The Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) allows citizens the opportunity to view government documents that otherwise would not be published. People working in a number of professions including academics, the legal community, and journalism can make FOIA requests. FOIA allows requesters to get accurate information that they can then use to conduct research or defend positions. Find out the steps in the process needed to file a FOIA request.

Determine Who Has the Records You Want

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Each government agency has its own section that deals with FOIA requests. For example, you can’t submit a request to the FBI when you want information from the CIA. Instead, you have to figure out who has the records you want and make the proper request. You may need information from more than one agency, which means you have to issue a request for each agency even though you may find overlapping information from each one.

Take the time to do research before moving forward with your pursuit of a FOIA request. The information you’re looking for may already be published.

Draft the Request

Each agency handles FOIA requests differently, and you’ll have to make a unique request to each agency. Visit the websites of agencies from which you’re seeking information, find their FOIA regulations, and review them. The U.S. government has simplified the search process via a webpage that lists all the agencies in one place and links information seekers directly to the relevant pages for FOIA requests.

Keep in mind that you do not have to explain why you’re making the request unless you are asking for a waiver of fees. However, you need to explain why you are making the request. For example, say you’re writing a thesis and you need to defend an assertion you’re making. You need information from a survey that a government agency conducts but never publishes. Your reason in this instance would be “information needed for thesis research.”

Determine Costs of a FOIA Request

Federal law dictates the cost of fulfilling a request for all agencies: The first two hours of search time and first hundred pages of copying are always free. Copying pages costs between 10 cents to 25 cents for each page after the first hundred pages. You can always state how much you are willing to spend on your search and ask that the agency contact you if its search efforts are going to go over your budget.

Wait for a Response

By law, agencies have 20 working days, or four weeks, to respond to your request. However, it’s not unusual for an agency to take longer than that amount of time to fulfill a request. You may be able to get your material sooner if your request is a small one, but plan your time frame accordingly otherwise.

Making a FOIA request is a straightforward process and is something people from all walks of life do every day. Your request can supply you with the information you need to complete whatever you’re working on and give you the best possible data available.