Complete Guide to National Background Checks

Denise Hemke
December 14, 2022
5 min read

When employers want to learn more about a job candidate’s criminal history, a national criminal background check may be used as a primary search to help pinpoint where employers may wish to conduct further screenings. Here’s why employers may wish to conduct national background checks and what may be revealed.

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What is a national background check?

A national criminal background check queries a collection of over 2,800 databases sourced from state and county agencies nationwide. As an example, Checkr runs a National Criminal Database Records check that searches more than 900 million records. Because it casts a wide net, a national background check is often the first step in searching a candidate’s criminal history. An employer may run a national background check as part of a larger pre-employment criminal background check to help them make more informed hiring decisions. A national check is not the same as a federal background check, which searches for records related to federal crimes. And while a national criminal background check is extensive, it’s not necessarily comprehensive. Instead, results from a national criminal background search can point to potential records for additional investigation. National background checks are frequently paired with county criminal background checks in situations where a preliminary record is found and more information is required.

What shows up on a national background check?

When working with a CRA, what shows up on a national background check may vary based on their search parameters and type of reporting. A national criminal background check may reveal convictions, including felonies and misdemeanors, pending cases, and other interactions with law enforcement that did not result in a conviction. Among the types of convictions reported, felonies are most serious and examples may include rape, murder, aggravated assault, or arson. Examples of misdemeanors that may show up include vandalism, public intoxication, or disorderly conduct. Other offenses, known as infractions or violations, may show up on a national criminal background check. These interactions with law enforcement may include noise disturbances, littering, or jaywalking and usually involve fines or community service instead of jail time.

A national criminal background check can uncover potential records at the state and county level, including locations where the candidate doesn’t currently reside. While conducting criminal background searches in a candidate’s home county and state, based on their current address, is recommended, a national background check may help you find additional locations to check by flagging records for further review.

If a record is found during a national background check, a county criminal history search may be conducted for more comprehensive information. National database records may not show a person’s complete identifying information or the final disposition (outcome) of the case, while county records typically show both. Most counties make their public records searchable online. In counties where records aren’t digitized, a researcher may be dispatched to request paper copies, search by in-person access, or work with a county clerk.

For pre-employment criminal background checks, Checkr does not provide detailed results of a national background check, but instead uses it as a routine step to guide additional searches for potential criminal records that may exist for a candidate. If a hit is returned on a national background check, Checkr uses this information to determine which county records to automatically search for additional criminal record information.

How long does a national background check take?

At Checkr, a national criminal background check for employment usually only takes a few seconds. If the search returns a “hit” (potential record), Checkr automatically expands the search to those counties to look for records that may belong to the candidate. In this case, the turnaround time for a more comprehensive background check is often one to three days, but can take longer depending on the counties searched.

Whatever the scope of your search, partnering with a company that specializes in background screening like Checkr can deliver faster, more accurate results. Checkr’s advanced background check platform reduces turnaround times, improves search accuracy, and delivers easy-to-read reports. And though every search has its own time frame, Checkr’s platform uses a proprietary machine learning algorithm to provide an “ETA” for each report based on more than 20 million past results—and offers updates throughout the process with our mobile-friendly candidate portal.

How to get a national background check

Working with a consumer reporting agency (CRA) is the most efficient way to get accurate national background checks. A qualified, FCRA-compliant screening company, like Checkr, has access to nationwide databases and also helps enable compliance with federal, state, and local background check laws.

For job seekers, running a personal background check is also an option. This lets you see what employers might see, so you can be better prepared when you apply for a job. Armed with this information, you may proactively fix any inaccuracies you find or decide in advance how to address the findings with prospective employers.

How much is a national background check?

The cost of a national criminal background check varies depending on where you source the report. The typical cost for a national criminal background screening from an accredited provider may run between $25 to $100 and they’re often packaged with additional background check options. Employers should note that consumer-focused, public records search websites that are not covered by the Fair Credit Reporting Act (FCRA) may not meet your compliance needs if you are using them for  employment screenings.

At Checkr, all packages include a National Criminal Records Search. The Basic+ package starts at $29.99 and also includes an SSN Trace to help confirm a candidate’s identifying information and searches the National Sex Offender Registry and Global Watchlist. Discounts are available for employers hiring at high volume.

National criminal background check laws

National criminal background checks can help employers gain insight into a candidate’s criminal history, enabling you to make fair and informed hiring decisions while maintaining a safe and productive workplace.

Employers that choose to work with a third-party provider, like Checkr, must follow the directives outlined in the FCRA. The law requires employers to follow clear steps when using background reports, including national criminal background checks, as part of their pre-employment screening process. These requirements include:

  • Candidates must give written consent before a background check is conducted.
  • Employers must provide the candidate with a copy of the background report for review when it’s available, as well as a summary of their rights under the FCRA.
  • If an employer is considering adverse action, such as deciding not to extend a job offer based on the background check results, they should supply a pre-adverse action letter explaining their reasoning and offer an opportunity for the candidate to dispute information on the report or submit context about the record. They should also follow FCRA guidelines if they decide to take final adverse action.

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) has further guidance for employers using national criminal background checks and other background screening reports. Pre-employment screenings should not be conducted in a discriminatory way: They should not only apply to some candidates in a protected class and not to others.

State and local laws may also impact your background check process. Many states, counties, and cities have Ban the Box laws that prevent employers from asking about criminal history on job applications and regulate when you may conduct a criminal background check during the hiring process. Employers who conduct business in multiple counties or states should consult with their legal counsel to determine what laws apply to them.

Understanding and following the various legal regulations can be challenging for any HR team. Working with a trusted third-party provider can help. Checkr’s platform has built-in technology designed to surface only legally reportable results to reduce bias, while workflows are being continuously updated to help enable compliance with applicable federal, state, and local screening laws.

Get a national background check with Checkr

Checkr offers hundreds of criminal background check options for employers, including national background checks, federal background checks, and state and county background checks to help simplify your comprehensive screening process. Our advanced data engine delivers fast, accurate reports while our easy-to-use dashboard provides clear, understandable reports. Organizations of all sizes use Checkr to build trusted teams–get started today.

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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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