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freedom of information act (foia) how-to

A FOIA request can be as simple as a letter requesting records.  However, your pursuit of government information will be more likely to succeed if you do some preliminary research to identify where the information is likely to be located, and how to draft an effective request.  This page identifies important resources that you should consult, the most important of which are each agency's (1) Handbook for Requesting Information , (2) FOIA Regulations and (3) Annual Report on implementation of the FOIA. Links to online copies of these materials can be found at the Freedom of Information Act Clearinghouse database

  1. Preliminary Research.

    In order to successfully obtain information from the federal government you must determine which agency or agencies have the records you want.  There is no central federal depository for information, and each agency has its own office or public information staff.  There are several resources that may help you in determining which federal entities are likely to have the information that you seek:

    • The United States Government Manual is available in most public libraries and online through the Internet.  The Government manual contains a list of federal agencies and a brief description of their functions.  The Manual also contains the addresses and telephone numbers for each agency.
    • Online Directories to Government Information provide information on what agencies have responsibility for various subject matters.
    • Government Information Locator Service. Agencies are required to inventory their information systems and establish a government-wide electronic service to identify the major information systems, holdings, and dissemination products of each agency for the public. 44 U.S.C. § 3511. This service is know as "GILS." Agency compliance with this requirement has been very uneven. Some agencies have made extensive indexes of their information systems available on the Internet, while others have few or no GILS records. For more information about GILS, see GILS Description - http://www.gils.net/locator.html.
    • Agency Records Manuals and Schedules describe each agency's systems for organizing its records and plans for disposition of the records. The National Archives and Records Administration has collected hypertext records schedules and manuals from 38 agencies that can be searched by keyword.
    • The Library of Congress provides links to congressional committees and publications.  Congress and its committees are not subject to the FOIA, but have extensive records on public policy issues that are often available to the public through publications or other documents.
    • The National Archives and Records Administration holds the historical records of federal agencies, congressional bodies, and courts.  If the records that you seek were created prior to the mid-1970's, you should contact the National Archives to determine whether relevant records are in its holdings.

  2. Records Available Without A Request.

    Agency Handbooks for Requesting Information provide information on how members of the public can obtain information from the agency without filing a FOIA request, as well as guidance on how to submit a FOIA request. Consult these resources to determine whether the records that you seek can be obtained without a FOIA request.

    For example, agencies make many records available free of charge or sell them through the Government Printing Office , the National Technical Information Service . Agencies are also required to make many records available in "reading rooms" where records may be examined without a FOIA request.  Many agency policies, decisions and frequently requested records are available in these reading rooms. Agencies also must make their Reading Room materials available on-line, or on CD-ROM or disk, if the records were created after November 1, 1996.

    Even if the material is not distributed in this manner, the agency may release records without requiring that a request be submitted to the agency’s FOIA office.  Agency officials who are responsible for the records that you seek or the public information staff may be able to provide guidance on how to obtain information from the agency without a formal FOIA request.

  3. Describe the Records You Seek.

    If your preliminary exploration does not yield the information you seek, you may need to submit a written request for the information and invoke the FOIA.  When drafting your request, check the agency's FOIA regulations and Agency Handbooks for Requesting Information .    The FOIA regulations will provide agency-specific information about where to send your requests and any special requirements imposed by the agency.  The Agency Handbooks will provide less formal description of the procedures for submitting a FOIA request and other methods of obtaining information from the agency.  Some agencies allow you to submit a FOIA request online .  All agencies accept FOIA requests by mail.

    You should write "Freedom of Information Request" (or Appeal) at the top of your request and, if sending the request by mail, on the envelope. You do not have to explain the reasons for your request, and government employees generally do not have any right to ask unless you are seeking a waiver of costs.  In your request letter, you must specify what you want, since the law requires your request to "reasonably describe" the records you seek.  This means that you may not simply ask questions but must request records describing or pertaining to a particular subject. You do not need to specify a document by name or title, but you must provide a reasonable enough description to allow government employees who are familiar with the agencies' files to locate the records you seek. Agencies are not obligated to create a record to respond to your request, but only to provide existing records. A record is information in any format, including maps, photographs, computer disks, and electronic formats.

  4. Costs

    Agencies are permitted to charge fees for the cost of responding to FOIA requests, but the fees are waived in many situations. For example, if the costs are low, the agency is required to waive them.  Even if the total costs are above the threshold for waiver, agencies are required to limit the fees to photocopying costs for many requesters where the fees are not for a commercial purpose. It is important to consider the provisions in the regulations concerning fees because agencies generally will not begin work on a FOIA requests if the requester has not complied with the procedures concerning fees. 

    FOIA Regulations and Agency Handbooks for Requesting Information should contain information about the agency's fee schedule for FOIA requests.  If you want the agency to consult you about search and copying fees before processing your request, state in your request letter that you should be notified if the fee is going to be over a specified amount.  If the costs are substantial, you may be able to minimize the copying costs by asking for permission to review the records before having copies made, so that you can select particular documents for copying. Most agencies will only send copies, upon receipt of fees for search, review and copying.

    The FOIA Regulations will also describe the procedures for requesting a waiver of fees.  If you qualify for a waiver ask for a waiver in your FOIA letter. Emphasize that the records sought are not solely for a private, profit-making purpose.  If you are a media representative, or an "educational or non-commercial scientific" entity, send along proof of this fact with your request letter, Otherwise, explain in your letter how the requested records will "contribute significantly to the public understanding of the operations or activities of the Government." 

    If you would like to see a sample FOIA request letter, click here.

  5. Reducing Delay.

    Although FOIA contemplates that agencies will provide you with a determination in response to your request within 20 working days, delays in processing FOIA requests occur at many agencies. In fact, agencies such as the State Department, FBI, or CIA regularly take months and sometimes years to fully respond to a request. Many agencies have substantial backlogs and respond to requests on a first-come, first-served basis. Annual Reports by each agency provide information on how often the agency has been able to comply with the statute's time limits and the agency's backlog of requests at the end of each fiscal year.

    You may be able to draft your initial response to reduce or avoid delays. Consult Agency Regulations and Handbooks to determine whether you can draft your request so that it will be answered more quickly.  Many agencies have separate "tracks" in which simpler requests are processed separately from requests that the agency considers to be more complex.  The criteria for placing a request in the faster or slower tracks should be described in the Agency Regulations and Handbooks.  All agencies must provide expedited processing for certain types of requests.  The regulations on expedited processing describe how a requester can show that there is a "compelling need" for expedited processing of a request.

  6. Special Considerations for Electronic Records.

    If the agency maintains the records you seek in electronic form, you can request that the information be provided in that form.  Also, the agency is required to undertake a "reasonable" electronic search for records it maintains in electronic format.  If the agency maintains the records in one format but you want them in another, the agency must provide the information in the format you desire, if it is "readily reproducible" in that format.  You should be aware that each agency's ability to reproduce information in specified electronic formats varies.  The Summary of the Electronic Freedom of Information Act discusses the application of the FOIA to electronic materials in detail.

  7. Follow-Up With The Agency.

    Even if the agency cannot complete work on your FOIA request within twenty working days, it should send you a letter or other notice acknowledging that it has received your request and identify a point-of-contact or case officer for your FOIA request.   If it does not, call or write to the agency's FOIA contacts to check on the status of your request and identify the case officer.

  8. Use Appeal Procedures

    If you are dissatisfied with the agency's response, take advantage of the FOIA's appeal procedures. Administrative appeals to higher-level agency officials often result in decisions to withhold records being overturned, so it is important to pursue an appeal if the agency's initial decision is questionable.  The agency's Annual Report contains statistics concerning how often appeals to higher lever agency officials are successful.

    Appeal letters can be used to challenge: (a) the agency's failure to timely respond; (b) the agency's decision not to release records; (c) the adequacy of the search methodology used by the agency to locate responsive records; and (d) the agency's decision not to grant you a fee waiver. If an agency has denied your request in whole or in part, you must appeal before seeking help from the courts.


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