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U.S. Security Clearance Process & Timeline: A Complete Guide (2024)

security clearance guide

In the cybersecurity industry, security clearances are an important aspect of being employed. Security clearances are granted to individuals who need access to classified information in order to perform their job duties.

There are different kinds of security clearances and they each have their own requirements and processes for obtaining them. This guide will outline what kinds of jobs require public trust security clearances and how to get done with a security clearance!

What is Security Clearance?

For starters, a security clearance is an official determination that an individual may access some level of classified information.

This determination is made by an agency in the United States government and can be granted, denied, or revoked at any time.

For the record, There are 101 different types of security clearances issued by different nations all around the globe, but to keep things practical, the scope of this article will be to shed light solely on those issued by government agencies in the United States.

Security Clearance Requirements

There are several steps that you need to take in order to be cleared for a security clearance. First, you will have to fill out an application and get it approved by the government.

Then, you have to undergo a background check to see if you have any criminal history or other red flags in your past. Once your name is cleared, you will have to take a polygraph test. After that, you’ll submit your fingerprints.

And finally, you’ll have to undergo an interview with an official from the government agency in charge of issuing security clearances.

Many people wrongly assume that a security clearance is something you get once and then it’s yours for life.

But that’s not the case. You have to renew your security clearance every five years, or more often if there are changes in your personal situation.

The government may also require you to renew your clearance if it has reason to believe that you are no longer eligible for access.

Renewal is not automatic. You must apply in writing and provide documentation of your continued eligibility. The process is the same as the initial application.

Who is Eligible For a Security Clearance?

A security clearance is a status granted by the United States government to allow individuals access to information or material that has been determined as classified.

It applies to jobs that involve national security, such as those in law enforcement, firefighting, the military, and cybersecurity professionals. The process of obtaining security clearances varies depending on several factors.

The first thing you must do is determine whether or not a position requires a security clearance.

Positions requiring security clearances are generally reserved for government employees, but may also include other types of positions in the private sector.

The Department of Defense, for example, is the largest employer of cleared personnel in the United States. The DoD has a wide range of positions that require security clearances.

Security Clearance for Cybersecurity Professionals in the US

The U.S. government has recently been calling for more cybersecurity professionals, but the lack of security clearances is a major obstacle for many who want to work in that field.

The United States government is at war. From the fight against ISIS to the battle with Russian hackers, cybersecurity professionals are in high demand in the United States.

The government is so desperate for talent that they have enrolled thousands of new people into a security clearance program that was created for spies.

The reason why this happens is that our country has a shortage of cybersecurity professionals.

This can be attributed to several factors including the fact that many children aren’t interested in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) and there aren’t enough cybersecurity courses offered in colleges across the country.

Cybersecurity is a booming industry, especially DRM or Digital Rights Management and there are many jobs available in the field. In fact, the Bureau of Labor Statistics predicts that the employment of information security jobs will grow 32% from 2022 to 2032.

However, only 20 percent of those jobs will be filled by people with a four-year degree.

Public Trust Security Clearance Process in the US

The security clearance process in the United States is an executive branch government-wide program for screening employees and contractors to determine whether access to classified information or material is appropriate.

The security clearance process consists of multiple levels of review, with higher levels providing more scrutiny.

Agencies that use this system include

  • The Department of Defense (DoD),
  • Department of Energy, Department of Homeland Security (DHS),
  • National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA),
  • National Reconnaissance Office (NRO),
  • National Security Agency/Central Security Service (NSA/CSS),
  • United States Coast Guard (USCG), and
  • The Central Intelligence Agency.

In order to obtain a security clearance, an individual must submit an SF-86, Questionnaire for National Security Positions.

The form requires the applicant to list all contacts with foreign nationals and organizations and includes questions about financial problems, drug and alcohol use, and past criminal activity.

It is illegal to knowingly falsify or conceal material facts on the form. The penalty for such an offense is up to five years in prison and a fine of up to $250,000.

On the security clearance SF-86 form, applicants must disclose if they have “ever sought treatment for a mental health condition.” They are also asked to provide the names of any medical professionals who may have treated them.

Kavanaugh’s page in the form is blank.

But there are other questions on the form that could have allowed him to disclose treatment for a mental health condition without naming specific doctors or hospitals.

For example, applicants can answer yes to the question, “Have you ever been treated or hospitalized for a mental health condition?” The form also asks whether an applicant has ever been under a doctor’s care for a drug or alcohol problem.

Once the form SF-86 for security clearance is submitted, the next step is to wait for the approval. The processing time varies from one agency to another. However, it is a common thing that the process takes up to 90 days.

The applicant should be aware of the fact that submitting an incomplete form can cause delays and in most cases, start from square one. Once your form receives approval for security clearance, next is the medical examination.

Medical and Psychological Examination

This is the final step in the security clearance process. Once you pass the background check, you will be scheduled for a medical examination.

This exam will include a review of your past and current health records.  You may also be asked to undergo a psychological evaluation. That’s all!

What are the 5 levels of Security Clearance for Cybersecurity Professionals in the US?

5 levels of security clearance of united states

The five levels of security clearance for cybersecurity professionals in the United States:

Level I: Unclassified security clearance may be granted to applicants who have a demonstrated potential for access to classified information.

Level II: This is the lowest level of clearance. It involves access to information that might damage national security if disclosed.

Examples include lists of individuals to be contacted in case of an emergency (e.g., a nuclear attack), and the names and phone numbers of confidential sources who provide information about possible threats to national security.

Information at this level is not classified, but it must be kept secret for reasons of national security.

Level III: Secret security clearance, which permits access to information or material classified as Secret and/or Sensitive Compartmented Information (SCI).

A security clearance is a determination made by an authorized U.S. Government Agency that an individual is eligible for access to classified information.

Security clearances at Level 3 are granted on a “need-to-know” basis, and need-to-know determinations are made by a security officer.

The contractor shall not permit any individual to have access to classified information unless that person has been determined to be eligible in accordance with this Directive and the procedures established by the DoD Component concerned.

Level IV: Top Secret Security Clearance This is the highest level of clearance. It involves access to information that could seriously damage US national security if disclosed without authorization.

Such information includes

  • Foreign intelligence and counterintelligence activities,
  • Cryptologic information,
  • Communications intelligence activities and products,
  • Sensitive information about US space systems,
  • Nuclear weapon design and test data, and
  • Other programs or activities involving a potential threat to US or allied forces. Information at this level is considered classified.

Level V: Special access program (SAP) or Sensitive Compartmentalized Information (SCI)  is a subset of Top Secret that involves access to sensitive intelligence sources and methods used by the Intelligence Community (IC) to gather intelligence on foreign powers.

What is the difference between security clearance and a background investigation?

A security clearance is an approval granted by an agency or department to allow access to classified information.

A background investigation is a process used by government agencies to evaluate an individual’s reliability, trustworthiness, and ability to protect classified information.

The background investigation includes checking the person’s character and loyalty as well as investigating the criminal history and personal conduct.

It also includes interviews with people who know the individual well, such as family members, employers, neighbors, friends, schools or churches that have had dealings with the individual.

The clearance process may include an interview with the person who has applied for a security clearance.

Types of Security Clearance For Cybersecurity Professionals

Cybersecurity is a growing field, but it’s also one that’s very closely monitored and regulated by government agencies.

In order to ensure the safety and security of all Americans, it is imperative that cybersecurity professionals work within the confines of the law.

Any person who is applying for a cybersecurity job should be aware of the different types of security clearances they may apply for.

There are three levels of security clearances available to those working in cybersecurity: confidential, secret, and top secret.

Each category has a different level of sensitivity and different eligibility requirements. The following is a brief description of each category:

Confidential – The lowest level of security clearance, the confidential classification level is used for positions that involve access to sensitive information, but that do not cause serious damage if disclosed to unauthorized persons.

This type of security clearance may be granted after a minimum investigation and without the need for further investigation or reinvestigation for a period of 10 years.

Secret – This level is slightly more sensitive than the confidential classification level and requires a minimum investigation before it can be granted.

It may also be granted after a minimum investigation and without the need for further investigation or reinvestigation for a period of 10 years.

Top Secret – This is the highest level of security clearance, which is used for positions that involve access to extremely sensitive information.

It requires the most extensive investigation before it can be granted. It may also be granted after a minimum investigation and without the need for further investigation or reinvestigation for a period of 10 years.

Each level has its own requirements and limitations. Before you apply for a job in cybersecurity, be sure to do your homework on what type of clearance you will need to obtain in order to work on certain projects or with certain clients.

What are some common reasons why people might not receive a security clearance?

If you’ve ever wondered why someone doesn’t receive their security clearance, there are several reasons why this could happen:

Failing to meet the minimum background check requirements

Having a criminal record, including a history of drug use or alcohol abuse

Being subject to foreign influence or coercion by having family members or friends who are not citizens of the United States, living in a different country or holding dual citizenship

Being delinquent in child support payments, owing more than $2,500 in back child support payments, is deemed as an “unsuitable parent”.

(if you owe more than $2,500 in back child support payments) and/or having a history of violent behavior or mental illness that could be deemed as posing a threat to national security.

Having been charged with an offense for which the sentence could be death.

What Security Clearance is Needed For a Cybersecurity Job?

As already discussed, a security clearance is required for cybersecurity jobs. There are different levels of security clearances depending on the level of work needing to be done. T

The highest level of security clearance is a “secret” clearance, which allows the person to access top-secret information and documents.

The next level is “top secret” clearance, which allows the person to access extremely sensitive information and documents. A “confidential” clearance is required for cybersecurity jobs that require access to sensitive information in the government.

What are some common titles for a cybersecurity job that requires security clearance?

Senior Security Analyst, Information Security Analyst, Security Administrator, Security Manager, Information Technology Security Manager, Chief Information Officer (CIO) and Chief Information Security Officer (CISO), IT Director and CISO. These titles can vary depending on the organization.

How To Apply For a Security Clearance?

A Security Clearance Office is located in the basement of every Security Building. You will need to obtain a photo ID card from the ID office.

Once you obtain this photo ID card, you can apply for a security clearance by going to the Security Clearance Office in the basement of the Security Building. The office hours are Monday through Friday from 8:00 AM – 4:30 PM.

You must fill out an application form (available on-site) and bring a complete set of your fingerprints (you can get your fingerprints taken at the Security Clearance Office).

The security officer will review your application and a background check will be conducted. If you pass the background check, you will be granted a security clearance and given access to classified information.

Public Trust Security Clearance Processing Timeline

For Top Secret Security Clearance Timeline (Average)

  • Initiation – 30 days
  • Investigation – 108 days
  • Adjudication – 17 days

For Secret Security Clearance Timeline (Average)

  • Initiation – 29 days
  • Investigation – 69 days
  • Adjudication – 17 days

However, the timeline for security clearance for DoD industry applicants is 181 days on average and for Secret Department of Defense applicants is 112 days on average.

What is The Security Clearance Cost?

The cost of a security clearance is not a standard rate. The cost varies depending on the level and scope of the investigation, the agency requesting the investigation, and whether you are applying for a government or private sector position.

If you’re looking to apply for an investigative job in law enforcement or intelligence agencies such as the FBI, CIA, NSA, etc.

Then your application will require that your background check be more thorough than if it was applied to work with less sensitive information like medical research labs or academia.

In some cases where there’s no clear distinction between sensitivity levels (e.g., if both companies are classified as secret)

Then companies may charge lower fees because they don’t have enough resources available to conduct complete investigations into all applicants’ backgrounds.

The cost of a public trust security clearance investigation can range from $800 to over $2000, depending on the type of clearance being requested, the level of urgency and the number of investigations conducted by the agency.

Agency Type Cost Range FBI $2000-$5000 US military (Department of Defense) $500-$1000 Department of Homeland Security (DHS) $300-$700 State Department $700-$1000 CIA $1200–$1500 Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) $800-$3000

What is an Active Security Clearance?

An active security clearance is a process by which a person is granted clearance to access certain information that was previously classified.

This process usually occurs after the original security clearance application has been completed and processed.

The applicant must be willing to sign the appropriate documents to allow the clearance process to continue, including a non-disclosure agreement (NDA).

A background check will be conducted on the applicant, as well as all family members who will have access to this information.

The next step of this security clearance process is an interview with an investigator from a government agency that grants security clearances. This interview lasts about two hours and covers many topics, such as:

  • Why do you desire a security clearance
  • Your family history, including marriages and divorces
  • Any criminal activity
  • Any drug or alcohol use

If the applicant passes this interview, they will be invited to a polygraph examination. This is an examination where the applicant will be asked a series of questions while hooked up to a polygraph machine.

The purpose of the examination is to determine if the applicant is being truthful in their answers. If they pass this test, they will then be given extensive background checks and interviews with family members and employers.

They will also have to provide fingerprints, which are sent to various government agencies for verification.

Once all of these steps have been completed, the government agency that is responsible for granting the security clearance will make a decision.

If the applicant is granted a security clearance, they will receive a formal letter from this government agency.

This letter will state what level of clearance has been granted and also list any restrictions that are placed on the individual. A security clearance must be reevaluated every five to ten years to ensure that the person who holds it remains trustworthy.

An applicant may be denied security clearance as a result of a felony conviction for which a sentence of three or more years imprisonment was imposed.

The applicant may also be denied security clearance if he or she is convicted of any other felony offense not previously mentioned or any misdemeanor offense involving domestic violence.

An individual with a history of drug abuse may be denied security clearance if the person has not satisfactorily completed drug rehabilitation, while an individual who has a history of alcohol abuse will only be denied security clearance if the person has not satisfactorily completed alcohol rehabilitation.

An applicant may also be denied security clearance based on his or her illegal use of narcotics, depressants, stimulants, hallucinogenic drugs and other controlled substances unless the person has been free from such use for two years or more.

An individual may also be denied security clearance if he or she has been discharged or released from the Armed Forces under dishonorable conditions.

In addition, an individual may also be denied security clearance if he or she is a renouncer of United States citizenship, a conscientious objector who refused to perform military service on religious grounds, an anarchist or someone who has formally renounced his or her U.S. citizenship in favor of another country’s nationality.

An applicant may also be denied security clearance if he or she has violated the terms of any contract for employment with an intelligence agency that is a condition for obtaining a security clearance and/or the applicant has failed to perform the required duties in connection with such employment.

An applicant may also be denied security clearance if he or she has been terminated from employment with an intelligence agency for “poor job performance” or “substandard work performance” or “unacceptable conduct”.

Finally, an applicant may also be denied security clearance if he or she has been convicted of a crime and sentenced to death or imprisonment for more than one year.

In addition, an applicant may also be denied security clearance if he or she has been convicted of a felony and sentenced to imprisonment for more than one year and is awaiting sentence, appeal or parole.

In addition to the above criteria, the FBI will investigate any information that would suggest that an individual poses a threat to national security.

5 Automatic Disqualifiers for Security Clearances

Are you curious about what it takes to get a security clearance? Well, let me tell you that it’s not easy! A security clearance is a special permission that allows someone to access confidential information, like state secrets or sensitive data.

But not everyone can get a security clearance. In fact, there are some things that can automatically disqualify you. Here are five automatic disqualifiers for security clearances.

1. Criminal Record

If you have a criminal record, it can disqualify you from getting a security clearance. This includes any felonies or serious misdemeanors. It’s important to note that even if your criminal record has been expunged or sealed, it can still show up during a security clearance investigation.

2. Drug Use

Drug use can also be an automatic disqualifier for security clearances. If you have used illegal drugs in the past, especially if it was recent, you may not be eligible for a clearance. This is because drug use can be seen as a risk for blackmail or compromise.

3. Financial Problems

Having financial problems can also be a disqualifier for security clearances. This includes having a lot of debt, a history of not paying bills, or even a poor credit score. This is because people with financial problems may be more vulnerable to bribery or coercion.

4. Mental Health Issues

One of the major disqualifiers is a history of mental health issues. Conditions such as depression, anxiety, or bipolar disorder can be seen as red flags for security clearances.

5. Foreign Connections

Another automatic disqualifier for security clearances is having ties to foreign countries. This can include having relatives or close acquaintances who reside in foreign countries, or even just traveling frequently to foreign countries.

Extensive foreign connections may raise suspicion and be seen as a potential risk for espionage or influence.

It is important to keep in mind that obtaining a security clearance is a privilege, not a right. Those who are granted clearance have a great responsibility to protect our country’s secrets.

Therefore, it is necessary to carefully consider all factors when evaluating potential candidates for security clearances. While some may be disappointed to find that they are not eligible, it is crucial to maintain the integrity and security of our nation’s most sensitive information.

The Process for Appealing a Security Clearance Denial

In the event of a Department of State security clearance denial, you have the right to appeal the decision. The specific appeal process will depend on the nature of the denial.

The general steps are as follows:

  1. Review the Statement of Reasons: This document details the specific concerns identified in your background investigation that led to the denial.
  2. Prepare a Response: This response should address each point raised in the Statement of Reasons and provide relevant mitigating evidence or documentation.
  3. Submit your Appeal: Depending on the basis for the denial, your appeal may be directed to the DSS Office of Personnel Security and Suitability, the Personnel Security Appeals Board, or another designated authority.
  4. Participate in a Hearing (Optional): In specific instances, you may have the opportunity to present your case in person before a review panel.
  5. Await a Final Decision: The appeals process can be lengthy, typically taking several months.

Contact Information

For inquiries or support regarding your Department of State security clearance package, please contact the DSS Office of Personnel Security and Suitability Customer Service Center.

Phone: (771) 333-6740 (8:00 AM – 5:00 PM EST)

Please note: Due to high call volume, we recommend contacting the Center via email for the fastest response.


What are the different levels of security clearance?

There are three main levels of security clearance in the United States: Confidential, Secret, and Top Secret. Each level grants access to information of varying sensitivity.

What are the eligibility requirements for a security clearance?

To be eligible for a security clearance, you must meet several key requirements:
Citizenship: Generally, you must be a U.S. citizen.
Allegiance: Demonstrate unquestionable allegiance to the United States.
Background Investigation: Pass a background investigation, including a review of criminal record, financial history, foreign travel, and more.
Suitability: Be deemed suitable for holding a security clearance, demonstrating good character and trustworthiness.
Adjudication: Pass a final judgment based on all relevant factors.

What are the steps involved in appealing a security clearance denial?

1. Review the Statement of Reasons
2. Gather Mitigating Evidence
3. Prepare a Written Response
4. Submit Your Appeal
5. Participate in a Hearing (Optional)
6. Await the Decision

Kevin James

Kevin James

I'm Kevin James, and I'm passionate about writing on Security and cybersecurity topics. Here, I'd like to share a bit more about myself. I hold a Bachelor of Science in Cybersecurity from Utica College, New York, which has been the foundation of my career in cybersecurity. As a writer, I have the privilege of sharing my insights and knowledge on a wide range of cybersecurity topics. You'll find my articles here at, covering the latest trends, threats, and solutions in the field.