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National Background Checks: A Complete Guide

A guide to national background checks

A national criminal background check provides a nationwide overview of a candidate’s criminal history using data from states and counties across the country. Because it covers a broad range of jurisdictions, a national background check can be one of the first steps an employer takes in checking a candidate’s background.

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What Is A National Background Check?

A national criminal background check searches thousands of digital databases across the US to report any infractions, misdemeanors, felony convictions, and pending cases found at the state or county level. A national criminal background check is different from a federal background check, which reports convictions of federal crimes.

Because a national check searches a candidate’s background across multiple states, it can be especially helpful as a first step for finding and flagging results for follow up. A single search of digitized records nationwide is faster and simpler than identifying states where a candidate has lived and running individual state background checks in each one. 

However, the results of a national criminal background check aren’t necessarily comprehensive. Why? National background checks don’t search non-digitized records at the county level, or report federal level convictions. For the most comprehensive information, a county criminal court search is also recommended for each county where an applicant has lived or worked, based on the results of a Social Security number (SSN) trace

What Does A National Background Check Show?

National checks report convictions as well as current pending criminal cases. The information in a national background check shows the name of the database where the record was located, the type of crime, the disposition of the record, and the disposition date. Depending on the background check provider you use, some national background checks may show dismissed charges, records where the accused individual was found not guilty, and other interactions with law enforcement that did not result in a conviction.  

Conviction records can go back many years, although how many years of results you find depends on local laws and on which records are available in digital form that can be included in national databases. For example, a handful of states—including California, Kansas, Maryland, Massachusetts, Montana, New Hampshire, New Mexico, New York, and Washington—have laws that limit the look-back period on criminal background checks to seven years.

You may also find variations in how crimes are categorized. The difference between a misdemeanor and a felony conviction may be a matter of severity, but it may also be the result of differences in state laws. Misdemeanors may include offenses such as vandalism, public intoxication, and disorderly conduct. By contrast, felony offenses may include rape, arson, aggravated assault, manslaughter, and murder. 

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How Long Does A National Background Check For Employment Take?

The typical turnaround time for a national background check is one to three business days. A consumer reporting agency (CRA) will access public data sources to obtain records and verify accuracy on a national check. A background check with “clear” results—no records found—will be completed much faster, sometimes almost instantly. Background checks that return records will take slightly longer since the CRA must review and verify the data for maximum accuracy. 

Returned records in a national background check for employment may also cause you to expand the scope of your search, which may increase the time it takes to complete a more comprehensive background check. For example, adding a search of county records to find more detailed information may add a few days: County records aren’t always digitized and may require a court runner to access the local court records. Adding verification of education or past employment can also add to your overall background check turnaround time.  

Cost Of A National Background Check

How much is a national background check? Costs vary depending on the source. National criminal background checks typically cost $25 to $50 through a background screening provider and may be packaged with additional background checks. 

For example, GoodHire’s packages start at $29.99 per candidate for a search of nationwide criminal databases, SSN trace, and sex offender registry search. There are several package options and add-ons to fit your needs, with additional search options such as domestic watch list, county criminal court search, and education verification. Employers who need 25 checks or more per year are eligible for volume pricing.

How To Get A National Background Check

For employers, working with an accredited CRA is the most efficient way to get a national criminal background check. Getting a national background check from a trusted screener enables you to access nationwide records quickly while remaining compliant with federal screening laws—without the guesswork of figuring out which individual state or county jurisdictions to search. Employers should also be aware that people who search websites offering “instant criminal checks” are not FCRA compliant and therefore cannot be used for employment screening.

For individuals wanting to check their own records, running a personal background check on yourself lets you see what employers see. Reviewing your own report can put your mind at ease, offer you the opportunity to anticipate employer concerns, or correct inaccuracies if they exist.   

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How To Maintain Compliance

Federal, state, and local laws may affect how you obtain and use criminal background information in your hiring process. 

The federal Fair Credit Reporting Act requires employers to get written consent from a candidate before running a background check, and to follow the required adverse action process if you intend to decline a candidate based in whole or in part on their background check results.

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission provides and enforces federal guidelines, including the directive that background checks should be applied fairly and not be used only on selected candidates. 

Also be mindful of applicable state and local laws, such as ban-the-box laws, designed to give candidates with criminal histories a fair chance at employment. In some states, you may be restricted to ordering criminal background checks only after extending a conditional offer of employment. In others, you may not be allowed to consider dismissed records or arrests that didn’t lead to a conviction. Additionally, you may need to comply with two sets of laws if you and your candidate are located in different jurisdictions. 

Get A National Background Check With GoodHire

A national criminal background check is only one component of a comprehensive screening process, but it’s an important step for employers concerned about managing risk and maintaining a safe workplace. GoodHire offers hundreds of background screening options, including federal background checks, state background checks, and county background checks. Our comprehensive suite of screening services also includes employment history, education verification, and driving record checks. All packages are easily customizable to meet your hiring-specific needs. 

To learn more about including national criminal background checks in your hiring process, reach out to our team.

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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

Gayle Sato headshot

Gayle writes about GoodHire’s screening services to inform employers about background check best practices.