- What is the FOIA?
- What is FOIA.gov?
- Who can make a FOIA request?
- How do I make a FOIA request?
- Where do I send a FOIA request?
- Is there a special form I have to use to make a FOIA request?
- What can I ask for under the FOIA?
- Who handles FOIA requests?
- How is a FOIA request processed?
- How much does it cost to make a FOIA request?
- Can I ask that any fees be waived?
- What will I receive in response to a FOIA request?
- How long will it take before I get a response?
- Can I ever have my request processed faster than usual or expedited?
- Are there special requirements for obtaining records on myself?
- What about requirements for obtaining records on someone else?
- What are FOIA exemptions?
- What are exclusions?
- How do I file an administrative appeal?
- What is the Office of Government Information Services?
- What is the Presumption of Openness and Who Issues Guidance to Agencies on the FOIA?
Since 1967, the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) has provided the public the right to request access to records from any federal agency. It is often described as the law that keeps citizens in the know about their government. Federal agencies are required to disclose any information requested under the FOIA unless it falls under one of nine exemptions which protect interests such as personal privacy, national security, and law enforcement.
The FOIA also requires agencies to proactively post online certain categories of information, including frequently requested records. As Congress, the President, and the Supreme Court have all recognized, the FOIA is a vital part of our democracy.
FOIA.gov serves as the government’s comprehensive FOIA website for all information on the FOIA. Among many other features, FOIA.gov provides a central resource for the public to understand the the FOIA, to locate records that are already available online, and to learn how to make a request for information that is not yet publicly available. FOIA.gov also promotes agency accountability for the administration of the FOIA by graphically displaying the detailed statistics contained in Annual FOIA Reports, so that they can be compared by agency and over time.
Generally any person – United States citizen or not – can make a FOIA request.
Before making a request, first look to see if the information you are interested in is already publicly available. You can find a lot of useful information on a range of topics on each agency’s website. You can also search for information agencies have already posted online here on FOIA.gov.
If the information you want is not publicly available, you can submit a FOIA request to the agency’s FOIA Office. The request simply must be in writing and reasonably describe the records you seek. Most federal agencies now accept FOIA requests electronically, including by web form, e-mail or fax. See the list of federal agencies for details about how to make a request to each agency and any specific requirements for seeking certain records.
Each federal agency handles its own records in response to requests. There are currently one hundred agencies subject to the FOIA with several hundred offices that process FOIA requests. Your request will receive the quickest possible response if it is addressed directly to the FOIA office of the agency or agency component that you believe has the records you are seeking. See the list of federal agencies for the individual contact information for each agency.
There is no specific form that must be used to make a request.
A FOIA request can be made for any agency record. You can also specify the format in which you wish to receive the records (for example, printed or electronic form). The FOIA does not require agencies to create new records or to conduct research, analyze data, or answer questions when responding to requests.
There is no central office in the government that handles FOIA requests for all federal departments and agencies. Each federal agency processes its own records in response to FOIA requests. There are many different officials at these agencies who work hard every day to make sure that the FOIA works. There are the FOIA professionals who search for and process records in response to FOIA requests, FOIA Contacts and FOIA Public Liaisons who work with FOIA requesters to answer questions and resolve concerns, and Chief FOIA Officers who oversee their agency’s compliance with the FOIA.
After an agency receives your FOIA request, you will usually receive a letter acknowledging the request with an assigned tracking number. If the agency requires additional information before it can begin to process your request, it will contact you. The agency will typically search for records in response to your request and then review those records to determine which – and what parts of each – can be released. The agency will redact, or black out, any information protected from disclosure by one of the FOIA’s nine exemptions. The releasable records will then be sent to you.
There is no initial fee required to submit a FOIA request, but the FOIA does provide for the charging of certain types of fees in some instances.
For a typical requester the agency can charge for the time it takes to search for records and for duplication of those records. There is usually no charge for the first two hours of search time or for the first 100 pages of duplication.
You may always include in your request letter a specific statement limiting the amount that you are willing to pay in fees. If an agency estimates that the total fees for processing your request will exceed $25, it will notify you in writing of the estimate and offer you an opportunity to narrow your request in order to reduce the fees. If you agree to pay fees for a records search, you may be required to pay such fees even if the search does not locate any releasable records.
You may request a waiver of fees. Under the FOIA, fee waivers are limited to situations in which a requester can show that the disclosure of the requested information is in the public interest because it is likely to contribute significantly to public understanding of the operations and activities of the government and is not primarily in the commercial interest of the requester. Requests for fee waivers from individuals who are seeking records on themselves usually do not meet this standard. In addition, a requester's inability to pay fees is not a legal basis for granting a fee waiver.
Once the agency has processed your request it will send you a written response. This response will let you know whether records were located and will include all releasable documents. If any portions of the records are withheld, for instance because disclosure would invade an individual's personal privacy, the agency will inform you of the specific FOIA exemption that is being applied.
Agencies typically process requests in the order of receipt. The time it takes to respond to a request will vary depending on the complexity of the request and the backlog of requests already pending at the agency. A simple request can be processed faster by the agency than one that is complex. Simple requests are typically more targeted and seek fewer pages of records. Complex requests typically seek a high volume of material or require additional steps to process such as the need to search for records in multiple locations. The agency’s FOIA Requester Service Center is available to assist you with any question about the status of your request and any steps you can take to receive a quicker response.
Under certain conditions you may be entitled to have your request processed on an expedited basis. There are two specific situations where a request will be expedited, which means that it is handled as soon as practicable. These two situations apply to every agency. First, a request will be expedited if the lack of expedited treatment could reasonably be expected to pose a threat to someone's life or physical safety. Second, if there is an urgency to inform the public about an actual or alleged Federal Government activity, if made by a person who is primarily engaged in disseminating information, his or her request will be expedited. Agencies can also allow expedited processing for additional reasons. The websites for each agency will provide more information on any additional standards for seeking expedited processing.
If you are seeking records on yourself you will be required to provide a certification of your identity. This certification is required in order to protect your privacy and to ensure that private information about you is not disclosed inappropriately to someone else. Whenever you request information about yourself you will be asked to provide either a notarized statement or a statement signed under penalty of perjury stating that you are the person who you say you are.
Generally, when requesting information about another person you will receive greater access by submitting authorization from that individual permitting the disclosure of the records to you, or by submitting proof that the individual is deceased. If you request records relating to another person, and disclosure of the records could invade that person's privacy, they ordinarily will not be disclosed to you.
Not all records are required to be released under the FOIA. Congress established nine exemptions from disclosure for certain categories of information to protect against certain harms, such as an invasion of personal privacy, or harm to law enforcement investigations. The FOIA authorizes agencies to withhold information when they reasonably foresee that disclosure would harm an interest protected by one of these nine exemptions. The nine exemptions are described below.
Exemption 1: Information that is classified to protect national security.
Exemption 2: Information related solely to the internal personnel rules and practices of an agency.
Exemption 3: Information that is prohibited from disclosure by another federal law.
Exemption 4: Trade secrets or commercial or financial information that is confidential or privileged.
Exemption 5: Privileged communications within or between agencies, including those protected by the:
- Deliberative Process Privilege (provided the records were created less than 25 years before the date on which they were requested)
- Attorney-Work Product Privilege
- Attorney-Client Privilege
Exemption 6: Information that, if disclosed, would invade another individual's personal privacy.
Exemption 7: Information compiled for law enforcement purposes that:
- 7(A). Could reasonably be expected to interfere with enforcement proceedings
- 7(B). Would deprive a person of a right to a fair trial or an impartial adjudication
- 7(C). Could reasonably be expected to constitute an unwarranted invasion of personal privacy
- 7(D). Could reasonably be expected to disclose the identity of a confidential source
- 7(E). Would disclose techniques and procedures for law enforcement investigations or prosecutions
- 7(F). Could reasonably be expected to endanger the life or physical safety of any individual
Exemption 8: Information that concerns the supervision of financial institutions.
Exemption 9: Geological information on wells.
Congress has provided special protection in the FOIA for three narrow categories of law enforcement and national security records. The provisions protecting those records are known as “exclusions.” The first exclusion protects the existence of an ongoing criminal law enforcement investigation when the subject of the investigation is unaware that it is pending and disclosure could reasonably be expected to interfere with enforcement proceedings. The second exclusion is limited to criminal law enforcement agencies and protects the existence of informant records when the informant’s status has not been officially confirmed. The third exclusion is limited to the Federal Bureau of Investigation and protects the existence of foreign intelligence or counterintelligence, or international terrorism records when the existence of such records is classified. Records falling within an exclusion are not subject to the requirements of the FOIA. So, when an office or agency responds to your request, its response will encompass those records that are subject to the FOIA.
You may file an administrative appeal if you are not satisfied with an agency’s initial response to your request. Before doing so, however, you may wish to contact the FOIA professional handling the request or the agency’s FOIA Public Liaison. The FOIA Public Liaison is there to explain the process to you, assist in reducing any delays, and help resolve any disputes. Often, a simple discussion between you and the agency will resolve any issues that may arise.
If necessary, filing an appeal is very simple. Typically, all you need to do is send a letter or e-mail to the designated appeal authority of the agency stating that you are appealing the initial decision made on your request. There is no fee or cost involved. After an independent review, the appellate authority will send you a response advising you of its decision. Once the administrative appeal process is complete, you also have the option to seek mediation services from the Office of Government Information Services at the National Archives and Records Administration.
The Office of Government Information Services (OGIS) offers mediation services to resolve disputes between FOIA requesters and agencies as an alternative to litigation. OGIS also reviews agency FOIA compliance, policies, and procedures. The Office is a part of the National Archives and Records Administration, and was created by Congress as part of the OPEN Government Act of 2007, which amended the FOIA.
The FOIA provides that when processing requests, agencies should withhold information only if they reasonably foresee that disclosure would harm an interest protected by an exemption, or if disclosure is prohibited by law. Agencies should also consider whether partial disclosure of information is possible whenever they determine that full disclosure is not possible and they should take reasonable steps to segregate and release nonexempt information. The Office of Information Policy at the Department of Justice is responsible for issuing government-wide guidance on the FOIA as part of its responsibilities to encourage all agencies to fully comply with both the letter and the spirit of the FOIA.