How Many Security Clearances Are There in the USA?

by | General | 1 comment

Ever wondered how many types of security clearances exist in the USA and why they’re essential? Security clearances play a pivotal role in safeguarding national security by controlling access to classified information. Whether you’re eyeing a government job or just curious, understanding these clearances can offer valuable insights.

In the United States, security clearances are categorized mainly into three levels: Confidential, Secret, and Top Secret. Each level signifies the sensitivity of the information and the thoroughness of the background checks required. Gaining a security clearance isn’t just about trust; it’s about ensuring that sensitive information remains protected from potential threats.

Overview of Security Clearances in the USA

Types of Security Clearances

Three types of security clearances exist in the USA: Confidential, Secret, and Top Secret. Each level represents the degree of sensitivity of the information and the thoroughness of the background checks required.

  1. Confidential: Access is given to information that could cause damage to national security if disclosed. The background check typically includes a review of criminal records and a few personal references.
  2. Secret: This clearance level covers information that would cause serious damage to national security if disclosed. The background investigation for Secret clearances is more extensive, involving interviews with friends, family, and past employers.
  3. Top Secret: Information at this level could cause exceptionally grave damage to national security if disclosed. The background investigation is exhaustive, covering financial records, foreign contacts, and a polygraph test in some cases.

The Purpose of Security Clearances

Security clearances aim to protect national security by controlling who has access to classified information. Agencies, including the Department of Defense and the CIA, issue these clearances to individuals who meet stringent criteria.

By limiting access, these clearances help mitigate the risks of espionage, terrorism, and other threats. Individuals with security clearances are vetted based on their loyalty, trustworthiness, and reliability.

Process of Obtaining a Security Clearance

Eligibility Requirements

To qualify for a security clearance, you must meet several criteria. First, you need to be a U.S. citizen. This is a non-negotiable requirement. Second, you should have a stable and dependable personal and professional history. This includes a clean criminal record, sound financial standing, and consistent employment. Third, you must not have any corrupted alliances. Associations with foreign governments or extremist groups could disqualify you. Lastly, your mental health needs to be sound, with no significant issues that compromise judgment or reliability.

Steps in the Clearance Process

The procedure for obtaining a security clearance includes multiple phases. First, you must receive a sponsorship from a government agency or a contracting company. Without this sponsorship, the clearance process cannot begin. Second, you’ll complete a detailed security questionnaire, known as the SF-86. This form requires comprehensive personal information, including your background, employment history, and personal associations. Third, a background investigation follows. Investigators will interview your friends, family, colleagues, and even neighbors. They’ll also review your financial records, criminal history, and foreign connections. Fourth, you must undergo a polygraph test if you’re applying for a Top Secret clearance. This test assesses your truthfulness regarding sensitive issues.

To ensure your clearance, loyalty, trustworthiness, and reliability must be demonstrated throughout these steps. If you meet all the criteria and pass each phase, a determination will be made on your eligibility to access classified information. The process concludes with receiving the clearance and being authorized to handle classified materials relevant to your clearance level.

Key Agencies and Their Roles

Department of Defense

The Department of Defense (DoD) oversees the majority of security clearances in the U.S., managing around 85% of all clearances. This department handles clearances for military personnel, civilian employees, and defense contractors. The DoD uses the Defense Counterintelligence and Security Agency (DCSA) to conduct background investigations, ensuring individuals meet specific criteria for access to classified information.

Other Government Agencies

Other government agencies also play crucial roles in managing security clearances. The Department of Energy (DOE) manages clearances for individuals accessing nuclear-related information, often denoted as the “Q” clearance. The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) oversees clearances for employees and contractors working on sensitive security projects, including those in the Transportation Security Administration (TSA).

Additionally, the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) conducts its own investigations for clearances required for intelligence activities. The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) handles clearances for its agents and staff, ensuring access to sensitive investigative data. Lastly, the National Security Agency (NSA) manages clearances related to signals intelligence, focusing on information security and communications.

Trends and Statistics

Current Numbers of Security Clearances

As of 2021, over 4 million individuals hold security clearances in the USA, according to the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI). Clearances are categorized into three main levels: Confidential, Secret, and Top Secret. Approximately 2.8 million individuals have Secret clearances, 1.2 million hold Top Secret clearances, and the rest have Confidential clearances. Public trust positions, although not classified, also require background checks and add to these numbers.

Historical Trends in Clearances

In the post-9/11 era, the number of security clearances grew significantly. Between 2002 and 2013, there was an 80% increase in individuals holding clearances, as reported by the Government Accountability Office (GAO). This upward trend peaked around 2013, when a push for tighter security led to more stringent criteria and reviews. Since then, the number of active clearances has seen a gradual decline, stabilizing at current levels. This stabilization reflects both enhanced vetting processes and the ongoing need for maintaining national security.


Understanding the different levels of security clearances in the USA and the rigorous process required to obtain them is crucial for anyone looking to work in sensitive government positions. With millions of individuals holding clearances and stringent vetting processes in place, the system ensures that national security remains a top priority. Whether you’re aiming for a Confidential, Secret, or Top Secret clearance, being well-prepared and informed about the process can significantly enhance your chances of success. Stay diligent and proactive to navigate this complex yet essential aspect of national security.


post page form.


Next Steps: Sync an Email Add-On

To get the most out of your form, we suggest that you sync this form with an email add-on. To learn more about your email add-on options, visit the following page ( Important: Delete this tip before you publish the form.
This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.