How Far Back Does a Federal Background Check Go? (Years)

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Background Checks | May 24, 2024

How far back does a federal background check go a man holding a magnifying glass wonders while a federal courthouse below and a federal background check document on the right with calendar above it showing years, and thinking how many years back does a federal background check go on the right with phases of a person’s life from criminal to worker to suit wearer.

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How far back does a federal background check go and what is the time range covered by background checks? The standard practice for most background checks is to look into an applicant’s history for the past seven years.

However, with a federal background check, an extended period of examination (often years) may be legally permissible and professionally prudent, depending on the information being sought.1

The key is knowing what the background check is for and who is conducting the federal check because both of these conditions dictate how far back does a federal background check go.

Once those factors are determined, applicants can learn how to run a background check on themselves first, to see what appears on a background check within the number of years of their record’s examination.

Step 1. Learn How To Run a Federal Background Check

Knowing how to obtain a federal background screening on yourself is an invaluable tool, and is easy to do. Simply access the FBI’s Identity History Summary page and carefully follow the steps to submit your fingerprints and forms.

It will generally provide the full RAP sheet for criminal activity across the country. However, you can also use a background check agency to do a fast criminal history check for free.

Step 2. Determine Why the Check Is Being Performed

The reason for the background check helps determine how far back a federal screening can go. For example, if the federal check is examining criminal records for a job that works with vulnerable populations (such as healthcare, child care or a daycare background check, or for working in the public school system).

Likewise, if the federal background check is being conducted for a position in a public agency (such as working for the city or federal government) the security clearance background check can examine many years of the person’s life.

Knowing why the background check is being run helps identify how many years it will search.

Step 3. Who Is Running the Check?

The entity performing the background check also plays a role in how many years a federal background check can examine the record.

For example, if the background check is being done for adoption, then child abuse registries and felonies that involve crimes against children, will show up for life. This means that the background check can screen for many, many years.

Likewise, when a federal background check is being conducted by a law enforcement agency (such as during an arrest or a detainment), the person’s full background is looked at, regardless of how old the crime may be.

For most employment checks, the length of time examined during a federal background check is seven to ten years, max.

How Far Back Do Federal Background Checks Go?

How far back does a federal background check go? When dealing with employment background check reports, Fair Credit Reporting Act (FCRA)7 regulations prohibits reporting civil lawsuits, judgments, and arrest records older than seven years.

In contrast, criminal convictions may be disclosed without restraint, but are often subject to state laws.

While the federal government8 does not restrict using criminal background checks, numerous states have enacted legislation restricting how far back the Federal Bureau of Investigation can look into a person’s past when making hiring decisions.

Many states limit the time an employer can look at a criminal background check for conviction to seven years.

Federal background check reports typically do not include information about juvenile records or other papers sealed by the court, unless a state or law enforcement agency is performing the check.

In some areas, a federal background record check may go back as far as ten years. There are exceptions to the 7-year rule in several jurisdictions if an individual’s pay is above a specified threshold; this threshold is different from state to state.

The easiest way for an applicant to learn how far back the FBI can look is to look up the relevant state laws.1

How Far Back Do Federal Background Checks Go on Criminal Record?

How far back does a federal background check go? A federal criminal check looks for any federal charges brought against a candidate in 50 states or the District of Columbia for the past seven years, usually. These charges include tax cheating, burglary, abduction, and forgery, among others.

Federal Job List screenshot with yellow arrows pointing to bullet list items that outline what is required for a government job, which uses a fedeal background check, and explaining how far back do federal background checks go.

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Put simply, a standard criminal record check covers the previous seven years. To the extent allowed by law and for an extra fee, some agencies can assist with 10-year, comprehensive criminal history searches.2

How Far Back Does a Federal Background Check Go for the Purchase of a Firearm?

In the United States, individuals can buy firearms in several ways. They can get them at different places, including official shops, gun shows, the internet, and even private sales.

Every gun sale through a federally licensed dealer or some private persons who have a Federal Firearms License (FFL)9 is subject to a background investigation. When purchasing a firearm from a private seller, it is not always necessary to go through a background investigation.

Dept of Justice Screenshot of application for federal firearms license which many people wonder how many years back does a federal background check go, and in the FFL license case, many years.

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For the vast majority of persons, a federal background check for the purchase of a handgun will go back as far as any reporting agency possesses records pertinent to NICS,10 which is the entirety of their time spent alive and legally residing in the United States.3

This is also true for a concealed carry background check. The federal check examines the person’s lifetime.

How Far Back Does a Federal Background Check Go To Become a Teacher?

The purpose of doing background checks on prospective instructors is to make the classroom environment safe for the pupils.

Upon completing their teacher preparation program and submitting their inaugural instructional license application, educators will likely be required to go through this procedure again. The renewal of a license in several states is contingent upon passing a background check.4

While there is some variation in the specifics of what institutions and boards of administration look for in background checks, criminal records are often high on the list. Sometimes, it’s also investigated if the candidate has a history of abusing or neglecting students or dependent adults.

State law enforcement authorities are usually responsible for carrying out these background checks. It is common practice for some universities and state education departments to conduct a federal background check on each applicant.

How Far Back Do Federal Background Checks Go for Employment?

How far back does a federal background check go? Many types of negative information over seven years are no longer included in pre-employment screening as of the FCRA’s 2003 amendments.11

Paid income tax liens, debts in collections, civil cases or associated judgments, and arrest records fall under this category and will not show up on the federal check.

Accordingly, seven years is the standard look back period used throughout the United States. Since the FCRA7 is codified at the federal level, all businesses must adhere to its requirements, but there are state exceptions.5

How Long Is A Federal Background Check Good For?

Though professionals recommend that re-screening occur every 2-5 years, neither federal nor state law requires it.

However, re-screening is necessary to provide the safest work environment possible and protect the business from claims of carelessness and similar wrongdoing, so many professions require a federal background screening every few years.5

How Far Back Does a Government Background Check Go?

A federal job applicant’s criminal and credit records must be checked as part of a lengthy standard procedure.

The security clearance screening can include:

  • Interviews with past and current friends and family
  • Criminal history (and Juvenile records examinations)
  • Specialized registries (such as FACIS and other contractor lists)

The details collected by this type of federal screening depend on the level of security clearance required for the position. Using an SF-86, the process starts with a basic, lifetime federal check.

Methods for Acquiring a Clearance To Work With Classified Information

Many government agencies, especially those focused on public safety, require a security clearance.12 The clearances mentioned above are typically required for numerous positions in industries with greater security requirements.

A candidate’s offer of employment from a government agency is conditional on passing a background check for security clearance. And these checks can take anywhere from a few weeks to a few months to process.

Conducting a Background Check

The candidate can speed up the security clearance procedure by being prepared to submit the necessary paperwork and information as soon as a job offer is made. The Office of Personnel Management13 maintains a database of SF-8613 and SF-8514 forms for background investigations and granting security clearances for government employees.

When all the paperwork is turned in, the chosen agency can begin its inquiry. Timing is subject to fluctuation based on the volume and urgency of requests for security clearance.

Definitions of Various Forms of Clearances

Government jobs can be broken down into three categories:

  •         Positions that don’t require extreme caution
  •         Positions of public confidence
  •         Jobs in the national security apparatus

The hiring process for each job includes a check of criminal records. Computerized checks of a candidate’s past are often used for lesser levels of security clearance investigations.

Agents must conduct interviews with individuals who cohabited or worked with the candidate within the last seven years and sometimes further back if the employee needs a secret clearance for national security reasons.

Positions involving national security often require one of four to six different security clearances.

The SCI (Sensitive Compartmented Information) access program15 is also activated when clearance is upgraded to Top Secret.

If requested by the hiring office, it is possible to receive an interim security clearance within a few days of completing a full security package. In most cases, final approvals are handled and decided upon within 90 days.

Confidential projects can be achieved with an interim clearance, only temporarily until a full background check is conducted.6

What Will Disqualify You From Federal Employment?

Candidates seeking government jobs would do well to learn in advance what information is likely to be found in a background investigation. Here’s a list of the top reasons why someone could not be accepted.

Past Conviction Records

Criminal proceedings in federal court typically result in a person’s disqualification from federal employment. Theft, extortion, tax avoidance, and other white-collar offenses are looked down upon severely along with violent crimes and felonies.

Debt or Bankruptcy

Federally employed bankers evaluate each applicant’s credit record. There is no required credit score to work for the government, but having a history of debt or bankruptcy will work against a candidate.

This constitutes ineligibility in the eyes of the government because of the inability to meet financial commitments and the potential threat of compromise.

Abuse of Substances

When applying for a position that requires a security clearance, an applicant who admits to ever using drugs will be immediately disqualified.

If the government determines that a candidate is susceptible to their use of illegal drugs or prescription drug addiction, clearance will be denied. If the individual can provide documentation of their sobriety, they may be eligible for a government position.


All discrepancies between what the government believes and knows can be easily uncovered. Reasons for hiding anything about themselves make a candidate seem much more suspicious.

Conflict of Interests

There could be a conflict of interest if a government official has a family relationship or another job that could benefit them financially. During the interview, the time and place to come clean about such matters.

Disqualified on the SF-85

The Questionnaire for Public Trust Positions14 is always the first option when performing background investigations for government posts. Intentional misrepresentation or omission of material facts on this questionnaire constitutes grounds for elimination.

A job applicant can be better prepared for any eventuality if they are familiar with the laws that apply in their state. So, how far back does a federal background check go, it all depends on the job, the entity performing the check, and why the check is being performed.

Frequently Asked Questions About How Far Back Do Federal Background Checks Go

How Many Years Back Does a Federal Background Check Go?

Across the United States, a lookback period of seven years is the norm.

How Far Back Does a Government Background Check Go?

In most cases, a background check will look at the prior seven years of criminal and court documents. However, this may vary depending on local regulations and the nature of the investigation.

How Many Years Back Does a Federal Background Check Go?

Generally, for employment the time frame is (7) seven years, but it can go back farther.

How Far Back Do Most Employers Go for Background Checks?

Background investigations cover seven years of criminal and judicial documents but can go further based on regulatory requirements.

How Far Back Does a Fingerprint Background Check Go?

FBI fingerprint checks go as far back as the user’s history.

How Far Back Does a Background Check Go?

Most jurisdictions examine back seven years for work-related criminal investigations.

How Far Back Does a Level 2 Background Check Go?

There is no time limit on looking for charges nationally, but there are limitations on level 2 background checks, depending on the type of position.

How Long Does a Federal Background Check Take?

A federal background check can take as little as 30 mins (using the National Instant criminal background check system) or up to a few weeks, depending on who is doing the check and why.

How Far Back Does a Federal Criminal Background Check Go?

A federal criminal background check can go back a minimum of seven years, but for certain positions and clearances, it can extend for the person’s entire life.


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