The Freedom of Information Act and How to Request Access to Documents

U.S. Capitol Building
Gage Skidmore / Flickr / CC BY-SA 2.0

Prior to the enactment of the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) in 1966, any person seeking non-public information from a U.S. federal government agency had to first prove they had a legal "need to know" in order to view related government records. James Madison would not have liked that.

"A popular Government without popular information or the means of acquiring it, is but a Prologue to a Farce or a Tragedy or perhaps both. Knowledge will forever govern ignorance, and a people who mean to be their own Governors, must arm themselves with the power knowledge gives." -- James Madison

Under the FOIA, the American people are assumed to have a "right to know" about their government and the government is required to prove a compelling reason in order to keep information secret. In other words, the FOIA establishes the presumption that records of the U.S. Government must be made accessible to the people. Also note that most state and local governments have adopted laws similar in intent and function to the FOIA.
As soon as he took office in January 2009, President Obama issued an executive order directing the government agencies to approach FOIA requests with a "presumption in favor of disclosure."
"The Government should not keep information confidential merely because public officials might be embarrassed by disclosure because errors and failures might be revealed, or because of speculative or abstract fears," wrote Obama, stating that his administration would be dedicated to an "unprecedented level of openness in Government."
This guide is a simple explanation of how to use the FOIA to request information from the U.S. government agencies. But, please be aware that the FOIA and litigation involved with it can become extremely complex. Thousands of court decisions have been made regarding the FOIA and anyone requiring more detailed information about the FOIA should contact an attorney with experience in governmental affairs.

Before Requesting Information Under the FOIA

Look for it on the Internet. An incredible amount of information is now available on thousands of government websites, with volumes more being added every day. So before going to all the trouble of writing and sending an FOIA request, just log on visit the agency's website or run some searches.

What Agencies are Covered by the FOIA?

The FOIA applies to documents in the possession of executive branch agencies including:

The FOIA does NOT apply to:

  • Any elected official of the US Government
  • Officers of the federal Judicial Branch
  • Private citizens
  • Private companies or associations
  • Government contractors
  • Government grant holders
  • State or local governments (most state and local governments have laws similar to the FOIA)

While elected officials are exempt all daily actions of the United States Congress are published in the Congressional Record. In addition most state and many local governments have adopted laws similar to the FOIA

What May and May Not be Requested Under the FOIA?

You may, by mail, request and receive copies of any records in the possession of an agency except those covered by the following nine exemptions:

  • Classified defense and foreign policy information
  • Information prohibited from disclosure under other laws
  • Internal agency rules and practices
  • Trade secrets and confidential business practices
  • Inter or intra-agency communications protected under law
  • Information involving matters of personal privacy
  • Certain information regarding law enforcement
  • Information on supervision of financial institutions
  • Geological information on wells

In addition, especially sensitive information concerning law enforcement and national security issues may occasionally be withheld.
Agencies are free to (and sometimes do) disclose information even though the records are exempted under the provisions above.
Agencies may also disclose only parts of information while withholding exempted sections. Withheld sections will be blacked out and are referred to as "redacted" sections.

How to Request FOIA Information

FOIA requests must be sent by mail directly to the agency that has the records you want. There is no single government office or agency assigned to handle or route FOIA requests.
While a few individual agencies currently provide for online FOIA request submittal, requests to most agencies must still be submitted via standard mail or email. Online FOIA requests to the agencies that currently accept them can be submitted on the website. Addresses for submitting FOIA requests to all federal agencies can be found on the website.
Each agency has one or more official FOIA contact offices to which requests should be addressed. Larger agencies have separate FOIA offices for each bureau and some have FOIA offices in each region of the country.
Contact information for the FOIA offices of just about all agencies can now be found on their website.
The U.S. Government Manual is also useful for determining which agency has the records you want. It is available at most public and university libraries and can also be searched online.

What Your FOIA Request Letter Should Say

FOIA information requests should be made in a letter mailed to the FOIA Officer of the agency. If you can't determine exactly which agency has what you want, send a request to each potential agency.
You should also mark both the letter and the outside of the envelope, "Freedom of Information Act Request" to speed its handling by the agency.
It is vital that you identify in the letter the information or records you want as clearly and specifically as possible. Include any facts, names, authors, dates, times, events, locations etc. you think might help the agency find your records. If you know the exact title or name of the records you want, be sure to include it.
While it is not required, you can state why you want the records.
Even if you think the records you want may be exempted from the FOIA or otherwise classified, you can and should still make the request. Agencies have the authority to disclose any exempted material at their discretion and are encouraged to do so.

Sample FOIA Request Letter

Freedom of Information Act Request
Agency FOIA Officer
Agency or Component Name
Street Address
Dear ________:
Under the Freedom of Information Act, 5 U.S.C. subsection 552, I am requesting access to [identify the records you want in complete detail].
If there are any fees for searching or copying these records, please inform me before filling my request. [Or, Please send me the records without informing me of the cost unless the fees exceed $______, which I agree to pay.]
If you deny any or all of this request, please cite each specific exemption you feel justifies the refusal to release the information and notify me of appeal procedures available to me under the law.
[Optionally: If you have any questions about this request, you may contact me by telephone at ______ (home phone) or _______ (office phone).]

What Does the FOIA Process Cost?

There is no initial fee required to submit an FOIA request, but the law 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 that Fees Be Waived

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.

How Long Does the FOIA Process Take?

By law, agencies must respond to FOIA requests within 10 working days of receipt. Agencies may extend this time if necessary, but they must send written notice of the extension to the requester.

What if Your FOIA Request is Denied?

Sometimes, the agency simply does not have or cannot locate the requested records. But if the records are found, only the information or parts of information exempted from disclosure can be withheld. If the agency finds and withholds any or all of the information, the agency must notify the requester of the reason and inform them of the appeals process. Appeals should be sent to the agency in writing within 45 days.
The websites of most federal agencies include pages fully explaining the agency's specific FOIA process instructions including contact information, records available, fees, and appeals process.

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Your Citation
Longley, Robert. "The Freedom of Information Act and How to Request Access to Documents." ThoughtCo, Aug. 27, 2020, Longley, Robert. (2020, August 27). The Freedom of Information Act and How to Request Access to Documents. Retrieved from Longley, Robert. "The Freedom of Information Act and How to Request Access to Documents." ThoughtCo. (accessed January 22, 2021).