Filing a FOIA Request

Written requests are the only way to legally assert your FOIA rights. These should be mailed, faxed, e-mailed, or hand-delivered to the relevant agency’s offices, depending on which methods the agency allows. A quick online search of the "agency's name" and "FOIA" should provide you with specific information about how the particular agency accepts FOIA requests. If you can't find the information through an online search, check the Federal Register, which should include this information.

A FOIA request should be addressed to the agency's FOIA officer or the head of the agency. It must include:

  1. Your name and contact information, including your address if you want the records mailed to you or your e-mail address if you are requesting that electronic records be e-mailed to you.
  2. A statement that you are seeking records under the Freedom of Information Act.
  3. A description of the record(s) you are seeking. The only requirement is that you “reasonably describe” the records. Basically, this means that you must give enough information that a record-keeper would be able to find the records without an undue amount of searching. It is generally advisable to make the request as specific as possible, so if you know the title or the date of a particular document, or can precisely describe the class of documents you seek, you should set out these details. Being specific helps you avoid paying fees for records that you actually do not need and helps to expedite your request. See the section on What Records Are Covered in this guide for more information on the types of records you can request.

In addition to the required elements listed above, you might want to include some of the following additional information in your request:

  • Your preferred method of contact for any questions about the record(s) you are seeking, whether it be mail, e-mail, or telephone.
  • Your preferred medium for receiving the record(s), such as paper, CD-Rom, microfiche, e-mail attachment, etc. (note that you are not always guaranteed to receive the records in your preferred format, but the agency will attempt to honor such requests if possible). See the section on Requesting Electronic Records in this guide for more information.
  • You do not need to tell the government organization why you want the information; every person has a right to request records regardless of his or her profession. That said, you may want to inform the record-keeper that you plan to use the information to publish on a matter of public interest.
  • A request for a fee waiver or expedited review for your request, if applicable, as discussed in the Costs and Fees and Time Periods under FOIA sections of this guide.
  • The maximum fee you are willing to pay for your record(s). You should indicate that you wish to be contacted if the charges will exceed this amount.

The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press and the The U.S. Department of State both offer forms that will automatically generate a FOIA request for you. These can be an excellent way to get started.

Where to Send Your Request

Your FOIA request should be addressed to the relevant agency's FOIA officer or the head of the agency. The U.S. Department of Justice has a fairly comprehensive list of FOIA contacts at federal agencies. If the agency you want isn't listed there, you can usually find the information easily by conducting a quick web search; just type in "agency's name" and "FOIA contact."

If you are unsure of which agency to send your request to, the US Government Manual may be of assistance. You will likely receive a faster response if you make your request in accordance with the agency's own FOIA regulations (these can be viewed in the Code of Federal Regulations), but the above minimum requirements are sufficient to make a valid FOIA request.

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