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Using public records for academic research: FOIA requests (Federal)

This guide will introduce you to using FOIA (Freedom of Information Act), PRA (Public Records Act), and Sunshine Law requests in academic research.


What is FOIA?

FOIA stands for the Freedom of Information Act. This law was first enacted in 1967.

It gives the public the right to request access to internal records from any federal executive agency. FOIA also requires agencies to proactively release certain types of records even if no FOIA request has been made.


  • FOIA does not require agencies to create new records, to conduct research, analyze data, or answer questions. 
  • Not all agency records can be released via FOIA.
    • There are 9 exemptions for information that is protected from a FOIA request, eg. information to protect national security, trade secrets, protected personal information (PPI) etc. 
  • The president and their immediate staff are excluded from the FOIA.
    • Components of the Executive Office of the President (EOP) whose primary function is to advise the president, such as the National Security Council, are not subject to the FOIA.
    • The Presidential Records Act (PRA) requires most presidential documents be released between 5-12 years after the president leaves office, including National Security Counsel and National Security Adviser records.


Helpful websites

These sites provide valuable information, explain the request process, give examples of FOIA requests, and can be used to submit and support the process from beginning to end.

Before submitting a request

Have the documents already been released? 

Many federal documents are available online, through Federal Depository Libraries (like Stanford Libraries), or the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA).

Records that have been released because of a FOIA request are often available in FOIA Reading Rooms online: 


Do you have enough time?

It may take the agency months to respond (the National Security Archive once had a request that was outstanding for 20 years!).

Sometimes requests are denied or not fulfilled satisfactorily, so there can be a lengthy appeals process. NARA even has a FOIA ombudsman in the Office of Government Information Services (OGIS)

Students: There generally isn't time to submit FOIA requests for a class project. Contact a librarian for other options.

1. Identify the agency

Every agency has a FOIA officer and website. 

2. Find the retention schedule

Federal agencies do not keep every record created. Only 1-3% of federal records are considered permanent and kept at the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA).

3. Draft the request

You must submit a FOIA request in writing over email or regular USPS mail. Some agencies encourage submitting requests on online forms.

Your request should include

  • Statement of request. The first sentence of your request should be, “Pursuant to the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), I hereby request the following . . . .”
  • Subject of the request. Explain what records you are trying to get. Be very specific, reasonable in scope, and include date ranges if applicable. Keep your request brief.
  • Fee status and waivers. Under the FOIA, agencies can charge reasonable fees for the cost of searching for records, reviewing them for release, and reproducing them.

    • While fees vary by agency, search and review fees can range from $8 to $45 per hour and duplication fees can be $0.10 to $0.35 per page.

    • To request a public interest fee waiver, include that you are "seeking a public interest fee waiver under 5 U.S.C. § 552(a)(4)(A)(iii)," that you are a student/academic researcher, and ask that fees be waived.

    • In general, members of educational institutions should have no fees for search/review and the first 100 pages of physical copies are free.

  • Format of documents. State that you would prefer the request be filled electronically by e-mail attachment or CD-ROM if e-mail is not available. Agencies can send physical paper copies of records, but digital files are typically easier for everyone. 

  • Contact information. Include a phone number, fax number, and/or e-mail address so the agency can contact you with questions.


FOIA request samples

There are several sites that include sample FOIA letters, including the National Freedom of Information Coalition.

Some agencies also provide sample FOIA letters specific to their agencies (for example, the Federal Trade Commission and the FBI).

Submit requests online

We highly recommend that you use one of these sites that will help you write, submit, and track your FOIA request.

4. Submit the request & wait

Once the FOIA request is submitted, a determination letter from the agency will be sent in response, hopefully within 20 working days (though some agencies have considerable backlogs). The agency will either:

  • Release the documents in full (YAY!).
  • Release the documents in part (redacted).
  • Release some of the documents in full or in part.
  • Issue a “Glomar” response, refusing either to confirm or deny the existence of the records.
  • Or reject the request for a procedural reason—usually correctable.

5. Decide what to do if it is denied

If you are not satisfied with an agency's initial response to your request, you can: 

Contact the agency

You can contact the FOIA professional handling the request or the agency’s FOIA Public Liaison. The FOIA Public Liaison is there to explain the process to you, assist in reducing any delays, and help resolve any disputes. Often, a simple discussion between you and the agency will resolve any issues that may arise.

File an appeal

Typically, all you need to do is send a letter or e-mail to the designated appeal authority of the agency stating that you are appealing the initial decision made on your request. There is no fee or cost involved. After an independent review, the appellate authority will send you a response advising you of its decision.

Once the administrative appeal process is complete, you also have the option to seek mediation services from the Office of Government Information Services (OGIS) at NARA