The help wanted advertisement or job announcement tells you that hiring is contingent on receiving the necessary security clearance. Before you apply, prepare. No lies, no stretching the truth. Gather the information that you will need and then apply for the position. If you know you are not eligible for a security clearance today, consider waiting before applying or take steps to mitigate issues.

As you shake hands on the job offer, the person hiring you casually reminds you “You will have to receive a security clearance for this position.” That is a daunting thought but it does not have to be. Your preparation for the clearance process is key to the length of time that it may take and the chances of receiving your security clearance and keeping your new job.

The Security Officer for your employer, either a contractor or a Government agency, will guide you through the process. The questionnaire, Standard Form 86, is completed on-line as the Electronic Questionnaire for Investigations Processing (e-QIP). The Security Officer will review the completed form and then forward it on.

Preparation Step One:

The SF-86 is available in PDF format on-line. Print it out and complete it in writing, taking the time to answer all the questions completely and truthfully. You will need your resume, and more. The form asks about where you have lived, worked, went to school, and that means names, dates, addresses and accurate zip codes. When you complete the on-line version after the job offer, list that position and employer as your current employer. Here is an article that will assist you: How to Complete Your SF-86.

Preparation Step Two:

Clean up your messes before applying for a position that requires a security clearance. First, check your credit for free. While poor credit will not preclude a clearance, it will raise some serious red flags. Two related articles can help you with credit issues: What You Can Do To Keep Credit Problems from Affecting Your Security Clearance and Credit Inaccuracies Could Cost You Your Security Clearance. This preparation may also turn up evidence that your identity has been stolen and this article may help: Identity Theft and Your Security Clearance.

Will a little scrape with the law prevent you from being given a security clearance? Maybe not and it depends. A dishonorable discharge from the military will. Conviction and incarceration for a crime for a year or more will. Substance abuse at the level of addiction or mental incapacity will. It is possible, with legal assistance, to appeal some civilian criminal convictions or even a dishonorable discharge from the military. The process is lengthy and there is no assurance of success. See these articles for more detailed information: Can I Get a Security Clearance If I’ve Gone to Prison? and Can I Obtain a Security Clearance After Committing a Misdemeanor? The government also covers the various issues that can prevent a security clearance a document titled “Adjudicative Guidelines for Determining Eligibility for Access to Classified Information”.

Preparation Step Three:

Who are you? You have to be an American citizen to obtain a security clearance. Be sure you can prove that. And… with so many Americans having been born overseas, you cannot hold dual citizenship or have a foreign passport. If you were born overseas AND hold dual citizenship, the SF-86 will ask if you intend to renounce your non-American citizenship. If you have a foreign passport, the Security Officer at your prospective employer must witness the destruction of that document and put it in writing.

The SF-86 asks about past residences and past employment. Read every question carefully because the time frame for various questions differ. List everything. Estimate dates if you need to. There is a comments section to explain why information is inexact or incomplete. A good explanation will prevent delays in your clearance investigation. Be prepared to document any marriages, separations or divorces.

Tips for the SF-86 and Electronic Questionnaire for Investigations Processing

The official SF-86 has to be completed on-line. Your employer, the company or agency that will pay you if you obtain a security clearance, has to set you up on the system.

You can log out and come back to the section that you are working on. Remember, though, that in most cases, you will not get paid until you receive at least an interim security clearance. You are not hired until you are cleared.

Read every single question and make sure that you understand what is being asked. Every section has a comments area where you can explain any issues in the section just completed. When you have finished the SF-86, and the completion review which is automatically done finds no blanks or obvious errors, print the questionnaire for your records and future reference. You will also be asked to print four signature pages to sign and date and return to your “future” employer. You can then release the form to the employer who will review it and submit it for investigation.

Two articles may be helpful with your completion of an SF86: eQIP Questions and Answers and Security Clearance Application Tips.

The Security Clearance Investigation

If you have completed the SF-86 and a minimal investigation reveals no problems, your employer will most likely be notified that you have been granted an interim clearance. It can take several days to several months, depending on the level of clearance that you have applied for. If that happens, you can begin your new job. There may be limits on what you can do or see, until the full investigation is completed. Defense related Top Secret applications were taking an average of 99 days for contractors in 2012, and 52 days for Secret clearance.

Be available for the investigation interview. You must be interviewed and missing an appointment delays the process. Make sure that the information on the SF-86 is as complete and accurate as possible, or is explained in a reasonable manner in the comments.

Societal shifts do affect the security clearance process, and topics such as same-sex marriage and medical marijuana can complicate the application process. Federal law will apply and actions legal in a given state can be illegal under federal law. Ask your employer’s security officer for the latest guidance.

We offer a FAQ in PDF format on this process that offers a great deal of additional information, Security Clearance Frequently Asked Questions. We also cover the latest issues about security clearances in our news category Security Clearance.

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Charles Simmins brings thirty years of accounting and management experience to his coverage of the news. An upstate New Yorker, he is a freelance journalist, former volunteer firefighter and EMT, and is owned by a wife and four cats.