Obtaining security clearance: Hurdles and requirements

As security moves closer to the top of the operational priority list for private and public organizations, needing to obtain a security clearance for jobs is more commonplace. Security clearance is a prerequisite for a wide range of roles, especially those related to national security and defense.

Obtaining that clearance, however, is far from simple. The process often involves scrutinizing one’s background, financial history and even personal character. Let’s briefly explore some of the hurdles, expectations and requirements of obtaining a clearance.

Jobs that typically require security clearance

When you think of security clearance, government positions almost always come to mind. However, working in a cleared space is also a requirement for many roles within private organizations that contract with the government.

These positions are wide-ranging in industry and type and include:

  • Federal government and military jobs
  • Cybersecurity roles
  • Positions within intelligence agencies such as the CIA and FBI

Ultimately, any job requiring national security information access mandates a security clearance. Examples include executive-level positions to non-sensitive jobs like custodial staff, librarians and IT system administrators, depending on the level of classified information handled.

How long does it take to obtain clearance?

The time required to gain security clearance can vary significantly, often taking anywhere from a few months to over a year. The waiting period is determined by the depth of investigation required, which corresponds to the clearance level needed for the job.

While some applicants may receive interim security clearances to start their jobs sooner, final approval can be lengthy, especially if additional information is needed or there are backlogs in processing applications.

Potential hurdles in the clearance process

Obtaining security clearance isn’t supposed to be easy, and the process is designed to ensure that only the most trustworthy individuals have access to sensitive information.

Here are a few key challenges applicants might face:


A fundamental requirement for obtaining a security clearance is U.S. citizenship. Non-citizens are generally ineligible for clearance.

Financial history

An applicant’s financial history is a crucial part of the security clearance process. Issues like excessive debt, bankruptcy or a history of not meeting financial obligations can raise red flags about susceptibility to bribery or financial coercion.

Criminal record

A criminal record, depending on the nature and severity of the offenses, can be a significant barrier to obtaining a security clearance. Felonies, domestic violence convictions and other serious crimes can disqualify an applicant. Even minor offenses can be problematic if they indicate a pattern of risky behavior.

Drug use

Past drug use, even with marijuana, remains a contentious issue in the security clearance process. Despite the legalization of marijuana for medicinal or recreational use in many states, federal law still classifies it as an illegal substance. Agencies like the FBI require applicants to have abstained from marijuana use for at least three years before applying. The policy reflects concerns about judgment, reliability and the potential for blackmail. The evolving legal landscape around marijuana use presents a complex challenge for both applicants and agencies, especially as society shifts toward greater acceptance of cannabis.

Personal conduct and character

The security clearance process thoroughly examines an applicant’s personal conduct and character. Allegiance to foreign entities, misuse of technology or information and even sexual behavior are factors that could make one susceptible to blackmail and impact one’s general reliability.

Mental health

While mental health conditions do not automatically disqualify someone from obtaining a security clearance, how an individual manages their condition is essential. Untreated mental health issues that impact judgment and reliability or could lead to unpredictable behavior may raise concerns.

Working in a cleared space

Obtaining a security clearance is critical for individuals seeking employment in positions requiring access to classified information. While the process is comprehensive and can be daunting, understanding the expectations, requirements and potential hurdles can prepare applicants for what lies ahead. As societal attitudes and laws (particularly regarding drug use) continue to evolve, the criteria for security clearances may also adapt.

However, the core objective remains: ensuring individuals entrusted with national security information are thoroughly vetted and deemed reliable and trustworthy.

For those working in a cleared world, approaching the process with a healthy dose of patience, transparency and a thorough understanding will be incredibly helpful.

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