Paying fees

Agencies may charge “reasonable” fees for the “direct” costs of searching for and copying the records you request, unless you are entitled to fee benefits or waivers. (For instance, representatives of the news media do not pay search fees; see below.) Search fees generally range from $11 to $28 per hour, based on the salary and benefits of the employee doing the search. Fees for computer time, which are described in each agency’s FOIA regulations, vary greatly. They may be as high as $270 per hour. Photocopying costs are normally between 3 and 25 cents per page.

Search fees may be charged even if few or no documents are located in response to your request. Unless you are requesting information for a commercial use, agencies may not charge you for the time they spend examining files to determine what individual documents should be exempt from disclosure or for deleting material in those documents. News media requests are not considered “commercial” uses.

A “representative of the news media” is a person or entity that gathers and disseminates information of current interest to the public. In addition to traditional broadcasters and periodicals, it encompasses freelance journalists and sometimes bloggers if they “can demonstrate a solid basis for expecting publication” with a particular news-media entity, which might include a blog.

Agencies may not require advance payment of any fee under $250 unless the requester has previously failed to make timely payment. Despite this, many agency regulations require that you agree to pay any anticipated fees in excess of $25 before they process your request.

On rare occasions, some agencies have “aggregated” multiple requests by a requester or group of related requesters, defining them as a single request in order to limit fee benefits. Agency regulations permitting this practice require that the requests clearly be related.

Before making your FOIA request you may want to obtain an estimate of the search and duplication fees. These will vary based on the category of requester you fit into (discussed below). In some cases, the agency’s FOIA officer can give you this information by telephone. As an alternative, state in your request letter your willingness to pay fees up to a certain limit and ask to be contacted by telephone or letter if the fees are likely to exceed that amount. (See Sample FOIA Request Letter.)

FOIA requires agencies to publish in the Federal Register uniform schedules for search and reproduction fees. You may also obtain a fee schedule by contacting the agency FOIA officer.