Federal Employment Background Check Disqualifiers: The “Forever” Rule

Background check repair icon.Written by Background Check Repair

Background Checks | April 25, 2024

Man walking toward a federal building with a magnifying glass above his head as another man in a green suit holds out his arm to stop him from proceeding, while a failed federal background check document on the right indicates that federal employment background check disqualifiers were found in the walking man’s past.

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The background checks that potential federal government employees must pass are some of the most intensive checks in the country, which means there is also a long list of federal employment background check disqualifiers.

In fact, some things can disqualify applicants ‘forever,’ because many federal checks examine a person’s entire life, even their juvenile records, and a disqualifying offense will show up on these types of checks forever.

However, with so many jobs in the federal government requiring various levels of checks, it can be fairly easy to be prepared for things like the ‘forever rule’ and how that can affect an individual’s chances of passing a federal background check for a specific position.

The first thing to do is to identify any federal employment background check disqualifiers by learning how to check for your federal records.

A name based check will show any immediate problems, and then a fingerprint based check will illuminate what shows up on a background check for most federal jobs.

Federal Background Check for Employment: How Far Back Does it Go?

Although background checks are becoming extremely common, especially basic criminal history checks that can be performed in just minutes, the federal employment background check is fairly different than most. While most background checks will be checking basic information over the last 7 years, certain federal background checks will be searching for tons of information not normally included in a background check. Beyond this, most federal background checks will go back indefinitely, meaning individuals can’t rely on charges from more than 10 years ago not even appearing on the background check like they normally would.

This may come as a surprise to many individuals who are familiar with things like the 7-year rule, however, the 7 and 10-year rules that many individuals are familiar with are only enforced at the state level.

Currently, the only federal laws regarding background checks are those outlined by the Fair Credit Reporting Act.1 However, the FCRA has no limits on how far back a background check can go. This technically means that for any position that requires a federal background check, the criminal history check is free to examine an individual’s entire life. Granted there are still some legal limitations to this.

Mainly, expunged and sealed records will still not show up on a federal background check in most cases, so any charges filed when the individual was a minor will likely not appear or have any effect in regards to the federal employment background check disqualifiers.

PACER screenshot for running a criminal background check search with yellow arrows pointing to buttons for case searches, filing electronically, managing the PACER account and how courts can move to online platforms.

Whether or not the check will actually examine an applicant’s entire life is a different matter. In general, many federal jobs will still follow the standard 10-year rule when looking at an individual’s criminal history. However, jobs that require above-average security clearance will almost certainly go as far back as possible during the criminal history check… usually forever, and include juvenile records.

Besides the basic criminal history checks that individuals must undergo as part of a federal employment background check, there are also numerous other tests they must undergo during the application process. Unlike most jobs that may require a handful of interviews to understand the individual’s integrity and qualifications, federal employment applications often require unique assessments, especially when the job comes with a high level of security clearance. These checks can range dramatically and will depend entirely on the nature of the job and the security clearance level that comes with it.

  • Assessments include Emotional Intelligence Tests,2 which aim to measure an individual’s ability to monitor their emotions toward themselves and others.
  • Cognitive Ability Tests3 are also commonly used to measure an applicant’s ability to solve problems while also testing things like reading comprehension, memory, and reasoning skills.
  • Integrity and Honesty tests4 are another common assessment, especially for applicants for jobs that have a high-security clearance and access to potentially dangerous or sensitive information. These tests usually consist of a series of questions designed to understand the individual’s emotional stability and agreeableness. However, this test does have its limits as applicants can lie on the test if they know the answer that is preferred, because of this, this assessment is usually used in conjunction with other tests.
  • Personality Tests5 is another test that operates similar to an integrity and honesty test but uses different kinds of questions to understand the individual. These two tests are usually used in conjunction when gathering data on applicants.
  • Reference Checking6 is another part of many background checks these days, however, the reference checks for federal jobs with a security clearance will be different from the reference checks that most individuals are familiar with. The biggest difference is that individuals are often required to provide a specific list of references, whether the individuals think highly of the applicant or not.

Whereas on a traditional application the applicant will only include references that will make them look good, many federal jobs will require individuals to put down neighbors, family members, friends, coworkers, etc. Applicants must include these individuals regardless of how they feel about the applicant so that the individual performing the background check can make an honest assessment of the individual and their integrity.

Although there may not be a specific list of federal employment background check disqualifiers when it comes to the reference check investigation, this can play a major role in the background check screening process.

Screenshot of uniform guidelines on employee selection, questions and answers, testing and assessments, and training HR departments using federally approved practices.

There are plenty of other assessments that can possibly be run on federal government employees, many of which are described in detail by the United States Office of Personnel Management.7 Although many of these can sound intimidating, only jobs that require the highest levels of security clearance will include the more intensive checks. Entry-level jobs in the federal government will still have background check processes somewhat similar to what many individuals are already familiar with.

Federal Employment Background CheckHow Far Back It GoesDisqualifiers
NACIUsually 10 YearsSee Below
NACLCEntire LifeSee Below
SSBIEntire LifeSee Below
MBIEntire LifeSee Below
BIEntire LIfeSee Below

Federal Employment Background Check Disqualifiers: Debt and More

Due to the extremely varied and often secretive nature of so many federal jobs, it can be difficult to narrow down a specific list of federal employment background check disqualifiers. Many of the jobs in the federal government will have access to sensitive information, require high-security clearance, or require a certain level of integrity and public trust. With so much of this information being top-secret, in many cases, the application process can be somewhat secret too. However, there are still some general behaviors and other information that can appear on a federal background check that will almost certainly be red flags for most positions.

The first and firmest disqualifier is the status of the applicant’s U.S. Citizenship. For virtually any position in the federal government, the individual must be a U.S. citizen in order to qualify for the job. In most cases, these individuals will be eliminated early on in the application process, but it is possible for an individual to slip through the first few cracks and go at least several stages into the application process before their citizenship is uncovered.

Like all jobs, felony convictions are also immediate disqualifiers in many cases. Of course, without a specific list provided by the federal government, it can be hard to say what can be overlooked, it’s safe to assume that almost any felony conviction appearing on any federal employment background check beside a NACI check will result in automatic disqualification.

The NACI test can be an exception to this in some cases, as the check is only used for applicants to federal jobs that do not require any kind of security clearance. These will be basic desk and clerk jobs in the federal government that won’t have any kind of access to sensitive information. Since the job carries so little risk, it’s entirely possible that certain felony convictions will be overlooked in some cases, but it is still fairly unlikely.

FBI employment eligibility webpage screenshot with yellow arrows pointing to federal employment background check disqualifiers.

Due to the public trust and integrity being such important factors for many of the higher clearance jobs, anything that might implicate the individual is of low morals or integrity will be seen as a disqualifier. Financial crimes and debt-related issues are an example of this. Other instances are substance abuse history, even if there are no felony charges.

Although usually not an issue with some of the lower security clearance jobs, conflicts of interest will also be examined for the more intensive checks. Having access to sensitive information inherently runs the risk that this information can end up in the wrong hands. This is part of the reason things like extensive reference checks are performed, to ensure the applicant has no close relative that could benefit from the information that the applicant would have access to, or a similar situation occurring.

Finally, mental health disorders carry a risk for many high-security clearance jobs. Similar to substance abuse this is something that personality and integrity tests will look for.

Federal Employment Background Check Disqualifiers: Table Showing NACI, OPM, Homeland Security SSBI, MBI, and BI Response

Below is a table outlining the common disqualifiers for varying levels of security clearance and the applicable background check for federal employment. Keep in mind that most agencies and positions do not have a defined list of federal employment background check disqualifiers. Since the tests aim to disqualify candidates that would use their access to sensitive information to harm the public, the exact disqualifiers themselves are an issue of national security as well.

DisqualifierNACIOPMHomeland SecuritySSBIMBIBI
Felony ConvictionSometimesYesYesYesYesYes
Substance AbuseSometimesYesYesYesYesYes
Conflict of InterestSometimesSometimesYesYesYesYes
Mental Health DisordersUsuallyYesYesYesYesYes

What Does a Federal Employment Background Check Consist Of

Federal employment background checks will consist of some of the most intensive and often unique checks of any job. There are few jobs in existence that pose a greater risk to the general public as a result of hiring the wrong candidate, or not checking candidates thoroughly. This is the main reason that the federal employment background check disqualifiers are so extensive and so strict. An applicant not being checked properly can lead to catastrophic consequences that can become issues of national security.

Most federal background checks will start by covering the basic checks that are seen as part of most pre-employment background checks. First and foremost, the individual’s identity will be verified using their name and social security number. Once confirmed, the next step will be a basic but thorough criminal history check. The exact check will depend on the federal agency involved but will likely involve an Identity History Summary Check,8 which is a fingerprint-based national criminal history check performed by the FBI.

Beyond these two basic checks, the exact checks will depend on the job that is being applied for. Entry-level jobs that do not require a security clearance will likely include some basic reference checks that are similar to any other job. Drug screenings are also a strong possibility for federal jobs as well.

For jobs that will require some level of security clearance and access to certain sensitive information, the reference check will become more exhaustive. Neighbors, family members, ex-partners, and more are all fair game for questions involving the integrity and honesty of the applicant. Some basic conflict of interests checks will also be performed here depending on the position, as well as debt and other checks involving the applicant’s financial information.

National name check program screenshot operated by the FBI with a close up of a man's hands typing into a laptop keyboard to run a name based background check.

For jobs that require an extensive security clearance, the reference checks will become extremely thorough. Although most individuals are used to a background check taking only a week or two, at this level background checks can take months as the smallest details are investigated. Conflict of interest investigations will also be more thorough at this stage to ensure there is nothing in the individual’s past that would lead anyone to believe that they might have ulterior motives in gaining access to highly-sensitive information.

It is also in this level of background check that some of the more unique tests will be performed. Integrity tests, numerous interviews, personality tests, and more can all be expected at this level of a background check.

Finally, the highest level of security clearance will include everything mentioned above and a few extra. Virtually all the checks performed above will be checked even more thoroughly. Personal relationships will also be investigated as well as more in-depth cognitive and integrity-based tests. At this level, any kind of untrustworthy conduct will be investigated fully and could potentially result in disqualification.

How Long Does a Background Check Take for Federal Employment

Since federal employment background checks are some of the most intensive and thorough background checks performed today, they also tend to take the longest. Although the background checks for many entry-level jobs that don’t require security clearance will still be completed on a standard timeline of less than two weeks, some jobs can take far longer.

In general, the higher the security clearance, the higher the risk, and the longer the check will take. There isn’t a perfect sliding scale for how long a federal background check will take, especially since there isn’t a specific list of federal employment background check disqualifiers. However, even a background check for a job that requires basic security clearance can take up to a month.

Positions with higher or top-level security clearance can take as much as 9 months in many cases. One of the biggest reasons for the extensive time frame is so much of the information that is being checked must be checked manually.

Most background checks simply check databases for certain information but this isn’t possible for things like reference checks. For high-level security clearance, background check investigators may have to talk to over a dozen people individually and ask them specific questions

Again there are many different factors to consider such as if it is the FBI or a different agency performing the check.

What Disqualifies You From a Federal Background Check?

Certain actions and criminal activities disqualify a person from federal employment. Some of these include:

NACI Disqualifiers (NACI Background Check)

NACI disqualifiers follow similar patterns to most non-government positions. Felony convictions, drug abuse problems, or any dishonesty on an application will result in disqualification. Although not as strict as security clearance jobs, anything that indicates poor integrity will result in disqualification.

Denied Federal Employment Background Check Disqualifier: Debt

Debt is only a major factor for disqualification in high-security clearance jobs or jobs that deal with financial information. Similar to how a retail job would be hesitant to hire an individual with a history of theft, most federal jobs don’t want individuals with a history of financial information to have access to large amounts of money, or information that they could potentially sell to get out of debt.

Is a DUI One of the Federal Employment Background Check Disqualifications

DUI’s are not always an immediate disqualifier for low-level security clearance jobs or jobs that don’t require any level of security clearance. Once again this is an issue of more integrity that will be up to the background check investigator. Individuals with multiple DUI’s will almost certainly be disqualified as it exhibits a pattern of risky behavior.

How Do I Know if I Passed My Background Check

Individuals will be contacted by the hiring agency about the results of their background check as soon as they are available. In the case of security clearance background checks that take several months, this may mean waiting a long time. However, there will likely be contacted with the applicant throughout the background check process. As with most applications and background checks, the hiring agency contacting an individual for additional information or additional interviews means they have not yet been disqualified.

Background checks can be scary, and federal background checks are likely the most intimidating checks currently available. Luckily, by taking a few basic steps to prepare such as understanding the federal employment background check disqualifiers, individuals can be prepared for the often lengthy process.

Frequently Asked Questions About Federal Employment Background Check Disqualifiers

What Will Disqualify a Person From Federal Employment?

Anything that indicates poor integrity will often disqualify an individual from federal employment, but in particular, felonies and criminal activity can be a barrier.

What Kinds of Things Cause Someone to Fail a Federal Background Check?

The amount of federal employment background check disqualifiers is extensive but usually involves anything that indicates a pattern of dishonest behavior, criminal action, or activity that compromises the security of the country.

What Can Trigger a Red Flag on a Background Check?

Red flags are most commonly associated with a criminal history check. Felonies or even misdemeanors are common red flags on a background check.

What if I Had an OPM Background Check Show an Unfavorable Outcome?

There is not much that can be done regarding a poor outcome on an OPM background check. Appeals are possible for certain aspects of the background check, but in general it is a difficult decision to reverse.

Can You Pass a Federal Background Check With a Misdemeanor on Your Record?

Yes, many federal background checks can be passed if the individual has a misdemeanor on their criminal record. How many misdemeanors and the nature of the crime will be major factors in regards to if the individual can still pass.

What Are the Homeland Security Background Check Disqualifications?

The Department of Homeland Security has tons of different positions with varying levels of security clearances. Disqualifiers usually involve integrity or patterns of dishonest behavior. Although not the official list, the disqualifiers listed for the TSA9 will likely be very similar.

How Long Does a Background Check Take for Federal Employment to Pass?

Federal employment background checks can take anywhere from 2 weeks to 9 months depending on the positions and checks being performed.

What Are the NACI Background Check Disqualifiers?

The NACI background check will have similar disqualifiers to a strict civilian employer. Felony convictions, dishonesty, substance abuse etc. are all common disqualifiers.

What Do Public Trust Clearance Disqualifiers Consist Of?

Public Trust Clearance disqualifiers are almost always based around dishonesty and integrity. Lying about anything on application or being untruthful during any part of the background check screening will result in disqualification.

What Is NACI Background Check and Why Is It Used?

The National Agency Check with Inquiries (NACI) Is the most basic level of background check required to be passed by federal employees. The background check is for federal employees in positions that do not require a security clearance.


1Federal Trade Commission Protecting America’s Consumers. (2022). Fair Credit Reporting Act. Legal Library. Retrieved July 04, 2022, from <https://www.ftc.gov/legal-library/browse/statutes/fair-credit-reporting-act>

2U.S Office of Personnel Management. (2022). Assessment & Selection. Policy, Data, Oversight. Retrieved July 04, 2022, from <https://www.opm.gov/policy-data-oversight/assessment-and-selection/other-assessment-methods/emotional-intelligence-tests/>

3U.S Office of Personnel Management. (2022). Assessment & Selection. Policy, Data, Oversight. Retrieved July 04, 2022, from <https://www.opm.gov/policy-data-oversight/assessment-and-selection/other-assessment-methods/cognitive-ability-tests/>

4U.S Office of Personnel Management. (2022). Assessment & Selection. Policy, Data, Oversight. Retrieved July 04, 2022, from <https://www.opm.gov/policy-data-oversight/assessment-and-selection/other-assessment-methods/integrityhonesty-tests/>

5U.S Office of Personnel Management. (2022). Assessment & Selection. Policy, Data, Oversight. Retrieved July 04, 2022, from <https://www.opm.gov/policy-data-oversight/assessment-and-selection/other-assessment-methods/personality-tests/>

6U.S Office of Personnel Management. (2022). Assessment & Selection. Policy, Data, Oversight. Retrieved July 04, 2022, from <https://www.opm.gov/policy-data-oversight/assessment-and-selection/other-assessment-methods/reference-checking/>

7U.S Office of Personnel Management. (2022). Assessment & Selection. Policy, Data, Oversight. Retrieved July 04, 2022, from <https://www.opm.gov/policy-data-oversight/assessment-and-selection/other-assessment-methods/background-evaluationinvestigation/>

8FBI Federal Bureau of Investigation. (2022). Identity History Summary Checks. Services. Retrieved July 04, 2022, from <https://www.fbi.gov/services/cjis/identity-history-summary-checks#:~:text=For%20a%20fee%2C%20the%20FBI,federal%20employment%2C%20naturalization%2C%20or%20military>

9Transportation Security Administration. (2022). Disqualifying Offenses and Other Factors. Disqualifying Offenses and Other Factors. Retrieved July 04, 2022, from <https://www.tsa.gov/disqualifying-offenses-factors>

10FBI Jobs. (2022). What it takes to join the FBI. FBI Eligibility and Hiring. Retrieved July 04, 2022, from <https://www.fbijobs.gov/eligibility>

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