How To Get a Federal Background Check on Yourself Free in 1 Step

author1
Jayson Baxter
June 17, 2023
In front of a white government building with the US flag on top, a woman wearing a black blazer with a blue undershirt, black pants, and shoes holds a magnifying glass directed at a background check report, while beside her, a man wearing a yellow t-shirt, blue pants, and black shoes stands, looking confused as he wonders how to get a federal background check on himself.

When you apply for a position that requires a nationwide or federal background check, you’ll be pleased that learning how to get a federal background check on yourself can be done for free, and in just 1 step.

It’s also important to understand what constitutes a federal background check. Sometimes individuals may use the term federal background check and FBI background check to mean the same thing; however, while they are similar there are some differences which are discussed later in the article.

How Can I Get a Federal Background Check on Myself?

It is possible to run a federal (or nation-wide) background check on yourself. These reports are more than just name-based level 1 background checks, but are the equivalent of a level 2 background check that is fingerprint-based.

The FBI provides national background check reports, called a rap sheet, to individuals, which draws information for local, state and federal law enforcement agencies. The FBI also runs certain government agency background checks.

Rap sheets can be requested online or via regular mail. Most reports are available in two to four weeks, but it is possible to also request an expedited background check through the FBI.

These checks are usually for personal use only and are not the same as an employment screening. For example, someone might request a rap sheet when doing marriage background checks to make sure their intended partner does not have a federal criminal history.

Federal background checks, which just contain information from federal court cases, can be obtained online through PACER, which means Public Access to Electronic Court Records, and provides data on all cases tried in federal courts.

PACER information is taken from court documents, so if charges are dismissed do you have a criminal record on the federal level? Technically, PACER will show a hit on a person’s federal criminal record, but the case notes will show the matter was dismissed.

Federal incarceration information can be found at the Bureau of Prison website; however, BOP information will appear in the sentencing section of a PACER report.

The federal government has also developed a program known as the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services National Background Check Program to help vet those who have direct patient access; however, these screenings begin on the state level.1

How To Run a Federal Background Check on Yourself Online

First for an overall nation-wide background check on yourself, the first place to start would be the FBI. The FBI provides individuals with a rap sheet, or fingerprint-based national criminal history based on data supplied by the individual federal, state and local law enforcement agencies.

While a complete federal background conviction report can be found through PACER, it will not show state or local records.

The quickest way to request a rap sheet is online and submit fingerprints through an approved channeler or the post office. More on this process is discussed later in the article.

A screenshot from the FBI electronic department order website's identity history summary checks page showing the steps on how to submit a request section.

Source: The Electronic Departmental Order2

The request an FBI report online, the individual would need to follow the steps listed below:

  1. Navigate to the FBI website.
  2. Click the word online to start the request.
  3. Click the hyperlink titled submit your request online.
  4. Scroll to the section titled how to submit a request and enter the subject’s email address in the box in this section to start the online application.
  5. The subject then must open their email inbox to and click on the email sent to them from the Criminal Justice Information System. This email will contain a link to request the rap sheet along with a PIN specifically for that subject.
  6. After clicking the link in the email, enter the PIN.
  7. Complete the on-screen instructions.
  8. Submit payment of $18 for the record.
  9. Go to the nearest post office that partners with the FBI for fingerprinting services and have prints taken and submitted electronically.3

A screenshot from the official website of the US Public Access to court electronic records homepage.

Source: The Public Access to Court Electronic Records | PACER: Federal Court Records4

This is the quickest, most efficient way to complete a federal record check online is through the FBI which includes a federal record in addition to the local and state data available.

A federal background check can also be accessed through PACER or Public Access to Electronic Court Records which only includes federal court records, not state and local criminal history.

To complete a record check through PACER online, do the following:

  1. Open the (PACER) website. This should be at or near the top of the search results.
  2. Click the hyperlink to the PACER search information sheet.
  3. Register for an online account with PACER (this is required to search US court records).
  4. Log into the PACER account.
  5. Click the link titled search for a case.
  6. Click the sub-link titled search by national index.
  7. Conduct a name-based search for any federal court records for the subject.5

Yet another online option to search for records is through the United States Bureau of Prisons (BOP); however, the data gathered from this search only shows the person’s name, where they are incarcerated if still in federal prison or when the person was released if they are no longer actively incarcerated. To search BOP records, do the following:

  1. Open the BOP name-based search site.
  2. Enter the person’s first, middle and last name, race, sex and age, then click the search button.
  3. A list of inmates which matches the search criteria will populate. Review the list to find the record in question.6

A screenshot from the Bureau of Prisons website's find an inmate page showing empty find by name fields.

Source: The Federal Bureau of Prisons7

While there are three federal agencies that can provide a federal record check, the FBI rap sheet is the most comprehensive check as it includes both federal and state criminal information. Requesting this record online is the easiest, and quickest, way to get a federal background report, but it is also possible to request this via mail.

How To Get a Federal Background Check on Yourself via Mail

If there is no rush for the record, an individual can request their FBI rap sheet via regular mail. To use this method, the subject would have to complete the following steps:

  1. Open the FBI website.
  2. Click the link to access the application form.
  3. Select the button labeled request the applicant information form.
  4. Click the words download the form to open it on the screen.
  5. Print the form and complete all the required blocks.
  6. Obtain a standard fingerprint form from the website or at a local law enforcement agency or FBI approved channeler. If printing the card from the online link, it must be printed on white card stock paper.
  7. Get prints taken by a law enforcement agency or FBI approved channeler take the subject’s prints.
  8. Mail the application, fingerprint card and the $18 in the form of a check or money order to the FBI Criminal Justice Information System address. Credit card payments can also be processed using the credit card payment form.

The mailing address for mail-in requests is:

Federal Bureau of Investigation
Criminal Justice Information System Div.
Summary Record Request
1000 Custer Hollow Rd.
Clarksburg West Virginia 26306

When mailing in the request for records, the report is typically mailed within 2 to 4 weeks from the date of the request. Again, this method should only be used when time is not a factor in receiving the report.

A screenshot of an identity history summary request form showing empty fields.

Source: FBI.gov8

If a report is needed quickly, there are some things the person can do to expedite the request.

How To Expedite a Federal Background Check

The amount of time to get the report is another factor in how to get a federal background check on yourself and PACER can be the quickest way to obtain a federal background check.

A federal background check through PACER can be completed in minutes online, making it a better option if a report is needed in less time than an FBI check.

For example, PACER searches all documents filed in federal courts in real-time and returns results instantly.

When a person needs an expedited FBI background check, there are some things they can do to speed up the process:

  1. Make the request online to submit it within minutes. The quicker the request is received the quicker it can be processed.
  2. Go to the US Post Office to have electronic fingerprints taken and submitted.
  3. Use the services of an FBI-approved channeler to submit fingerprints and the background check request.
  4. When choosing a channeler, make sure it is one that does in-house fingerprinting to avoid having to make multiple stops to get the request submitted.
  5. Compare channeler turnaround times to get the quickest one available in the person’s geographic area.
  6. Make sure the request matches what can be provided. FBI rap sheets are for personal use only, not for employment or licensure screenings.
  7. Make sure the application is accurate, matches the information on the fingerprint card, and that fingerprints are legible.
  8. Submit payment with the request to avoid delays in receiving the report.

It’s also important to note that it is easier to expedite a single rap sheet rather than bulk background checks. Nation-wide background checks for employment or licensure are conducted through state channels which may have additional methods to speed up the process.

How Long Does It Take To Receive a Federal Background Check Report Back?

Another aspect of the time factor in how to get a federal background check on yourself is when the report will be returned. Once the request has been submitted, it is then a waiting game until the results are released to the person making the request.

The FBI rap sheet turn around depends on the type of request submitted. Online requests are processed within three to five days after the FBI receives the fingerprint card.

This is why using electronic fingerprinting through the USPS can help speed up this process.3

Mail-in requests are typically returned within two to four weeks from the date they are received but can take longer if there are issues with the application or fingerprints. Turn around times through FBI approved channelers can vary based on the channeler’s timeframe.3

FBI firearms checks through the National Instant Criminal Check system typically come back within minutes of the application being faxed or called into the system; however, these checks can take up to three days to complete and return a report.9

PACER can return results in minutes as well, showing the searcher data on federal court case data in real time. There is a fee to access the records through PACER; however, it is a minimal fee of 10 cents per page.5

Federal Bureau of Prison inmate searches can be conducted in real-time, but for more detailed information, a person should check with the PACER system or file a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request with the BOP. FOIA requests can take several weeks to return results.10

Federal background checks for employment purposes can take weeks or months to complete depending on the nature of the position and the amount of data requested. For example, security clearance federal background checks can take up to a year to fully complete.11

Each agency provides a different level of information when searching federal records. A rap sheet or a PACER search will show more information than a BOP search.

What Does a Federal Background Check Consist Of? What Shows Up?

It is also important to understand what will show up in the report when understanding how to get a federal background check on yourself. The extent of the federal background check depends on the purpose for the screening.

The information contained in an FBI rap sheet regarding federal cases is also available through PACER; however, the FBI rap sheet may show arrests that have not yet been docketed in a federal court.

For example, a personal use rap sheet will include information on arrests and convictions on a person’s record both at the state and federal level. Do police reports show up on background checks for a federal screening?

Typically, the report will not, but charges that stem from the report can and do show up.

The federal background check consists of searching federal and state criminal records, but can also include things such as credit checks, identity verification and education and employment history for checks that are conducted for security clearances or licensure, or for purposes such as immigration and naturalization.12

A federal background check will show criminal convictions and arrest information on a person from each state providing the information and fingerprints were submitted to the FBI for processing. The following data appears on an FBI rap sheet:

  • ID number for the state
  • Universal Control Number
  • Disclosure regarding sex offender status information
  • Biometrics on the individual
  • Arrests
  • Disposition of cases
  • Any information on diversion programs for alcohol related crimes.
  • Court summary.13

Does a restraining order go on your record for federal background check purposes? Yes, a restraining order can appear on a federal firearms background check as part of a domestic violence case.

A protective order, sometimes called a restraining order, is a disqualifier for purchasing a firearm.

Another important factor to consider is whether or not older data will appear on the background check. The answers to the questions how long does a felony stay on your record or how long does a misdemeanor stay on your record depends on the state where the charges originated.

How Far Back Does a Federal Background Check Go?

Theoretically, a federal background check can span back as far as a person’s adult life including data on criminal history the time a person is considered a legal adult in their state of residence; however, much of the data the FBI includes on a rap sheet is gathered from state resources. For example, a California background check is limited to a seven-year lookback period, so information older than seven years from California may not appear on a federal background check.

States that do not impose a lookback limit can have data in the system much older than seven or 10 years, and some federal background checks can span back to a person’s natural adult life regardless of state laws restricting lookback period. This is usually for matters involving security clearances or positions working with vulnerable populations or in public safety or national security.14

A screenshot from the official website of the FBI showing the credit card payment form downloadable pdf page.

Source: FBI.gov15

Ultimately, a federal background check can span back as far as a person’s full record spans and the length of the search depends on what kind of background check is being requested and the reason for the screening.

How Much Does a Federal Background Check Cost?

How to get a federal background check on yourself also includes how much it costs to obtain the record. When requesting a rap sheet from the FBI, the fee for both online and mail-in requests is $18 and can be paid by money order, check or credit card.3

PACER records are 10 cents per page with a maximum allowed amount to charge of $3.00, so the total cost can vary depending on how many court cases are returned. PACER data only includes federal court records, not state court data.

There is also a fee of $30 for each name searched.5

Using a channeler for an FBI background check can cost $50 on average which includes the cost of the rap sheet as well as the service overhead for the channeler.16

Reasons You May Get a Federal Background Check on Yourself

How to get a federal background check on yourself is partnered with why a person would want a federal background screening completed. The reasons a person may request an FBI background check include the following:

  • Simple curiosity about what shows up on a background check.
  • To prepare for employment or licensure screenings.
  • To check the record for accuracy and to dispute inaccurate data.16

You may also be asking can someone run a background check without my permission regarding federal records? Federal criminal records are considered public domain unless they have specifically been sealed by a judge from public view.

However, federal background checks for commercial reasons (employment, housing, or other official uses) require the subject’s permission. If a person has been notified a federal background check is required for a position, they can run their own prior as well to make sure the data provided is accurate.

How To Get a Copy of Your Fingerprint Background Check Report

When requesting your FBI rap sheet, it will be mailed to you on standard white paper even when the request is submitted online. The FBI does not send electronic rap sheets to individuals because it can contain personally identifying information that may be going to an unsecure service on the end of the recipient.3

A screenshot from the official website of the FBI showing the identity history summary checks rap sheets page.

Source: FBI.gov17

PACER does not provide a fingerprint based background report, and records provided by the Bureau of Prisons are not fingerprint-based as well.

Regardless of the reason for wanting a federal background report, it is vital to know how to get a federal background check on yourself, and some options provide limited information free of charge as outlined in this free guide.

Frequently Asked Questions

How Do I Find Out Where To Get a Federal Background Check Fingerprint Done?

Information on where to get fingerprints taken can be found at the FBI website, which includes a list of FBI approved channelers. Individuals can also go to the local USPS office to see if that location provides electronic fingerprinting services.

What’s the Difference Between a Federal Background Check vs an FBI Background Check?

The biggest difference between a federal background check and an FBI background check is the reason for the screening.

A federal background check can be requested by law enforcement, an employer or licensing bureau for official uses, or can include a firearms background check. Individuals can also do a federal background check via PACER for personal use.

An FBI check known as a rap sheet is typically a personal use background report, or a report requested by a government agency for employment in the public sector. A rap sheet is only provided to the subject to the report, not a third-party, whereas a security clearance federal check through the FBI is provided to the agency granting clearance.


References

National Background Check Program | CMS. (n.d.). CMS. Retrieved February 23, 2023, from <https://www.cms.gov/medicare/provider-enrollment-and-certification/surveycertificationgeninfo/backgroundcheck>

Electronic Departmental Order. Accessed 2 May 2023. <https://www.edo.cjis.gov/#/>

Rap Sheets (Identity History Summary Checks) — FBI. (n.d.). FBI. Retrieved February 23, 2023, from <https://www.fbi.gov/how-we-can-help-you/more-fbi-services-and-information/identity-history-summary-checks>

Public Access to Court Electronic Records | PACER: Federal Court Records. Accessed 2 May 2023. <https://pacer.uscourts.gov/>

PACER. (n.d.). Public Access to Court Electronic Records | PACER: Federal Court Records. Retrieved February 23, 2023, from <https://pacer.uscourts.gov/>

Federal Inmates By Name. (n.d.). BOP. Retrieved February 23, 2023, from <https://www.bop.gov/mobile/find_inmate/byname.jsp>

BOP: Federal Inmates By Name.” Federal Bureau of Prisons. Accessed 2 May 2023. <https://www.bop.gov/mobile/find_inmate/byname.jsp>

Identity History Summary Checks Review.” FBI.gov. Accessed 2 May 2023. <https://forms.fbi.gov/identity-history-summary-checks-review>

Waiting Periods. (n.d.). NRA-ILA. Retrieved February 23, 2023, from <https://www.nraila.org/get-the-facts/waiting-periods/>

10 Security Clearances for Law Enforcement — LE. (n.d.). Law Enforcement. Retrieved February 23, 2023, from <https://le.fbi.gov/informational-tools/security-clearances-for-law-enforcement>

11 Freedom Of Information. (n.d.). BOP. Retrieved February 23, 2023, from <https://www.bop.gov/foia/#tabs-0>

12 CBP FAQs. (n.d.). Background Investigation Process FAQS. Retrieved February 23, 2023, from <https://www.cbp.gov/node/107771/printable/print>

13 Job Aid – How to Read an IdHS. (n.d.). Department of Justice. Retrieved February 23, 2023, from <https://www.justice.gov/tribal/page/file/1354861/download>

14 Casey, E. (n.d.). How Far Back Do Background Checks Go? – [UPDATED]. Employment Security Commission. Retrieved February 23, 2023, from <https://www.ncesc.com/how-far-back-do-background-checks-go/>

15 Credit Card Payment Form — FBI.” FBI. Accessed 2 May 2023. <https://www.fbi.gov/file-repository/idhsc-credit-card-payment-form.pdf/view>

16 FBI Background Checks: How do they work? (2018, September 29). LinkedIn. Retrieved February 23, 2023, from <https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/fbi-background-checks-how-do-work-sajid-patel>

17 Identity History Summary Checks Frequently Asked Questions | Federal Bureau of Investigation.” FBI. Accessed 2 May 2023. <https://www.fbi.gov/how-we-can-help-you/more-fbi-services-and-information/identity-history-summary-checks/identity-history-summary-checks-faqs>

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