1. Determine what information you are looking for
The first step involved in making a federal Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request is determining exactly what records you are seeking access to. If you make a request to the wrong agency or if your request is too vague, it could be denied.
2. Make an informal request
You can first request information from an agency informally. If you know what information you are looking for, you can simply contact the agency to request it. The agency may give you access to the information without needing a FOIA request.
3. Send a written request for the information to the federal agency
If the informal approach does not work, you can exercise your rights under FOIA by writing a formal request. You can do this by sending a letter to the agency by certified mail that outlines the specific records you are seeking access to.
Sometimes, the federal agency that you are requesting information from has its own FOIA request form. If they do, it can usually be found on their website. If you can, you should use that form.
Each federal agency subject to the federal FOIA has a designated FOIA Service Center and a Chief FOIA officer responsible for managing information requests. You should send your request letter directly to the FOIA officer.
Agencies will accept request by hand delivery, mail, or e-mail. If you mail your request, mark the outside of the envelope with “FOIA Request." You should keep a copy of your request letter.
Send the letter using certified mail and be sure to request a return receipt. The following are some tips for writing your request:
- Be as specific as possible in your description of the information you want to review. Specify whether you would like copies of the records, or simply access to them so that you may review them in person;
- If you are seeking a fee waiver, be sure to include a specific explanation of why your request is in the public interest and not for your own personal benefit;
- Include all of your relevant contact information. This includes your name, telephone number, preferred mailing address, and e-mail address.
For sample letter to help you, see Sample Federal Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) Request Letter.
4. Wait for a response
Federal agencies covered by FOIA are required to respond to requests within 20 business days, unless there is an unusual circumstance, like when the agency needs to:
- Search for and collect records from off-site locations
- Search for, collect, and examine a large amount of separate records
- Consult with another agency that has an interest in the information
If any of these circumstances exist, the agency must notify you in writing and may have an additional 10 working days to respond to your request.
You should note that, while agencies are required to respond within 20 business days, in reality it often takes much longer. Some agencies have extensive backlogs that prevent them from complying strictly with the federal FOIA.
Make sure that you requested the information from the right source and that the public body received your request. If you have done everything correctly and you still do not get a response within 20 business days, follow the steps for a denial.
5. File an appeal, if your request is denied
If your request is denied, you have the right to appeal. You can appeal if you have received a denial, or if more than 20 business days have passed since your request and you have not received a response.
Federal agencies are required to tell you why they have denied your request within 5 business days. In order to appeal, you can write to the head of the agency. This is called an administrative appeal. This appeal can be made by writing a letter outlining why you believe your request should not have been denied.
Be sure to send this letter by certified mail with a return receipt requested. Also, make sure that you attach a copy of your original request and any response that you receive from the agency.
See the Sample appeal letter for federal FOIA denial.
If your administrative appeal is denied, or you do not receive a response from the agency within 20 business days, you have the option to file a lawsuit under FOIA. You can file your suit with the United States District Court closest to you, the District Court nearest the agency that denied your request, or in the District of Columbia.
You have 6 years from the date that you filed your request to file your case.