How Long Do Background Checks Take?
Average Turnaround Times for Five Common Background Checks
There are many different types of background checks and the turnaround time for each varies based on the type of information requested, data source limitations, and legal requirements.
This article provides insight into average turnaround times for five common background checks and includes what these checks are used for, how the data is accessed, and possible reasons why turnaround times might be delayed.
Turnaround Times for Employment Background Checks
Depending on the type of information an employer needs, a background check can be ready in less than a minute, or it can take up to 5 business days. It can take longer if it requires manual searches or cooperation from other organizations, such as professional license certifications, universities, and previous employers.
Employment background checks are common when you’re applying for a job, and employers often run ongoing background checks on current employees through regular drug screening or annual criminal background checks to ensure a safe workplace.
An employment background check can include, but is not limited to, your work history, education, credit history, driving record, criminal record, medical history, use of social media, and drug screening.
Turnaround Times for Criminal Background Checks
A criminal background check generally takes between 1 to 3 business days, but can be returned much faster depending on the database that is being search, such as the National Criminal Database.
What is an Instant Background Check?
An instant background check includes basic information that is searchable online through specialized databases to which a verified background check provider has access. It often includes basic searches such as a Social Security number (SSN) trace, a national criminal database search, and a sex offender registry search.
Since a background check service can typically gather this information quickly, turnaround times are almost instant.
Turnaround Times for Federal Background Checks
A criminal background check may also search sex offender registries, county criminal court records, domestic and global terrorist watch lists, and federal and state criminal records. Additional searches of these databases can take 1 to 3 days depending on manual search requirements.
The typical turnaround time for a federal background check is one day.
A federal background check searches across the 94 U.S. federal courts for violations of federal criminal law, such as federal tax evasion, mail fraud, embezzlement, identity theft, interstate trafficking, and crimes committed on federal property.
Since a federal background check only searches for crimes prosecuted on the federal level, and does not check for convictions at the state level, most employers will search both federal and state criminal records to get a comprehensive report on an applicant’s entire criminal record, particularly if they are hiring for C-level executive positions, CPAs, public sector employees, or someone who will have access to proprietary financial information.
The check typically includes records from 7 years back or longer, depending on state laws and special circumstances.
Turnaround Times for Gun Background Checks
Universal background checks, or gun background checks, are performed by the FBI and are processed in 2 to 3 minutes through the National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS).
These checks are required by law if you want to purchase a firearm from a licensed manufacturer, dealer, or importer to ensure you’re eligible to buy the gun. Before completing the sale of a firearm, the seller will call the FBI or local state agency to perform the check.
If the NICS search returns a record that requires more research, the check can take up to 3 business days. If no determination has been made by then, the seller may legally transfer the firearm to you.
If your universal background check is delayed at the point of sale, you’ll need to wait 3 business days before you can complete your purchase. If you’re denied, you’re allowed to request an appeal with the FBI.
Turnaround Time for Fingerprint Background Checks
A fingerprint background check submits and compares your fingerprints with the Integrated Automated Fingerprint Identification System (IAFIS), a database of fingerprints for more than 35 million Americans managed by the FBI. If there’s a successful match, a response will be returned within 3 days.
A fingerprint background check is often used along with another background check, most notably employment background checks. The fingerprint check is required for government-run institutions such as public schools and airports, and also for law enforcement agencies, fire departments, and hospitals. Other employers may require a fingerprint background check if you’ll be caring for minors, the elderly, or other vulnerable people.
If the quality of your prints is poor, it may require longer processing times or that you start over. It may also take longer if there’s a criminal history tied to your fingerprints.
If you’ve never been fingerprinted prior to a fingerprint background check, the check will simply return no results, and your prints will be submitted to the IAFIS at that time.
Possible Reasons for a Delay
If your background check is taking longer than 3 to 5 days, here are a few reasons why it might be delayed:
- The most common reason for a delay is inaccurate or incomplete check request forms, or failure by the employer to have the necessary authorization and release forms signed by a job applicant, which are required by federal law. Agencies cannot start a background check until they receive written consent.
- Most county court records are not fully digitized yet so those searches typically happen manually by a county clerk or a court runner. Depending on the county or case, it can take between 3 to 30 days to complete the manual portion of the search.
- If you’ve lived in another country for school or work—for some employers, within the last 10 years—an international background check may be required. These checks usually take 4 to 5 days depending on cooperation with the country; however, some countries have extensive privacy protection laws and can take up to 20 days to complete.
- Aliases and name variances (e.g., Steve, Steven, Stephen) can cause delays and requires a manual check by the background check service to confirm your identity. Using different names in the past, or if your record is mixed up with someone else's who has a similar or same name, can also cause your background check to be delayed.
- The background check service may need to search several sources for the information the employer needs, and some databases and sources, such as schools or previous employers, may take longer to search or verify than others.
Getting a Response from an Employer
While a background check itself can take up to 5 days, you may not hear back from the employer immediately after the check is complete. The recruiter may be running multiple background checks for several candidates and wants to complete and review all of them before reaching out.
Alternatively, it’s possible that an aspect of your background check is taking longer than anticipated for any of the reasons described above. If it’s been longer than a week, don’t be afraid to follow up with the recruiter.
If an employer finds something in your background check that could hurt your chances of getting the job, the Fair Credit Reporting Act (FCRA) requires that employers let you know before deciding not to hire you.
In addition to sending you a copy of the background check where the negative information was found, an employer must also provide a copy of “A Summary of Your Rights Under the Fair Credit Reporting Act.” The Federal Trade Commission, the organization that ensures background check companies and credit bureaus are following the law, recommends that employers send this notice within 5 business days.
This advance notice provides an opportunity for you to correct errors or explain negative information, such as criminal records, gaps in employment history, or unfavorable items on your credit history report.
The Bottom Line
While the majority of background checks are returned within the expected turnaround times, there are situations where unexpected delays can occur.
If you feel like yours is taking too long, don’t hesitate to reach out to the person or company who requested the check to determine why there’s a delay. They may require more information from you, such as previous addresses or aliases. But if the delay is beyond your control—such as manual processing delays—then at least you may have some peace of mind knowing it’s all part of the background check process.