To be hired for a federal job, you must undergo a basic background investigation of your criminal and credit histories. The government wants to ensure you are “reliable, trustworthy, of good conduct and character, and loyal to the United States,” which no doubt you are! If you land a job with access to sensitive information, you’ll most likely have to get a security clearance, too.

Getting a Security Clearance

Many federal agencies require that you have a security clearance, particularly those whose mission is national security. Think CIA, FBI, the State Department and the Defense Intelligence Agency, to name a few. There are different security levels, and the ones just mentioned often require higher levels of clearance for many jobs.

If an agency decides to hire you—can we get a woohoo here?—the offer is contingent on your getting a security clearance. But not to worry—first you accept the job, then you fill out the forms and that’s when the wheels are set in motion for the extensive background investigation.

The type of investigation depends on the position’s requirements and level of security clearance needed. The process can take months or even up to a year, depending on the number of people ahead of you in the security clearance, whether more information is needed, the depth of the investigation process and other factors.

The Background Investigation

To accelerate the security clearance process, jobseekers can start early to gather relevant information needed to submit the forms and information, so they’re ready once a position is offered. The forms for background checks and security clearances, both the SF-86 mentioned above and the SF-85—the questionnaire for non-sensitive positions—are in the Office of Personnel Management’s website.

Once the documentation is submitted, the designated agency proceeds with the investigation. The time it takes will depend on the number of security clearance requests and priority.

Types of Security Clearances

Positions in the federal government are classified in three ways:

  1. Non-sensitive positions.
  2. Public trust positions.
  3. National security positions.

Each of these positions requires some form of background investigation. For lower levels of security clearances, these investigations typically rely on automated checks of an applicant’s history. According to the Office of Personnel Management, agencies hiring for non-sensitive positions cannot determine suitability alone on an individual’s past marijuana use. However, individuals should be aware that using marijuana is still against federal law, and criminal conduct is still considered in an applicant’s suitability for a federal job. 

For a secret clearance in a national security position, the investigation requires agents to interview people who have lived or worked with the applicant at some point in the past seven years, or sometimes farther back.

The four main types of security clearances for national security positions are: confidential, secret, top secret and sensitive compartmented information.

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

Same as a confidential clearance but must be reinvestigated every 10 years.

Top Secret 
Same as a confidential clearance but must be reinvestigated every five years.

Top Secret, Sensitive Compartmented Information
SCI is an access program that gets “added on” to the clearance.

The Interim Security Clearance

If a hiring office requests it, an applicant may be granted an interim security clearance within a few weeks after submitting a complete security package. Final clearances usually are processed and adjudicated in less than 90 days. With an interim clearance, classified work can be performed but in a temporary capacity until a background investigation has been completed.