US Department of State: Security Clearance FAQ

The Harry S. Truman Building, Washington, D.C., headquarters of the U.S. Department of State.
The Harry S. Truman Building, Washington, D.C., headquarters of the U.S. Department of State. (Wikimedia Commons)

The following security clearance FAQ applies to those with jobs or seeking jobs in the U.S. Department of State.

Related: Search for Security Clearance jobs.

1. Who can apply for a security clearance?

Individuals cannot initiate a security clearance application on their own. Rather, the Bureau of Human Resources determines whether a Department of State position will require a security clearance, based upon the duties and responsibilities of the position. If the position requires access to classified information, then a personnel security background investigation must be conducted. This is only done after a conditional offer of employment is given to an individual.

2. Do you have to be a U.S. citizen to receive a security clearance from the State Department?

As outlined in Executive Order 12968, Access to Classified Information, eligibility for access to classified information may only be granted to employees who are United States citizens. However, an exception is allowed in specific situations wherein there are compelling reasons for limited access to be granted to an immigrant alien or foreign national employee who possesses a special expertise that is needed for specific programs, projects, contracts, licenses, certificates or grants.

3. What is the purpose of a security clearance?

The purpose of a security clearance is to determine that a person is able and willing to safeguard classified national security information, based on his or her loyalty, character, trustworthiness and reliability.

4. How is it decided what level of clearance a person receives?

The Bureau of Human Resources determines whether a Department of State position will require a security clearance, as well as the level required, based upon the duties and responsibilities of the position.

5. How many types or levels of security clearance are there?

There are three levels of security clearance, with the highest level being Top Secret. Secret is the next level of clearance, and Confidential is the final.

6. What work does each clearance allow a person to do?

A clearance allows a person filling a specific position to have access to classified national security information up to and including the level of clearance that they hold, so long as the person has a need to know the information.

7. Will my clearance be transferable to other federal agencies?

Federal agencies will normally accept another agency's investigation as the basis for granting a security clearance, provided your last security clearance investigation was completed within the past five years for a Top Secret clearance and 10 years for a Secret clearance, and you have not had a break in service of more than two years. Also considered is whether there have been any significant changes in your situation since your last investigation. Some federal agencies might have additional investigative or adjudicative requirements that must be met prior to their accepting a clearance granted by another agency.

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8. How long is my security clearance good for after I leave the federal government?

The Department of State will revalidate a security clearance if (1) the individual has not been out of federal service for more than two years and (2) the individual's clearance is based on an appropriate and current personnel security clearance investigation.

9. Can I transfer my security clearance for private sector employment?

Security clearances only apply to positions that fall under the purview of the federal government. As stated in Executive Order 12968, Access to Classified Information, security clearances are only granted to persons "employed by, detailed or assigned to, an [executive] agency, including members of the Armed Forces; an expert or consultant to an agency; an industrial or commercial contractor, licensee, certificate holder, or grantee of an agency, including all subcontractors; a personal services contractor; or any other category of person who acts for or on behalf of an agency as determined by the appropriate agency head."

10. Does having a security clearance guarantee employment with the State Department?

No. The hiring process addresses whether someone will be initially selected for a particular position within the State Department. The security clearance process does not begin until after a conditional offer of employment is given.

11. Who does the records checks?

The Office of Personnel Security and Suitability, Bureau of Diplomatic Security, conducts all national agency and credit history checks in support of their investigations. Diplomatic Security investigators located worldwide conduct all other investigative leads, which includes local law enforcement checks.

12. Are members of my family or people living with me subject to a security check?

There are circumstances in which limited records checks or an investigation may be conducted on a spouse or cohabitant*. National agency checks are conducted on spouses and/or cohabitants of individuals being processed for a Top Secret-level clearance, with the spouse or cohabitant's authorization. Additional investigations may be conducted when the spouse or cohabitant is a foreign national.

*A cohabitant is defined as someone with whom you live together as husband and wife and the relationship involves the mutual assumption of marital rights, duties, and obligations, which are usually manifested by married people, including, but not necessarily dependent on, sexual relations.

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13. For what reasons would I be denied a security clearance?

Various reasons exist for why someone may be denied a security clearance. The most important factors in an investigation are the individual's honesty, candor and thoroughness in the completion of their security clearance forms. Every case is individually assessed, using the National Security Board's 13 Adjudicative Guidelines, to determine whether the granting or continuing of eligibility for a security clearance is clearly consistent with the interests of national security.

The adjudicative guidelines include allegiance to the United States; foreign influence; foreign preference; sexual behavior; personal conduct; financial considerations; alcohol consumption; drug involvement; emotional, mental and personality disorders; criminal conduct; security violations; outside activities; and misuse of information technology (IT) systems.

14. How often is a security clearance renewed?

An individual is normally subject to periodic reinvestigation at a minimum of every five years for a Top Secret-level clearance and every 10 years for a Secret-level clearance.

15. What are some typical delays that occur in the security clearance process?

Some of the most common areas of delay include the submission of incomplete security packages, poorly collected fingerprints and investigations that involve coverage of extensive overseas activities.

Individuals can help expedite the process by ensuring they have completed all forms in a thorough and accurate manner; familiarizing themselves with the appearance of a properly rolled set of fingerprints, so they know theirs are done properly; and when possible, providing stateside references that can verify foreign activities.

16. How long does it take to process a typical security clearance?

Each case varies, but the general time averages about 120 days. The Department of State has recently initiated a goal to render a security clearance decision in 90 days.

17. What happens if I'm denied a security clearance? Is there an appeal process?

If you are denied a security clearance, or your continued eligibility for access to classified information is revoked, you will be notified of the reason(s) and be provided with the procedures for filing an appeal. You will be given the opportunity to address any derogatory information that was gathered during the investigation and either correct or clarify the situation.

18. What can I do in advance to ease the process of my background investigation?

Detailed information is required to conduct a background investigation. Information such as complete names, addresses, telephone numbers and dates of birth for relatives will be required. Print the Questionnaire for National Security Positions (Standard Form 86) and begin collecting that information so you will have it ready when asked.

19. Where can I get assistance completing my security clearance package or inquire into the status of my security clearance?

For assistance with completing your security clearance package or to inquire into the status of your security clearance, email or talk with a personnel security specialist at the Department of State Customer Service Center between 8 a.m. and 5 p.m. EST, by dialing toll free 1-866-643-4636 (1-866-643-INFO) or 571-345-3186.

You also may send correspondence to one of the addresses below:

Mailing address:
U.S. Department of State
Washington, D.C. 20522-2008

Federal Express address:
U.S. Department of State
DS/SI/PSS, 10th Floor
1801 N. Lynn Street
Arlington, VA 22209

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