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The Background Investigation Process

National Security Adjudicative Guidelines

Interim Determination


Continuous Evaluation Program


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The Diplomatic Security Service (DSS) conducts personnel security background investigations for the Department of State and other federal agencies.

These investigations provide information for DSS to determine an applicant’s or current employee’s national security eligibility.

DSS conducts more than 38,000 personnel security actions each year for the Department of State and other federal agencies.

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A job candidate receives a conditional offer of employment and completes and submits the appropriate form – either a Questionnaire for National Security Positions, Questionnaire for Non-Sensitive Positions, or Questionnaire for Public Trust Positions – and other required forms to the appropriate hiring office.
The hiring office reviews and submits the completed questionnaire and other required forms – known as the security package – to DSS.
DSS reviews the security package and formally opens a background investigation.
DSS conducts record and fingerprint checks against commercial and government databases.
DSS verifies and corroborates key information and events from the candidate’s past and recent history.  This may include interviews of people who know the candidate well.  The investigator may conduct a face-to-face interview the candidate as part of the process.
After the investigation is complete, DSS adjudicates and determines the candidate’s national security eligibility according to Security Executive Agent Directive (SEAD) 4: National Security Adjudicative Guidelines .
In some cases, background investigations may be forwarded to a Department of State Human Resources suitability panel.
After determining the candidate’s national security eligibility, DSS contacts the appropriate hiring authority.

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What are the National Security Adjudicative Guidelines?

The guidelines are defined in the Security Executive Agent Directive (SEAD) 4: National Security Adjudicative Guidelines  and are the single common criteria used to evaluate all individuals who require national security eligibility.

All Executive Branch agencies use these guidelines when rendering a national security eligibility determination.

What factors are considered?

National security eligibility determinations take into account a person’s:

  • Stability
  • Trustworthiness
  • Reliability
  • Discretion
  • Character
  • Honesty
  • Judgment
  • Unquestionable loyalty to the U.S.

What factors may not be considered?

In making a national security eligibility determination, the federal government does not discriminate on the basis of:

  • Race
  • Color
  • Religion
  • Sex
  • National origin
  • Disability
  • Sexual orientation

Negative conclusions cannot be made solely on the basis of mental health counseling.

When will national security eligibility be granted?

DSS considers all available, reliable information about a person – past and present, favorable and unfavorable – when reaching a national security eligibility determination.  DSS shall grant national security eligibility only when the information demonstrates that such eligibility is clearly consistent with the interests of the United States.  Any doubt shall be resolved in favor of U.S. national security.

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What is an interim determination?

A favorable interim determination allows the applicant to start working before the full background investigation is complete and before DSS grants the final national security eligibility determination.

When is an interim determination granted?

In exceptional circumstances, the hiring office may request an interim determination.  DSS may be able to grant an interim determination after reviewing a complete security package and after certain investigative checks come back with favorable results.

What does it mean if the interim determination is denied?

If an applicant’s interim determination is denied, additional investigative work must take place prior to a final determination. The denial of an applicant’s interim determination does not have negative implications for the applicant’s final national security eligibility determination.

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Employees are subject to reinvestigation based on their level of security clearance.

What happens during a reinvestigation?

DSS notifies the employee when it is time for a reinvestigation.  The employee submits an updated security package, and DSS conducts a background investigation.

What is covered in this background investigation?

The investigation will cover key aspects of the applicant’s life since the previous background investigation.  It may be necessary to readdress certain issues as further information or patterns are developed.

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The Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI) implemented Continuous Evaluation (CE) program in December 2016 to ensure the federal government maintains a strong and trusted workforce.  CE applies to all Executive Branch personnel who require eligibility for access to classified information or eligibility to hold a sensitive position.

What does CE do?

CE maximizes the use of automated records to identify security-relevant information earlier and more frequently than the current reinvestigation cycle.  CE records checks supplement information obtained during initial and periodic reinvestigations, transforming them into ongoing reviews rather than snapshots. Read More 

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What is the purpose of a security clearance?

The purpose of a security clearance is to allow an individual access to classified national security information.

Can I apply for a security clearance?

No. Applicants cannot initiate a security clearance application on their own.

Who determines whether I need a security clearance? When does this happen?

Hiring officials determine whether a Department of State position will require a security clearance based upon the duties and responsibilities of the position.  If the position requires access to classified information, a background investigation must be conducted.  This is done after a conditional offer of employment is given to an applicant.

Do I have to be a U.S. citizen to receive a security clearance from the Department of State?

Yes.  When the Department of State’s  mission has compelling reasons, however, immigrant alien and foreign national employees who possess special expertise may, at the discretion of the Department of State, be granted limited access to classified information only for specific programs, projects, contracts, licenses, certificates, or grants.

How many types or levels of security clearance are there?

There are three levels of security clearance: confidential, secret, and top secret.

Who decides the level of clearance?

The Department of State’s  Bureau of Human Resources determines whether a position will require a security clearance, as well as the level required, based upon the duties and responsibilities of the position and using OPM’s Position Designation Tool .

What is a public trust? A non-sensitive position?

Public trust and low-risk/non-sensitive are national security eligibility determinations, NOT security clearances.

Public trust determinations are requested for applicants whose positions will require access to information at the high- or moderate-risk levels, based upon duties and responsibilities of the position.  A public trust background investigation will include many aspects of a full security clearance investigation. 

Low-risk/non-sensitive determinations are requested for applicants whose positions have low-risk levels, based upon duties and responsibilities of the position. 

Low-risk/non-sensitive determinations are requested for applicants whose positions have low-risk levels, based upon duties and responsibilities of the position.

What work does a security clearance allow a person to do?

A security clearance allows an individual filling a specific position to have access to classified national security information up to and including the level of clearance that they hold as long as the individual has a “need to know” the information and signed a non-disclosure agreement.

Will my clearance be transferable to other federal agencies?

Reciprocity is the acknowledgement and acceptance of an existing background investigation conducted by an authorized investigative agency; the acceptance of a national security eligibility adjudication determined by an authorized adjudicative agency; and the acceptance of an active national security eligibility determination granted by an executive branch agency.  Federal agencies will normally accept another agency’s investigation as the basis for granting a security clearance, provided the applicant’s last security clearance investigation was completed within the past five years for a Top Secret clearance and 10 years for a Secret clearance, and there has not been a break in service of more than two years.  Any significant changes in an applicant’s situation since his or her last investigation may be considered.  Some federal agencies might have additional investigative or adjudicative requirements that must be met prior to their accepting a clearance granted by another agency.

Can I transfer my security clearance for private sector employment?

Security clearances only apply to positions that fall under the purview of the federal government.  Executive Order 12968, Access to Classified Information, provides that security clearances are only granted to persons employed by, detailed or assigned to, or working on behalf of the federal government.

How long is my security clearance valid after I leave the federal government?
The security clearance must be administratively removed when the employee no longer has need for access. DSS will generally revalidate a security clearance if the applicant has not been out of federal service for more than two years and if the applicant’s clearance is based on an appropriate and current background investigation.

Does having a security clearance guarantee employment with the Department of State?

The hiring process addresses whether someone will be initially selected for a particular position within the Department of State. The security clearance process does not begin until after a conditional offer of employment is given.

Are members of my family or people living with me subject to a security check?

There are circumstances in which limited records checks or an investigation may be conducted on a spouse or cohabitant. 

How often is a security clearance renewed?

An individual is normally subject to reinvestigation approximately every five years for a Secret or Top Secret clearance.

For what reasons would I be denied a security clearance?

Various reasons exist for denial of a security clearance.  Honesty, candor, and thoroughness are very important factors in the process of obtaining a security clearance. Every case is individually assessed, using the National Security Adjudicative Guidelines, to determine whether the granting or continuing of eligibility for a security clearance is clearly consistent with the interests of national security.  Security Executive Agent Directive 4, National Security Adjudicative Guidelines , for more information about the guidelines and specific concerns and mitigating factors.

How long does it take to process a typical security clearance?

Each case varies based on the specific circumstances of the individual subject and the level of security clearance requested.

What happens if I’m denied a security clearance? Is there an appeal process?

If you are denied a security clearance, or your continued eligibility for access to classified information is revoked, you will be notified of the reason(s) and be provided with the procedures for filing an appeal.  You will be given the opportunity to address derogatory information that is provided as the basis for denial or revocation

What is e-QIP?

The Electronic Questionnaires for Investigations Processing (e-QIP) system is a web-based automated system, owned by the Office of Personnel Management and mandated for federal government use, that facilitates the processing of standard forms used when conducting background investigations for security, suitability, fitness, and credentialing purposes.  The e-QIP system allows the user to electronically enter, update, and transmit their personal data over a secure internet connection to a requesting agency.

What are some typical delays that occur in the security clearance process?

Some of the most common areas of delay include the submission of incomplete forms and information, poorly collected fingerprints, and investigations that involve coverage of extensive overseas activities.  Applicants can help the process by ensuring that they have completed all forms thoroughly and accurately, and when possible, providing additional references who can verify their activities.  A lot of detailed information is required to conduct a background investigation.  When preparing to fill out your e-QIP, collect and verify information such as names, addresses, telephone numbers, and dates of birth for immediate relatives.  Collect additional references, when possible, in case we are unable to reach those provided initially.

Who should I contact if I have questions about my background investigation?

For assistance with background investigations being conducted by a federal agency other than the Department of State, please contact that agency directly.


If the position is a federal contracting position, contact your company’s facility security officer or human resources office.


For assistance with completing your security clearance package for a Department of State investigation or to inquire about the status of your security clearance with the Department of State, you may email the DSS Office of Personnel Security and Suitability Customer Service Center at or call between 8 A.M – 5 P.M. EST at (866) 643-4636 or (571) 345-3186.


DSS only releases information about the status of an investigation directly to the subject of a Department of State investigation or the hiring authority.

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Phone (866) 643-4636 or (571) 345-3186  between 8 A.M. – 5P.M. EST
DSS only releases information about the status of an investigation directly to the subject of a Department of State investigation or the hiring authority.

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