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A Guide to Security Clearances

What is a security clearance?

It is essential to ensure that information important to New Zealand’s national interests or security (‘official information’) is protected from unauthorised access.  A security clearance gives some assurance around the suitability of a person to access official information at a level corresponding to the level of security clearance held.

The levels of security clearance are Confidential, Secret and Top Secret. 

Holding a clearance does not give access to all official information.  You must still have a legitimate need to access information.  This is known as the “need to know” principle.

Why do you need a security clearance?

New Zealand Government policies require all government agencies to ensure that people entrusted with official information and resources:

Government departments and agencies determine suitability to access official information through an assessment of an individual's background, consisting of (but not limited to):

What does a clearance mean for your employment?

If a candidate is unsuccessful in obtaining the required level of security clearance appropriate for their role, then they may not be able to commence employment.  If they have already commenced then they may not be able to continue their employment.  Similarly, if an employee loses, or has their clearance downgraded, then that may also impact on ongoing employment or future career opportunities.

It is Ministry policy to require New Zealand citizenship of any staff who may be posted overseas.

What is the process to obtain a security clearance?

As a first step your referees will be contacted and your qualifications and identity will be checked against the information provided as part of your job application.  Criminal history and credit checks will also be conducted.

You will be asked to complete a vetting form that contains a “Consent for Disclosure Questionnaire”.  This allows the NZSIS to carry out checks against criminal and security intelligence databases and undertake referee and background checks as necessary.

When enquiries are complete, the NZSIS provides a formal assessment to the CEO of the Ministry on your suitability to hold a security clearance.  The Ministry then decides whether to grant a clearance based on the pre-employment checks, the assessment from the NZSIS and any other relevant information it may hold.

Current clearances may be able to be transferred between organisations in some circumstances.

Exemptions from legislation

The NZSIS has an exemption under legislation to gather information that may be protected and to make recommendations that may otherwise breach the law. Such legislation includes, but is not limited to:

Why might a clearance be denied or delayed?

There are a number of reasons a clearance might be denied, including:

Failure to obtain a clearance is not a negative reflection on your character or reputation. Rather it is an assessment that there may be circumstances that could present risks to the protection of official material.  Any doubt about an individual’s ability to access official material must be resolved conservatively to protect official information and our national interest.

A clearance might not be granted if vetting enquiries can’t be completed.  The most common reasons for this occurring are:

The reasons above can also lead to enquiries being delayed.  The Ministry has no influence over vetting times; you can ensure a quicker vetting by ensuring referees cooperate and by advising the Ministry of changes to the details in your form.

Qualified clearances

Sometimes the NZSIS will return a qualified assessment. This is most common where an individual has strong ties to another country. A qualified assessment may prevent you from working in some roles at the Ministry.

Information from the NZSIS

If there is a problem regarding your application for a clearance, the Ministry will attempt to work through it with you if possible.

The NZSIS provides information that relates to clearances to the Ministry on a strictly confidential basis. This may mean that the Ministry is unable to provide you with the reasons that have led to the failure to grant a security clearance (pursuant to section 29(b) of the Privacy Act). This section allows the Ministry to withhold information that amounts to evaluative material when doing so would breach an implied or express promise that the information would be held in confidence. 

You are entitled to complain to the Privacy Commissioner if this occurs to ask for a review of the Ministry decision to withhold information.

You can also make a request for personal information directly to the NZSIS.

What to do if you think a clearance was unfairly denied

New Zealand citizens or residents who feel they have been adversely affected by any act, omission, practice, policy or procedure of the NZSIS are able to complain to the Inspector-General of Intelligence and Security. Complaints can include matters relating to the conduct of and reports concerning security clearance vetting.

The Inspector-General can inquire into any complaint and may make recommendations for redress.

Complaints to the Inspector-General should be made in writing, addressed to the Inspector-General, care of the Registrar of the High Court in Wellington.

Ongoing Management and Compliance

Assessment as to your suitability to access official information continues after a clearance is granted. 

The Ministry Code of Conduct requires employees to notify any change in personal circumstances.

Your clearance will be reviewed five years from when it was granted and you will be required to undergo another vetting, unless circumstances require an earlier review.  If you leave the Ministry, your clearance will be considered to have lapsed.


If you have any questions, please contact your contact for employment, at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade.

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Page last updated: Monday, 09 December 2013 11:25 NZDT