National, Federal, State & County Background Checks: What’s The Difference?

A black chalkboard with a map of the US says criminal background check types

Whether you’re hiring a new team member, considering a promotion or transfer of a current employee, or performing due diligence on a volunteer, background checks help you verify details and qualifications. But which criminal background checks do you need to perform to thoroughly vet your candidates: national, federal, state, or county? 

In this article, we’ll look at four common criminal background checks you can perform in the US, which records they cover, when to use them, and how to use the results compliantly in making hiring decisions. 

Without a clear understanding of what each type of background screening entails, you may find out the hard way how critical information sometimes falls through screening gaps. It’s essential to make sure you have a complete and comprehensive picture of each prospective employee’s background, including criminal convictions that may have occurred in another state or county, or criminal cases filed at the federal level.

Thorough background research may help protect your organization from liability and protect your team from harm. Let’s explore four common criminal background checks you can perform in the US, what’s included in each type of screening, and how to use the results compliantly to make informed hiring decisions. 

Are applicants who they say they are? What critical information haven’t they disclosed? Find out upfront, when the risk to your business is lowest.

First, we’ll cover the details of a national criminal background check and what that entails. Then we’ll compare national criminal background checks with federal background checks, statewide checks, and county checks, so it’s clear when to use each screening type. Finally, we’ll explore some of the requirements for compliance, including obtaining written consent to run a background check, and providing documentation to applicants who receive adverse actions.

What Is A National Criminal Background Check?

A national criminal background check reports infractions, misdemeanors, felony convictions, and pending cases that may have occurred at the state and county level by searching thousands of digital databases across the US. A national check may also search a multi-state sex offender registry that includes hundreds of thousands of offender records nationwide.

Since a national check searches digitized records, they’re a good first step to finding and flagging results to follow up on, but this doesn’t mean results are comprehensive. National checks don’t search non-digitized records at the county level, or report federal level convictions. For the most accurate, up-to-date information, a county criminal court search is recommended for each county where an applicant has lived or worked.

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, disorderly conduct, and theft with a value under $500. By contrast, felony offenses may include rape, arson, aggravated assault, manslaughter and murder, and theft with values over $500.

National checks report convictions as well as current pending criminal court cases. The information in a national background check shows the name of the database where the record was located and the name of the crime, the verdict, and the date of the verdict. Criminal records also include the disposition of the charge and, if available, sentencing information. Depending on the background check provider you use, some background checks may turn up dismissed charges, non-convictions, and every interaction with law enforcement, so it’s important to work with a reputable provider that complies with the federal Fair Credit Reporting Act (FCRA). (GoodHire does not report dismissed cases and non-convictions.)

Conviction records can go back many years, although how many years of results you find depends on which information has been digitized and on local laws where employers and candidates are based. Seven to 10 years of results is typical for criminal convictions. 

National criminal background checks are typically returned within a few hours, but in some cases may take a few days.

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What Is A Federal Background Check?

Federal criminal background checks search across 94 federal US district and appellate court databases to uncover convictions and pending cases of federal crimes. For example, identity theft, tax evasion, counterfeiting, and kidnapping are all federal crimes. So are crimes against federal employees like TSA agents and forest rangers, crimes involving banks, and those committed on federal land like national parks. 

A federal criminal background check is frequently used in financial industries and for executives and CPAs, to surface incidents involving fraud and embezzlement or identity theft. Note that this search does not include results from the FBI or Department of Justice.

What’s The Difference Between Federal & Nationwide Background Checks?

Federal criminal background checks search for violations of federal law, including embezzlement, illegal firearms sales, and crimes against federal employees like TSA agents and postal workers. By contrast, a nationwide or national criminal background check searches nationally across multiple state databases—such as Administrative Offices of the Courts and Departments of Corrections—for any convictions at the state or county level where records have been digitized. They are sourced from different databases than federal checks. 

National searches are often just the starting point of screening research; if you find results of a local criminal conviction, you may wish to pull detailed records from that jurisdiction through a county-level search.

Learn about national, federal, state, and county checks and what they search

What Is A State-level Background Check?

State-level background checks reveal criminal charges and convictions that are brought against an individual at the state level, including police and law enforcement reports. This includes misdemeanor and felony convictions, as well as pending cases. 

Note that not all states include county records in a state-level check, so you may have to summon specific county records too. This means state checks are useful but may not be comprehensive. Keep in mind that laws and courts vary considerably from state to state, so offense severity and dispositions are not necessarily equivalent across various states.

For candidates who have moved frequently, you can run state-level checks in each of the most recent states where they’ve lived. You can determine this list of locations by running a Social Security number (SSN) trace through your background check provider.

What Are County Criminal Background Checks?

Each of the 3,200+ counties in the US keep records of local misdemeanor and felony convictions and pending cases. County criminal background checks search across specific counties based on the provided name and date range, where state law allows. 

This search is most valuable for the candidate’s current county of residence, along with adjacent counties and other counties where they’ve recently lived. Use a Social Security number (SSN) trace, also known as an alias search, to help turn up additional counties where an applicant has lived and worked. 

County criminal court searches reveal the most accurate, up-to-date information. However some counties don’t have digitized court records, so court records in those counties need to be located manually by county clerks or professional court runners, and copies of legal documents must be delivered to the background check provider, which may impact turnaround time.

Video: Criminal Background Checks Explained

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Click the title slide to play a recording of a webinar about criminal background checks.

What Do Employers Need To Know About Background Checks?

Criminal background checks are a critical step during the hiring process that helps provide relevant information about a candidate’s or employee’s criminal history so you can make an informed decision for your company and your team. It’s also helpful to understand how to read a background check.

A comprehensive screening requires searching across multiple databases at the national, state, federal, and county levels, which provide different types of criminal records. Your business and employees rely on your ability to provide and maintain a safe, harmonious workplace. And the best time to uncover potentially troubling details is before someone starts working for you, so you have time to research and verify the facts. 

Before you conduct background checks, the FCRA requires that you obtain written permission from the applicant first and notify them that you may use the results in your hiring decision. 

You’ll need to investigate thoroughly to ensure that your hiring decisions are based on the most accurate, up-to-date information possible, and demonstrate that you’ve proceeded in a way that is compliant and fair to applicants. So it’s essential that your background checks be thorough and reliable sources of truth. An FCRA-compliant, accredited background check provider, like GoodHire, accesses reliable databases and has processes in place to ensure maximum possible accuracy.

The FCRA also requires employers to follow the adverse action process when you are considering not hiring an applicant, or not promoting or dismissing an employee, based on information obtained from a background check.

Information received from criminal background checks must not be used to discriminate against applicants in violation of federal law. This includes policies or practices that disproportionately affect people of a particular race, national origin, age, or other protected class, such as people with disabilities. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) website provides helpful resources on what employers need to know when using background checks during the hiring process. 

Work With A Trusted Screening Provider

The research process can feel overwhelming. You may have questions when reviewing the results of a background check and deciding how to interpret the results. Working with a trusted background screening provider means you don’t need to go through this process alone. 

Regardless of how thorough criminal checks are, background screenings by themselves don’t make hiring decisions. You do. Building the right team requires your organization’s best judgment and carefully examining all the candidate information at hand. 

Criminal background checks come in many varieties, and not all screening results are equally reliable. Make sure you’re getting the most comprehensive and accurate information from a company you can trust. Consider teaming up with GoodHire. We’re here to support you throughout the screening process.

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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.