Applying for a Security Clearance

Before an applicant is granted eligibility to hold a security clearance, he or she must undergo an extensive background investigation. Generally, this process begins when the applicant is given a conditional offer of employment for a position requiring a security clearance. At that time, the applicant will be required to submit a Standard Form 86 (SF-86), or its electronic counterpart the Electronic Questionnaire for Security Processing (EQIP). [1] All individuals applying for a security clearance, or undergoing a periodic investigation, must undergo a thorough background investigation as part of the security clearance application process.

At first glance, the SF-86/eQIP can be overwhelming – it is complex questionnaire and requires the applicant to spend a significant amount of time gathering and disclosing information about his or her personal life, background, and relationships. Specifically, the applicant must disclose information including but not limited to his or her: [2]

  • Citizenship and Residence
  • Education
  • Employment
  • Family, Friends, and other Contacts/References
  • Foreign Travel, Foreign Contacts, Foreign Connection
  • Drug Involvement
  • Alcohol Consumption
  • Psychological Conditions
  • Criminal Conduct
  • Financial History
  • History of Handling Protected Information
  • Use of Information Technology Systems

It is imperative that the applicant provides complete and accurate responses on the SF-86/EQIP, even if the applicant is concerned that his or her response may not be viewed as favorable. Providing inaccurate or incomplete information can jeopardize the applicant’s chance of obtaining a clearance even if the omission was unintentional or based on a misunderstanding! In fact, providing false information is one of the most common reasons that security clearances are revoked or denied.

It is less risky for an applicant to disclose potentially damaging information and explain how he or she has rehabilitated himself or herself than to withhold the information and be questioned about his or her honesty later in the process. Remember, if an applicant is unsure about answers to an inquiry, he or she must make all reasonable efforts to determine the correct answer. Not knowing a response is not an adequate excuse for failing to provide the response on the SF-86/EQIP.

If an applicant finds himself or herself unsure about a question on the EQIP, he or she should contact his or her Security Officer immediately. Approaching the Security Officer and seeking clarification indicates a willingness to express the truth, and will often result in total clarification.

Once the applicant has gathered all of the relevant information and submitted his or her SF-86/EQIP, he or she will participate in a Personal Subject Interview. During the Personal Subject Interview, the applicant should expect to be asked about the information he or she provided in his or her security clearance application. Moreover, it is possible that the investigator will contact the applicant’s neighbors, co-workers, classmates, and/or references provided in the security clearance application prior to the interview. [3]

Like the SF-86/EQIP, the Personal Subject Interview is a critical part of the background investigation process and the applicant must be candid and accurate throughout the interview. [4] His or her responses must be truthful and consistent with information provided in the SF-86/EQIP and by the applicant’s references. The Personal Subject Interview is the applicant’s opportunity to further explain the information on the SF-86/EQIP and to mitigate any concerns that the investigator may identify. Again, honesty and consistency are key during this part of the process.

After the SF-86/EQIP is submitted, references are checked, and when the Personal Subject Interview is complete, the entire application will be reviewed as a whole by the adjudications officials at the agency through which you are seeking the clearance. [5] Over 80% of clearances are granted through the Department of Defense; however, the Department of Homeland Security, Department of Energy, Department of Justice, and the Central Intelligence Agency also issue security clearances. [6]

After the entire application is reviewed, the Agency will inform the Applicant whether or not he or she is eligible to hold a clearance. Should the applicant receive an unfavorable decision based on his or her initial application, he or she will receive a “Statement of Reasons” setting forth the specific reasons why is or her request for eligibility was denied.  The applicant will have a brief period of time, generally 20 days, to prepare a response rebutting the concerns in the Statement of Reasons. For more information about how we can help you through the security clearance process, learn more about our Security Clearance Practice.

[1] See U.S. Dep’t. of State, All About Security Clearances, available at

2 See U.S. Dep’t. of State,  Adjudicative Guidelines for Determining Eligibility for Access to Classified Information, available at

[3] See id.

[4] For detailed information about the background investigation process, please see U.S. Dep’t. of State, All About Security Clearances, available at

[5] See OPM.GOV, Frequently Asked Questions,

[6] See American University Career Center, Security Clearance Fact Sheet, available at ; see also Security Clearance Frequently Asked Questions available at