One of the questions I get with surprising frequency from security clearance applicants and reapplicants is whether they can list foreign nationals as references or verifiers on the SF-86 form.

A careful review of the SF-86 itself provides no answer, nor is there any U.S. government policy on the matter of which I’m aware. I’ve yet to see a federal agency security training address it. Nonetheless, security clearance holders are expected to exercise good judgment and discretion even in uncertain situations. Making an incorrect assumption could have unintended consequences.

Should You Risk Listing Foreign Nationals?

If you’re already getting the sense that I’m about to say “don’t take the risk”, you’d be right. Unless, as a U.S. citizen, you’ve managed to somehow build a life in which you only interact with non-U.S. citizens, chances are good that you can think of appropriate, U.S. citizen references and verifiers with some additional effort.

For example, instead of listing your permanent resident neighbor as a residential verifier, perhaps you list the U.S. citizen friend who visits you there weekly for Monday night football. Or, instead of listing your friend on a student visa under “People Who Know You Well”, you list a U.S. citizen family friend who has known you since you were a child. This becomes more complicated if you’ve lived abroad within the investigation coverage period, but its rarely impossible with a bit of creativity.

Seeing the Bigger Picture

As you’re recalibrating your efforts, it may help to understand the bigger picture that folks who ask this question are missing. Most of the time, the government doesn’t care that your neighbor is a permanent resident or that your friend is on a student visa – unless your friend happens to be on a watch list or from one of a few countries. The issue is more often the perception that you’re advertising your security clearance to foreign nationals who would not have previously known about it and might now seek to exploit it.

The government may not ever find out that the reference or verifier isn’t a U.S. citizen – investigators don’t usually ask, much less attempt to verify citizenship status – and I’m not suggesting that a clearance applicant needs to ask each potential reference or verifier for their citizenship status. But if you know or suspect that a potential reference or verifier is not a U.S. citizen, why take the risk of it becoming an issue or, more importantly, of actually being exploited?

Foreign Intelligence Efforts Bigger Threat Than You Think

Incidentally, this is the same reason why I always advise my clients not to contact for unknown personal information foreign nationals who they’re listing as “close or continuous contacts”. Such contacts have the potential to make you an intelligence target. The better solution if you don’t know certain requested information is to simply write “unknown.”

Of course, I realize that the odds of your permanent resident neighbor or student visa friend being a foreign spy are low and that this may sound like paranoia. But it’s also indisputable that hostile foreign governments like China have countless intelligence assets here posing as ordinary students, businesspeople, and academics – and possibly your friend or neighbor. This risk is heightened in the Washington, D.C. metro area, where some open-source estimates have placed the number of foreign intelligence operatives in the thousands. As a result, erring on the side of caution is the prudent approach.


This article is intended as general information only and should not be construed as legal advice. Although the information is believed to be accurate as of the publication date, no guarantee or warranty is offered or implied.  Laws and government policies are subject to change, and the information provided herein may not provide a complete or current analysis of the topic or other pertinent considerations. Consult an attorney regarding your specific situation. 

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Attorney Sean M. Bigley represents clients worldwide in security clearance denials, revocations, and the security clearance application process. He is a former investigator for the Defense Counterintelligence and Security Agency (then-U.S. Office of Personnel Management). For more information, please visit Readers will also find a low-cost, self-help option for obtaining copies of their security clearance background investigations and DISS/Scattered Castles records at