GDPR Subject access request (SAR) – 6 steps to deal with it

A Subject Access Request (SAR) is the Right of Access allowing an individual to obtain records to their personal information, held by an organisation. GDPR, which became applicable in May 2018, provides individuals with the right of access to information.

It is essential that your organisation is aware of the basics of SARs and can handle them effectively to avoid large fines. In this blog post, we provide a six-step practical guide on how you can deal with subject access requests under the GDPR in 2023.

  1. Recognise the request

The first step to responding to a SAR is to identify it. The GDPR does not specify how an individual can make a valid request for information. A subject access request can be written or verbal, and it can be made to any part of your organisation including social media.

Therefore, it is best to assume that if an individual asks you for their personal data, regardless of the channel or mode of communication, it constitutes a valid subject access request under the GDPR. It is advised that basic training on the GDPR should be provided to all staff members and managers within an organisation.

Your employees should be able to recognise a SAR and pass it on to the relevant focal person who can handle the request.

  1. Understand the time limitations

The GDPR requires you to respond to a SAR within one month i.e. 30 days of its receipt. You must get back to the individual with the requested information without undue delay.

However, you can extend this time period to up to three months if the request is complex, or if the same individual has made a high number of requests. In this case, you must inform the individual that you need more time within one month of the request to avoid any legal issues.

  1. Dealing with fees and excessive requests

You cannot charge a fee for providing information to individuals in response to a subject access request. However, there is one exception to this rule. If you receive a SAR that is ‘manifestly unfounded or excessive’, you can charge a reasonable fee to deal with the request or refuse to provide information at all.

There is still some speculation over what requests can be considered manifestly unfounded or excessive and therefore, it is advised that you take caution when refusing a SAR. Similarly, there is no certain threshold for the reasonable fee that you can charge. The ICO guidance suggests that it must be charged on the basis of the administrative costs associated with the retrieval of the requested information.

To be on a safer side, it is best not to charge a fee or refuse a SAR at all. But, if you choose to refuse to deal with a repetitive SAR then you should inform the individual within one month of the receipt of the request with the reasons for refusal.

  1. Identify, search, and gather the requested data

The most time-consuming and labour-intensive part of responding to a subject access request is gathering the requested data. If an individual makes a broad request for access to all their personal data, then it can take weeks to identify and search for the information.

Personal data is defined as any information relating to an identifiable natural person under the GDPR. This broad definition makes it difficult to identify the information that you need to provide.

The ICO states that if an organisation processes a large amount of personal information, then it should ask individuals to clarify their request for information. Therefore, a good approach is to ask for additional parameters or specific pieces of information that individuals need from the SAR. However, it is important to understand that you will need to comply with the SAR even if the individual refuses to provide additional parameters.

It is advised that organisations should allocate someone to be in charge of coordinating the process of gathering requested personal data. Document management providers can help you carry out effective searches for data using the right date range and keywords. Even though these services can increase costs, it ensures that your organisation can comply with the information needs of a SAR in time and correctly.

  1. Learn about what information to withhold

A challenging aspect of responding to a SAR is to decide what information to withhold from the requester. After you have gathered all the requested information, the next step is to filter out the information that you can legally hold back.

One particular concern is to ensure that when responding to a SAR, you should not disclose the personal data of other individuals. The Data Protection Act (DPA) 2018 states that you should not comply with a SAR if it would require you to disclose information about another identifiable individual.

The exceptions are when the other individual has given their consent to the disclosure, or the organisation finds it reasonable to comply with the request without the consent of the individual. When deciding whether you disclose the information about the third party, you should balance the GDPR’s right of access against the third party’s rights.

Other than this, Section 45(4) of the DPA 2018 specifies special cases when you can withhold personal data of an individual. These include cases when non-disclosure leads to obstruction in an official or legal enquiry, or protection of public or national security.

Therefore, you should be careful about the information that you provide when complying with a subject access request. It is important to understand what information you can withhold to prevent a breach of other’s privacy or to support the public or national interest.

  1. Developing and sending a response

Once you have all everything you need for the subject access request, the last step is to develop and send a response to the individual. Organisations need to provide the following information to the requester:

  • Legal basis for and purpose of processing the personal data of the individual.
  • Third-parties to whom the personal data has been disclosed.
  • Existence of the requester’s rights to the information including the erasure of the personal data and restriction of the processing of the personal data.
  • Expected period for which the personal data will be stored.
  • Categories of personal data.
  • Information about the origin of the personal data.

Most organisations will have provided much of the information above in their privacy policy already and so can reuse it from there.

For sending out the response in 2023, the GDPR requires that you provide the information in a concise, intelligible, transparent, and easily accessible form that is understandable by the individual. Secure online portals or encrypted email are recommended ways to deliver the response securely and efficiently.


Understanding how to deal with a subject access request is an important part of complying with the GDPR in 2023. We have outlined a step-by-step process that you can use to comply with a GDPR subject access request from individuals.

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