Background Checks and Security Clearances for Federal Jobs

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Everyone hired for a federal job undergoes a basic background investigation of their criminal and credit histories to ensure that all federal employees are “reliable, trustworthy, of good conduct and character, and loyal to the United States.” 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 them access to national security information. 

Obtaining a Security Clearance

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

  • Intelligence community (e.g., Central Intelligence Agency, National Security Agency) 
  • Federal law enforcement agencies (e.g., Federal Bureau of Investigation, Drug Enforcement Administration, Naval Criminal Investigative Service) 
  • Diplomatic agencies (e.g., State Department, United States Agency for International Development) 
  • Civilian military agencies (e.g., Defense Intelligence Agency, Defense Security Service) 

Companies with contracts or grants with the federal government may require employees to have a security clearance to access sensitive information. 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 selects a candidate to hire, the applicant will receive a job offer contingent upon successfully obtaining a security clearance. The extensive background investigation takes place after the offer has been accepted and the required forms have been completed. 

The type of background investigation depends on the position’s requirements as well as the level of security clearance needed for the position. This process can take several months or up to a year depending on backlog, need for more information, depth of the investigation process and other factors. 

The Background Investigation

A background investigation begins after an applicant has received a conditional offer from an agency and has completed the forms required to begin the process. The Standard Form 86, Questionnaire for National Security Positions, is usually required. 

Department of State: Steps to complete a background investigation after required forms are submitted source: 

  1. Human resources submits the completed security package to the State Department’s Office of Personnel Security and Suitability. 
  2. Security package is reviewed for completeness and is formally entered into a case management system.
  3. National agency record checks and scanned fingerprint checks are then conducted. 
  4. A case manager is assigned to direct the background investigation to cover key events and contacts from the applicant’s past and present history. 
  5. Applicants are contacted by an investigator for an in-person interview (This interview usually occurs within a few weeks of an individual submitting a complete security clearance package.) 
  6. The investigator verifies the information supplied in the security package, such as where the applicant lived, went to school and worked. Investigators talk to current and former neighbors, supervisors, co-workers and classmates, as well as the references included in the package. Investigators also contact law enforcement agencies in each of the places an individual has lived, worked or attended school. 
  7. Once the investigator has completed their report, security clearance adjudicators weigh the results against existing adjudicative guidelines for security clearances
  8. The applicant is informed whether a security clearance has been granted. There are complicating factors that may delay a decision or result in a denial of a security clearance.  

To help accelerate the process, begin to gather relevant information now so you can submit the relevant forms and information once you are offered a position. 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. 

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, which may vary depending on the necessary level of clearance for a position. For lower levels of security clearances, background investigations typically rely entirely on automated checks of an applicant’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 applicant at some point in the last seven years (or more). 

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


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


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

The Interim Security Clearance

If a hiring office requests an interim security clearance, 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.