Freedom of Information Act (FOIA)

National Archives and Records Administration Freedom of Information Act (FOIA)
Reference Guide

I. Introduction

The Freedom of Information Act, or FOIA (5 U.S.C. 552, as amended), generally provides any person with the statutory right, enforceable in court, to obtain access to Government information in executive branch agency records. This right to access is limited when such information is protected from disclosure by one of FOIA's nine statutory exemptions.

This Reference Guide is meant to familiarize you with the procedures for making a FOIA request to the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA). Following this Guide will help expedite the processing of your FOIA request and ensure that you receive the records you are requesting in the shortest time possible.

The National Archives accepts FOIA requests for all executive branch records in its legal custody, both the operational records it creates as an agency of the executive branch and the historical records it maintains as the archives of the U.S. government. The National Archives also receives FOIA requests for Presidential and Vice-Presidential records, beginning with the administration of Ronald Reagan, created under the terms of the Presidential Records Act.

Judicial records, records of the Congress and legislative branch agencies, donated historical materials, and Nixon Presidential Historical Materials are not subject to the provisions of the FOIA. The National Archives cannot respond to FOIA requests for records solely in our physical custody, such as those records at regional records centers or for records held by state or local governments, private businesses or individuals.

II. Access to Certain Records without a Formal FOIA Request

National Archives Operational Records

The National Archives makes certain information available without filing a FOIA request.

Calendar of Events and Press Releases.

Paper copies of these are available from the Policy and Communications Staff by calling 301-837-1800.

Opportunities for Public Comment

The National Archives provides the opportunity for the public to comment on proposed rules (regulations), records schedule notices, and other draft guidance. Copies of proposed Federal agency records schedules, along with appraisal memoranda, are available by writing the Life Cycle Management Division (NWML), National Archives and Records Administration (NARA), 8601 Adelphi Road, College Park, MD 20740-6001. Requests may also be transmitted by FAX to 301-837-3698 or by e-mail to

Federal Register

The Office of the Federal Register maintains a free Electronic Bulletin Board service for Public Law numbers, Federal Register finding aids, and list of documents for public inspection (202-275-0920 is the Bulletin Board number). The Office of the Federal Register Home Page provides:

  • online text of the daily Federal Register from 1994 to the current issue
  • the full text of the Code of Federal Regulations
  • access to the List of Federal Register Documents Currently on Public Inspection
  • information about various Federal Register publications

Print editions of Federal Register publications are available from the Superintendent of Documents, Government Printing Office, PO Box 371954; Pittsburgh, PA 15250-7954; or by telephone at 202-512-1800; or by FAX at 202-512-2233.

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Online Resources


The Fax-on-Demand service, provided by the National Archives and Records Administration before the Internet was widely used, is no longer available. In recent years, usage of this service has been minimal. Coupling this with cost and technology consideration, NARA has decided to terminate the program.

All publications and forms previously provided are now available online or, in a few cases, by mail. In some instances, the actual publications have been replaced by web pages with updated information. Please see the Fax-on-Demand web page for more information.

In addition, the National Archives makes certain types of agency records created after November 1, 1996 available online in our Electronic FOIA Reading Room. These include:

  • final agency opinions and orders
  • final statements of policy and interpretations which have not been published in the Federal Register
  • administrative staff manuals and instructions to staff that affect a member of the public
  • copies of records (released in response to several FOIA requests) that the National Archives believes to be of significant interest to the public
  • The National Archives' annual FOIA report

Similar records created prior to November 1, 1996 are available for inspection and copying in the National Archives' FOIA reading room.

Historical Records of the Executive Branch Preserved by the National Archives

The National Archives acquires, preserves, and makes available for research records of enduring value created or received by organizations of the executive, legislative, and judicial branches of the Federal Government. Generally these accessioned historical records are at least 30 years old.

Because of their age or subject matter, most records in the National Archives' holdings are unrestricted and are available for research without filing a FOIA request. These include:

  • genealogical and family history materials
  • court records (except Grand Jury materials and sealed court records)
  • records that do not contain any national security classified material or other information that may be withheld under a FOIA exemption
  • formerly classified records properly declassified under an Executive Order
  • records comprising the John F. Kennedy Assassination Records Collection

For information about the various types of records available from the National Archives, consult The Guide to Federal Records in the National Archives of the United States. The Guide provides descriptive information about federal records among the National Archives' holdings and is regularly updated to reflect new acquisitions.

The Archival Research Catalog (ARC) is the online catalog of the National Archives' nationwide holdings in the Washington, DC area, Regional Archives and Presidential Libraries. ARC allows you to perform a keyword, digitized image and location search. ARC's advanced functionalities also allow you to search by organization, person, or topic.

The Access to Archival Databases (AAD) System gives you online access to electronic records that are highly structured, such as in databases. AAD contains material from more than 30 archival series of electronic records, which include over 350 data files totaling well over 50 million unique records. The series selected for AAD identify specific persons, geographic areas, organizations, or dates. Some of these series serve as indexes to accessioned archival records in non-electronic formats.

III. Where to Make a FOIA Request

Where you submit your FOIA request depends on the type of records you are requesting.

  • For National Archives Operational Records
FOIA Officer
National Archives and Records Administration
NGC-Room 3110
8601 Adelphi Road
College Park, MD 20740
Telephone: (301) 837-FOIA (3642)
FAX: (301) 837-0293
  • For records of the Office of Inspector General
Office of the Inspector General
FOIA Request
8601 Adelphi Road, Room 1300
College Park, MD 20740
Telephone: 301-837-3000
FAX: 301-837-3197
  • For historical records in the Washington, DC area
Special Access and FOIA Staff
National Archives and Records Administration
NWCTF-Room 6350
8601 Adelphi Road
College Park, MD 20740
Telephone: (301) 837-3190
FAX (301) 837-1864
Submit FOIA Request for OIG RecordsE-mail: Contact Us
  • For historical records in any regional archives facility

Send your FOIA request to the director of the Regional Archives facility in which the records are located. Find addresses for each National Archives location nationwide.

  • For Presidential records subject to the FOIA

Under the Presidential Records Act, the records of former presidents become subject to the provisions of the FOIA five years after their leaving office. The incumbent or former president may continue specific restrictions for up to twelve years, after which only statutory FOIA restrictions may be applied. Currently, only the records of Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H. W. Bush are subject to the FOIA. Mail your request (addressed to the attention of library director) to the appropriate Presidential Library.

Presidential records in Pre-Presidential Records Act libraries (Carter administration and earlier) and in the Nixon Presidential Historical Materials Staff in College Park are not subject to the FOIA. Contact the relevant presidential library or the Nixon Presidential Materials Staff with questions on access to these records.

  • For military personnel records
National Personnel Records Center
Military Personnel Records
9700 Page Avenue
St. Louis, MO 63132-5100
Submit FOIA Request for Military Personnel Records E-mail:

(Note: for additional information on requesting military personnel records, please read Access to Military Records by the General Public).

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IV. How to make a FOIA Request

General Requirements:

All requests must be submitted in writing. The National Archives will accept requests though regular mail, by FAX, or by e-mail. (See Appendix B for a sample FOIA letter).

  • Indicate your willingness to pay fees.
  • Include your name and full mailing address, along with a phone number or e-mail address in case we need to contact you.
  • Clearly write "FOIA Request" on both your letter and envelope or in the subject line of your e-mail.
  • Your request must describe the records you wish to access in enough detail to allow National Archives' staff to find them. Information that will help us find the records includes:
    • the agencies, offices, or individuals involved
    • the approximate date when the records were created.

For specific types of operational records, please provide the following:

  • Contracts—please provide the current contract number, the original or current solicitation number, or the name of the contractor and the type of service provided.
  • FOIA Case File—please provide the FOIA case tracking number.

For historical (archival) records, please provide the following:

  • Record Group
  • Master Location Register (MLR) number
  • Series title
  • Inclusive dates
  • Box number(s)
  • Folder titles (if applicable)
  • Copies of withdrawal sheets (when requesting review of individual withheld documents)

Military Personnel Records:

The National Archives' publication, Access to Military Records by the General Public, recommends that you use Standard Form (SF) 180, Request Pertaining to Military Records. This form captures all the information needed to locate a veteran's service record. The minimum information necessary to successfully locate military service records includes:

  • the veteran's complete name used while in service
  • military service number or social security number
  • branch of service
  • dates of service

Provide as much information on the form as possible and enclose copies of any service documents that you may have.

V. Response Times


All federal agencies are required to respond to a FOIA request within twenty working days of receipt, excluding legal holidays. The National Archives will make a decision in most cases on the release of requested records you within this time.

If unusual circumstances prevent us from making a decision within 20 working days, we will inform you in writing how long it will take us to complete your request. Unusual circumstances include the need to:

  • search for, collect and review a voluminous amount of records which are part of a single request;
  • search for and collect the records from field facilities; and,
  • consult with another agency before releasing records.

If we are extending the deadline for more than 10 working days, we will ask if you would like to modify your request. If you do not, we will work with you to arrange an alternative time schedule for review and release of your records.

National Security Classified materials

The National Archives has very limited authority to declassify documents. When the National Archives receives a FOIA request for records that are classified, often it cannot respond to the requestor until the originating agency has reviewed the documents and made a release determination. The National Archives will send you an initial response to your FOIA informing you of this referral. We will inform you of the final decision when a response is received from all agencies holding classified equities in the documents.

Presidential records

If you have requested Presidential records (those belonging to administrations beginning with President Reagan) and the National Archives determines that no FOIA exemption applies, the National Archives must then inform the incumbent and former Presidents of our intent to release any responsive records in accordance with Executive Order 13233, Further Implementation of the Presidential Records Act, issued November 1, 2001. Upon notification, the incumbent and former Presidents have at least 90 days to decide whether or not to invoke executive privilege over the documents. The National Archives will send you an initial response to your FOIA request informing you of the status of your request. You will receive a final response after presidential notification process is complete.

Confidential Commercial Information

Executive Order 12600 requires agencies to contact submitters of confidential business or commercial information when a FOIA request is received for the information. The National Archives will send you an initial response to your FOIA request informing you of our actions. The procedures governing the release of confidential commercial information are discussed in Appendix A. The National Archives staff will not contact the submitter if the records contain confidential commercial information that is 10 years old or older.

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VI. Expedited Processing

Ordinarily, the National Archives will expedite a FOIA request only in the following cases:

  • where there will be a threat to someone's life or physical safety;
  • where an individual will suffer the loss of substantial due process rights if the records are not processed on an expedited bases;
  • if the request is made by a member of the news media who can prove the information is urgently needed to inform the public concerning some actual or alleged government activity;
  • when the subject is of widespread and exceptional media interest and the information sought involves possible questions about the government's integrity that affect public confidence.

The National Archives can expedite requests, or segments of requests, only for records over which we have complete control. If the National Archives must refer a request to another agency (as in the case of requests for national security classified materials), we will so inform you and suggest that you seek expedited review from that agency. For requests for presidential records, while we cannot shorten the presidential notification period, we will expedite our processes.

To request expedited processing, you must submit a statement explaining why your request should be expedited. You must certify that this statement is true and correct to the best of your knowledge. All requests must be directed to the office or facility holding the records you are requesting. The National Archives will respond within ten days. If your request is granted, we will process your request as quickly as possible. You have the right to administratively appeal the National Archives' decision not to grant you expedited processing.

VII. Fees

There is no fee to file a FOIA request. By law, however, an agency is allowed to charge certain fees for processing a request. The fees charged by the National Archives depend (1) on the category of requester you fall into and (2) the types of records requested. As permitted by statute, the National Archives has two separate fee schedules—one for operational records, the other for historical records.

The National Archives Operational Records

The FOIA divides requesters into three categories for the purposes of assessing fees only:

  • Commercial requesters: charged fees for searching for records, processing the records, and photocopying.
  • Educational or noncommercial scientific institutions, news media representatives: charged only for photocopying after the first 100 pages.
  • Other requesters (those who do not fall into either of the above categories): charged only search and copying fees. However, the first 2 hours of search time and first 100 pages of copies are free.

The National Archives will require you to pay all fees before providing you with your copies. In all cases, the National Archives will not charge you any fee if the total costs are $10 or less. Include in your request letter a specific statement limiting the amount that you are willing to pay in fees. If you do not do so, the National Archives will assume that you are willing to pay fees up to $50. If estimated fees exceed this amount or the amount you specified in you letter we will contact you with the total amount due.

In most cases you will not be required to pay anything until processing is completed. If you have failed to pay FOIA fees in the past, either to the National Archives or to any other agency, we will require you to pay your past-due bill before processing your request. If we estimate that your fees will be greater than $250, the National Archives may require payment or a deposit before we begin processing your request.

If we determine that you (acting either alone or with others) are breaking down a single request into a series of requests in order to avoid or reduce fees, we may aggregate all these requests in calculating the fees.

Fee Schedule

The National Archives will charge the following fees in responding to requests for operational records.

  • Search Fees
    1. Manual Searching: When the search is performed by a clerical or administrative employee, rate is $16 per hour (or fraction thereof). When request is more complicated and search is done by professional employee of the National Archives, the rate is $33.
    2. Computer Searching: This is the actual cost to the National Archives of operating the computer and the salary of the operator. Fees charged are the same as for manual searching.
  • Review Fees—Charged for time spent examining all documents responsive to a request. The National Archives does not charge review fees for time spent solving legal or policy issues regarding the application of exemptions. The fee is $33 per hour (or fraction thereof).
  • Reproduction Fees
    1. Self-service photocopying: You may make reproductions of released paper documents on self-service photocopiers at the National Archives facilities for 20 cents per page.
    2. Photocopying standard size pages: 75 cents per page when the National Archives produces the photocopies.
    3. Reproductions of electronic records: The direct costs to the National Archives for staff time for programming, computer operations, and printouts or electromagnetic media to reproduce the requested information will be charged to requesters. The fees will be either $16 per hour (for simple requests) or $33 per hour (for more complex requests).
    4. Copying other media: The direct cost to the National Archives of the reproduction. Specific charges will be provided upon request.

Historical Records in the National Archives Custody

The National Archives does not charge search or review fees for FOIA requests for historical records in its custody. You will only be charged the actual costs of copying. Currently, the National Archives charges $0.75 per page for paper copies made by the National Archives staff. Self service copies are $0.25 per page. Additional fees are listed at 36 C.F.R. Part 1258.

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VIII. Fee Waivers

If you expect or are advised that a fee will be charged, you may request a fee waiver. The National Archives will grant a waiver for operational records only; fee waivers are not granted for historical records, except for those records that are a part of the John F. Kennedy Assassination Records Collection.

The National Archives will grant a fee waiver if the disclosure of the requested information is in the public interest, not primarily your commercial interest. In determining your eligibility for a fee waiver, the National Archives will consider the following.

  • How do the records pertain to the operations and activities of the Federal Government?
  • Will release reveal any meaningful information about Federal Government activities that is not already publicly known?
  • Will disclosure to you advance the understanding of the general public on the issue?
  • Do you have expertise in or a thorough understanding of these records?
  • Will you be able to disseminate this information to a broad spectrum of the public?
  • Will disclosure lead to a significantly greater understanding of the Government by the public?

Requests for fee waivers from individuals who are seeking records about themselves are usually denied under the public interest standard because no increase of the public's understanding of government operations and activities would result.

IX. Request Determinations

We will inform you of our decision in writing. Our response will tell you how much material we found and the charges due. If the records are being released only in part, we will estimate the amount of the withheld information. If we deny any part of your request, we will explain the reasons for the denial, which FOIA exemptions apply, and your right to appeal our decisions.

The National Archives will deny a FOIA request in whole or in part only when we determine that information may be withheld under one of nine exemptions.

  • 5 U.S.C. 552(b)(1): National security classified information.
  • 5 U.S.C. 552(b)(2): Related solely to the internal personnel rules and practices of an agency.
  • 5 U.S.C. 552(b)(3): Information specifically exempted from disclosure by statute.
  • 5 U.S.C. 552(b)(4): Trade secrets and commercial or financial information obtained from a person that is privileged or confidential.
  • 5 U.S.C. 552(b)(5): Inter- or intra- agency memoranda protected by either the deliberative process privilege or the attorney work-product privileges.
  • 5 U.S.C. 552(b)(6): Personnel and medical files and similar files the disclosure of which would constitute a clearly unwarranted invasion of personal privacy.
  • 5 U.S.C. 552(b)(7): Certain types of information compiled for law enforcement purposes.
  • 5 U.S.C. 552(b)(8): Information relating to the supervision of financial institutions.
  • 5 U.S.C. 552(b)(9): Geological and geophysical information and data, including maps, concerning wells.

Most of these exemptions apply to only a few of the historical records in our custody. We will only withhold information when we have a sound legal basis to do so. In addition if only part of a record must be withheld, the National Archives will provide access to the rest of the record.

X. FOIA Appeals

General Information

Under the FOIA, you may file an administrative appeal with the National Archives for any of the following decisions:

  • the refusal to release a record, either in whole or in part
  • the determination that a record does not exist or cannot be found
  • the determination that the record you sought was not subject to the FOIA (e.g. non-PRA presidential records, donated historical materials, records of Congress, etc.)
  • the denial of a request for expedited processing
  • the denial of a fee waiver request

All appeals must be made in writing and received within 35 calendar days of the date of the National Archives' denial letter. Mark both your letter and envelope "FOIA Appeal," and include a copy of both your initial request and our denial. If you are raising a specific point in your appeal about withholdings you may include copies of released documents. Your appeal should explain why we should reverse our initial decision. If we were unable to find the records you wanted, explain why you believe our search was inadequate. If we denied you access to records and told you that those records were not subject to FOIA, please explain why you believe the records are subject to FOIA.

The National Archives will respond to your appeal within 20 working days of its receipt. If we reverse or modify our initial decision, we will inform you in writing and reprocess your request. If we do not change our initial decision, our response to you will explain the reasons for our decision, any FOIA exemptions that apply, and your right to judicial review of our decision.

Where to send appeals:

  • For denials from the Office of the Inspector General.
Archivist of the United States
(ATTN: FOIA Appeal Staff)
Room 4200
National Archives and Records Administration
8601 Adelphi Road
College Park, MD 20740-6001
  • All other denials (including from Presidential Libraries subject to the FOIA).
Deputy Archivist of the United States
(ATTN: FOIA Appeal Staff)
Room 4200
8601 Adelphi Road
College Park, MD 20740-6001

Appeals of denials under FOIA of access to classified materials

Denials under FOIA of access to classified records are made by officials of the originating or responsible agency or by the National Archives under a written delegation of authority. You must appeal determinations that records remain classified to the agency with the original classification and declassification authority. The exception is for NSC or Presidential records. The National Archives will provide you with the necessary appeal information.

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XI. Judicial Review

If you believe that the National Archives has not handled your FOIA request in accordance with the law, you have the right to challenge the agency's action in a lawsuit filed in federal court. Ordinarily, you must first have filed an administrative appeal and received a response. If the National Archives fails to respond to either your initial request or your appeal within the statutory time limits, however, you may file suit.

If you do bring a court action, you may file your suit in a federal district court in any of the following places:

  • where you reside
  • where you have your principle place of business (if any)
  • in the District of Columbia
  • where the records are located if they are not located in the District of Columbia

You have six years to file suit under the FOIA.

Appendix A—Responses to requests for confidential commercial information

General Information

If the National Archives receives a request for records we believe contain confidential business and commercial information and if that information is less than 10 years old we will notify the original submitter (or their successor). The National Archives' regulations (36 CFR 1250.80) give submitters up to 10 working days to raise objections to release and to provide a detailed justification to support their position. If we do not receive a response, we assume that there are no objections to release.

The National Archives reviews and considers all objections to release received within the time limit. If after our review we decide to release the records, we will notify the submitter in writing. Our notice will include copies of the records we intend to release and explain our reasons for release. We will also inform the submitter that we intend to release the records 10 working days after the date of the notice unless a U.S. District Court forbids disclosure.

Responding to a Notice

When responding to a notice, a submitter should:

  • hilight those portions of the requested document that would likely cause your business substantial competitive if released
  • provide detailed information on why release would be harmful

Some factors that could be addressed to help the National Archives evaluate an objection to release are:

  • the general custom or usage of the information in question
  • the number and situation of the persons who have access to the information
  • the measures used to protect the information from disclosure
  • the type and degree of risk of financial injury that release would cause you
  • the length of time the information should be kept confidential

What the National Archives Generally Releases

  • Information that is known though custom or usage in a trade, business, or profession.
  • Information that any reasonably educated person would know.
  • Self-evident statements or a review of the general state-of-the-art.
  • Successful bids, amounts actually paid by the Government under a contract, and cost and pricing data incorporated into a contractual document such as line item prices, contract award prices, and modifications (unless a submitter makes a legally sound argument in favor of their withholding).
  • Explanatory material and headings associated with costs and pricing.

What We Generally Withhold

  • Detailed technical and costs proposals submitted in response to a solicitation for bids (automatically withheld under an Exemption (b)(3) statute).
  • Unique ideas, methods, or processes that you developed (trade secrets).
  • Equipment, materials, processes, or systems that are potentially patentable.
  • Cost and pricing data that is not already generally known as a part of your regular business practices or incorporated by reference into a contract.

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Appendix B-- Sample FOIA Letter

Freedom of Information Act Officer
National Archives
8601 Adelphi Road, Room 3110
College Park, MD 20740-6001

Dear FOIA Officer:

This is a request under the Freedom of Information Act.

I request that a copy of the following documents [or documents containing the following information] be provided to me: [identify the documents or information as specifically as possible].

In order to help to determine my status to assess fees, you should know that I am an individual seeking information for personal use and not for a commercial use.

I am willing to pay fees for this request up to a maximum of $10.00. If you estimate that the fees will exceed this limit, please inform me first.

[Optional] I request a waiver of all fees for this request. Disclosure of the requested information to me is in the public interest because it is likely to contribute significantly to public understanding of the operations or activities of the government and is not primarily in my commercial interest. [Include a specific explanation.]

Thank you for your consideration of this request.


City, State, Zip Code

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The U.S. National Archives and Records Administration
8601 Adelphi Road, College Park, MD 20740-6001
Telephone: 1-86-NARA-NARA or 1-866-272-6272