Background checks and security clearances - Federal job and internship application tips - Go Government

Background checks and security clearances for federal jobs

Everyone hired for a federal job undergoes a basic background check of his or her criminal and credit histories to ensure that all federal employees are “reliable, trustworthy, of good conduct and character, and loyal to the United States.” The U.S. Office of Personnel Management, a central agency that serves as the corporate human resources organization for the federal government, performs the majority of background checks. In addition, federal positions that include access to sensitive information generally require a security clearance. This clearance must be obtained to determine the applicant’s trustworthiness and reliability before granting him or her access to national security information.

Types of security clearances

Positions in the federal government are classified in three ways: Non-Sensitive Positions, Public Trust Positions and National Security Positions. Each of these positions requires some level of background investigation. The elements that make up a background investigation vary depending on the level of clearance that is deemed necessary for a position. Background investigations for lower levels of security clearances generally rely on automated checks of an individual's history. For a secret clearance in a national security position, the investigation requires agents to interview people who have lived or worked with the candidate at some point in the last seven (or more) years.

There are four main types of security clearances for national security positions. These are confidential, secret, top secret (TS), and sensitive compartmented information (SCI).

Confidential

This type of security clearance provides access to information or material that may cause damage to national security if disclosed without authorization. It must be reinvestigated every 15 years.

Secret

This type of security clearance provides access to information or material that may cause serious damage to national security if disclosed without authorization. It must be reinvestigated every 10 years.

Top Secret

This type of security clearance provides access to information or material that may cause exceptionally grave damage to national security if disclosed without authorization. It must be reinvestigated every five years.

Sensitive Compartmented Information (SCI)

This type of security clearance provides access to all intelligence information and material that require special controls for restricted handling within compartmented channels.

Obtaining a security clearance

Only federal agencies can grant security clearances. Many federal agencies require security clearances depending on their mission and role in national security. Examples of agencies that may require higher levels of clearance include:

  • Intelligence community (e.g., CIA, NSA)
  • Federal law enforcement agencies (e.g., FBI, DEA, NCIS)
  • Diplomatic agencies (e.g., State Department, USAID)
  • Civilian military agencies (e.g., DIA, DSS)

There are also many companies that have contracts or grants with the federal government that require them to access sensitive information. These companies or organizations are required to have their employees cleared by the federal government. No company without a contract with the federal government can independently give or seek a security clearance, and no individual who is not hired by the federal government or a contract organization can get a security clearance.

Once the agency has selected a candidate to hire, the applicant will typically receive a job offer contingent upon successfully obtaining a security clearance. The extensive background investigation takes place after the initial offer has been accepted.

The length and depth of the background investigation will depend on the position’s requirements, as well as the type of security clearance needed for a particular job or internship. This process may take several months or up to a year depending on backlog, need for more information, depth of the investigation process and other factors.

In order to help speed the process along, begin to gather relevant information now. Once you are offered the position, you’ll be asked to submit a series of forms and information about yourself. Gather this information now so you can save time on your end. You can view the forms for background checks (SF-85: Questionnaire for Non-Sensitive Positions) and security clearances (SF-86: Questionnaire for Non-Sensitive Positions) on the Office of Personnel Management's website.

Once you have submitted the documentation, the designated agency will proceed with the investigation, depending on backlog and priority.