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How to File a FOIA Request

FOIA requests are essential to our work as reporters, but submitting a request can feel overwhelming to journalists who are new to the process. This page includes basic guidelines for submitting a FOIA request.

For more information on state and federal FOIA laws, refer to these pages:

Step One: Determine which agency to FOIA and draft request

When filing a FOIA request, first determine which agency has the information you are looking for. Researching the correct agency will save time and prevent you from requesting information from multiple agencies before reaching the one with the documents you are looking for.

The Freedom of Information Act (called the Open Records Act in some states) applies to executive branches of the federal and state governments. It typically does not apply to legislatures and courts.

Once you know the agency, find its FOIA officer. This is the person that you will be working with to obtain the information you need. In some situations it is helpful to call the FOIA officer before you submit your request. Some officers will help you focus and word your request. They may also offer to send the documents over without submitting a request.

Step Two: Send the request

After speaking with the FOIA officer, your next step is to file the FOIA request. This can be done online, or by fax, mail or email. The agency may have a specific form for you to fill out, or you can use a template.

FOIA Requirements

  • The request must be made in writing.
  • The request must reasonably describe the records being sought.
  • The request must follow the agency's FOIA regulations.

Step Three: Follow up with the FOIA officer

After submitting your FOIA request, follow up with the FOIA officer. Federal and state level agencies have different time limits, so it is important to hold your officer to these. In their response, they must either include the information, reason for the delay, or a denial.

Exemptions to FOIA

  • National security
  • Internal agency rules & personnel
  • Exemptions due to another statute
  • Trade secrets
  • Internal agency memoranda (deliberative process)
  • Personal privacy (medical & legal)
  • Law enforcement investigations
  • Special exemptions (oil wells & banking)
  • Ongoing criminal investigation when subject is unaware
  • Confidential informant records
  • FBI counter intelligence & counter terrorism records

What if the FOIA officer doesn’t respond?

  • If an agency takes longer to respond than the time limit, all printing and copying fees should be waived.
  • If the agency doesn’t respond or denies your request, you can make an administrative appeal. If your appeal is denied or ignored, you should either contact the attorney general’s office (either state or federal) or file a lawsuit.
  • Unfortunately, there are no real consequences for agencies if they don’t comply with FOIA laws and regulations.

For more information about filing a FOIA request, visit the FOIA Wiki site.


  • Try to have a positive relationship with the FOIA officer. For most agencies, FOIA requests aren’t the officer’s only responsibility. The better the relationship you have with the officer, the easier the process might be for you.
  • Know your FOIA rights and demonstrate that you know FOIA law. It can be helpful to include the law within your FOIA request to show the officer that you are familiar with the process and your rights.
  • Track your FOIA request and make sure to follow up with the FOIA officer.

Additional FOIA Resources

Public records requests are fundamental to our work to hold our government accountable. There are many additional resources available to help with your FOIA requests.