Complete Guide to Federal Background Checks

Denise Hemke
February 03, 2023
5 min read

A federal background check, also known as a federal criminal background check, can provide employers with insight about a candidate to help them make informed hiring decisions to protect their brand, their organization, and their customers.

Get a background check today

What is a federal background check?

A federal background check is a search of federal criminal history records across the 94 federal United States district courts through the Public Access to Court Electronic Records (PACER) database.

A federal criminal background check is not the same as a national background check or an FBI background check:

  • National background checks search available digitized criminal records in the United States, which queries approximately 1,800 databases around the country. It's typically included in a criminal background check for employment.
  • FBI background checks are a type of search conducted by authorized agencies and industries to access information from the FBI's National Crime Information Center NCIC) database, which includes a history of arrests and convictions, as well as any contact with law enforcement. It is usually conducted through positive identification, such as fingerprinting.

What does a federal background check consist of?

A federal background check reveals federal felony and misdemeanor convictions and pending cases at the district level in federal courts. This means that it doesn’t include a candidate’s criminal history for crimes tried in state and local courts, which would require different types of background check searches.

What comes up on a federal background check will include federal criminal offenses, such as:

  • Fraud
  • Embezzlement
  • Bank robberies
  • Counterfeiting
  • Drug trafficking
  • Kidnapping

It will also report convictions of crimes against federal employees, crimes committed on federal land, crimes across state lines, and other crimes that fall outside of state and local jurisdictions. (Some of these crimes may also be tried in state or local jurisdictions.)

There are often federal background check requirements for government jobs which may include additional screenings, such as an FBI background check, identity verification, and reference checks.

A federal background check may also be used as part of job applications for jobs, such as:

  • Law enforcement
  • Teachers and education administrators
  • C-Suite executives in finance or accounting
  • Certified public accountants
  • Healthcare workers
  • Care of children and vulnerable populations

How to run a federal background check

Often the easiest way to run a check of federal criminal history records is to partner with a consumer reporting agency (CRA), like Checkr. CRAs can help streamline the background check process by conducting federal background checks alongside other screenings. They can also help reduce the administrative burden on HR teams by eliminating the need to search court records on your own.

If you wish to search on your own, however, you can do so by registering for a PACER account. Once you’ve created an account, you can search a nationwide index of federal court records or search for specific cases, though fees apply for access to such records.

How to stay compliant

If you want to run a federal criminal background check on a candidate, you'll need to ensure compliance with applicable federal, state, and local fair hiring laws.

The federal Fair Credit Reporting Act (FCRA) governs employment background checks and requires employers to provide proper disclosure to the candidate notifying them that you intend to run a background check and that any information found can be used in your hiring decision; the candidate must also provide consent for the background check.

If the background check results in the decision not to hire, retain or promote a candidate, you must follow the correct steps for adverse action. Further, the Equal Employee Opportunity Commission (EEOC) offers guidance to avoid employment discrimination based on arrest and criminal history and encourages conducting an Individualized Assessment for further context.

Local Ban the Box laws, which can vary by state, county, and city, may also apply. These laws may impact when employers are permitted to ask about a candidate's criminal history or run a criminal background check during the hiring process.

How to get a federal background check on yourself

To conduct a federal background check on yourself, you can register for an individual PACER account which enables you to search nationwide federal court records – appellate, district, and bankruptcy cases and docket information – though fees apply. You can also access case files at the public access terminals of the specific court clerk’s office. Private investigators that specialize in court record searches may also help you conduct a federal background check on yourself.

If you're planning to apply for a job and want to know what additional information may be revealed, you may wish to run a personal background check on yourself. Our free personal background check does not include a federal criminal records check, but it can help uncover records at the state and county level and can help you prepare for potential conversations you may need to have with prospective employers, allowing you to add context if necessary. Additionally, if you find inaccurate information, you may be able to get that information corrected or removed.

Get a federal background check with Checkr

Depending on the positions you’re hiring for, federal background checks may be part of your screening program. While you can perform federal background checks on your own, the process can be time-consuming and legal compliance requirements can be challenging for any HR team.

Checkr’s modern platform makes background checks easier and more efficient, while our built-in compliance tools help you manage risk for your business. In addition to federal background checks, Checkr offers multiple background screening options to enable businesses of all sizes to hire fairer and faster.

Get a background check today


The resources and information provided here are for educational and informational purposes only and do not constitute legal advice. Always consult your own counsel for up-to-date legal advice and guidance related to your practices, needs, and compliance with applicable laws.

About the author

As Chief Product Officer at Checkr, Denise is responsible for leading the product vision, teams, and roadmap to deliver customer delight and innovation while advancing our mission of building a fairer future. Denise brings a relentless focus on customer success, adoption, and innovation to meet our customers’ needs.

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