What Is Security Clearance? Types and Requirements for US Jobs

Written by Coursera • Updated on

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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A security clearance is like a background check. It is required for individuals who are hired for US government jobs or any organization that handles information pertaining to national security. The security clearance process ensures your ability to securely access, manage, and protect classified information.

A security clearance is required for many government and cybersecurity roles worldwide. However, this article focuses on national security clearance in the US. It examines the process of obtaining a security clearance, the different types of security clearances that exist, and the jobs that may require them.

What is security clearance?

A security clearance is a tiered status. It is typically granted to employees working federal government agency jobs and private contractors who work with the government. This comprehensive process examines your criminal record, credit history, and other personal details to confirm you are “reliable, trustworthy, of good conduct and character, and loyal to the United States” [1]. Security clearance must be issued before you can begin working.

Examples of organizations that require higher tiers of clearance include national security agencies such as the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI). Over four million Americans have national 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.


Levels of security clearance

National security clearances are organized into a hierarchy. Each of the three levels below indicates the maximum level of classified information you can access. 

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

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

  • Top secret clearance: This type of security clearance is the most restrictive and provides access to information that can cause grave damage to national security if disclosed without authorization. Must be reinvestigated for continued eligibility 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 gains a security clearance, the system operates on a need-to-know basis. Access rights are typically determined by the officers who are assigned to the department handling the requested data. There are two types of classified information that require additional clearance 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 that requires access to national security information requires clearance. This includes people in federal government and military jobs, from executive-level roles to non-sensitive positions in custodial staff. These roles may include librarians, IT system administrators, and more. Clearance levels must be at or higher than the level of information you will handle. They also vary according to your position, responsibilities, and the systems you use in your role.

In addition to federal agencies, those working for private organizations that have contracts with the government require a 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 a security clearance

For any government-related jobs that require access to classified data, successful applicants will receive a job offer contingent on obtaining a national 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 to determine eligibility for access. This process 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 may extend over a long period of time. If the DSS is backlogged or needs more information, it could take anywhere from a couple of months to a year.

In some cases, hirees may be granted interim 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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Frequently asked questions (FAQs)

Article sources


US Customs and Border Protection. "Background Investigation Process FAQs, https://www.cbp.gov/careers/car/bi." Accessed November 16, 2022.

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