Federal jobs come with a lot of requirements and clearance processes that you need to scale through when applying, and also while trying to get higher ranks.

Before you can be considered fit or able for the job, you must be interviewed, questioned, and evaluated before you are granted the special security clearance you require to do your job.

While hunting for civil service jobs, you will notice that most of the jobs are only available to people who can qualify for different levels of security clearance.

If you already have that clearance, you may be able to apply. But, for a first-time applicant, you can only get that clearance through a federal job, like the military.  Also, you may be required to update your clearance after a length of time.

These security clearances are important because, during your time in that position, or in the military, you may be exposed to sensitive information that shouldn’t be available to the public.

You will be issued security clearance depending on how sensitive the information you will handle is, and also how it affects national security.

Generally, government employers require their employees to have a security clearance, but private employers with access to such sensitive info will also request a security clearance.


The form SF-86 is also known as the Personnel Security Questionnaire, and it is the form that you fill when requesting security clearance.

Form SF-86 is divided into 34 sections that cover different personal aspects of your life, like your marital life and employment history, and they provide a basis for background investigations into your life. At no time will you be forced into providing any of the information the form requires.

But, if you decide to give false or incomplete information, it will affect the investigation and possibly get you into legal trouble.

You can access this form on the e-QIP site, and you need an invitation before applying.

The company you apply to will sponsor you into accessing the form, and they will also have access to the results.

Filling this form is just one step in requesting security clearance, and you may have to give a personal interview in addition to filling the form.

No information provided in this form can be used against you in any criminal proceeding after the fact.

But, some of the information provided in select sections can be used against you in a professional capacity, which can lead to personal punishment and loss of your job.

So, don’t hesitate to provide truthful and complete information when filling this form.


A security clearance is what authorizes a person, or group, to access sensitive information that’s not available to the public. So, while you have a security clearance, you will be free to collect any information you want, that falls under your clearance level.

Federal jobs fall into three categories:

  • Non-sensitive positions
  • Public trust positions, and
  • National security positions

While all three levels of federal jobs require background checks and investigations, the national security positions require additional investigations into the applicant’s personal life and relationships outside of the job.

Now, there are three levels of national security clearance, and they determine how sensitive the information you will be allowed to view is. They are:

Confidential clearance

Confidential clearance is the easiest to obtain, and it only allows the carrier access to information that could damage national security. You have to renew it regularly for 15 years, and it takes anywhere from one month to 4 months to be processed.

Fig 1: Different levels of security clearance. Source: Voice of America

Secret clearance

Secret clearance provides access to very sensitive information that can cause serious damage to national security if it is released without permission.

This clearance takes approximately 2 to 4 months, and it has to be renewed every ten years.

Top secret clearance

Top secret clearance is the highest level of clearance, and it is only made available to the highest positions in the government. Unapproved release of this information can cause extremely severe damage to national security.

Top secret clearance usually takes about eight months, but it can take up to a year in some cases.


The SF-86 is not an easy form to fill out, and it takes the average person a few hours to fill it in one go. If you’re lucky, you will have about a week to fill the form, giving you enough time to gather all the information you need. If you don’t have that much time, you can consult the SF-86 Reference Guide by the Defense Security Service.

The reference guide is very important because Form SF-86 can be a pain to fill. A lot of the questions are confusing, especially because they encompass very different timelines, and they require some private information that may not be easy to access. So, in addition to the reference guide, here are some more tips that will help make the process smoother and easier.

Give correct answers

One mistake people make is giving false answers, or withholding information about any section of the Form SF-86. A form is a tool for investigation, so doing that will hinder the whole process.

At this stage, you’re looking at weighty fines and even jail time.

The best call is to provide correct information, no matter how bad you may think they will make you look. If the truth comes out during other stages of the background checks, it will create more problems than the ones you were trying to hide.

Follow the instructions to the letter

When you create an e-QIP account, you will find instructions on how to fill in the fields. You must keep those instructions close to you to make sure you follow them as stated.

For example, while filling any other form, you can put “N/A” in fields that don’t apply to you. But, form SF-86 only requires you to leave them blank.

When you fill in information wrongly, the site will probably inform you so you can correct your mistake.

Take your time

Form SF-86 is not a form you want to rush through. It has several sections, and each of those sections has many fields for you to fill. Moreover, you may not have some of the information at hand, so you need time.

Typically, the organization will give you a few days to a week to fill your Form SF-86, so you don’t make mistakes in the details.

Don’t be afraid to skip some sections

Some sections might be too hard or technical to answer at a stretch, so you can skip a few of them and go right to the one you have an easier time answering.

The site even makes it easy to skip between sections, so you don’t have to scroll. But, this method might lead you to forget or skip some fields, so you have to be careful.

Don’t forget to validate, review, and certify

If there’s one thing you shouldn’t slack on while filling this form, it is the checking and double-checking of all the fields to ensure that they are correct. One small mistake can disqualify you faster than you’d expect, so keep your eyes open.

Assemble all the documents you will need

In the process of filling your form, you will see some documents that are required to process your application process like your social security number, proof of birth, relevant work documents, etc.

The best thing to do is to gather them close before the process so that when you need them, they will be within your reach.

Fig 2: Stages of the security clearance application. Source: Defense Contract Audit Agency

Common mistakes in filling Form SF-86

  • Incorrect entry of name, date of birth, and other personal details: There are detailed instructions for filling this information. So, a mistake can cripple your chances at eligibility
  • Residential address and employment locations don’t match during a precise time
  • Incomplete employment, military, citizenship, and family history: Putting the wrong or incomplete details in this form can be taken as providing false information, and it can lead to jail time or heavy fines.
  • Skipping certain fields without explanations.
  • Unintentional omission of information


The e-QIP site is one that places a high value on your personal information. The site protects what is known as Personally Identifiable Information (PII), which means any info that can be used to trace someone, from getting into unauthorized hands. Some of the security measures include:

  • Two-factor authentication
  • Transport Layer Security (TLS) and Secure Socket Layer (SSL)
  • The log-in page requires unique questions and a registration code to work
  • You must answer some challenge questions before logging in
  • e-QIP is only available to those who want to request an investigation

The only officials allowed to see or access the information in your form SF-8nare the investigators and adjudicators that decide if you’re eligible for the security clearance, and maybe their support staff. In some cases, the information might be relevant in legal proceedings, and so the information may be released.

Stages of the review process

The whole process of the reviews and investigations are typically available to the applicants by the DSS at every stage.

  • Received: This phase just means that your application has been received and is going through a reviewing process.
  • Unacceptable: If a flawed investigation request is discovered by the ISP, it will be sent back, along with a message stating the flaws in it. The employee can re-initiate the investigation request with updated and accurate information.
  • Scheduled: This phase means that your request was accepted and your case is being investigated
  • Closed: At the end of the investigation, the results will be sent to the adjudicators, and the phase marked as closed.


Getting security clearance is hard enough on its own, but several areas can disqualify you. Of course, some mistakes can delay your security clearance, like badly filled forms, partial fingerprints, or minor inaccuracies with your form SF-86.

But, some other factors can lead to you being declared ineligible for security clearance.

Fig 3: Forms for different security clearance levels. Source: Federal News Network

Acts that can get you disqualified

  • Relationship with the US: Association with parties that want to overthrow the US government, participation in unlawful practices that interfere with another party’s rights, and involvement with people performing any of these acts.
  • Personal actions: Disapproving statements from associates and relatives, false information in questionnaires, patterns of bad behavior, and violent behavior.
  • Mental health: Unstable behavior, aggressiveness, Deficiency injudgment, and failure to take medication.
  • Sexual conduct: Criminal sexual behavior, reckless sexual practices, and addictive or self=-destructive sexual behaviors.
  • Financial behavior: Bad finance history, reluctance to settle debts, gambling issues, check and tax fraud, and illegal financial practices.
  • Relationships with foreign bodies: Strong ties to someone from a foreign country, association with suspected foreign intelligence service, and reckless behavior that can lead to exploitation by someone from a foreign country.
  • Relationship with alcohol and drugs: Drug and alcohol abuse, drug possession and distribution, failure to follow through with rehabilitation, DUIs, and alcohol dependence.
  • Criminal history: Recent criminal behavior, lack of evidence of rehabilitation, and multiple criminal offenses.
  • Violation of security: History of disclosing sensitive information, recklessness, purposeful violations of rules and regulations.
  • Interactions with outside influences: Serving in foreign countries in a professional capacity, representing foreign interests and involvement with foreign intelligence organizations.


The time between applying for security clearance and getting it can take a long or short while depending on several factors. These factors depend greatly on the type of clearance you apply for and how long it will take to conduct full investigations on you. Of course, there are estimated times,but they don’t always turn out that way.

Fig 4: How to speed up the security clearance process. Source: Clearance Jobs

Confidential clearance

Confidential clearance only requires the barest of background investigations. But, don’t think you can hide anything this way. When filling your form for confidential clearance, most of the information you are expected to give falls into the last five years. You also permit to release the information to the investigators who will conduct a National Agency Check (NAC) using your information.

The NAC goes across all federal agencies such as the FBI, so make sure you provide all the right information because whatever records you have there will be uncovered.

After the NAC, a Local Agency Check will be carried out where any criminal records of yours from your local law enforcement will be exposed. Finally, they go through your finances and review your credit record. All these take about 1 to 3 months to finish, so that’s approximately how long you will wait for it.

Secret clearance

The process involved in getting secret clearance is the same as getting confidential clearance.

Top secret

Top secret clearance is the most restricted clearance available, so the process involved is a lot more exhaustive. All the processes involved in getting confidential and secret clearances are taken, including the following:

  • A personal interview: You are interviewed one-on-one by an investigator who will ask you personal and invasive questions with the aim of finding a crack in you. If you are truthful and confident, you will sail through this stage.
  • Field interviews: Investigators go into the field and interview your relatives, neighbors, employers, colleagues, and other relevant references.
  • Records checks: Investigators go through your public records held by employers, courts, etc.

Top secret clearance can take up to a year to go through, but it typically takes about 6 to 8 months.


If you’re unlucky to be denied a security clearance, or your current one is revoked, nothing is stopping you from contesting it. Sometimes, the reasons why you are denied a security clearance are easy fixes or even errors that can be corrected if you try. You will most likely receive a statement detailing why you were denied the security clearance and how you can file for an appeal.

Sometimes, the information collected about you during the investigation may be incorrect or exaggerated. So, you get a chance to clear it up and try again for the security clearance. The Department of Defense has a site that details the steps you need to take to appeal the decision.


When you apply for a federal job or enlist in the military, you have to be prepared to request and get a security clearance.

Of course, not every federal job will require you to fill a form SF-86, but if you’re going for a position of “public trust,” then you will definitely need one. These security clearances don’t last for life, so you will have to renew them after certain periods.

Your job determines the level of security clearance you will get, and you can only fill a form SF-86 through your employer. But, this form is quite detailed and bulky, so it is easy to make mistakes while filling it.

As a result, you need to use the guide to ensure you fill it correctly. Also, you have to make sure you don’t do anything that will make you ineligible for applying for this security clearance.

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