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I'm a US citizen, and while my home address is in the US, I took advantage of my fully-remote job to travel to countries for extended periods, including a country that US considers an adversary (I was neither born nor have any family ties there). I didn't tell anyone at work. I didn't think it was necessary to do so, I thought it might raise some eyebrows, and because I generally keep my private life out of work anyways. I just did my work like normal, and whenever my location/timezone came up, I'd mention my official US address.

Fast forward to the present: I am back in the US with a different company and am about to start a new project that's been contracted by the government. It's not related to defense, aerospace, nuclear energy, etc. However, I'm still required to undergo a security clearance.

My criminal record and credit score are spotless. However, I'm concerned that my traveling to "undesirable" countries for long periods will cause problems. I've heard that a security clearance requires references from friends, family, and co-workers. So I'm also concerned that my references (particularly my former co-workers) will say I lived in the US the whole time since I never talked to them about it and never met them in-person. What should I say/do going forward?

There is likely some evidence that I was a resident of the other country: a lease (renting apartment), maybe a visa (but it was a tourist visa), credit card charges, perhaps.

The security clearance required is public trust.

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    Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat.
    – motosubatsu
    Dec 22, 2022 at 9:47

8 Answers 8

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Background checks always start with statements from you. They will give you an opportunity to tell them where you lived, who you worked for, who your friends and relatives are, what trouble you have got into in the past.

When they get you to give a statement you should tell them about all the places you have lived and visited, and mention that not everybody you know was aware that you made these visits. If somebody else they talk to doesn't mention those visits that will be a reasonable explanation.

It is of course true that living for a period of time in an "undesirable country" will potentially cause you problems with a security clearance. The investigators will want to know details of why you chose to live in that country and what you did there. It will also not be helpful that you didn't tell your co-workers (or anyone in your company) where you were living. Investigators will want to know why you were keeping it secret, and "I want to keep my private life private" may not cut it. They may suspect you had other motives. However there is not much you can do about the situation now.

The only thing you could do to make the situation worse would be to try to cover it up now. Doing that would not only be more likely to cause you to fail the security check, but might leave you open to criminal charges, even if you passed the check now and the facts were discovered later. Be completely up front with the investigators, answering their questions fully. Be completely cooperative. If there was somebody at your work who knew your location then give that person's name to investigators as a reference. Remember that in a security check there is no presumption of innocence, or right to remain silent. Investigators do not need to prove you did something wrong. You can be failed if it even looks like you are not being cooperative, or if they think you might be a risk.

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    Agree completely with this... The biggest red flag here is not that they lived in a particular country, but that they tried to hide that fact. The background investigation requires references that can confirm you lived where you said you did; people who you never met in person can't do that. Neighbors and documentation from where they lived abroad will be needed.
    – ColleenV
    Dec 21, 2022 at 15:14
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    That last paragraph is the most important to me. The work expected to be done isn't relevant. The clearance covers the entire board of possibility. Dec 21, 2022 at 15:32
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    Unless there is something related to this that would hurt you more if it was found out, then you don't have anything to lose by applying. If you are denied the clearance you won't get the job. If you don't apply you definitely won't get the job. Dec 21, 2022 at 17:50
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    @Nelson I'm not saying that. Only a deliberate lie on a serious matter is going to result in criminal charges. Dec 22, 2022 at 4:03
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    While you are worried about the Security clearance you have also opened up the possibility that your employer has broken laws around data protection, data export, employee law, tax law etc.
    – armitage
    Dec 22, 2022 at 20:27
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Buckle up, it might get rough.

But it also might not. It's really hard to predict.

Assuming you actually do mean "security clearance" not "something kinda like a security clearance", this is still probably okay. If you don't have a specific need on the program you're working, you're probably going for just secret-eligible. There isn't a lot of difference between eligibility and an actual clearance; it's basically just whether you have a role with a need-to-know. Even with an active clearance, you will not necessarily spend much (or any) time working with secret material.

The first step is going to be filling out an SF-86. Your FSO will tell you how. That will ask you everywhere you have lived for the past seven years and will want a point of contact who knew that you were living at each place. You're looking for something like a friend who visited frequently or a neighbor. It will also ask for three people who know you very well, and who have between them been in close contact with you for the past seven(?) years. It will also ask a whole lot of other questions. The most critical thing is to answer honestly. Seriously. Don't lie or be evasive. That is extra important if you have something hinky, which you do.

If that all goes smoothly, you can get an interim clearance/eligibility, which makes it really likely that this will go smoothly. Your company might send you dickish notes reminding you that your employment is conditioned on getting a final determination, but as long as you were honest you're almost certainly fine.

Usually, for boring people, that whole process will go smoothly and without necessarily even interviewing anyone (clearances above secret start getting interviews real fast). Everyone you listed will get a letter asking them to confirm whatever you said, but if your story checks out, the investigating agency might decide that your case is fairly open-and-shut, even with a bit of exciting travel.

More likely, they might decide that you're not boring enough, and send someone out to interview you and/or your friends. Again, the most important thing is to be honest. Lying or failing to disclose stuff will torpedo you faster and harder than anything.

People can have some pretty wild stuff happen and still maintain clearances. I worked with one Marine who re-upped a TS clearance while going through the tail end of a messy divorce, sleeping around constantly, and suffering from some crazy PTSD. His interviews were grueling. I would not have said his odds were good, but he was committed to disclosing everything and that ultimately worked out. I am informed by many people that they disclosed past drug use and the investigators did not care at all (hiding drug use is very, very bad; drug use while cleared is bad for your clearance; past drug use is nothing).

So, painful as it may be, your path to success is simple: disclose everything; tell the investigators everything. It'll probably be fine if what you described is the real situation.

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  • Secondhand knowledge, just for the record since it's not directly applicable to OP: admitted past drug use is not quite nothing. In my understanding, it substantially increases the amount of scrutiny you are under, regarding the possibility of current / continued drug use, and association with current drug users. Dec 22, 2022 at 3:55
  • @GlennWillen - There is a difference between active drug use, recent drug use, and past drug use. If you lie about your drug use, and it’s discovered it’s an immediate disqualification. However, being honest about it, will increase your chances. Ultimately a determination will be made, and honesty, is the only way someone with a “interesting” history can get a clearance. How much scrutiny entirely depends on the type of security clearance. Given the details of what the author describe, it’s likely not that high” since it’s outside of (Energy, Defense, and Aerospace) which are heavily regulate
    – Donald
    Dec 22, 2022 at 8:29
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    That is extra important if you have something hinky, which you do. => there's nothing "hinky" about what OP did. It's not illegal to live in other countries. Dec 22, 2022 at 16:19
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    It might be illegal (in the other country) to work on a tourist visa. If it is, it could indicate a cavalier attitude to rules. Dec 22, 2022 at 16:33
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    @JonathanReez I never said illegal, because I didn't mean illegal. It's likewise not illegal to go off grid and live as a neighbor-less survivalist in a cabin in Alaska, or to spend profligately while deeply in debt, or to be Vlad Putin's best buddy, but either is still likely to throw all kinds of red flags for security clearances. Conversely, smoking a bunch of pot or downloading a bunch of mp3s are both illegal, but having done either in the past is so normal as to barely be noticeable for a clearance.
    – fectin
    Dec 22, 2022 at 19:38
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For the purposes of this answer I am assuming a Public Trust, which is one of the easiest types of clearances to get. So if a person cannot meet this level it is safe to assume they will not meet other types of US clearances.

Here are the first two bullet points from the Suitability Criteria for a Public Trust:

  • Misconduct or negligence in employment
  • Criminal or dishonest conduct

Different countries have different rules on what can be done on different types of visas and some countries even have special work visas for people who are only working remotely. So by not informing your employer that you would be working while on a tourist visa overseas for extended periods of time is a form of negligence in employment and dishonest conduct.

Employers need to know where you will be conducting your work so that they can comply with the labor laws of that location. Even working in another state for extended periods of time can cause legal issues for a company (and this is why some companies will not let you work remotely from certain states). When dealing with foreign countries, things get even more complex for companies. For example US export control laws can kick in and thus cause certain forms of remote work in that country to be criminal.

As such when the background check discovers the foreign travel using the incorrect type of visas would be enough grounds for the clearance to be denied. With that said I have seen inconsistency with people getting public trusts. Some people will get denied while other get approved despite both having done similar things.

What should I say/do going forward?

If you have not already submitted the paperwork then do not submit it. That is a can of worms you do not want opened. Wait seven years, behave yourself with foreign travel in that use the correct type of visa. Most forms of clearances only care about the last seven years (some go back ten years). Then apply for the public trust. Clearances are typically very forgiving about things done a long time ago if you are honest about it and it is clear that you no longer do that thing.

If you have already submitted then be honest once the questions start coming in, and do not try to deflect responsibility for it. Expect and plan that you will not get the clearance. Also be on your best behavior since if they discover that your work violated some random obscure export control law being nice goes a long way in them deciding not to press charges against you.

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  • I haven't submitted anything yet. So, how/what should I tell my boss?
    – gregarious
    Dec 21, 2022 at 16:47
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    You can say something along the lines of "I am not interested in this position at this time." Or "I do not think I will be a good fit for it." "Are there any positions that are non government contract work?" The goal is to gently deflect and find something else that you can do without causing problems or headaches
    – Anketam
    Dec 21, 2022 at 17:07
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    And if all else fails "I looked at all the paperwork I have to fill out for the clearance and I really do not want to go through the hassle." The paperwork for getting a public trust was enough for me to have second thoughts about it.
    – Anketam
    Dec 21, 2022 at 17:12
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    It's been a while since I filled out a clearance form, but for certain sensitive countries (eg, Iran, North Korea, Cuba), I suspect that the question is whether you have ever visited, not limited to some specific time frame.
    – Llaves
    Dec 21, 2022 at 23:07
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    There's also the possibility that the OP owes taxes in other countries and violated their travel visa, since they worked during their stay. I briefly touched on that in an answer I gave on another question. workplace.stackexchange.com/questions/160611/… Dec 22, 2022 at 23:44
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It does not look good. I am familiar with the DOE security clearance process. Before requesting a clearance, for another job I had travelled extensively to China, Russia and India. As long as I said that all the trips were for work, and my boss backed me up, everything was fine.

I know someone who had a clearance, went to China to "find himself" and came back. He was denied a clearance.

The only thing you can do is be totally honest, as said before.

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What your coworkers knew or didn't know should be immaterial unless you actually told them "I'm in the USA and have never travelled, lived, or worked in any foreign country". What they believe should be irrelevant. My coworkers might believe I have blonde hair and blue eyes, but unless I've told them that or I've told them something different then it shouldn't matter to anyone what my coworkers believe to be true.

As for your travel to these "undesirable" locations is concerned, be honest. If that precludes you from the job, then so be it. Worrying about it isn't going to change anything, and lying about it would be the wrong course of action.

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    I haven't submitted any paperwork. Should I decline entirely?
    – gregarious
    Dec 21, 2022 at 16:57
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    If it were me, I'd submit the paperwork and be honest in answering any questions. If you submit the paperwork you have some chance of getting the job. If you don't submit the paperwork you have no chance of getting the job.
    – joeqwerty
    Dec 21, 2022 at 17:10
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    Travelling to an "undesirable" country may not be a deal breaker. Travel doesn't imply cooperation or collusion.
    – joeqwerty
    Dec 21, 2022 at 17:12
  • Be honest, like @joeqwerty says. Hiding anything opens up more questions, which will disqualify you more than qualifying you. Even the government does "not quite so honest" things. Telling them about "weird" things will only make them think you're more honest lol
    – Steve
    Dec 23, 2022 at 3:51
  • Hiding things or lying about them will cause trouble. Maybe even legal trouble. So tell the truth, but also make clear that they understand you just went there for your learn about life elsewhere. No reason at all to decline. The paperwork will be accepted or not, but not held against you.
    – gnasher729
    Jan 3, 2023 at 13:58
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This isn't overly complicated.

You list the job, you indicate the address of the business, you note that it included remote work.

You then underneath that job, indicate the locations and dates that you worked.

e.g:

ACME Co. 123 Street. Town, State, USA

2017-08-01 to 2022-08-03

Work locations:

2017-08-01 to 2019-04-01: Whatever your home address is, USA

2019-04-05 to 2019-08-05: 123 Street, Crappy Country

2019-08-05 to 2021-09-15: Whatever your home address is, USA

2021-09-15 to 2022-02-24: 456 Road, Some Other Crappy Country

And then make sure this is consistent with the "Places I've Travelled to" section.

In terms of tourist visas etc. that's honestly a distraction.

If they were particularly nosy, they may ask about specific visas that were used. You can then decide if you want to provide that information.

In the future, you should let the HR department know when your address changes. Even if your boss doesn't need to know, at least there is a paper trail of you informing your company.

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    "If they were particularly nosy, they may ask about specific visas that were used." -- oh, they know what visa's you've applied for and gotten. If they ask you (and they probably will), it is a test to see if you are honest. If you lie, or don't give a direct answer, they may very well dig deeper. Other answers have noted legal repercussions. That is a real concern. Might be a good idea to consult a lawyer before sending the paperwork in. Or bail. Bail out. Not the right job. Dec 22, 2022 at 14:22
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    @user57488: The visa would be from a "country that US considers an adversary", to quote from the question. Chances are that the US doesn't know the visa details. However, the US likely does know about your travel to and from that country
    – MSalters
    Dec 22, 2022 at 14:54
  • In the future, you should let the HR department know when your address changes I presume that in the context of OP's travel it was best case borderline (everyone assumes that "remote work" means "work from home 10 miles away because it is easier") or against the company policy (but since nobody ever checks then everyone gets comfortable - which means for everyone "working a week from the beach 200 miles west because worst case I will be yelled at" and OP went overboard with international travel to NK :))
    – WoJ
    Dec 23, 2022 at 9:13
  • What kind of visa: The USA might not care whether you went to Libya for example on a tourist visa (wrong) or a work visa (right).
    – gnasher729
    Jan 3, 2023 at 14:00
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Security clearance will require a travel history. It does not matter where your residence was. What matters is where you were on any given date for x years. under scrutiny this also includes the travel history of your co-habitants and your immediate family. Any contact with officials of any kind.

It does not matter which country, it is not for you to be making the call on the outcome. But they may need details of the landlord.

You will have to declare this absolutely. it is not something that can be omitted or skimmed over.

You do know they will want your account details for here, right?

In your favour is keeping things tight and not spilling your guts on Facebook.

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  • Account details? What are you talking about? The questionnaires you have to fill out for various US security clearances are public, and they do not include asking for any speech-related account details. Public Trust form SF 85P-S National Security form SF-86 PDF
    – ColleenV
    Dec 22, 2022 at 20:53
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    The forms are public, the questions you will be asked in follow up vetting are not. Your LinkedIn connections and Facebook friends are factored in.
    – mckenzm
    Dec 22, 2022 at 20:59
  • No, they aren't. Not even in the polygraph. Yeah, the investigators probably look at your online footprint, but you aren't asked to provide a list of accounts to them.
    – ColleenV
    Dec 22, 2022 at 21:03
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    @ColleenV Nope. I know somebody personally who was asked to provide their accounts, allow the investigator to view their social media pages, and not only that, as a reference, I was asked about the accounts I had friended.
    – user71659
    Dec 23, 2022 at 2:54
  • @user71659 What organization sponsored the clearance? It’s probably a different focus from my experience with it.
    – ColleenV
    Dec 23, 2022 at 2:57
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Do not lie. So you will need to disclose the presence in the unfriendly country.

However my understanding is you were not doing work for the unfriendly country in any way whatsoever? I.E. you weren't helping them fix F-14 Tomcats or design centrifuges? Then you should also make that clear - as that is much more important to them. Obviously their first assumption is that you chose that country to do your remote work because your remote work entailed work in that country. You'll need to show that it did not.

Generally, the question of a remote worker from country X doing work for a country X company for country X clients and being paid in country X pesos into a country X bank, yet their boots are on the ground in country Y... is treated differently in different countries. Some country Y's are happy to allow it on tourist visas and basically ignore the income and other implications. Others are not, and want the worker treated as a domestic worker and have the correct visa for that. The USA's policy is irrelevant here, what matters is the policy of the foreign countries you were in.

Were you deceptive by not telling your employer that your boots were on the ground in country Y while doing work for them? That depends on how country Y treats that situation in relation to the employer. Some countries want the employer to pay employment tax, healthcare, register there, etc. etc. Other countries may be sanguine to or even encourage remote/vagabond workers who want to work by day and tourist by night/weekend. If country Y imposes no requirements on the remote worker, then I think you're in the clear.

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  • It also affects company A in country X. My former employer would allow remote work only in countries in which we already had an established office, even though working in that office was not required. I think this was because of taxes or some other regulations.
    – shoover
    Dec 23, 2022 at 22:08
  • @shoover but why is that so? Only because of that country's particular laws. As such it varies by country and cannot be made a blanket statement. Dec 23, 2022 at 22:38
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    I'm responding to what I'm inferring from your answer, that if country X is the USA then country X's policy doesn't matter. Some country X's do care which country Y you're working in, and the USA is one of those country X's.
    – shoover
    Dec 23, 2022 at 22:41
  • @shoover OK I've cleared that up, please reconsider your DV. They care that you're located in that country and I'm advising OP to be honest about that. I meant to separate mere presence in the country from working for that country. Dec 23, 2022 at 22:50

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