Freedom of Information Act Program

FOIA Background

The Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), 5 U.S.C. § 552, is a federal freedom of information law to allow any person the right to request access to federal agency records maintained by agencies within the executive branch of the Federal Government. Agencies are required to disclose records upon written request except for those records that are protected from disclosure by any of the nine FOIA exemptions or by one of the three special law enforcement record exclusions. This right of access is enforceable in U.S. courts. Since its enactment the FOIA statute has been amended several times.

The Electronic Freedom of Information Act (E-FOIA)

Amendments of 1996 require agencies to provide the public with electronic access to any of their "Reading Room" records that have been created by them since November 1, 1996. Each agency shall make available for public inspection and copying final opinions, including concurring and dissenting opinions, as well as orders, made in the adjudication of cases and a general index of the records. In accordance with E-FOIA, please browse through our Index of Documents  for information that is currently available in our E-FOIA Reading Room.  The information found on the Index of Documents includes “frequently requested records.” Browsing through this site before submitting a FOIA request may be cost-effective.

Reading Room

BIS does not maintain a Public Inspection facility (Reading Room). Instead, documents that are required to be made publicly available in the Reading Room are available on the Internet. These items are kept on the website for five years. They are in a searchable PDF format and require Adobe Acrobat 3.0 reader or higher to view. This reader can be downloaded at no cost to the user.

FOIA Program Office

The responsibility for the development and maintenance FOIA policies, procedures, and guidance is handled through the Office of Planning, Evaluation and Management (OPEM). The FOIA Program Office is also responsible for oversight of the Bureau of Industry and Security FOIA program.

How to File a FOIA Request

You can submit a FOIA request to BIS for any agency record that is not publicly available. When filing your request, describe as best as possible the records you are requesting. In your description include information such as:

  • the date and place the records were created 
  • file descriptions, subject matter, persons involved, and 
  • other pertinent details that will help identify the records for which you are asking.
  • FOIA requests must be submitted to BIS in writing (mail, facsimile, or e-mail). The FOIAonline system is also available for you to submit your requests electronically. FOIAonline is a multi-agency FOIA tracking and processing tool that allows requesters to register as a user to:
  • submit FOIA requests (to participating agencies);
  • track progress on each request; and
  • communicate directly with the staff handling requests at all points in the process.
  • Guest users are welcome to use the FOIAonline system to submit requests, search for previously released records, and generate reports, but the tracking and communications features will not be available.
  • Requests can also be submitted to BIS by paper copy or through the electronic FOIA request mailbox at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. . When making a request, please include a mailing address so we may contact you if necessary. Keep a copy of your request; you may need to refer to it for further correspondence with the agency.

15 C.F.R. § 4.11(c) states that you will be charged a search fee in connection with your FOIA request even if no responsive documents are located or if responsive documents are determined to be exempt from disclosure under any applicable FOIA exemptions, according to the established schedule, except when a fee waiver has been granted. The four categories and chargeable fees are:

  • Commercial use requests;
  • Educational and non-commercial scientific institution requests;
  • Representation of the news media;
  • All other

Fee: Requesters may set a limit on the amount that they are willing to pay for a request. If it is estimated that fees will exceed the fee limit set by the requester, BIS will notify the requester, in writing, and offer the requester the opportunity to reduce the scope of the request in order to reduce estimated fees.

Federal agencies are required to respond to FOIA requests within 20 working days of receipt unless there are unusual circumstances such as: 1) requesting records from field facilities or other separate establishments; 2) examining voluminous records; and 3) the need for consultation with another component or Federal agency.

If you should have questions concerning your request call the BIS FOIA Public Liaison at (202) 482-7893.

What Information to Include in Your FOIA Request

When submitting a FOIA request clearly state that you are requesting documents under the Freedom of Information Act. As part of your request, you should also include:

  • Your contact information (full name, address, phone number, and email address);
  • As many details as possible about the information you are seeking from BIS (for example, “A log of FOIA requests received between Jan. 1, 2013, and the present”);
  • Indicate whether you are willing to pay fees for searching, reviewing, and/or duplicating records and if so, the amount you are willing to pay. You may request that fees be waived pursuant to procedures established in Department's FOIA regulations, 15 CFR Section 4.11(l) , which outlines the factors we rely on when determining whether the statutory standard for granting a fee waiver has been met:

The subject of the requested records must concern identifiable operations or activities of the Federal Government.

  • The disclosable portions of the requested records must be meaningfully informative about Government operations or activities in order to be “likely to contribute” to and increase public understanding of those operations or activities.
  • The disclosure of the requested information must contribute to the understanding of a reasonably broad audience of persons interested in the subject, as opposed to the individual understanding of the requester.
  • The disclosure of the requested information is likely to contribute “significantly” to the public’s understanding of Government operations or activities.
  • Whether the requester has a commercial interest that would be furthered by the requester.
  • Whether any identified commercial interest of the requester is sufficiently great, in comparison with the public interest in disclosure, such that the disclosure is not primarily in the commercial interest of the requester.
  • Please make sure you include a waiver justification that addresses the above factors.

Sample FOIA Request Letter


Freedom of Information Act Request

(select appropriate address information above depending on the manner of delivery)

To Whom It May Concern:

Under the Freedom of Information Act, 5 U.S.C. § 552, I am requesting copies of [identify the records as clearly and specifically as possible, specifying dates and record location if possible].

If there are any fees for searching or copying the records, please let me know before you fill my request. [Or, please supply the records without informing me of the cost if the fees do not exceed $______, which I agree to pay.]

If you deny all or any part of this request, please cite each specific exemption you think justifies your withholding of information. Notify me of appeal procedures available under the law. Optional: If you have any questions about handling this request, you may telephone me at ___________ (home/cell phone) or at ___________ (office phone).


Full Name
Your contact information (address, phone number, and email address)

FOIA Exemptions

For more information on FOIA exemptions, please go to the DOC FOIA website.

Submitting a FOIA Appeal

FOIA requesters may appeal an agency's decision not to provide information within 30 days of the date of the written denial. Appeals must include the following information:

  • a copy of the original request;
  • the initial denial, if any; and
  • a statement of the reasons why the initial denial, if any, was in error.

FOIA requesters shall include with the letter of appeal copies of their original requests and the responses to the request, clearly marking the letters and the outside envelopes, "FOIA Appeal." Appeals should be made to:

Assistant General Counsel for Employment, Litigation and Information

U.S. Department of Commerce

Office of the General Counsel, Room 5896

1401 Constitution Ave., NW

Washington, D.C. 20230

Location of BIS' Electronic Reading Room

This component does not maintain a separate public inspection facility. Per BIS Policy Directive, Number 1012, June 1, 2008, “only personnel approved to work on BIS IT systems are allowed access to them.” The majority of BIS IT systems require a high degree of protection due to the storage and accessing of sensitive information, law enforcement, personnel, and technical information. Several BIS IT systems are categorized under federal guidance as “high security impact” systems, largely because they store global trade data.

BIS policies do not allow public use of computer terminals. The public may access the Department of Commerce’s library computer terminals.

Requesters should first view records located in BIS' Electronic Reading Room . If the records sought cannot be located at this site, please call (202) 482-8093. If records sought are older than 5 years, then a written FOIA request must be submitted. The BIS E-FOIA website is covered under the General Records Schedule (GRS) 14, item 11b, which states, “Dispose of in accordance with approved agency disposition instructions for the related records or with the related FOIA request, whichever is later.” Since these records are not part of a FOIA request, they are covered under the retention instructions found in the Export Administration Regulations (EAR), which indicates that such documents are maintained for five years.

Publicly Available Information

For more information about documents that are available to the public, please go to Index of Documents .

Legal Authority

Title 15 Code of Federal Regulation--Commerce and Foreign Trade, Part 4--Public Information

For more detailed information, see the Department of Justice  Text on the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) and the Privacy Act (PA).

For additional general information on how to make a FOIA request, see "A Citizen's Guide on Using the Freedom of Information Act and the Privacy Act of 1974 to Request Government Records." This report is published by the Committee on Government Reform of the House of Representatives. It is available for sale for $5.00 from the U.S. Government Printing Office, stock number 052-071-01287-7. It also can be accessed on the World Wide Web on the Library of Congress Web site . This publication is also available at Federal Depository Libraries, the Government Printing Office, or you can access it through the GPO Access  Web site.

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