How Far Back Does a Background Check Go?

Last Updated:
April 7, 2023

When you get a background check as part of the hiring process, you might wonder just how far back the check goes. After all, if you’re an adult and have an employment record stretching back decades, it can be tough to determine how much information your future employer will get from a background screening service, and how much of your history they’ll study.

In truth, background checks can go back to varying lengths. Some background checks only go back up to seven years or so, while others may go back up to 10 years or longer. Let’s break down how far a background check goes on average and for different background check types.

The Types of Background Checks and Their Lengths

To understand average background check time frames, you have to first grasp that there are different types of background checks that a screening agency can perform for your employer. Some of the most common types of background checks include:

  • Pre-employment background checks. These are comprehensive background checks that cover approximately seven years of court and criminal records, although they may go back further depending on federal and state laws
  • Bankruptcy checks, which typically go back for about 10 years
  • Credit history checks, which go back at least seven years on average. Depending on a candidate's expected salary and state-specific laws, credit history checks can go back even further
  • Criminal felony checks. Individual felonies can be reported indefinitely or may be restricted to seven years depending on the state of employment
  • Criminal background checks for misdemeanors. Like felonies, misdemeanor convictions can be reported indefinitely or might be restricted to three, five, or seven years based on the state of employment
  • Driving record checks, which can go back for between three and 10 years depending on the state
  • Educational history checks, which may need to be verified throughout a job candidate’s lifetime. Some background check providers may only check seven years of educational history, however
  • Employment history checks. Similarly to educational history checks, employment history checks can go back throughout a candidate’s entire life or just seven years
  • Professional license verification checks. Similarly to educational history checks, professional license verification checks can go back throughout a candidate’s life or just seven years

As you can see, the exact information requested by your future employer will affect how far a background check goes. Let’s take a closer look at some specific examples.

Background Checks for Jobs with Salaries of Less than $75,000

Under the Fair Credit Reporting Act, background check agencies must adhere to certain restrictions based on salary for the to-be-filled position for a job candidate. If a candidate is applying to a job worth less than $75,000, background check agencies are not allowed to report information like:

  • Civil judgments and government sanctions that are more than seven years old
  • Disciplinary actions that are attached to professional licenses and that are more than seven years old
  • Bankruptcy filings that are more than 10 years old

If a candidate’s job position is for $75,000 or more, the FCRA does allow the above information to be included in a background check. However, background screening agencies must still adhere to state laws as the final rules, if applicable.

Federal Background Checks

Federal background checks are important elements of comprehensive background screenings. They include a check for a candidate’s lifetime criminal history, including both convictions and pending criminal cases that are to be prosecuted in federal court.

Generally, federal background checks extend throughout a candidate’s entire lifetime. If a candidate is applying to a federal agency job, the background check may include additional screenings that examine things like group affiliations, social media activity, etc.

FBI Background Checks

FBI background checks also focus on criminal history. They go back throughout a candidate’s entire life. Note, however, that the FCRA’s seven-year reporting limit and any other state restrictions may still apply if the FBI uses a third-party background check provider or consumer reporting agency.

Fingerprint Background Checks

Fingerprint background checks utilize candidate fingerprints and other personal information to check for historical info. Fingerprint background check timeframes can vary based on things like how long the candidate’s fingerprint has been in criminal databases.

What Can Affect How Far Back a Background Check Goes?

Many different things can affect how far back a background check goes, such as state rules, regulations, and industry compliance requirements. For example, all employers must follow federal background check regulations. Employers must also follow state-specific background check regulations when making hiring decisions.

Most importantly, employers and background check agencies must adhere to the rules laid out by the FCRA.

FCRA Limitations on Background Check Timespans

In a nutshell, the FCRA sets specific limits that prevent some types of background checks from extending throughout a candidate’s lifetime. This legislation also prevents consumer reporting agencies, like credit bureaus and third-party background check providers, from reporting certain types of information in background checks, including:

  • Bankruptcies that are older than 10 years from the date of the background check report
  • Civil suits, judgments, and records of arrest that are older than seven years
  • Paid tax liens that are older than seven years from the date of the background check report
  • Collections accounts that are older than seven years from the date of the background check report
  • Any other adverse information, other than criminal convictions, that is older than seven years from the date of the background check report

Generally, the FCRA does allow background check providers to report candidate arrests for up to seven years in the past. This includes any cases where charges may have been dismissed. Any court proceedings that did not lead to a criminal conviction are reportable for up to seven years. Such proceedings can include cases where charges are dismissed before a trial, cases where a trial results in a not-guilty verdict, etc.

State-Specific Background Check Restrictions

In addition to the above rules and restrictions, background check agencies and employers must abide by state-specific background check laws. States, counties, and even some cities have laws that impose restrictions in terms of what a background check company can search for and how far back a company can look. Here are some examples.

California, Kentucky, New Mexico, and New York do not allow background check agencies to report non-convictions in background checks. Otherwise, the FCRA allows background check companies to show court proceedings and arrests on background checks for up to seven years.

Hawaii, Massachusetts, and Michigan for misdemeanor arrests only allow arrests to be reported through background checks. However, these states still prohibit employers from asking candidates about those arrests unless the offense in question led to a criminal conviction.

Meanwhile, California and New York allow employers to learn about arrests only if the candidate’s charges are still pending or undecided. Wisconsin limits all consideration of arrest records to only charges that are substantially related to the job in question.

Georgia is a unique case. It prohibits employers from disqualifying job candidates for employment on the basis of criminal records that were successfully discharged under Georgia’s First Offender Act. There are exceptions to this, of course, such as job positions that involve working with children or vulnerable populations.

How Far Back Does a Criminal Background Check Go?

Generally speaking, criminal background checks go back indefinitely or forever. If you have one or more criminal convictions, those convictions can be shown on your background check screenings for all jobs of all kinds and all salary levels and in all cases. Think of criminal convictions as marks on your permanent record.

However, if you work in a state that has a seven-year limit on criminal records reporting, that may apply to your case. In those instances, a background check company cannot report a criminal conviction that is older than eight years, for example.

In most states and counties, any misdemeanor criminal records are reported for seven years. Older misdemeanor records can still be reported if they are easily and readily accessible, however. For instance, if a local jurisdiction's records are digitized and easy to find by a background check agency, those older misdemeanor credit records may still show up on a background check screening report.

Furthermore, juvenile records, in addition to other court-sealed documents, don't appear in criminal background checks regardless of age.

7 vs. 10-Year Background Check States

It's important to note that most states determine their background check lengths and time frames based on seven or 10-year rules.

Seven-year background check states usually forbid background check agencies from reporting criminal convictions that are older than seven years of the date of the background check report. These states include:

  • California, which also prevents non-convictions from being reported
  • Hawaii, which limits felony conviction considerations to seven years and misdemeanor or infraction conviction considerations to five years
  • Kansas
  • Maryland
  • Massachusetts
  • Montana
  • New Hampshire
  • New Mexico, which prevents the reporting of non-convictions
  • New York, which prevents the reporting of non-convictions
  • Washington

There are also so-called 10-year background check states. These include the remaining 40 states in addition to Washington, DC. This term, however, is a little misleading.

If you apply for a job position in a 10-year background check state, criminal convictions in those states can be reported indefinitely or for much longer than 10 years. FCRA and other guidelines still apply to these states, but it's important to recognize that any criminal convictions you have in these states will likely always show up on a background screening report.

What if Outdated Information Shows Up on Your Background Check?

As you can see, different states and areas have different rules regarding information that can show up on a candidate’s background check. Sometimes, credit reporting agencies and third-party companies make big mistakes.

For instance, they might report outdated information, like an old criminal conviction or a non-conviction for a criminal activity you were falsely accused of. If outdated information shows up on your background check, and if it results in or contributes to the loss of a job offer, you have rights under the FCRA to fight back.

Specifically, you have the right to file a dispute letter with the background check company in question. If a company denies you a job offer on the basis of background check information, it will send you an adverse action notice. The adverse action notice will break down why you were denied and whether the denial had anything to do with background check information. It will also provide you with the contact information for the background screening agency that performed the search.

Armed with this information, you can contact the background screening company and file a dispute letter, pointing out the inaccurate information and including other info, like state laws. Once the background-checking agency has this information, it is legally obligated to investigate the matter and correct any erroneous information that it discovers.

In theory, this should fix the issue quickly. You may still qualify for an available job position if you were otherwise well-qualified for the spot. However, some background check agencies don’t adhere to the rules laid out by the FCRA. They may not investigate the claim that you file with them, or they may refuse to correct inaccurate information.

If this happens, you need to contact knowledgeable legal representatives. They may be able to help you pursue arbitration or file a lawsuit against the background check agency. Either of these pathways could help you recover damages for lost job opportunities and other costs.

Wrap Up

As you can see, most background checks go back around seven years, with a few exceptions regarding criminal records/histories. Keep this in mind when waiting for a background check’s results.

If you think your background check has erroneous information or outdated information from longer than seven years ago, you may have grounds to file a dispute letter or a successful lawsuit. Fair Credit can help you understand your options and take the steps needed to ensure your background check information is accurate. Contact us today to learn more. 

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