What is a FBI Background Check?

M. DePietro

An FBI background check is a means through which individuals, employers, and government officials can access criminal records and arrest data on United States citizens and residents. The U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) keeps detailed files that document arrests, crimes, and suspicious behavior collected by almost every law enforcement entity, local or national. When someone conducts a background “check” they are essentially getting a copy of any files that have been collected for a particular individual. People often have to submit to background checks as a requirement of taking a government job, adopting a child, purchasing a firearm, or working in “sensitive” places like prisons or daycare centers.

Person having fingerprints taken for an FBI background check.
Person having fingerprints taken for an FBI background check.

Why They're Done

There are three main reasons FBI background checks are performed: as a condition of employment; as a means of proving character; and as a way of monitoring personal information. The person who is the subject of the FBI file must usually consent to having the information disclosed in all three scenarios, even if they never actually see the information themselves.

The FBI offers various career opportunities, ranging from special agents in the field to data analysts.
The FBI offers various career opportunities, ranging from special agents in the field to data analysts.

Employers often want to know if people they are about to hire have criminal records. This is particularly true of jobs with national and local governments, but is also often the case in jobs where people will be working with young children; teachers and childcare workers, for instance, almost always have to submit to background checks, sometimes periodically even after they’ve been working for some time. People who work with controlled substances, particularly pharmacists, usually also have to maintain “clean” criminal records in order to work, or at least disclose any criminal activity before being hired. Companies that staff prisons and hire people to work with convicts may also require a background check as a condition of employment.

A history of arrests is part of an FBI background check.
A history of arrests is part of an FBI background check.

Certain activities may also require a background check. Adopting children is one example; most agencies and biological parents want to be sure that babies and small children are being placed with parents who don’t have a history of crime or other problems following the law. U.S. citizens who wish to live abroad may also have to furnish FBI records to the governments of the countries where they wish to reside in order to prove their character. In some places purchasing handguns or other firearms is contingent on a person's criminal record, which means that gun shop owners often have to request checks on potential customers.

People who work with controlled substances, particularly pharmacists, have to maintain a clean criminal record.
People who work with controlled substances, particularly pharmacists, have to maintain a clean criminal record.

People sometimes also wish to order a background check on themselves, usually as a way of monitoring their own record. Some crimes, particularly those that are minor, may only appear on a person’s record for a set amount of time. Regularly reviewing the FBI’s files is also a good way for people to know what employers and others will see when a report is ordered, which can help them prepare explanations or defenses as necessary.

How They’re Used

Most of the time, people use the information in background checks as a way of both evaluating a person’s suitability for a certain position or activity as well as getting a sense of a person’s honesty and trustworthiness. Checks that turn up past criminal activity aren’t necessarily damning, though, and don’t always mean that someone won’t be hired or won’t get a certain opportunity. A lot of this depends on the nature of the infraction and how long ago it was, as well as the employer or reviewer’s policy. In most cases a background check is just one part of a much larger investigative and interviewing process.

What Records Contain

The FBI maintains the National Crime Information Center (NCIC), which is a national database of criminal justice information. The database contains criminal history information, along with a listing of missing persons and wanted fugitives, and most background checks draw on information that is in this system.

If a subject undergoing a FBI background check has a criminal record, the date of the arrest and criminal charges are listed in the database. Felonies and serious misdemeanors, including sex offenses, property damage and theft, and drug and narcotics charges make up the bulk of the records. More minor offenses, such as moving violations and traffic tickets, aren’t usually included, and as such don’t typically show up on a FBI check.

How Files are Maintained

Files are usually linked by fingerprint, but can also sometimes be searched by name, known address, and Social Security number or permanent resident identification number. The NCIC maintains records from both federal and state-level law enforcement agencies, and most are stored digitally. This makes checking someone’s background relatively quick, but given the volume of requests processing can still sometimes take a few weeks.

People who work in daycare centers will be required to undergo a background check.
People who work in daycare centers will be required to undergo a background check.

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Discussion Comments


I recently got charged with a misdemeanor drug charge for being under the influence. Will that show up on the FBI check?


In my situation, I am a civilian but was handcuffed on a military base by Military Police back in 2009. I was taken into the station and questioned. I was told I would be to be fingerprinted as well as pictures taken for their files. I was held in the station for two hours and then told I wasn't being charged and let go. Can this arrest be on my record? Please advise.


Can a dismissed case show up on a live scan and background check? I was booked for fingerprints only, but never arrested (placed inside a cell) and I was never found guilty? Could this still show on the live scan and background check?


I have to do a background check for TSA. If I had been arrested in 2003, will it show up in 2013? Actually it's almost 2014.


I have a question. I'm applying for a flight attendant position and I will have an FBI 10 year check. I have never committed a crime or misdemeanor (I think), never have been arrested, no DUI and stated so. However, I did have to pay a $25 "open container of alcohol" ticket in NYC, which I believe is just a violation, not a misdemeanor, so I haven't disclosed this info to the company. So, now I'm wondering if the recent "open container ticket" will show up on the FBI check? And maybe should just let my company know about this ticket, so it doesn't seem as if i was holding something back? It's quite minor, right?


I'd like to know how to get a drug offense removed from my son's FBI file; he's disqualified from enlisting because of it.

We went to court and they put it on a stet doc. Then he got it changed to a nolo pros. We're now in the process of getting the charge expunged, but I was told by the military that it would always remain in the FBI's national database. Any suggestions on who to contact?


The FBI is also the definitive authority that can add or remove items from your criminal record. In cases where the accused enters a plea in exchange for a future expunged record, adjudication, or deferred sentencing, the FBI will remove the major misdemeanor or felony once you have met all of the requirements of the court.

Not all states allow expunged records, deferment, or adjudications, causing problems for those who move from one state to the next during their probationary period. In these cases, the defendant may have to contact the FBI to ensure that the receiving state has upheld the sending states court judgment.


In many states an FBI criminal Background check must be run before you can buy a gun. The process is easy, and only takes about five minutes. The states with the most lax gun laws only require an FBI check and two forms of identification to verify your age and address.

I know one of these states first hand. In Vermont, you can walk into a gun store, pick your guns, fill out the yellow sheet, pay, and then take your new firearms to the range.

I have bought both rifles and pistols this way. You simply fill out a one-sided form; answering eight or nine questions about mental and criminal history, and the use of the gun you are going to purchase.

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