This is the first part of a two-part prompt to review look at the all-important 127-page Standard Form 86 (SF-86), the Questionnaire for National Security Positions. In Part 1, we’ll touch the SF-86. In Part 2, we’ll look at some highlights of the National Background Investigations Bureau (NBIB) and the United States Office of Personnel Management (OPM) newly released guide for completing the SF-86.

Why the SF-86 is Serious Business

OPM is very, very serious about the SF-86 and what it represents to national security. Clearly, the information you voluntarily provide helps the government determine whether you are qualified for access to our nation’s classified information. In short, because of who you are and who you mix with, and are you potentially (but not necessarily) a threat to national security?  As NBIB’s new guide puts it, the SF-86 helps determine if you’re eligible “for access to classified information or to hold a sensitive position . . . and logical access to federally controlled facilities or information systems.” That’s why the very first sentence you read on the SF-86 goes like this: “All questions on this form must be answered completely and truthfully in order that the Government may make the determinations described below on a complete record.” Pretty clear. Completely. Truthfully. And there are penalties if you knowingly fail to answer completely and truthfully: “knowingly falsifying or concealing a material fact is a felony which may result in fines and/or up to five (5) years imprisonment.” Ouch.


And OPM wants the details, all the details. Fulfilling those requirements might take some work: some details are for 7 years back, some for 10 years, and for some details you have to go all the way back . . . to birth. As ClearanceJobs explains in its “Security Clearance Frequently Asked Questions, “The number of years of information required on the form varies from question to question—many require 7 years, some require 10 years, and others are not limited to any period of time.”

For instance, Section 11 asks about where you’ve lived: “List the places where you have lived beginning with your present residence and working back 10 years.” Section 13A asks about “all of your employment activities, including unemployment and self-employment, beginning with the present and working back 10 years.” Then, many of the follow-on questions about the nature of your employment only asks for a 7-year memory: have you been “[f]ired, quit after being told you would be fired?”; “have you received a written warning, been officially reprimanded, suspended, or disciplined for misconduct?” And Section 19, Foreign Contacts, asks, “Do you have, or have you had, close and/or continuing contact with a foreign national within the last seven (7) years with whom you, or your spouse, or cohabitant are bound by affection, influence, common interests, and/or obligation?”

Section 22, Police Record, generally looks only 7 years back; however, some police record questions expect you to report any criminal actions, ever: any convictions resulting in 12 months sentence and incarceration and charges (regardless of conviction) for the likes of any felony under any circumstances; any domestic violence or any other violence, any charges related to firearms or explosives; any charge related to alcohol or drugs. And just to make the point, Section 28 near the end of the SF-86 asks, “In the last ten (10) years, have you been a party to any public record civil court action not listed elsewhere on this form?” So if you missed anything earlier, here’s another chance.


Completing the SF-86 will absolutely take some time and research. However, aside from trying to remember all the addresses of all the places you’ve lived the last 10 years—especially complicated if you are in or were in the military, moving around every couple of years—most of the events the SF-86 asks about were probably pretty memorable, and if the topic is particularly relevant the SF-86 questions force you to stop and think. Sections 19-20c are related to foreign contacts, foreign activities, foreign business, foreign government contacts, travel, and more. That drill runs 24 pages, nearly 20 percent of the document, so it’s hard to miss, and harder still to ignore. So whatever you do, don’t rush the SF-86. And don’t try to hide anything. In very real ways, your future is at stake, whether or not you get that clearance.

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Ed Ledford enjoys the most challenging, complex, and high stakes communications requirements. His portfolio includes everything from policy and strategy to poetry. A native of Asheville, N.C., and retired Army Aviator, Ed’s currently writing speeches in D.C. and working other writing projects from his office in Rockville, MD. He loves baseball and enjoys hiking, camping, and exploring anything. Follow Ed on Twitter @ECLedford.