How to Make a FOIA Request

The Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) specifically guarantees reporters access to many records from federal agencies. While FOIA comes with a presumption of openness, access is not guaranteed: the law permits agencies to hold records if they fall within an “exemption” to FOIA. And in some cases, an agency may still delay responding. 

Suzy Khimm, an NBC News national reporter, shares in the above video how she used FOIA requests for “Death by Delay,” an investigative series she co-reported with Elizabeth Chuck on how popular children’s products with known safety risks remained on the market for years. After Khimm filed requests, she frequently needed to follow up. 

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“I consider myself lucky if the federal government responds to requests in months rather than years,” Khimm said. “It is not easy, and it is important to be persistent.” You can search for federal agencies and their contact information at Read on for further tips on how to make sure your FOIA request is effective.

Suzy Khimm, NBC News national reporter

Be as specific as possible

Once you figure out the type of records you want, narrow your focus to make it less likely that agencies reject your request for being too broad. The more precise the instructions for the search, including specific keywords, the better. 

Asked for an example, Khimm said, “Show me the emails between this federal official and this one group on this date, or in this month. You’re trying to give people search terms.” 

She says you should not assume the official is familiar with your story or the angle of your reporting. The law does not require you to disclose your full reporting plan for the information.

Request a fee waiver

FOIA requires federal agencies to waive certain processing fees for journalists. Always identify yourself as a journalist in your requests and request a waiver of fees.

Always follow through

Like any other form of reporting, a personal contact can help move a request along, and talking to a FOIA officer can help them better understand your request. Many FOIA officers are also willing to give advice to improve records requests. 

Khimm sets up calendar reminders for following up with agencies, and, in her words, “politely bugging” the FOIA officer in charge of her requests. 

She also tracks her requests in a spreadsheet to stay on top of which agencies are handling which requests.

If appropriate, seek expedited processing

If you can make the argument that there is a “compelling need” for your request to be fulfilled quickly, because failing to fulfill the request quickly could pose an imminent threat to public safety, for instance, the agency may be willing to speed up the process. 

Khimm says she usually asks for expedited processing in her FOIA requests. 

“We’re not just sitting on stories that are evergreen,” she said. “There’s a reason that you’re pursuing the story, and that reason might justify expedited processing.” 

Sample of a FOIA request

I request access to and copies of:

[Records being requested]

This information is being sought on behalf of [media outlet] for dissemination to the general public. Please waive any applicable fees.

I request expedited processing as these records are related to urgent matters of public interest that are ongoing.

[Justification for expedited processing]

These statements supporting the compelling need for expedited treatment are certified by me to be true and correct to the best of my knowledge and belief.

I, of course, reserve the right to appeal your decision to withhold any information or to deny a waiver of fees. I would appreciate your communicating with me by email or telephone, rather than by mail. Thank you for your assistance.

[Signature/contact info]