The Department of Homeland Security conducts background checks, which can vary depending on the level of security the position demands. This process does not apply to just the DHS; all federal jobs require a background check. The principal purpose of the check is to ensure that all federal employees are “reliable, trustworthy, of good character, and loyal to the United States.” The examination of one’s background is not the same as security clearance. Employees undergo this type of scrutiny when the position requires exposure to sensitive information.

Positions in the federal government, namely the DHS have three classifications:

  1. Non-sensitive positions
  2. Public trust positions
  3. National security positions

Non-Sensitive Positions

A background check begins after the hiring agency or department makes a formal offer of employment, and the applicant accepts it. The questionnaire is on Standard Form 85, revised in December 2013, and drafted by the U.S. Office of Personnel Management. All Government and contract employees must complete the form as a condition of finalizing your placement. The form applies to Non-Sensitive Positions.

The first page of Form 85 outlines what information you have to record on the questionnaire. For example, you need to include your current or previous employer, as the investigators will contact the company or person. All information must be accurate and truthful. Anyone knowingly providing false information or concealing a material fact could be subject to fines up to $10,000 and/or five years imprisonment under the U.S. Criminal Code.

As expected, proof of U.S. citizenship is vital. Individuals born outside the U.S. but are now citizens must include the details of the Naturalization Certificate, Citizenship Certificate, or State Department Form 240. The latter form refers to proof of the individual’s birth abroad. Some of the other questions are:

  • Resident locations going back five years
  • Education beyond Junior High School
  • Five years of employment: company, addresses, and position
  • Personal references, excluding family members
  • Military History
  • Illegal Drug Use

When a person signs Form 85, you authorize any investigator, special agent, or designated federal agency to conduct a thorough background investigation. Your life becomes an open book based on interviews and information from friends, colleagues, credit bureaus, consumer reporting agencies, criminal justice organizations, and retail establishments.

Between Non-Sensitive and Trust Positions lies Level 2, known as National Security Non-Critical Sensitive. Form SF86 applies to this level of Confidential security. Except for Sensitivity Level 1 Non-Sensitive, all others require Form SF86, SF86P, or SF86P-S. The 86 forms have a five-year reinvestigation requirement.

Public Trust Positions

Another form is the 85P that applies to Public Trust Positions. This form has additional sections, such as Marital Status, that need the spouse’s name and country of citizenship. There is a long set of boxes to include various relatives, including mother, father, stepmother, stepfather, and foster parents.

The 85P also requires information on the foreign countries visited in the past seven years, police records (if any), and financial records (loans & bankruptcy).

Trust positions are not eligible for Confidential or Secret clearance regardless of how extensive the background investigation.

DHS sec levels

National Security Positions

There are different levels of security clearance dictated by the classified information you may encounter in the job, as well as the secure nature of the facility in which you work. Regardless of the level, you will need to complete the Standard Form 86, as revised in November 2016. The lengthy questionnaire covers 133 pages, inclusive of extended pages to supply employment particulars going back ten years. There are pages devoted to Military History, Marital/Relationship Status, Relatives, Foreign Contacts, Foreign Activities, Foreign Business, Foreign Travel, Psychological and Emotional Health, Police Record, Illegal Drug Use (7-year history), Use of Alcohol, and Financial Records for seven years also.

As stated, there are different levels of national security clearance for non-military employees within the DHS or any other federal agency. The U.S. Department of State lists three:

  1. Confidential: Majority of the military have this level of clearance
  2. Secret: information that could harm national security if disclosed to unauthorized personnel
  3. Top Secret: applies to information that could cause severe damage to national security

Regardless of which level an employee has access to, some info is restricted based on a need-to-know status.


Applying for employment in the DHS can take time. After a review of your application, interviews, and then the security clearance process may extend to one year. That timeframe is a worst-case scenario, affected by the level of clearance, which in turn dictates the thoroughness of the background investigation.

Additional Resources

What Kind of Profile Does the Secret Service Look for in Applicants?

Are There Requirements to Be an Agent for Homeland Security?

What Degree Do I Need to Become a Detective?

What is the Best Path to work for the Department of Justice?