Top Five Tips for Preparing a Strong FOIA Request

October 13, 2015

By Caitlin Steinke, Law Firm of Tina Foster

The Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) gives the public the right to request records from agencies of the federal government (such as the FBI, CIA, and State Department). This article provides tips for preparing a strong and effective FOIA request.

1. Make sure the records you are seeking are not already publicly-available.

The purpose of the FOIA is to increase transparency and provide the public with more access to government materials. Before writing your FOIA request, it is important to do some research to verify that the records you are seeking are not already available online. You can search the information maintained online by federal agencies.  If you determine that the records you are seeking are not already publicly-available, you can submit a FOIA request.

2.  Consider whether the records you are seeking may fall within a FOIA exemption.

There are nine types of records that are exempt from FOIA requests: (1) classified matters of national defense or foreign policy, (2) internal personnel rules and practices, (3) information specifically exempted by other statutes, (4) trade secrets, commercial, or financial information, (5) privileged interagency or intra-agency communications, (6) personal information affecting an individual's privacy, (7) investigatory records compiled for law enforcement purposes, (8) records of financial institutions, and (9) geographical and geophysical information concerning wells. An agency does not have to produce records that it believes falls under any of these exemptions.

3.  Clearly identify the records you are seeking.

The key to a strong FOIA request is providing a clear description of the records you would like produced. The agency will have a difficult time processing your FOIA request if your description of the records is too broad or vague. For example, you may be able to limit your request to documents from a certain time frame or location, or to a specific individual or group of people. The more narrow your request, the more likely the agency will be to locate the records. Your goal should be to summarize the records requested in a single sentence. Keep in mind that records can be in electronic and digital form, so your request does not need to be limited to paper documents.

4.  Provide context for your request.

An effective FOIA request will tell a story that provides context for the request. Importantly, your request should explain why you are seeking records from this particular agency. An agency only needs to comply with FOIA requests for records that (1) were created or maintained by that agency, and (2) are in that agency's control when the FOIA request is submitted. Therefore, your request should include information that supports your belief that these records exist, and that this agency possesses them. Depending on the nature of your request and the records you are seeking, the context you provide could be anything from information reported in the media to your own personal experiences. If you are relying on news articles, agency sources, or Congressional or NGO reports, include citations in footnotes.

5.  Be familiar with the agency's specific FOIA requirements.

Check the agency's website for information about where and how to submit FOIA requests. If you are requesting information about yourself or another person, you will need to include additional documents with your request. Take the time to make sure that you have included all of the necessary information the first time around - leaving out required information or documents will increase the processing time of your request.


This article provides only general information, and is not intended as legal advice.  Please consult with an attorney for guidance on specific legal matters.