All About: How to Get a Security Clearance

woman filling out security clearance

DW labs Incorporated / Adobe Stock

Profile Picture
July 24, 2024 at 7:5AM UTC
You don't have to apply for a job at the NSA or CIA to find a positions that require security clearances. This common requirement is found at many government offices and agencies, as well as private contracting companies (such as Booz Allen Hamilton, General Dynamics, Bechtel, or Lockheed Martin). 
The reason behind requiring a security clearance is often that the job is on a secure site, such as a military base or another type of restricted location. Your position might require you to work with information, technology, materials or systems that are sensitive to U.S. interests and safety. A clearance allows your employer to give you access to classified materials and information. The clearance process verifies your background as a trustworthy person. 
Having a security clearance gives you an advantage against other job seekers; you're already verified to access classified information, and the company doesn't have to pay and wait for a clearance for a new hire if you've already secured one from a previous position.
Which leads us to...

How do you get a security clearance? 

1. You must be sponsored by your employer. You can't apply for a clearance on your own, unfortunately. It has to be initiated by security personnel with a clear purpose as to why the applicant needs one, which means you can't just get a clearance because you want one.
2. If you're in the military, you would work with your personnel security or  intelligence staff to have the application initiated.
3. The application generally consists of a number of questions about your background, including:
  • Employment history for 5, 7, or 10 years, depending on the type of clearance; you'll need the name of the workplace, address, phone number, and the contact information of your supervisor or someone you worked with
  • Residence history for 5, 7, or 10 years, depending on the type of clearance; each address requires one or more unrelated persons for verification [the form will ask something like "someone who knew you while you lived in this location"]
  • Questions about your citizenship
  • Questions about your criminal background (if applicable)
  • Other questions related to debt, illegal activity, etc
4. After you submit your application, you'll wait for a number of weeks for the background check to finish. For some clearances, the contacts you listed on your application will be interviewed in person, and asked questions about you. You'll also be interviewed to verify the information you reported was correct.
5. The person who submitted your application on your behalf will generally be the first to know whether your clearance was approved. 

Who can get a security clearance?

You must be a U.S. citizen for a clearance. If you hold dual citizenship or have two passports, you must renounce it and become a full U.S. citizen for clearance approval.
Government workers, service members, and civilian government contractors who are required to access classified materials or locations are eligible for clearances.

What types of security clearances are available?

  • Confidential
This is a security classification level, not technically a clearance level. If you're required to have access to sensitive materials, you'll undergo a background check.
  • Secret
Most members of the U.S. Army, for example, are required to obtain a Secret clearance. This type of clearance is up for reinvestigation every 10 years. Many military schools require service members to have at least this clearance level before attending.
  • Top Secret/SCI
This level of clearance requires a periodic reinvestigation every 5 years and has an extensive application process.
Beyond Top Secret, there are certain jobs that require the clearance plus a polygraph test. It will depend on the position whether that's something you'll be required to complete.

Federal Investigative Standards

Investigation TypePosition RequirementReinvestigationApplication Form
Tier 1 (NACI)Low risk, non-sensitivenoneSF85
Tier 2 (MBI)Moderate Risk Public Trust (MRPT)Tier 2R (NACLC)SF85P
Tier 3 (NACLC & ANACI)Secret & L access (Non-Critical Sensitive National Security )Tier 3R (NACLC)SF86
Tier 4 (BI)High Risk Public Trust (HRPT)Tier 4R (PRI)SF85P
Tier 5 (SSBI)Top Secret, SCI, Q access, Critical and Sensitive National SecurityTier 5R (SSBI-PR & PPR)SF86

Periodic Reinvestigation

Your clearance is only valid for a set amount of time before you have to fill out the application again and undergo a reinvestigation. The purpose is to verify that nothing has changed that would change your eligibility for access to classified materials. For example, if you get divorced and fall into a significant amount of debt, you might not be approved for a clearance because you're perceived as an excellent candidate for bribery. Or, if you have something in your background that is prime material for blackmail, you're also considered a risk. 
Your personnel security office should contact you before your clearance expires so that you can start the reinvestigation process. In general, it can take weeks or months depending on the caseload of the Office of Personnel Management (OPM).

Why women love us:

  • Daily articles on career topics
  • Jobs at companies dedicated to hiring more women
  • Advice and support from an authentic community
  • Events that help you level up in your career
  • Free membership, always