Technically, government organizations must respond to a FOIA request with a denial or grant of access within 20 business days. Note that the agency must only respond within 20 days; it does not have to deliver the records within the 20-day time period. The time period does not begin until the proper agency or office actually receives your request. Furthermore, under the new 2007 FOIA amendments, the agency may exceed the 20-day time limit if it needs to request more information from you in order to process your request.
Agencies may extend this time limit by up to 10 additional working days (they must informing you they are doing so) if one of the following "exceptional circumstances" exists: the record-keeper must search an extraordinary amount of records; the search involves records from multiple offices; or the search involves records from multiple organizations. See the FOIA Guide's section on time limits for a more detailed explanation. If your request cannot be fulfilled within these time periods, the agency may ask you to reasonably modify your request or allow for an alternative time frame.
Realistically, many agencies do not comply with these time limits. Some agencies may have a large backlog of requests, and they are usually permitted to treat requests on a "first come, first served" basis as long as they devote a reasonable amount of staff to responding to the requests. These agencies generally have a processing system that allows simpler requests to be handled quickly so that these requests do not have to "wait in line" behind more complex requests.
However, as of December 1, 2008, FOIA will be amended to require that agencies waive all search and duplication fees if they fail to comply with time limits and none of the "exceptional circumstances" listed above exist. It is yet to be seen if this will speed up agencies' response times.
FOIA provides for requests to receive “expedited review” if the request meets certain requirements. Generally speaking, you will be entitled to expedited treatment if health and safety are at issue or if there is an urgent public interest in the government activity at issue.
If you think there is a compelling reason why you need the information sooner than the normal period under FOIA, you should clearly explain your reasons in your initial FOIA request. Agencies must decide whether or not to grant expedited processing within 10 calendar days of the request. Aside from these specific circumstances listed above, agencies may use their discretion in deciding whether or not to grant expedited review. So, it doesn’t hurt to ask even if you don’t meet the requirements.
You should also check the individual agency's requirements to see if they allow other types of requests to receive expedited treatment. The Department of Justice, for instance, offers expedited review “for requests concerning issues of government integrity that have already become the object of widespread national media interest” or “if delay might cause the loss of substantial due process rights,” (see the DOJ reference guide section on expedited processing).
Checking the Status of Your Request
Under the 2007 FOIA amendments, the agency must provide you with a tracking number if your request will take longer than 10 days to process. Then, if you haven't heard back from an agency or are unsure about the status of your request, you can use the tracking number to find out more information. Each agency is required to have at least one "FOIA Requester Service Center" that can give information about the status of pending FOIA requests. The agency must tell you the date that it received your request and must give an estimated date that it will complete your request. The centers can generally be contacted by mail, e-mail, or telephone.
If the deadlines have passed and you haven't been able to get any information from the agency about the status of your request, you should review this guide's section entitled What Are Your Remedies Under FOIA to see what your options are.