Given the U.S. government’s worldwide footprint and the fact that many people – civil servants, members of the Armed Forces, and contractors – are needed to carry out the mission abroad, it is not surprising that some of those people get themselves into legal trouble during service overseas.

The problems come in various forms, with drunk driving, domestic violence, and drug use seemingly the most common cases walking through our doors.  But with significantly varying legal systems, not to mention the laws those legal systems are charged with enforcing, a frequent question from security clearance holders is how such foreign legal troubles will impact a U.S. government security clearance.

Even more urgent is the question of whether arrests by foreign authorities must be self-reported to U.S. government security officials like a stateside arrest and/or reported on the SF-86 form.

An Arrest is an Arrest – No Matter the Country

Few things in the law lend themselves to straightforward answers, but this is fortunately one of them. Because neither the SF-86 form instructions nor Security Executive Agent Directive (SEAD)-3 (which governs the types of adverse information clearance holders must self-report to their security officials) makes any distinction between arrests by U.S. and foreign authorities, security clearance holders should always assume that an arrest by foreign authorities is reportable just like an arrest here in the U.S.

This isn’t like the old adage, “what happens in Vegas stays in Vegas.” When it comes to a security clearance and interactions with the legal system, what happens in South Korea, Germany, or wherever else one happens to be stationed abroad doesn’t stay there unless you’re lucky enough to have diplomatic immunity (and even that can be waived in particularly egregious cases like homicide).

That can be unfortunate in cases where, for example, the legal blood alcohol content limit for driving a car is lower in a foreign country than here in the U.S., resulting in a DUI arrest abroad – a case we handled last year. And it’s particularly unfortunate where, for example, a clearance holder gets the book thrown at them for something a local national wouldn’t even have seen a courtroom for – a situation we’ve also seen previously.

On the other hand, there are a number of acts deemed criminal offenses in foreign countries – many relating to freedom of speech issues (e.g. “offensive language”) – that aren’t a crime here in the U.S. While those must be similarly self-reported, they wouldn’t be viewed as having any bearing on one’s eligibility to hold a security clearance, much as the DUI arrest example referenced above could likely be easily mitigated.

Serving the U.S. government abroad can be the opportunity of a lifetime, and this article is not meant to dissuade anyone from doing it. However, with the benefit of experience in dealing with clients who have been arrested overseas, I do strongly recommend researching a destination country’s laws prior to any travel or assignment abroad. I wise person once said, “know before you go.” I certainly second that.


This article is intended as general information only and should not be construed as legal advice. Consult an attorney regarding your specific situation. 

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Security Clearance Attorney Sean M. Bigley represents clients worldwide in security clearance denials and revocations. He is a former investigator for the U.S. Office of Personnel Management. For more information, please visit