What Is Security Clearance? Types and Requirements for US Jobs

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Security clearance is a requirement for many US federal jobs. Here’s a guide to the different types and how to get clearance.

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You may have heard of getting a background check when you’re hired for a job or been through the process with a previous employer. Security clearance is like a background check required for individuals hired to work for jobs either with the US government or any organization that might need national security information. This process ensures you are trustworthy and reliable enough to be granted access to classified information.

While security clearance is required for government and cybersecurity employees in many countries, this article focuses on the US system. This article will present the different types of security clearance, the types of jobs that require it, and the process of getting security clearance.

What is security clearance?

Security clearance is a tiered status granted to employees working in US federal jobs or for any private contractors that work with the government. This comprehensive process examines your criminal records, credit histories, and other personal details to qualify you as “reliable, trustworthy, of good conduct and character, and loyal to the United States” [1]. Clearance must be issued before you can start working.

Many federal agency jobs require security clearances, depending on their role in national security. Agencies such as the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) often need a higher tier of clearance. Over four million Americans have security clearances, with 85 percent of them working with the Department of Defense (DoD).

Brief history of US security clearance

The authority for classifying information and granting security clearance is found in Executive Orders (EOs)—most recently in EO 13526. The origins of security clearance stem from the Pendleton (Civil Service) Act of 1883, which required that federal job applicants possess character, reputation, and trustworthiness, in part to prevent nepotism. In 1941, EO 8781 would require federal employees to be fingerprinted and FBI-investigated, and in 1948 EO 9835 required military personnel to adhere to these standards. In 1953 the order expanded to include most federal employees.


Types of security clearance

There is a hierarchy to security clearance, in which each of the three types indicates the maximum level of classified information that can be accessed. 

  • Confidential: This type of security clearance is least restrictive and provides access to information that can cause damage to national security if it is disclosed without authorization. It must be reinvestigated every 15 years and requires a National Agency Check with Local Agency Check and Credit Check (NACLC) [2].

  • Secret: Provides access to information that can cause serious damage to national security if disclosed without authorization. Must be reinvestigated every 10 years and requires NACLC and a Credit investigation [2]. 

  • Top secret: This type of security clearance is most restrictive and provides access to information that can cause grave damage to national security if disclosed without authorization. Must be reinvestigated every five years. Typically granted after a Single Scope Background Investigation (SSBI), for data related to counterterrorism, counterintelligence, and other extremely sensitive information [2]. 

Even when an employee does gain clearance, the system operates on a need-to-know basis that is typically determined by officers assigned to the department that pertains to the data. There are two types of classified information that require additional clearance in order to access:

  • Sensitive compartmented information involves intelligence-related methods and sources. This clearance is typically granted only after rigorous SSBI and adjudication processes, and only in compartments with their own specific requirements and clearances [2].

  • Special access programs involve highly sensitive projects, usually established by the DoD for programs such as new military technology. This clearance level is granted to very few individuals [2].

Jobs that require security clearance

Anyone who works in a job where they need to access national security information requires clearance. This includes people in federal and military jobs, from executives to custodial staff, including librarians, IT system administrators, and more. Clearance levels must be at or higher than the level of information you will handle, and will vary according to your position, responsibilities, and the systems used in your job.

In addition to federal agencies, anyone working for private companies or organizations that have contracts with the government and need access to sensitive data also require security clearance. Employees of companies, non-profit organizations, think tanks, and research organizations with federal contracts or grants may need to undergo this background investigation.

Agencies that deal with the intelligence community, federal law enforcement, diplomacy, and military often require higher levels of clearance. Besides the CIA and FBI mentioned above, these agencies include the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), United States Agency for International Development (USAID), Defense Intelligence Agency, Office of National Security Intelligence, Homeland Security, and more.

How to obtain security clearance

For any government-related jobs that require access to classified data, successful applicants will receive a job offer contingent on obtaining security clearance. The main steps for the security clearance process are:

1. Application: The US Offices of Personnel Management (OPM) will invite you to complete an application form with personal information and supporting documents through the Electronic Questionnaires for Investigations Processing (e-QIP). There are five tiers of investigation standards for security clearance applications, which are determined by the risk associated with the information the hiree may need to handle. Each tier has corresponding OPM e-QIP forms that need to be completed.

2. Investigation: You will undergo a comprehensive background investigation that may involve reviewing financial, criminal, and medical records. The Diplomatic Security Service (DSS) may contact your family, friends, neighbors, and past employers. The depth of investigation will depend on the level of security clearance needed. This process can take a while, sometimes a couple of months or up to a year if the DSS is backlogged or needs more information.

In some cases, hirees may be granted interim security clearance to start the job sooner. 

3. Adjudication: Your investigation results will be then reviewed and evaluated according to the 13 adjudicative guidelines. These guidelines include allegiance to the United States, drug and alcohol misuse, criminal conduct, mental health, sexual behavior, and financial considerations. At the end of the adjudication process, you will be granted or denied security clearance.

A benefit to obtaining security clearance is that once you have one, you are eligible to apply for other jobs that require security clearance, even if it was granted by a different agency [3].

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Article references

1. US Customs and Border Protection. “What is the purpose of a background investigation?, https://www.cbp.gov/faqs/what-purpose-background-investigation.” Accessed February 5, 2022.

2. Cybersecurity Guide. “How to get a security clearance: A complete guide, https://cybersecurityguide.org/resources/security-clearance/.” Accessed February 5, 2022.

3. Idealist. “Security Clearance | What it Means and How it Works, https://www.idealist.org/en/careers/security-clearance.” Accessed February 5, 2022.

4. US Bureau of Labor Statistics. “Information Security Analysts, https://www.bls.gov/ooh/computer-and-information-technology/information-security-analysts.htm.” Accessed February 5, 2022.

5. ClearanceJobs. “Salary Calculator, https://about.clearancejobs.com/salary-calculator.” Accessed February 5. 2022.

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