What Does Federal Background Check Consist Of? All 10 Things

Background check repair icon.Written by Background Check Repair

Background Checks | June 20, 2024

What does federal background check consist of a man scratching his head wonders while looking at a judge and courthouse and a magnifying glass that is examining a federal job background check on a large computer screen.

Many people who are applying for a job may be wondering, what does federal background check consist of and what does a background investigation for security clearance look like?

Although what exactly is checked will depend on the position that is being applied for, there are at least 10 things in the list below that are considered during this federal verification process.

Federal background checks are far more intensive than most background checks but shouldn’t be a cause for major concern for most individuals.

In fact, anyone can do a simple background check to determine if any disqualifiers exist before applying for federal

What Does a Federal Background Check Consist Of?

Most people wondering, what does federal background check consist of, likely have a specific job in mind that they may have already applied for. Like most pre-employment background checks, the exact checks will determine the position being applied for. However, when it comes to jobs in the federal government there are a handful of checks that are run no matter what the job is.

The above checks will be performed at a bare minimum for all jobs in the federal government. These checks are generally performed through the FBI as part of the FBI’s Identity History Summary Check.1 This is a fingerprint-based check that pulls from numerous criminal databases that show arrests, charges, and other criminal information in addition to convictions.

Screenshot of FBI website page for Identity History Summary Checks (Rap Sheets) with yellow arrow pointing to an article providing information for federal background check requirements when requesting a copy.

Besides the minimum background checks above, there are numerous other checks that will be performed for specific positions in the federal government. These include but are not limited to:

  1. Driving Record Check
  2. Credit History Check
  3. Education Verification
  4. Employment Verification
  5. Drug Screening
  6. Conflict of Interest Check
  7. Public Trust Clearance Check
  8. Extensive Reference Checks
  9. Mental Health Checks
  10. Cognitive & Integrity tests

Most individuals will undergo a handful of these additional checks. Most of the more intensive checks are reserved for positions in the federal government that require a certain amount of public trust and security clearance due to access to potentially harmful information.

The checks for these positions will be some of the most exhaustive background check procedures anywhere and generally include months of reference checks and various integrity and trust tests.

Federal Background Check Requirements: What Shows Up on a Federal Background Check?

The requirements for passing a federal background check will vary based on the positions but there are a few basic requirements that no one can pass a background check without. Mainly, the individual must be a U.S. citizen and have no active warrants. Besides these two, very few jobs will hire individuals with a felony conviction on their record.

Depending on the specific checks on an FBI background check, what shows up will vary dramatically. Even at the lowest level of federal background check, and FBI identity History summary check and nothing else, the check will still be the most thorough that most people will have ever had.

While most pre-employment background checks will often only check for local criminal history information using a name-based search, the FBI check is far more intensive. Any criminal history at all will be present on a federal background check including arrests, charges, dropped charges, convictions, and even sealed records in some cases.

Unlike many jobs where it is possible to hide your criminal history by applying for a job in a state other than where the charges were filed, FBI checks will uncover an individual’s entire criminal history.

What Is a DOD Background Check?

In the past, most background checks were handled by the Office of Personnel Management or OPM. The OPM would handle the background checks in conjunction with the criminal record check that is performed for the OPM by the FBI.

Screenshot image of the article DOD to Take Over Background Checks by Fiscal 2020

(Image: U.S. Department of Defense3)

However, many background checks, particularly those involving security clearance will now be performed by the Department of Defense.3 At this time, the background check and procedures will be exactly the same despite being performed by a different agency. Any changes will only be observed by those undergoing background checks for jobs that require a security clearance.

Background Check for Federal Employment: What Does Federal Background Check Consist Of for Employment?

Background checks for federal employment may sound intimidating but the vast majority of jobs will have fairly standard background checks.

Although more criminal databases will be checked than most individuals are used to, the check will still be fairly standard for most positions. Like any job, the additional checks will depend on the responsibilities of the position.

How Long Does Federal Background Check Take?

How long is the federal background check processing time on average and what is the duration of the government job screening process? Federal background checks tend to take longer than most pre-employment background checks. Since most background checks that individuals will undergo for jobs with UPS or Walmart are name-based checks they can be completed in a matter of days using online databases.

Since the FBI criminal history check is a fingerprint-based check there are several additional steps that add days to the process. The individual who is undergoing the check must first fill out paperwork that is usually more extensive than what is required for a standard background check. After this, they must get their fingerprints taken and sent to the FBI.

The fingerprint check and the fact that the FBI deals with thousands of checks means delays are possible but most federal background checks should take about two weeks. As mentioned, jobs that require security clearance and additional checks required will take far longer and can even take as long as 8 months.

How Far Back Does a Federal Background Check Go?

Many people wondering, what does federal background check consist of, really wonder if a federal background check will uncover old crimes. So, what is the span of federal background check history? The answer depends on the level of security that will be required.

Although some states have the 7-year rule which prevents criminal history information from more than 7 years ago from showing up on a background check, these are only state laws and federal background checks do not need to abide by these rules. The only laws that federal background checks need to follow are those set by the FCRA,2 which currently has no time constraints for how far back a criminal history check can go. This means an individual’s entire criminal history will be present on the federal employment check.

Does a Federal Background Check Include a Drug Test?

Many federal background checks will include a drug test. Generally, the more important and sensitive the information the individual will have access to, the more likely that passing a drug test will be a requirement for employment. However, it is also possible for entry-level federal government jobs to have drug tests as well.

Does a Federal Background Check Include Social Media?

Not all federal background checks will include social media but some will. Once again the higher the security clearance that is required the more likely the background check will try and check all aspects of someone’s personal life.

Close up images of different social media icons

(Image: Pixelkult8)

Just like a criminal history check is used to create a safe environment for employees at other jobs, social media checks will be performed for national security reasons for many positions.

What Disqualifies You From Public Trust Clearance?

There are no specific disqualifiers for the public trust clearance that is required for many higher positions in the federal government. This determination is made on a case-by-case basis and is usually the culmination of information on the application, criminal history checks, and various integrity tests and reference checks. This is one of the reasons that checks are so thorough, the background check is used to determine the individual’s integrity which requires delving into their personal life to a certain extent.

What Disqualifies in a Federal Background Check for Employment?

The federal employment background check is somewhat difficult to understand as many of the checks are performed for reasons of national security and are thus kept secret to avoid individuals covering up certain elements of their past that will be looked on unfavorably.

However, most people will have nothing to worry about. The jobs that require intensive checks and investigations of individuals’ personal lives represent only a small percentage of all federal jobs.

Regardless, individuals wondering what does federal background check consist of will likely want to know as many disqualifiers as possible.

Federal Employment Background Check Disqualifiers List

When asking about the reasons for federal job ineligibility, the list often depends on the position. Entry-level positions such as those with the USPS will have less intensive checks and a shorter list of disqualifiers. Once again there is no official list of disqualifiers but most disqualifiers are fairly easy to discern based on what kind of checks are being performed.

For example, there is no point in performing a drug test unless a positive test results in disqualification.

DisqualifierLikelihood of Disqualification
Misdemeanor ConvictionVaries based on crime, often a disqualifier
Felony ConvictionAlways a disqualifier
Substance Abuse (Failed Drug Test)Always a disqualifier (If drug test performed)
Conflict of InterestDisqualifier for high-level positions
Mental Health DisordersDisqualifier for security-clearance positions
Credit History Check ConcernsDisqualifier for positions involving finances

Homeland Security Background Check Disqualifications

The background check disqualifiers for positions in the Department of Homeland Security are about what most individuals would expect.5 Anything that is found on the background check that poses a direct or indirect threat to national security is seen as a disqualifier. Unlike most federal agencies, there is a specific list of disqualifiers published by the TSA that outlines the exact crimes that are grounds for automatic disqualification.4

Automatic Disqualifiers for Security Clearances

The automatic disqualifiers for Homeland Security positions will be very similar to those for jobs that require a security clearance. The main concern with positions with security clearance is national security, so someone who poses a potential threat should they have access to the proper information will be disqualified.

Can You Pass a Federal Background Check With a Misdemeanor?

It is possible for an individual to pass a background check with a misdemeanor but it is fairly unlikely. In general, it will depend on the misdemeanor, many low-level misdemeanors that are not relevant to the job duties may be overlooked in certain situations but not always. Jobs with a security clearance will likely not overlook misdemeanors.

OPM Background Check Unfavorable Outcome

After an OPM background check has been performed, the results may not be what many people hoped for. Although options are fairly limited it is possible to dispute the results of the check through the OPM.

Screenshot image of investigation faqs on U.S. Office of Personnel Management website

(Image: U.S. Office of Personnel Management7)

Information about background checks performed by the OPM is available on the OPM website.7

What Does a State Background Check Consist Of?

State background checks are another kind of “elevated” background check that is performed for certain positions. Unlike most pre-employment background checks that focus on local criminal history, a state background check will be slightly more thorough but not as thorough as a federal background check.

A federal background check will usually consist of the following and will be performed by the state police or state bureau of investigation in each state.

  • Name and SSN Verification
  • Local Criminal History Check (Fingerprint-based)
  • National Criminal History Check (Fingerprint-based)
  • Federal Criminal History Check (Fingerprint-based)

Federal Background Check vs State (What Does Federal Background Check Consist Of That’s Different?)

The main difference between a state and federal background check will be the agency that is performing the check. The local and state checks will usually be performed by the state police or whatever state agency is in charge of conducting background checks. The national check will still be performed by the FBI in many cases, leading to a certain level of redundancy as the same records are checked twice.

The checks that are performed on security clearance employees in the federal government are generally absent from a state check which focuses primarily on criminal history, rather than integrity and other less-tangible records.

As opposed to a background check for federal employment, most state background checks will be performed for a specific job that requests it, often with a private employer. Although most companies will outsource their employee background checks to a private third-party company, some will use the state police check as their standard background check. This is especially common with companies that are state contractors.

Besides private employers, all state employees will usually undergo a state-background check, such as teachers, state administrators, state law enforcement, etc.

What Is the Difference Between a BCI and FBI Check?

The difference between a BCI and FBI criminal check is the same as the difference between a federal and state background check. CBI refers to the Criminal Investigation Bureau which is the state agency that is the equivalent of the state police, and it is sometimes referred to as the Bureau of Criminal Investigation (BCI).

Keep in mind there is often overlap between the two checks as many state agencies will still use the FBI identity history summary check as a way to perform national and federal criminal history checks.

Can I Get a Government Background Check Free?

There are a few ways to get a government background check for free. There are a few checks, such as those required for security clearance positions that can not be performed for free, however, it is possible to get a national criminal history check for free using an online background check service that offers a free trial.

Screenshot of OPM website page for forms with yellow arrow pointing to a copy of the questionnaire for national security positions.

Keep in mind that this will not be as thorough as a true FBI criminal history check but will be sufficient for most individuals’ needs.

Before applying for a job with the federal government it is important to perform a background check on yourself so that you can be prepared for any questions about your criminal history and be aware of any mistakes so that individuals can fix their background check in a timely manner.

Where To Find a Government Background Check Form

There are several government background checks that are available to the general public. Simply fill out the necessary forms such as the OPM Questionnaire for National Security or the FBI Identity History Summary Check.6,1

Federal background checks are some of the most intensive background checks available. Knowing what does federal background check consist of will allow individuals to be better prepared for when they are ready to apply for a federal job.

Frequently Asked Questions About What Does Federal Background Check Consist Of

How Long Does the FBI Keep Your Fingerprints on File?

The FBI keeps an individual’s fingerprints on file forever. This means that the database is constantly growing, allowing for more effective background checks all the time. Unlike some states, there is no legal limit on how far back criminal history checks can go.

What Does a Federal Employment Background Check Consist Of?

Federal background checks consist of fingerprint-based criminal history checks and identity verification checks at a bare minimum. The majority of federal employment checks will also include numerous other checks depending on the positions such as reference checks, drug tests, integrity tests, and more.

What Do Federal Background Checks Look For?

What a federal background check is looking for will depend heavily on the position. Some may just be looking for serious crimes like violent felonies whereas others will be far more thorough and search for things like conflict of interest, discrepancies on the individual’s application as well as information that may cause suspicion that the individual could be a threat to national security.

What Shows Up on a Background Checks for Federal Employees?

The background checks for federal employees are incredibly thorough and certain jobs will have extremely intensive searches. All background checks on federal employees will include complete criminal history information. Security clearance jobs may include social media information and will likely investigate and perform reference checks on dozens of people close to the individual, even individuals they have not had contact with for years.

What Is a Federal Job Background Check?

A federal job background check is the specific background check that is required by the federal government as a condition of employment. Although most federal background checks are fairly easy to pass, certain jobs in the federal government will require extremely intensive searches of an individual’s past to determine that they do not pose a risk to national security.

Is a Federal Government Background Check Hard To Pass?

Federal government background checks can sometimes be difficult to pass. The more sensitive information that the individual would have access to, the more intense the checks and the harder it is to pass. Much of the information that is being checked is stuff that the individual can do nothing about, so if you fail a check because of something in your past, there is little that can be done.

What Comes First Background Check or Drug Test?

In most situations, the background check process will begin around the same time as the drug test. This will depend on a few factors such as where the drug test will take place. Some companies will test employees on sight using a cheek swab whereas others will outsource this process to a urinalysis lab that will perform the test and give the results to the company.

How To Pass Federal Criminal Background Check for Employment?

The best way to ensure that you will pass a federal background check is to first perform a background check on yourself. This can be done by paying for an FBI criminal history check or using an online background check service to determine what will show up when the background check is performed.

Why Is My Federal Background Check Taking So Long?

Federal background checks usually take longer than the standard background checks that most people are used to. The main reason for this is the fingerprinting process can add several days to the check by the time the FBI receives the fingerprint data. The FBI is the sole agency that performs these checks in many cases as well, leading to a potential backlog of checks.

What Will Disqualify You From Federal Employment?

What disqualifies you from federal employment will depend on the job, however, felony convictions and anything that poses a threat to national security are the two most definite disqualifiers for any federal job.

What Does Federal Background Check Consist Of?

Federal background checks consist of fingerprint-based criminal history checks at a minimum as well as additional checks depending on the position and security clearance level.

Why Does a Background Check Take 2 Weeks?

Federal background checks take longer because the fingerprints must be gathered and added to the FBI fingerprint database before the check can even begin, adding days to the process.


1FBI. (2022, August 09). Identity History Summary Checks (Rap Sheets). FBI. Retrieved August 18, 2022, from <https://www.fbi.gov/services/cjis/identity-history-summary-checks>

2FTC. (2020, March 04). Fair Credit Reporting Act. Federal Trade Commission. Retrieved August 18, 2022, from <https://www.ftc.gov/legal-library/browse/statutes/fair-credit-reporting-act>

3Lopez, C. T. (2019, June 25). DOD to Take Over Background Checks by Fiscal 2020. U.S. Department of Defense. Retrieved August 18, 2022, from <https://www.defense.gov/News/News-Stories/Article/Article/1886923/dod-to-take-over-background-checks-by-fiscal-2020/>

4TSA. (2022). Disqualifying Offenses and Other Factors. Transportation Security Administration. Retrieved August 18, 2022, from <https://www.tsa.gov/disqualifying-offenses-factors>

5U.S. Department of Homeland Security. (2022, August 17). Home | Homeland Security. Homeland Security. Retrieved August 18, 2022, from <https://www.dhs.gov/>

6U.S. Office of Personnel Management. (2016, November). Questionnaire for National Security Positions [Standard Form 86]. OPM.Gov. Retrieved August 18, 2022, from <https://www.opm.gov/forms/pdf_fill/sf86.pdf>

7U.S. Office of Personnel Management. (2022). Investigations FAQs. OPM.Gov. Retrieved August 18, 2022, from <https://www.opm.gov/suitability/investigations-faqs/>

8Photo by Pixelkult. Cropped, Resized, Changed Format. Pixabay. Retrieved June 20, 2024, from <https://pixabay.com/photos/media-social-media-apps-998990/>

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