What is a Security Clearance and how do you qualify? (US and Canada)

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A security clearance is a status granted to individuals that allow them to access information that has been classified by the government. Classified means that the government has determined that this information is sensitive. Sensitive information is when any information that when disclosed can result in a loss of security or some type of competitive advantage. As a result classified information is given special protection and typically requires that the person has a security clearance and a “need-to-know” in order to get access to that information. Obtaining a security clearance can be a long process and it involves several checks into a person’s history to determine if they should be granted this status. In security related roles this can be valuable, especially if you are looking to work in government positions because the ability to qualify and hold a secret or top secret security clearance is usually a prerequisite for those jobs. Additionally, security clearances are estimated to increase salary by $5,000 to $15,000.

How to apply for a security clearance? 

As an individual you can’t directly apply for a security clearance. You must be sponsored by your employer because of a legitimate need for the clearance as part of your job. Once your employer has agreed to sponsor you, you fill out the required documents and then the process will begin. It includes an extensive background check that looks at many different factors.

United States

The US has three main levels of security clearances that they issue. These are confidential, secret and top secret. They last 15, 10 and 5 years respectively before they need to be renewed and each one has a more strict criteria than the one that precedes it. In order to qualify for these clearances here are some of the criteria that you will be assessed on:

Allegiance to the Country: For this criteria there are no positive indicators but there are some negative indicators that the evaluators will be looking for in your application. These are primarily any acts against the US government or association with organizations that act against the US government. 

Foreign Allegiances: This includes financial, business and property interests. You will also be assessed on any known foreign contacts such as family members, business or professional associates and friends. If any of them are found to engage in activities that are against the interest of the US, that could be a problem.

Foreign Preference: If you have demonstrated a preference for another country over America through things like applying for citizenship in other countries, failure to disclose other passports during the application or engaging in certain foreign activities.

Sexual Behaviour: Certain sexual behaviours have been deemed to demonstrate a lack judgement or discretion and may subject the individual to undue influence of coercion. This includes sexual behaviour of a criminal nature, a pattern of compulsive, self destructive or high-risk behaviour that the individual cannot stop and sexual behaviour of a public nature that reflects a lack of discretion.

Personal Conduct: Conduct involving questionable judgment, lack of candor, dishonesty, or unwillingness to comply with rules and regulations will negatively impact your application. This includes deliberately falsifying information within your application or in the past to employers, health care professionals etc.

Financial Considerations: Failure to live within one’s means, satisfy debts, and meet financial obligations may indicate poor self-control, lack of judgment, or unwillingness to abide by rules and regulations, all of which can raise questions about an individual’s reliability, trustworthiness, and ability to protect classified or sensitive information. This includes an inability to satisfy debts, unwillingness to satisfy debt, deceptive financial practices or a history of not meeting financial obligations. 

Alcohol Consumption: Excessive alcohol consumption often leads to the exercise of questionable judgment or the failure to control impulses and is seen as a negative trait in this process. This includes alcohol-related incidents like DUIs or drunk fights, habitual or binge drinking and failure to follow treatment following a diagnosis for excessive drinking.

Drug Involvement and Substance abuse: The illegal use of controlled substances, to include the misuse of prescription and non-prescription drugs, and the use of other substances that cause physical or mental impairment or are used in a manner inconsistent with their intended purpose.

Psychological Conditions: Certain emotional, mental, and personality conditions can impair judgment, reliability, or trustworthiness. A formal diagnosis of a disorder is not required for there to be a concern under this guideline.

Criminal Conduct: Criminal activity creates doubt about a person’s judgment, reliability, and trustworthiness.

Handling Protected Information: Deliberate or negligent failure to comply with rules and regulations for handling protected information. If you mishandled any sensitive information in the past, this will have a negative impact on your ability to get further security clearances.

Outside activities: Involvement in certain types of outside employment or activities is of security concern if it poses a conflict of interest with an individual’s security responsibilities. Some examples include working with foreign governments, being a representative of any foreign interests and failing to report any of these activities ahead of time.

Use of Information Technology: Failure to comply with rules, procedures, guidelines, or regulations pertaining to information technology systems may raise security concerns about an individual’s reliability and trustworthiness. This includes computers, mobile phones and other wireless devices. This includes any instances of hacking into another device, unauthorized modification of the information on a computer system or negligence in protecting sensitive information on a computing device.


Canada has three levels of security clearances: Reliability clearance, secret clearance and top secret clearance. In Canada a request for security clearance means you must go through a security screening process. There are a set of standard activities for getting each clearance level, as well as some enhancements that can be used if it is deemed that the individual needs to be vetted more closely to be sure they can be trusted.

Reliability Clearance

5 year background information

Verification of identity and background information

Verification of educational and professional credentials

Personal and professional references

Financial inquiry

Law Enforcement inquiry (criminal record check)


Law Enforcement inquiry (Law Enforcement record check)

Security questionnaire and/or security interview

Open Source inquiry

Valid for 10 years

Secret Clearance

10 year background information

Requires reliability status

CSIS security assessment

Valid for 10 years

Top Secret

10 year background information + foreign travel, foreign assets, character references, education, military service

Reliability and secret clearance

CSIS Security Assessment


Security Questionnaire and/or security interview

Open source inquiry 

CSIS security assessment

Polygraph examination 

Valid for 5 years


A security clearance is a status that allows for individuals to gain access to information that has been classified as sensitive information by the government. In most countries you cannot directly apply for a clearance as an individual, you need your employer to sponsor you. Once you have a sponsor and you fill out your application, you will be evaluated on several different areas to assess if you are reliable and trustworthy enough to hold that level of clearance. Even after gaining the security clearance, people are not given access to all of the information at that clearance level, they need to have a “need-to-know” to be given access to a particular piece of information.