Background Checks: How Far Back Do They Go?

A woman standing in front of an illustration of a timeline of years going from 2015 to 2018.

How far back does a background check go? In general, background checks cover seven years of criminal and court records, but some go back further. Federal and state employment laws may also limit how far back employers can search.

Learn how far back different kinds of background checks can go, including pre-employment checks, credit checks, and criminal records checks.

Employers should be knowledgeable about the different types of background checks—and how far back each specific type of check can extend—so you can make informed decisions about who you’re hiring, to confirm they’re qualified for the position, and to reduce risk to other employees, volunteers, clients, or your company’s reputation.

Because different background checks can vary in how much candidate history can be checked legally and used compliantly, it’s important to understand the areas that may affect the length of history that is checked in a candidate’s background. 

For example, compliance regulations in certain states and cities may impact how far back you can look. You’ll also need to know what’s included in specific background checks, such as employment credit checks, criminal records checks, and general pre-employment checks. Keep reading to find out more.

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How Far Back Do Background Checks Go? 

Different types of background checks look for different results and cover different lengths of time in a candidate’s personal history. In general, background checks typically cover seven years of criminal and court records, but can go back further depending on compliance laws and what is being searched.

Keep in mind that where you hire plays into the rules, regulations, and compliance for different types of checks which affect how far back into a person’s history is looked at and what can be checked. 

Here is a quick visual of how far back each type of check can go: 

Type of CheckLength of Time
Pre-employment background checksPre-employment background checks are commonly used by employers when doing an assessment and typically cover 7 years of criminal and court records, but can go back further depending on compliance laws and what is being searched
Bankruptcy checksBankruptcies can go back as far as 10 years
Credit history checksEmployment credit checks go back 7 years, or 10 years depending on the candidate’s expected salary and specific state laws. Some state laws may further restrict what specific kinds of credit data can be reported and for how long
Criminal feloniesFelonies may be reported indefinitely, or restricted to 7 or 10 years, depending on the state where the candidate lives or works
Criminal misdemeanors and minor infractionsMisdemeanors may be reported indefinitely, or restricted to 5, 7 or 10 years, depending on the state where the candidate lives or works
Driving records checkDriving records may go back between 3 to 10 years, depending on the state
Educational historyMay be verified throughout their lifetime
Employment historyMay be verified throughout their lifetime
Professional license verificationMay be verified throughout their lifetime

Regulations and Restrictions

Although HR teams have plenty of choices when it comes to screening tools, employers must follow federal compliance regulations and adhere to local laws when using background checks to make decisions about employment. 

FCRA Regulations  

According to federal FCRA guidelines, there are specific guidelines around how far back any specific background check can search in an employee or candidate’s history. Consumer reporting agencies (CRAs) may not report any of the following information in a consumer report, or background check:

  • Title 11 or bankruptcies that are older than 10 years from the date of the report
  • Civil suits, civil judgments, and records of arrest that are older than 7 years
  • Any paid tax liens older than 7 years from the date of the report
  • Collections that are older than 7 years from the date of the report
  • Adverse information (outside of criminal convictions) that are older than 7 years from the date of the report

Other Regulations (State Laws)

To complicate things, it can be difficult to know about, understand, and keep up-to-date about specific details that only apply to jurisdictions where your candidates live and work, which can additionally restrict how far back you can check in a candidate’s history. 

For example, some state and local fair-hiring and ban-the-box laws limit how far back a criminal background check can extend. Several states also have restrictions on how employers can use employment credit checks in hiring. This information will be covered in subsequent sections of this article.  

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How Far Back Do Credit Checks Go?

An employment credit check typically covers seven years. More serious financial cases like bankruptcies can be reported for up to 10 years. And if the applicant is applying for a role with a salary of $75,000 or above, up to 10 years of financial history can be viewed on an employment credit check, where state law allows.

Several states, including California, Colorado, Connecticut, Hawaii, Illinois, Maryland, Nevada, Oregon, Vermont, and Washington, along with a few cities, like New York City, Washington DC, Philadelphia, and Chicago, have restrictions on how employers can use employment credit checks in hiring. GoodHire provides a detailed resource to help you better understand your local and state laws.

Employers, especially in the financial services arena, run credit checks on applicants to flag for the potential for future legal or employment issues caused by fraud or embezzlement. In some jurisdictions, the use of credit history may be prohibited unless the employer or employee falls into one of these special categories:

  • Handle large amounts of money
  • Work in a managerial capacity
  • Have access to trade secrets
  • Work in a field (such as financial services) in which regulations require credit reports

The FCRA regulates credit checks and requires that the applicant or employee give written permission in order for the requestor to obtain the credit report. Additionally, you must follow the adverse action process if you decide not to hire a potential candidate based in part on the results of the credit history report. Important to note, too, is the requirement in some states and jurisdictions to disclose to the applicant the provision under the applicable credit history law that allows the employer to obtain and use credit history in its hiring decision. 

How Far Back Do Criminal Background Checks Go?

Criminal convictions may be reported indefinitely, regardless of salary level, unless state and local fair-hiring and ban-the-box laws in the state where the candidate resides restricts disclosure of convictions that are older than seven years (see table for details). 

At the state and county levels, misdemeanor criminal records are typically reported for the past seven years, but can go back further if records are available and readily accessible (for example, if the jurisdiction’s records are digitized) and use of criminal records is not restricted by local laws. Juvenile records and other court-sealed documents typically do not appear in a criminal background search. 

The following table gives you an overview of state conviction records restrictions. 

State Regulations Regarding Criminal Background Check Restrictions 

StateLength of Time
CaliforniaRestricted to 7 years, and fully granted pardons or arrests not leading to conviction cannot be reported
HawaiiRestricted to 7 years for felonies, and 5 years for misdemeanors/infractions*
KansasRestricted to 7 years, unless the candidate’s expected annual salary will be equal to or greater than $20,000
KentuckyRestricted to report only convictions, no time restrictions
MarylandRestricted to 7 years, unless the candidate’s expected annual salary will equal or greater than $20,000
MassachusettsRestricted to 7 years
MontanaRestricted to 7 years
New HampshireRestricted to 7 years, unless the candidate’s expected annual salary will be equal to or greater than $20,000
New MexicoRestricted to 7 years, and any offenses which did not lead to conviction may not be reported
New YorkRestricted to 7 years, unless the candidate’s expected annual salary will be equal to or greater than $25,000
WashingtonRestricted to 7 years, unless the candidate’s expected annual salary will equal or greater than $20,000

* [Updated 9/21/2020] Hawaii amended its ban-the-box law on September 15, 2020, to further strengthen protections for people with criminal records.

Criminal background checks are typically used when there is a need to know about major criminal activity, like violent or sex crimes, fraud, embezzlement, or other felony convictions. These checks will reveal felony and misdemeanor criminal convictions, pending criminal cases, and a candidate’s history of incarceration as an adult. 

Arrests pending prosecution may also be reported, and arrests that did not lead to convictions may also appear in some background checks, although GoodHire excludes them from its reports to conform to Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) guidelines.

What Will A Pre-Employment Background Check Reveal?

Depending on your jurisdiction, the search you use and the position you’re hiring for, employers may check a candidate’s criminal and/or civil court records, driving records, and credit history, as well as verify education or professional licenses and verify employment history. Learn more about what shows up on a background check.

Based on state and federal laws, some time limitations may determine what can come back on an employment background check.

If the salary for the position you’re hiring for is less than $75,000, some information (such as civil judgments, government sanctions and discipline on professional licenses, for example) that’s older than seven years will not be reported on background check results. 

However, if the salary for the position is $75,000 or more, that information may appear in the results, even if it’s older than seven years. 

If the job role requires operating a vehicle, you may wish to check a candidate’s motor vehicle records. A motor vehicle records check will report whether the candidate’s driver’s license is active or not, their driving class, if they have any driving-related felony or misdemeanor convictions, or any moving violations, suspensions, or restrictions. Since DUIs are a felony conviction, they may also be reported in a criminal background check, depending on your jurisdiction.

Some employers may require employment drug testing for jobs that involve the operation of motor vehicles, hazardous or delicate equipment, or if the job description includes the responsibility for public safety, including customers or fellow employees. If drugs are present, the results reported in a drug test will vary depending on the type of drug screening panel that is used.

Felony charges, misdemeanor charges, any pending criminal cases, and any history of adult incarceration can show up on a pre-employment national criminal background check, so be prepared to follow compliance regulations and any applicable fair-hiring and ban-the-box laws applicable to your business. Arrests pending prosecution may also show up on a report. And although arrests that did not lead to convictions might appear on background check reports from other CRAs, GoodHire makes a point of excluding them to conform to EEOC guidelines. 

How Far Back Should Employers Look?

There are some instances where you may want to look further back than others—like when the job position works with at-risk populations, the public, or vulnerable populations and people who are not able to care for themselves. In these circumstances, employers may look further back during a background check than the above-outlined time periods where permitted by law.

But don’t forget that background checks are regulated both federally and at the state level, so be sure to follow the established regulations and laws regarding FCRA disclosure and authorization. Also, always follow the adverse action process if the results of a background check prompt a decision not to hire. Failing to do so could result in hefty fines and potentially put your company at risk for lawsuits.

Background Checks The Easy Way

Consumer reporting agencies like GoodHire can help you set up a background check program that works for your business. GoodHire is FCRA compliant and accredited by the National Association of Professional Background Screeners (NABPS). We make background checks simple for employers and candidates by automating common compliance processes, such as candidate consent and our localized adverse action process, which includes a built-in way to help you follow all federal, state and local laws. 

If you’re looking to start using background checks at your company, or would like to talk to our experts about how GoodHire can help streamline and enhance your existing employment screening program, get in touch.

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The resources provided here are for educational purposes only and do not constitute legal advice. We advise you to consult your own counsel if you have legal questions related to your specific practices and compliance with applicable laws.

About the Author

As GoodHire’s managing editor, Sara Korolevich produces educational resources for employers on a variety of employment screening topics, including compliance and screening best practices, and writes about GoodHire’s company and product news. Sara’s experience stems from 20+ years working as a B2C and B2B PR and communications professional.