. Review the Office of Personal Management (OPM) website for more info.

Some people may have a higher priority. That may push back your investigation. Priority decisions come from the agency you applied to. The length of time typically ranges widely. Some reports note it may take six months. Others say a few years. Some may be much shorter. It depends on how important filling that position is. There is typically no accurate info from any agency about timelines. Every position differs.

Advantages and Disadvantages of Getting Security Clearance

You think you may have good trustworthiness. You cannot think of any reason there would be a problem. Yet, the process is more complex. It may seem invasive. You may worry when the Department of Defense is talking to your neighbors. You may wonder what national security information is at risk.

Think about your goals. The advantages of getting security clearance typically depends on your goals. Do you want the job? Do you need the job? The disadvantages matter, too. You may not want that type of scrutiny on your life.

Ultimately, you may have to decide. Is this worth it? Do you want or need it? Take a look at some of the pros and cons of security clearance. What are the benefits? Here are a few.

Valuable to Employers

A person with security clearance may be valuable to the company they work for in many cases. Changing jobs from one security position to the other may be easier to do. Some employers may find you more attractive to hire. They may know you have security clearance already. That may make it easier to hire you.

Increased Earning Potential in Some Cases

Some research indicates those with security clearance may have increased earning potential. A study was done by the Human Resource Association of the National Capital Area. It found top security clearance may increase pay as much as 12.8 percent. Some fields may pay more.

This ranges from job to job. Many  people should talk to their prospective employer about rates of pay.

Access to Benefits

Working for the federal government may be a good thing. Federal employee job benefits tend to be competitive. They may be better than some companies. This may include benefits such as onsite daycare. It may help with tuition reimbursement. Some people may get help with housing relocation.

Personal benefits may be many. This could include mental health support. Group life insurance may be available. Health benefits programs range. Dental and vision is often a part of the package. Long-term care insurance is another potential potion. You may work for a company that does work for the federal government. That means you are an employee to that company. Benefits differ in those organizations. Be sure to check before you take the job.

The Job May Be Important to You

Another advantage may be job satisfaction. You may be interested in the mission. You may want to work in the field. Having a mission critical job can feel good. Some people strive to get security clearance to pursue a job they desire.

You may love the field. Working for the federal government may be the one way to enhance in your field. This may be important to you.

Availability of Work

Some fields may find the government has more work than commercial organizations. This may be true in fields like info tech. Contract and contingent work may be hard to manage. It may not create the consistent income you desire. A permanent positions with the feds may do that for you.

You know your career. Is the government the place to find work in the field? Does it offer the best access to the field? If so, you may want to get security clearance to get into this area.

What are the drawbacks? Here are a few you may want to think about before applying.

The process is long. It can be hard. Is it worth it to you?

Your Personal Life Explored

The hard part is typically letting others into your personal life. You may want a job. You may want to do work. And, you may not want people digging into your past. Some people may be sensitive to this. They may not have anything to hide. Yet, they still want to make sure their private info is kept that way.

The info collected is comprehensive. It may include past drug use. It may ask you about run-ins with the law. You may need to answer questions about sexual behaviors. Many questions about finances are asked in some cases.

Foreign National Concerns

Do you have friends that are foreign nationals? Do you have family members overseas? There may be questions about this. Some people may not want to provide details. You may worry about the impact this investigation has on those individuals.

Everyone has seen movies about people breaking into intelligence agencies like this. Yet, in reality it typically rare. Still, the investigation may happen. You may feel uncomfortable about it.

A High Learning Curve

Another concern is what you may have to learn. Security clearance jobs tend to have very limited access. There are many rules. Where and when you work may play a role in your life. You may have rules about using your phone. Working from home is very rare. Taking work home to finish isn’t allowable.

There is typically a lot to learn. That may include a new set of terms. In non-sensitive positions you may still need to know these details. You may move between jobs, too. This could mean even more learning to do.

Work Life Balance

You may not come home and talk about your day. You may not tell your spouse what you worked on. And, you may not answer questions from family members about the work you do. All this is secret. That could make work life balance more challenging.

There is typically less flexibility in these jobs in some cases. You may not be able to take time off at any time. You may also be unable to travel overseas without approval. This could  make it more challenging to do your job.

Denial in Security Clearance Investigation

Why did you receive a denial? Rules change. Requirements vary. It may  be hard to know why you were denied.

Reinvestigations are less common today. Instead, continuous evaluation is used. Trusted Workforce 2.0 is another method. The Defense Security Service (DSS) does less work. Now, the Defense Counter intelligence and Security Agency (DCSA) does more of this work. This change brought with it more denials.

What could cause you to not qualify? It may be something from your past. It may be missing info. Here are some common reasons this occurs.

  • Allegiance to the U.S.
  • Psychological or mental health conditions
  • Foreign preference
  • Alcohol consumption
  • Criminal conduct
  • Financial problems
  • Personal conduct
  • Uses of IT systems

The agency may tell you some info. You may be able to appeal. More info may be provided. You may need to clarify insight. Ask questions. Get info from the agency. Ask your employer for more info. You may have the ability to find out.

How Long Is a Security Clearance Valid?

This may differ by type of security. This is typically called reinvestigation. The DSS lets you know when this is necessary. The employee may then provide more info. An updated security package is usually created. The DSS then completes a background check.

This may happen every 5 to 15 years. Clearance levels typically play a role in this. The type of work also matters. It may be done if there is some reason to believe it is necessary.

A new rule was put in place in 2016. The Office of the Director of National Intelligence developed it. It is called Continuous Evaluation. The goal is to create a strong workforce. It may also aim to help create a trusted workforce. This means a person may have more scrutiny.

Automated methods may help to detect concerns. This may trigger a full reinvestigation. More info may be requested. Ongoing reviews like this are typically more common today. They are most common for those who hold a sensitive position.