How Far Back Does a FBI Background Check Go? See Yours Now

A portrait of Background Check Records founder, Jayson Baxter.Written by Jayson Baxter

Background Checks | March 30, 2023

A woman with blonde hair wearing a black and blue pants suit is holding a magnifying lens over a computer monitor where an image of a man with a yellow shirt is seen, while the other lady wearing a blue shirt, black pants, and a white long gown is considering how far back does a FBI background check go as she points to a white and blue calendar.

One of the most extensive background checks that a person can undergo is an FBI screening, but how far back does a FBI background check go?

This can be a serious matter for some individuals since the FBI conducts over 20 million firearms checks alone each year and each can impact a person’s right to purchase or possess a firearm or obtain occupational licensure that involves public trust, or local, state or federal government employment. Plus, depending on the charge and jurisdiction, some charges will

Fortunately, this free guide will explain how many years back an FBI background check goes, how to get an FBI background check done online, via mail and through an expedited process, as well as provide the knowledge, tools and skills to prepare for what may appear.

To obtain a copy of your own FBI background check report, simply run a free search so you can determine if old charges are still on your record, and how to proceed from there.

How Many Years Back Does a FBI Background Check Go? How Far Back Does a FBI Background Check Go?

When questioning how far back does a FBI background check go it’s important to note that not all FBI background checks are the same, and the length of the check is determined by the position or license being sought or other reason for the screening, the state in which the request originated, and the agency or individual requesting the report.

Therefore, we’ll cover how far back FBI screenings go for various purposes.

When Purchasing Firearms

Firearms checks are performed daily by the FBI, but there is no limit on the lookback period for a firearms background screening.

Therefore, if there is any criminal conviction on a person’s record that would prevent them from purchasing a handgun or rifle, it will show up on an FBI screening regardless of how old the record is.

The Gun Control Act of 1968 did not place a limit on how far the screenings could go.

A screenshot of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives' homepage. 

This law was later enhanced by the Brady Handgun Violence Prevention Act, commonly called the Brady Bill, which requires background checks for firearms purchases and transfers and can impose a five day waiting period for a person to become a licensed gun owner if there is not an alternative in the state for screening individuals that wish to purchase a handgun.

Also, the Brady Bill does not put a limit on how far back the FBI can search when doing a background check.1

A screenshot of the Brady Law page from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives.

FBI Background Check Look Back Period For Employment and Licensure

Ultimately, an FBI background check can who criminal records indefinitely depending on the circumstances surrounding the reason for the search, but there are some restrictions states can impose on how far a background check can look or the look back period, and what can be revealed in a screening even when it includes an FBI fingerprint-based, nationwide check.

When FBI background checks require a review of a person’s credit history in addition to criminal convictions or charges, the Fair Credit Reporting Act (FCRA) limits the lookback period for credit reports to seven years (10 years in the case of certain bankruptcies) and non-convictions to a seven-year period (except in cases where the position pays more than $75,000 a year, in which case there is no seven-year rule application).2

Because of this seven-year standard established by the FCRA, a few states have adopted similar look-back limits, sometimes called statutes of limitation, on background checks performed in these states. The list below are the states that currently limit a FBI background check to seven years (10 years for bankruptcies):

  • California
  • Kansas
  • Maryland
  • Massachusetts
  • Montana
  • New Hampshire
  • New Mexico
  • New York
  • Hawaii (five years for misdemeanors)
  • Washington3

The other states do not place a lookback limit on criminal convictions, so a FBI background check can go back indefinitely and show all adult convictions that have not been sealed or expunged by the courts.

Similarly ban the box laws may limit when an agency or organization can request a FBI background check but do not typically place limits on how far the results can span.

Positions that require a security clearance (either secret or top secret clearance) have their own lookback period as well. Secret clearance investigations by the FBI typically span a five year lookback period and include a credit history and interviews with individuals that are familiar with the subject.

Top secret clearance FBI background checks can span 10 years and are much more comprehensive than a secret clearance check, but also include interviews and a deeper-dive into a person’s life.4

For C-Suite and/or Executive Positions

Other high-level positions such as executive positions in banking, financing, or other vital services are not limited to the seven-year lookback period for FBI background checks because these positions carry a greater responsibility to the public.

These background checks can span 10 years or more depending on the type of position and the agency or organization requesting the screening.5

Law enforcement officers can also apply for security clearances and submit to an FBI background check if their regular duties routinely involve working with federal agencies where clearance will help the officers perform their official duties with these screenings going back indefinitely. Law enforcement or public safety employment screenings are not limited to lookback periods due to the nature of the position.

So, how far back does a FBI background check go, period? The bottom line is, the extent a FBI background check spans depends on a number of factors and can range from seven years for most employment screenings but can span a person’s entire lifetime in states that do not impose lookback periods.

A screenshot of the Identity History Summary Checks page showing the steps on how to submit a request.

Also, some positions require a longer screening window, such as security clearance or c-suite positions, which can span ten years. What is revealed in the report also depends on how much information the agency or company needs and the reason for the search.

What’s Revealed by FBI Background Checks? What Shows Up on FBI Background Checks?

Many people wonder what exactly shows up on a FBI background check. In this section, the information that is typically revealed is outlined to remove the mystery from the FBI screening.

The main reason most employers or licensure boards request a FBI background report is to see if a person has been convicted of any disqualifying (criminal) offenses (which will be discussed in detail below); however, that is not all that can show up on the report.6

The list below shows the items that typically appear on a FBI background check with an explanation of why it is important to the overall report:

  • Local, state or federal misdemeanor and felony convictions nationwide: Criminal convictions can automatically disqualify individuals from certain jobs such as working positions of public safety or with vulnerable populations. Therefore, the criminal history report is usually the bulk of a FBI screening, and is made up of data from every state and territory. It can also include international criminal activity that falls under the jurisdiction of the United States Department of Justice.
  • Credit history: A comprehensive FBI background screening may include information about credit history, especially for sensitive jobs or positions.
  • Interview results: When a FBI screening includes interviews with family, friends, colleagues, associates or others familiar with the subject, the information gathered by the interviews can be included in the background report.
  • Identity verification: One major aspect of a FBI background check is fingerprinting which is used to verify the identity of the subject.6 This could be how to find someone’s middle name to verify the applicant’s identity as well.

As previously stated, however, the primary reason many agencies or organizations request a FBI background check is to look for disqualifying offenses, sometimes simply referred to as disqualifiers.

FBI Background Check Disqualifiers

Disqualifiers are criminal offenses that would automatically exclude someone from consideration for a position, and these vary depending on the nature of the position and the responsibilities the position carries. Do dropped charges show up on a background check by the FBI?

The table below outlines common disqualifiers and when they typically apply:

Felony Convictions

While not all felony convictions are automatic disqualifiers, certain criminal convictions (and in some cases charges) can automatically exclude someone from a position or from obtaining a professional license. These felonies include:

  • Homicide
  • Sexual Assaults
  • Violent felonies involving use of deadly weapons
  • Terroristic threats or acts
  • Crimes against national security
  • Felonies that violate public trust such as bribery or extortion
  • Moral turpitude crimes
  • Kidnapping/taking hostages
  • Fraud
  • Serious bodily injury offenses
  • Felony offenses against vulnerable populations such as children, elderly or disabled persons.
  • Felony drug offenses
  • Arson

This applies to positions or licensing consideration in the fields including, but not limited to the ones below:

  • Local, state or federal government employment
  • Military service
  • Law enforcement/public safety
  • Public health positions
  • Banking/financial institutions
  • Any work with vulnerable populations

Misdemeanor Convictions

As with felony convictions, not all misdemeanor convictions are disqualifiers but some can prevent a person from being hired when disclosed in a FBI background check. These include:

  • Violent misdemeanors such as assault with intent to kill or cause bodily injury
  • Misdemeanor crimes against vulnerable populations such as children, elderly or disabled persons.

This applies to positions or licensing consideration in the fields including, but not limited to the ones below:

  • Local, state or federal government employment
  • Military service
  • Law enforcement/public safety
  • Public health positions
  • Banking/financial institutions
  • Any work with vulnerable populations

Felony or Misdemeanor Charges (Pending, Dropped Charges or Dismissed)

Certain positions require a person has never been charged with a criminal offense, and the presence of charges (regardless of disposition) can be an automatic disqualifier.

This typically involves positions that require a security clearance and are necessary for national security such as:

  • Law enforcement
  • Corrections
  • Holding public office appointments
  • Offenses that appear on a background check that are dropped (or other non-convictions such as acquittals) or dismissed and have not been sealed or expunged.

Credit Information

Executive level positions or those involving national security often require the applicant or subject to have a clean credit history. Disqualifiers can include:

  • Bankruptcies
  • Multiple accounts in collections
  • Poor credit management (overutilization of credit, overextended)
  • Poor credit score with high debt-to-income ratio.

Credit history is often included in the following FBI screenings:

  • Department of Defense screenings
  • Security clearance investigations
  • Public trust vetting process
  • Financial institution positions
  • Executive level (CEO, c-suite) positions
  • Department heads for local, state or federal agencies.

Personal Interview Data

Positions that require security clearance or a deep-dive into a person’s past may also include interviews with family, friends, associates, coworkers, educators or any others familiar with the individual. Disqualifiers in this category could be:

  • Reports of suspicious activity by a neighbor such as strange vehicles in the driveway, odd visits.
  • Reports of excessive drinking or substance abuse.
  • Reports of marital or family problems.

While these are not automatic disqualifiers, they can lead to denial of clearance which can impact a person’s position.

Interview history is often included in the following FBI screenings:

  • Department of Defense screenings
  • Security clearance investigations
  • Public trust vetting process
  • Financial institution positions
  • Executive level (CEO, c-suite) positions
  • Department heads for local, state or federal agencies.

A screenshot of the Tribal Access Program for National Crime Information page showing how to read an identity history summary

The process for completing a FBI screening, and how it is used varies from situation to situation. All FBI screenings include fingerprinting to verify identity of the person being screened, and to use fingerprints as means to connect with local law enforcement for booking/arrest information.

How Many Years Does the FBI Keep Fingerprints on File?

Because fingerprint cards submitted to the FBI become property of the agency, and therefore the United States government, storage and destruction of these records is subject to the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) guidelines that govern all federal agency records.

NARA establishes which records are considered permanent (meaning they are never destroyed and become part of the national archives), and which are temporary (meaning they can be destroyed on a schedule set by NARA based on the type of record and its importance in the daily operations of a federal agency).

Fingerprint cards maintained by the FBI are stored in an electronic filing system called the Next Generation Identification System (NGI) which has safeguards to protect the personally identifying information (PII) of the subject in encrypted format. The system can only be accessed by authorized users with a need-to-know basis.7

NARA has established that FBI fingerprint files must be stored for 110 years or for seven years following the verified death of the subject, at which time the records can be destroyed. Destruction of records must make them completely unrecognizable and unrecoverable.

Only fingerprints that are considered of significant national importance are considered for permanent record status.8 Because the FBI stores fingerprints for such a long time, the return of background checks can be more streamlined to support the agencies that request screenings.

How Long Does the FBI Take To Return a Level 2 Background Check Report?

A fingerprint-based background check is sometimes referred to as a level 2 screening, which is more extensive than  level 1 background checks, but not as exhaustive as a level 4 background check. Level 2 is the most common type of employment background check conducted by the FBI, and is also used for non–profit background checks for volunteers.

A level 2 screening is also somewhat different than a level 3 background check. The amount of time required to return a FBI background check for a level 2 screening varies from several days to weeks depending on the amount of information requested.

For example, if an agency simply needs identity verification and a nationwide criminal record search, the results can be returned in 1 to 3 days upon receipt of the fingerprint card and request. Deeper dives can take up to 2 to 4 weeks to provide results.

The average turnaround time for a level 2 background check is 30 days.9

Similar screenings for licensure can take the same amount of time, and many professions that require a license to perform duties have mandatory nationwide, fingerprint-based background screenings to look for any disqualifying offenses.10

The most extensive checks conducted by the FBI take six to nine months for top secret clearance, and 45 to 65 days for secret clearance to complete because this involves not only checking state and national criminal reports/databases, it can also include interviews with individuals familiar with the subject. This is known as the vetting process and can also include interviews with individuals familiar with the subject and a credit history check.11

Common Delays & Why It’s Taking So Long

While most FBI screenings are returned within a few days to weeks, there are some issues that can cause a delay in receiving the report. Some of the common delays are in the list below:

  • System issues: The FBI uses an electronic system that can sometimes crash or go down. When the system isn’t working properly, this can lead to a delay in the report.
  • Missing information: Failure to include all the supporting information needed to conduct the screening can delay the results.
  • Incorrect information: It is important to make sure names are spelled correctly, birth dates are entered in the correct format, and social security numbers are accurate. Incorrect information can cause the results to be delayed.

Delays can and do happen, so it is important to let the subject know that the amount of time to complete the screening can vary based on the factors above, and encourage the applicant to make sure all information on the application or consent form for a screening is correct and complete to allow the background check to proceed.

How To Get a FBI Background Check Done

There are a few methods to getting a FBI background check completed, depending on the reason for the screening and how it is requested.

For example, the process for a firearms screening is different than that for an employment check or for personal reasons.

The process for each is outlined below, and while it is not a free criminal background check, it is worth the price to see how far back does a FBI background check goes in you and what shows up on your personal record.

FBI Firearms Background Check Process

One of the more common FBI screenings is the NICS background check used to screen individuals wishing to purchase a firearm. The federal government requires licensed firearms dealers, called Federal Firearms Licensees (FFLs), to conduct a National Instant Background Check before completing the purchases.

As the name implies, this record check can be done electronically or over the phone with almost instant results. If there is a delay with the system, such as the system is down, the results can take up to three days or more.12

The table below outlines in which states the FFLs contact the FBI for all firearms checks, which ones go strictly through state law enforcement, and which ones have shared responsibilities for background checks:

FFLs Contact FBI for All Firearms Checks FFLs Contact State Agencies Only for Firearms Checks FFLs Use State Sources and FBI for Firearms Checks
District of Columbia
New Mexico
New York
North Dakota
Rhode Island
South Carolina
South Dakota
West Virginia
New Jersey
New Hampshire
North Carolina

A screenshot of the National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS) page showing its participation map

A firearms screening is completed as follows:

  1. The individual goes to a federally licensed firearms dealer to purchase a firearm (in states where the FBI does all firearms checks).
  2. The licensed dealer has the applicant fill out Form 4473 supplied by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives division of the United States Department of Justice. This can be done in paper form or via electronic means.
  3. The FFL submits the form to the FBI via telephone or electronically. Results can be returned in minutes.

A screenshot of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives page showing where the eForm 4473 can be downloaded.

Employment FBI Screening Process

When screenings are being completed as part of employment obligations, the agency that requires the background check includes the necessary screening forms as part of the employment paperwork (either in the application or as part of the on-boarding form once a position has been conditionally offered).

A screenshot of the criminal background check requirements shows the required national and state-based background checks.

Fingerprinting can be done by the agency requesting the report (such as a law enforcement or government agency) itself or through approved vendors called channelers discussed below.

Personal FBI Rap Sheet Requests

The Freedom of Information Act allows individuals to request a copy of their FBI rap sheet or report to see what shows up on a nationwide background check. Anyone has the right to request their own rap sheet; however, consent of the subject is required if requesting a rap sheet on someone else.

Running a personal background check can help someone plan for a potential failed background check after job offer has been made. This can be how to find out if criminal charges filed against a person as well.

There are three ways to request a rap sheet through the FBI as outlined in the table below:

Online Requests

To make obtaining a rap sheet easier, there is an online portal that can be used to request a personal record. Do the steps listed here:

  1. Open a search engine such as Google on the computer.
  2. Type FBI + background check + search.
  3. Review the search returns for the official government website. This site will end in .gov.
  4. Click the FBI website link.
  5. Select Online to start a digital request.
  6. Click Submit Your Online Request in the paragraph at the top of the page.
  7. Fill out the application.
  8. Set notification preferences.
  9. Complete the fingerprints and submit them electronically or via mail to the address listed in the next section (mailed in fingerprint cards must be accompanied by the confirmation email showing an electronic request has been submitted and received).
  10. Pay the fee of $18 per person/record.
  11. Confirm the request after reviewing the information.

The FBI will run the search and send the results using the preferred notification method.

Mail in Request

Individuals also have the option to submit the application and fingerprints via mail. This method can take up to 4 weeks to get results. The steps to do a mail in request are below:

  1. Open a search engine such as Google on the computer.
  2. Type FBI + background check + search.
  3. Review the search returns for the official government website. This site will end in .gov.
  4. Click the FBI website link.
  5. Select Mail in the options at the top of the screen.
  6. Download the application form and fill it out completely.
  7. Submit the form along with fingerprints on an approved FBI fingerprint card to the address listed below.
  8. Include the $18 fee using the credit card payment form or a money order or certified check.

The mailing address for this type request is:

Federal Bureau of Investigation
Criminal Justice Information System
Summary Request (Rap Sheet)
1000 Custer Hollow Rd
Clarksburg, West Virginia 26306

FBI Approved Channeler Method

An FBI approved channeler is a commercial organization that has been granted the authority to submit a rap sheet request on behalf of the subject, and to provide the results to the subject once they are available. To find an approved channeler, do the following:

  1. Open a search engine such as Google on the computer.
  2. Type FBI + background check + search.
  3. Review the search returns for the official government website. This site will end in .gov.
  4. Click the FBI website link.
  5. Select the  FBI Approved Channeler link at the top of the page.
  6. Click the link to access the approved channeler list provided.
  7. Call the number listed for the channeler or click the link for the one nearest the subject’s home or work to schedule an appointment.
  8. Arrive at the appointment.
  9. Pay the required fees and submit to fingerprints.

The channeler will notify the subject when the report is available.

A screenshot of a downloadable identity history summary request form from the FBI's official website.

These methods can take a few days to a few weeks, but sometimes there is a need for a very rapid turnaround in getting a FBI background check.

Process To Expedite a FBI Background Check

An expedited FBI background check can help streamline the hiring process or may be needed for additional reasons such as adoptions or security clearance.

Here are some ways to get an expedited FBI background check:

  1. Utilize the United States Post Office to submit fingerprints electronically rather than send them through snail mail. Be aware this service is not available at every post office location, so it’s important to call first and to avoid unnecessary delays.
  2. Use the services of a FBI approved channeler to submit a background check request and fingerprints. These agencies partner with the FBI to take fingerprints, accept applications, electronically submit the information and disseminate (or deliver) the report to the recipient.
  3. Make sure the channeler offers in-house fingerprint service. If not, make sure fingerprints are completed prior to the appointment to avoid delays.
  4. Shop around for channelers. If there is more than one approved channeler in the area, see which ones have the quickest turnaround times. This can help expedite the process.
  5. Make sure everything needed for situations such as licensure are included to avoid delays.
  6. Most important, make sure the information provided to start the background check is complete and correct. The biggest delays are caused by missing or inaccurate information, so paying careful attention to this step can expedite results.

Once the request has been submitted, it is a matter of waiting until the results are available and can be accessed.

How Do I Access My FBI Fingerprint Results To See If an Old Criminal Charge Is Present?

Once a person has the results of their FBI background check, they are in a better position to deal with any potential negative impacts, see how far the screening goes back and get an overall picture of what may or may not need additional attention.

The method of receiving results depends on how they were requested and is outlined below:

  • Online: When requesting a rap sheet online, the results are returned via the preferred method chosen at the time of the request. This can be via email, fax, or other electronic means, or can be via regular mail if a hardcopy is needed.
  • Mail: Mail-in requests are returned by mail and can take up to 4 weeks to get the report.
  • Approved Channeler: Turn around times for getting the report can vary. Each channeler provides the customer with a list of options for receiving results.

Being subject to a FBI background check can be intimidating because the subject may have past criminal records or other disqualifications, but it doesn’t have to be. This free guide can help individuals navigate the process and answers the question: how far back does a FBI background check go?

Frequently Asked Questions

Can You Get an FBI Background Check Done Online?

Yes, the FBI does have an online portal to request a rap sheet or background check. Agencies that conduct official FBI background checks can also submit requests online for expedited results.

How Far Back Does USCIS Background Check Go?

A USCIS check is performed on someone seeking a green card or citizenship status, and can take up to 12 weeks to complete once fingerprints have been taken and submitted, but the average turnaround is six to eight weeks.

Is an FBI Screening Common for Employment Background Checks?

Because FBI screenings are nationwide searchers, they are commonly used to vet (or check out) applicants for many positions.

What’s the Cost of an FBI Background Check?

A FBI rap sheet costs $18.


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