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How to Submit a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) or Privacy Act Request to the Department of Homeland Security

Requirements for Submitting a FOIA Request

Submitting Requests

Each federal agency responds to requests for its own records. Therefore, only requests for Department of Homeland Security records should be sent to the Department.

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The two requirements for a perfected FOIA request:

  1. It must reasonably describe the specific records sought and
  2. Must be made in accordance with the agency's FOIA regulations.

The FOIA does not require the Department of Homeland Security to answer questions, issue opinions, conduct legal research, create records or produce tangible objects in order to respond to a request.

A reasonable description of Department of Homeland Security records would allow a Department employee to locate records using reasonable efforts.   For example, your description should contain enough file-related information (type of document, title, subject area, date of creation, originating office) or enough event-related information (date and circumstances surrounding the event the record covers) to permit a focused search.

A request must reasonably describe the record being sought. The request must be specific enough to permit a professional employee of the agency who is familiar with the subject matter to locate the record in a reasonable period of time.

It is to everyone's advantage if requests are as precise and as narrow as possible. The requester benefits because the request can be processed more quickly and at less cost. The agency benefits because it can do a better job responding to the request. The agency will also be able to use its resources to respond to more requests. The FOIA works best when both the requester and the agency act cooperatively.

First-party requests processed under FOIA for records found in “systems of records” (the term "system of records" means a group of any records under the control of any agency from which information is retrieved by the name of the individual or by some identifying number, symbol, or other identifying particular assigned to the individual) will also be processed under the Privacy Act, regardless of the statute cited in the request. Requesters will always be given the benefit of the statute with the more liberal release requirement.

Make certain your request includes the following:

  • Your contact information (Required: Name, Mailing Address; Phone number, while optional, may help you receive faster service if we need to contact you regarding your request)
  • Description of the records you are requesting
  • Agreement to pay reasonable fees
  • Request is not in the form of a question (FOIA does not require agencies to answer questions; questions posed as FOIA requests will not be processed.)
  • If you are requesting records on yourself or another individual, see additional requirements below.

Request must be addressed to component(s) you believe house the records sought (See Which Department component would likely have the records I am seeking? )

Limits on FOIA Requests

While the FOIA supports disclosure of federal agency records, the law recognizes the legitimate need to restrict disclosure of some information. The FOIA does not grant an absolute right to examine government documents; the FOIA establishes the right to request records and to receive a response to the request. If a record cannot be released, the requestor is entitled to be told the reason for the denial. The requester also has a right to appeal the denial and, if necessary, to challenge it in court.

  • Requests must reasonably describe records sought
  • A requester may ask for records - NOT information 
  • Agencies are not required to collect information they do not have, nor must agencies research or analyze data for a requester
  • FOIA is not a research aide and we are not required to answer questions.  If your request is in the form of a question (example: “Why did I get stopped at the airport?”) your request will NOT be processed and you will be asked to clarify what records you are seeking.

There are certain types of information that are not available under the FOIA:

  • Tangible objects may not be requested under the FOIA. 
  • Information about another individual may be requested under the FOIA but release is subject to application of the balancing test to decide whether the privacy interest of the affected party outweighs the public interest in the release of said information.

If you are seeking answers to questions or an explanation of a policy or regulation, you must contact the specific Department of Homeland Security  program element for information. Media-related inquiries may be directed to the Department of Homeland Security  Public Affairs Office at 202-282-8010.

FOIA Exemptions

Requirements for Submitting a Privacy Act Request

If you believe that the Department of Homeland Security may have records on you, in addition to providing personally identifying information, requesters must also provide the following additional information:

  • Explain why you believe the Department would have information on you.
  • Identify which component(s) of the Department you believe may have information about you.
  • Identify which of the Department of Homeland Security’s systems of records (the term "system of records" means a group of any records under the control of any agency from which information is retrieved by the name of the individual or by some identifying number, symbol, or other identifying particular assigned to the individual) you believe the records are to be found in.
  • Specify when you believe the records would have been created.
  • Provide any other information that will help the FOIA staff determine which Department of Homeland Security component agency may have responsive records.
  • Provide verification of your identity by stating your full name, current address, date of birth, and place of birth.
  • Your verification of identity must include your original signature and must either be notarized or contain a statement made under penalty of perjury, pursuant to Department of Homeland Security FOIA/PA regulations
  • If you request the Department of Homeland Security to release records pertaining to you to another individual, (i.e. requesters seeking records to be released to their attorney or someone else acting on their behalf, those seeking to have records released to a parent or legal guardian), you must include a signed statement certifying your agreement for that individual to access  records about you.

Without the above information, an effective search cannot be conducted, and your request will be denied due to a lack of specificity or lack of compliance with Department of Homeland Security FOIA/PA regulations. Requests processed under the Privacy Act will also be processed under FOIA; requesters will always be given the benefit of the statute with the more liberal release requirements.

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FOIA Processing Fees

Provisions of the FOIA allow us to recover part of the cost of complying with your request. Fees are assessed in accordance with the Department of Homeland Security FOIA/PA regulations   (PDF, 15 pages - 147 KB). For the purpose of assessing fees, requesters are divided into three categories:

  • commercial requesters;
  • news media, educational, or scientific requesters; and 
  • all other requesters.

Commercial requesters are charged for search time, document review, and duplication. News media, educational, and scientific requesters are charged for duplication only, after the first 100 free pages. All other requesters are charged for search time (after two hours) and duplication (after first 100 free pages).

Current Departmental fees are: 

  • duplication at 10 cents per page;
  • clerical search/review at $4.00/15 minutes;
  • professional search/review at $7.00/15 minutes;
  • managerial search/review at $10.25/15 minutes.

It is Departmental policy not to charge when assessable fees are less than $14. Your submission of a request will be deemed to be an implicit commitment to pay up to $25 in fees, unless you indicate a higher amount or request a fee waiver (please see fee waiver requirements below). You will be promptly notified if the anticipated fees exceed $25. Multiple FOIA requests by a single requester related to the same issue will be aggregated for the purpose of assessing fees.

Requesting a Fee Waiver

To qualify for a fee waiver, a requester must demonstrate that 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. Your fee waiver request should include a detailed justification to support your claim of public interest. Your justification must also include how the information will be provided and distributed to the public.

Response Times

In general, the FOIA requires an agency to respond to FOIA requests within 20 business days after the office that maintains the responsive records receives the request. The 20-day business day response requirement is not necessarily the time frame for releasing responsive documents.

The Department processes its requests by date of receipt at the proper office maintaining the required records on a first-in-first-out basis, except for exceptions outlined in the FOIA and the Department of Homeland Security FOIA implementing regulations. For example; under certain conditions, your request may receive expedited processing, if you meet the criteria established in our regulations. However, an expedited request will be processed on a first-in-first-out basis with other expedited requests. Expedited processing of a request may be granted in accordance with Department of Homeland Security FOIA/PA regulations  (PDF, 15 pages - 147 KB).

Where to Send a Request

  • If you know the Department of Homeland Security  component that maintains the records you seek, you should direct your perfected FOIA or Privacy Act request to that component.
  • Do you need help determining which Department of Homeland Security component would likely have the records you are seeking?

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This page was last reviewed/modified on February 2, 2009.