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Are you interested in pursuing a cyber security job that requires some level of security clearance, either as a federal employee or a private contractor who works for the government? The process of acquiring security clearances can seem complex, but it is specifically designed to determine how trustworthy an individual is before giving him or her access to classified information that could impact the security of the nation. The process has developed significantly since its introduction in the early 1950s.

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Overview of What is a Security Clearance?

A security clearance designation is usually provided to federal employees or private contractors working for the government. It means the individual is allowed to access national information that has been classified for security reasons. Only federal agencies can grant security clearance. This is generally done after a thorough background investigation and is only approved if it is believed the person in question is deemed trustworthy.

It is important to realize, however, that being granted security clearance does not result in immediate access to all classified materials. The clearance level designated simply indicates that the individual is permitted to receive access to certain information if his or her job and responsibilities require it. In all cases, nondisclosure agreements must be signed prior to the release of classified materials.

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Who Needs Security Clearance?

Only individuals who need access to classified or sensitive information for professional purposes are eligible for security clearance. In most cases, this means those in positions within the federal government. Some government-affiliated contractors in fields such as defense, homeland security, intelligence, housing, and energy are also granted security clearance in order to perform certain tasks.

While there are a wide variety of positions that may warrant security clearance, professionals working in the following fields are most likely to need access to classified materials.

  • Information Technology
  • Intelligence Analysis
  • Linguistics
  • Engineering
  • Law Enforcement
  • Telecommunications
  • Medicine
  • Education
  • Finance

What Makes Security Clearances Valuable?

There are many factors that make obtaining security clearance valuable. While placing a monetary value on the designation is impossible, most individuals with clearance do make higher salaries. There are a few reasons for this, including increased marketability. Military personnel with clearances who move to the private sector, in particular, are able to find employment more easily. This is because many civilian employers prefer or require candidates to already have security clearance. The company or organization can save time and money on the background check, as well as have assurances that the professional will meet minimum clearance qualifications if they already have their security clearance in place.

Additionally, most federal agencies will accept another agency’s prior approval for security clearance, meaning it is quite easy for professionals to shift from one government position to another. This is generally possible as long as background investigations were completed within the past five to ten years and there has been a break in service of no more than two years. Similarly, some private contracting companies can afford to pay more to individuals who already have security clearance because they save money by avoiding the clearance application process.

Who Issues Security Clearances?

There are several government agencies capable of designating security clearance through the Office of Personnel Security and Suitability. This office, overseen by the Bureau of Diplomatic Security, manages the State Department’s personnel security clearance program. It is responsible for reviewing and analyzing employment candidate investigations. There are more than 25,000 personnel security clearances conducted each year.

While the Office of Personnel Security and Suitability is responsible for issuing clearances, the Bureau of Human Resources actually determines which Department of State positions need security clearance. The Bureau is in charge of all recruitment, assignment evaluation, promotion, discipline, career development, and retirement policies and programs for the foreign and civil service employees. Personnel security background investigation results help the Bureau to determine candidate and current employee suitability for clearances.

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It is important to realize that individuals are not permitted to obtain security clearance on his or her own. Only a sponsoring agency is capable of initiating the security clearance process, meaning you cannot gain a security clearance in order to have a better chance when applying to government jobs, you must already be sponsored by an employer in order to gain clearance.

Security Clearance Levels

There are multiple levels of security clearance, each designed to provide professionals with the specific type of confidential information necessary to complete job responsibilities. Individuals may have access to materials up to and including their specified clearance level, but cannot view information in levels above their specified clearance level.

  • Interim

    Interim security clearance is granted to an individual responsible for completing a very specific job. Unlike other clearance levels, this clearance is temporary and expires as soon as the job is completed or final clearance is granted. This clearance can be attained more quickly, with an application period of approximately 30 days, but generally only grants low-level access to confidential information and materials.

  • Confidential

    Confidential security clearance provides individuals with access to confidential information and materials that would cause damage to national security if disclosed without authorization.

  • Secret

    Secret security clearance provides individuals with access to confidential information and materials that would cause serious damage to national security if disclosed without authorization.

  • Top Secret

    Top Secret security clearance provides individuals with access to confidential information and materials that would cause exceptionally grave damage to national security if disclosed without authorization.

  • Sensitive Compartmented Information (SCI)

    Sensitive Compartmented Information (SCI) is a category of classified materials that consists of information involving intelligence sources and methods. This type of information is particularly vulnerable and usually only available to individuals with Top Secret security clearance. However, eligibility standards and requirements are much higher for information within this category.

  • Special Access Programs (SAPs)

    Special Access Programs (SAPs) is another category of classified materials that consists of information involving highly sensitive policies, projects, and programs. This type of information is particularly vulnerable and usually only available to individuals with Top Secret security clearance. Eligibility standards and requirements are also much higher for information within this category.

  • Collateral

    Collateral security clearance describes clearance that does not have any special access authorizations to information within the SCI or SAPs categories. This means that Confidential, Secret, and Top Secret designations are all considered collateral clearances unless SCI and/or SAPs clearance is granted.

Security Clearance Status

There are three security clearance statuses: active, current, and expired. It is important to understand what each of these mean, especially when transferring from one position to another.

  • Active

    An individual with active security clearance is eligible for access to classified information, assuming their current position requires it. This type of security clearance is easy to transfer between employers.

  • Current

    An individual with current security clearance has been identified as eligible for access to classified information, but must first be officially reinstated. It is possible to remain on current status for up to two years before eligibility is revoked. This type of security clearance is easy to transfer between employers.

  • Expired

    An individual with expired security clearance is no longer considered eligible for access to classified information. Clearances expire after two years of disuse and cannot be reinstated. Those with expired security clearance must submit a new application and go through the background investigation process again before active security clearance is reinstated.

    Those who wish to inquire about their security clearance status can email Personnel security specialists are also available by phone at the Customer Service Center from 8:00 A.M. to 5:00 P.M., EST.

  • What is the Security Clearance Caveat?

    Government professionals and contractors may also have security clearance with a caveat. A caveat may be attached to confidential, secret, and top secret clearances. In addition to regular security clearance, a caveat provides an individual with special access to a specific type of information. Examples of caveats include the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and communications security (COMSEC), both of which also require professionals receive a special briefing prior to access.

How to Get a Security Clearance

Security clearance for any professional must be requested by a government official or government-affiliated contracting company. Individuals and private companies unassociated with the government cannot request or receive clearance. For qualified candidates, there are three primary steps involved in obtaining the security clearance necessary for their jobs.

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Provide All Necessary Information

The first step in the process is collecting, completing, and submitting the necessary application materials. While each level of clearance has varying standards, professionals seeking clearance must provide proof of citizenship, fingerprints, and a completed Personnel Security Questionnaire. While there are a few security questionnaires available, the most common one used is the Questionnaire for National Security Positions - Standard Form 86. It consists of a comprehensive set of questions designed to gather general information about the candidate’s life and beliefs. Applicants are expected to answer questions with absolute honesty, as even unintentional omissions can result in security clearance denial in the future.

The following topics are known as the 13 Adjudicative Guidelines for Determining Eligibility for Access to Classified Information:

  • Allegiance to the United States
  • Impact of Foreign Influence
  • Foreign Preference
  • Sexual Behavior
  • Personal Conduct
  • Financial Considerations
  • Alcohol Consumption
  • Drug Involvement
  • Emotional, Mental, and Personality Disorders
  • Criminal Behavior and Criminal Record
  • Security Violations
  • Outside Activities
  • Misuse or Abuse of Governmental Systems

It is also important to note that federal agents may use information available publicly on social media sites such as Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram during initial assessments.

Background Investigation

The next phase is a background investigation, which is frequently conducted by the National Background Investigations Bureau (NBIB) within the Office of Personnel Management (OPM). The depth and scope of the background investigation will depend on the level of security clearance being requested. Applications will go through the National Agency Checks and Inquiries with Credit and Local Agency Check (NACLC), which run credit checks, federal and local criminal records checks, and verification of references. A face-to-face interview is also usually necessary.

Higher level security clearance requests may require a Single Scope Background Investigation (SSBI). In these situations, case managers will check with law enforcement agencies in every location the candidate has lived and conduct more interviews. Family members, friends, neighbors, and former spouses may all be questioned and their citizenship verified. In some cases, polygraph testing may be required.

The following government records will also be pulled to ensure the accuracy of the information provided in the Questionnaire for National Security Positions - Standard Form 86:

  • Tax Returns
  • Employment Records
  • Driver and Vehicle Licensing Records
  • Other Public Records

If discrepancies between personal statements and official records are revealed during the investigation, they will be pursued further.


The final phase of the security clearance application process is adjudication. During this phase, officials determine whether or not an applicant will be granted security clearance based on the Adjudicative Guidelines for Determining Eligibility for Access to Classified Information mentioned above. This decision is based upon the information revealed during the background investigation, which must prove that the individual is an acceptable security risk to the nation.

Length of Process

Attaining security clearance does not happen overnight. While each case varies, the average application processing time is around 90 to 120 days. Approval for higher clearance levels may, however, take longer due to more extensive background investigation procedures.

It is also important to realize that delays are possible. Some of the most common causes for this include the submission of incomplete security clearance packages, poorly collected fingerprints, and investigations involving the examination of extensive overseas activity. Additionally, application processing time can be negatively impacted by other external events, such as increased demand of resources, backlogs, delays due to breaches, and temporary shutdown of technology systems or government agencies.

One alternative to this timeframe can be accessed by requesting interim security clearance. This clearance is temporary and expires as soon as a specific task is completed or when final clearance is approved. This clearance can be attained more quickly than the others, with an application period of approximately 30 days. In most cases, however, it only grants low-level access to confidential information and materials.

Why a Security Clearance Might be Denied

There are a wide variety of reasons someone may be denied security clearance, with lack of honesty, candor, and thoroughness in competing forms being the most common. Other concerns include concerns regarding aspects of the 13 Adjudicative Guidelines for Determining Eligibility for Access to Classified Information can result in denial. Some issues, especially related to mental health, may not be flagged due to the candidate’s circumstances at the time. This is because adjudicators are expected to consider any conditions that could mitigate potential security concerns, such as information recentness and treatment. When a recurring pattern is demonstrated and/or there is no proper explanation for adverse behavior, however, the item will be flagged as a potential risk.

The following are examples that could have a negative impact on the application:

  • Arrests for serious crimes
  • Violations of parole
  • Illegal or self-destructive sexual conduct
  • Excessive debt (especially when coupled with an unwillingness to resolve debt)
  • Evidence of deliberate omission, concealment, or falsification of relevant facts

Appeals Process

Individuals who are denied or have their security clearance revoked may be able to appeal the decision. In most cases, notification of the reason for the denial is provided, along with the necessary procedures necessary to file an appeal. Candidates will be given the opportunity to address misinformation gathered during the background investigations, as well as correct or clarify specific situations flagged.

Each agency is responsible for adjudicating and granting appeals based on their own policies and procedures. In some cases, a polygraph examination may even be challenged if the results are unfavorable.

Maintaining Your Security Clearance

A security clearance does not last forever. As a result of ever-changing personalities, circumstances, and priorities, periodic investigations are necessary for individuals who already have clearance to access classified information and materials. All clearances must be renewed every five years to ensure continued trustworthiness. The thoroughness of the reinvestigation, however, is determined by the level of access granted. Those with Confidential clearance require an updated National Agency Checks and Inquiries with Credit and Local Agency Check (NCLAC), while individuals with Top Secret or Sensitive Compartmented Information clearance will need a complete Single Scope Background Investigation (SSBI). In both cases, the checks will go back only five years.

When a security clearance is not renewed, it becomes either current or expired. As previously mentioned, a current clearance is inactive but can be renewed, whereas an expired clearance is inactive and cannot be renewed. Once a clearance expires, a new application must be submitted. As this process is both expensive and time-consuming, maintaining an active or current security clearance status is recommended.

Security Clearance Transfers

Transferring a security clearance is only allowed when moving from one federal government position to another. This does, however, include subcontractors working for the government, assuming security clearance is necessary for the work they do. Individuals may not, however, transfer their security clearance to the private sector of employment. Many employers who do classified work for the Department of Defense (DoD) or hold a national security-related contract prefer candidates to have current security clearance status. This simplifies the hiring process, expedites approval, and saves the company significant money on the application.

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