How to Get a Top-Secret Clearance

Top-secret clearance opens doors at government agencies, defense contractors, and cybersecurity firms that need professionals with access to classified information. Clearance holders work on cutting-edge projects and contribute to national security efforts.


The clearance process involves a thorough background investigation. A Tier 5 investigation is required for Top Secret and DOE “Q” access as well as Sensitive Compartmented Information (SCI). The investigation covers a 10-year period of personal, public, and financial data.

What is a Top Secret Clearance?

The Top Secret clearance level is used to protect information that, if leaked, would cause exceptionally grave damage to national security or organizational interests. Only individuals who have passed rigorous security checks and are able to demonstrate a need-to-know can access classified information at this level of clearance. Clearance holders must sign non-disclosure agreements and undergo regular reinvestigations to maintain their status. They must also adhere to strict security protocols and follow the need-to-know principle, which ensures they only access information that is relevant to their job duties.

The process of obtaining a Top Secret Clearance can take 6 to 18 months and requires passing a Single Scope Background Investigation (SSBI). Once cleared, an individual may work in any position with the federal government or government contractors as long as they are in active service. Clearances can be revoked or inactivated at any time if adverse information emerges that demonstrates a lack of trustworthiness.

Negative information can come from a number of sources, including financial problems, drugs and alcohol abuse, poor conduct, or associations with foreign entities. The most common reasons for clearance denial or revocation involve foreign activities, travel, business interests, and personal contacts. The best way to avoid negative information that could jeopardize your clearance is to be honest with investigators and to provide supporting evidence of good character and financial responsibility.

How do I get a Top Secret Clearance?

Getting a Top Secret clearance can open a lot of doors in the job market. You’ll need to find a job with a user agency (like the Department of Defense or an intelligence office) that requires the level of clearance, as well as go through a rigorous screening and investigation process. The investigation itself will likely be longer and more in-depth than a Confidential or Secret clearance, including interviews with acquaintances, former coworkers, neighbors, etc.

A key part of the process is a polygraph exam, designed to assess honesty and integrity by measuring physiological responses while you answer questions. The results of the polygraph and other information collected and analyzed are used to determine whether you should be cleared for the position.

Clearance holders are expected to follow the “need-to-know” principle, only accessing information that they need for their duties. They also must undergo security awareness training to help them understand their responsibilities and the consequences of security breaches. Clearance holders are subject to periodic re-evaluation, and they must report any changes in their personal circumstances that could impact their eligibility for the clearance.

There are many factors that can lead to a denial, such as criminal convictions, drug or alcohol abuse, financial irresponsibility, and foreign contacts or activities (including travel). If you are denied a clearance, you have the right to appeal the decision. Consider consulting an attorney or a security clearance consultant who can help you prepare a rebuttal to the reasons for the denial.

What is the difference between a Top Secret Clearance and a Confidential Clearance?

The difference between these clearance levels primarily relates to the level of information that can be disclosed. Top Secret, or TS, clearances provide access to information that could cause exceptionally grave damage to national security. A subset of Top Secret, known as Sensitive Compartmented Information (SCI) refers to intelligence-related information, and requires even more rigorous investigative procedures and adjudication.

The process for obtaining a Top Secret Clearance involves thorough background investigations, including interviewing family members and neighbors, reviewing credit reports and public records, and conducting a polygraph examination. The investigation will also assess a person’s foreign contacts and whether they pose any risks to national security. A clearance is granted once all relevant information is reviewed and a formal judgment or decision is made regarding the applicant’s eligibility to work with classified information.

While a TS clearance is highly desirable, it is not required for many positions at government agencies and in the private sector. However, it remains a crucial skill for professionals who work in the InfoSec and cybersecurity industries. A TS clearance is often needed for roles in the military, homeland security, and intelligence services, and allows these individuals to participate in cutting-edge projects that contribute to national security efforts. In addition, salaries in positions that require a TS clearance can range from $50,000 to $100,000 and above, depending on the role and the sponsoring agency.

What is the difference between a Top Secret Clearance and a Secret Clearance?

The highest level of clearance, Top Secret, grants access to data that would cause exceptionally grave damage to national security if revealed. It is granted only after a rigorous single-scope background investigation (SSBI) and may include a polygraph examination. Those with Top Secret clearance have the ability to work on sensitive government projects and are required to sign non-disclosure agreements. In addition, they are subject to more stringent physical and technical security measures.

People with this clearance can work in government agencies, defense contractors, intelligence organizations, and cybersecurity firms. They can advance in their careers and gain a great deal of valuable experience handling classified information. Clearance holders must follow the “need-to-know” principle, meaning that they are only allowed to see information relevant to their duties. Clearance holders also undergo regular reinvestigations to ensure that they are still eligible for the clearance.

Most of the time, clearance holders must pass a SSBI and an in-depth credit check. Additionally, they must be interviewed by investigators and submit to fingerprinting. They must agree to undergo more detailed interviews of acquaintances, including those not related by blood or marriage. They must also be willing to submit to a drug and alcohol screening, and disclose any potential foreign influence. The most common issues cited by the Office of Personnel Management (OPM) in a clearance denial or revocation are Guideline F, Financial Considerations, and Guideline E, Personal Conduct.