How Long Does a Background Check Take?

How Long Does a Background Check Take?

Updated 28 October 2020

Written by Melissa Turner

As part of the recruitment process, US employers routinely perform background checks on all new employees.

These checks can be performed for different reasons and may vary depending on the nature of the work involved and the organization or company policies.

There is no set time-length for background checks, but they generally take around two to five business days to complete if there are no complications or delays.

An employee can expect to hear back from their new employer within a week or two of initiating the background checks.

What Does a Background Check Involve?

Background checks involve your employer carrying out the checks necessary to confirm that you are eligible for work and that you meet any criteria set by law and by the company.

There are many types of background check, including:

  • Identity – Checking your passport details, drivers’ license, ID card or Social Security number to verify that you are who you say you are.
  • Criminal record – Checking for any convicted criminal offences both in the US and internationally.
  • Past employment – Contacting previous employers for references.
  • Credit history – Searching on the credit bureau records.
  • Education – Can involve contacting schools and colleges (in the US or internationally) to verify academic qualifications.
  • Professional qualifications – Confirming memberships with professional bodies or trade organizations.
  • Global watch lists – Checking worldwide lists of known or suspected criminals, potential terrorists, people under various sanctions or disciplinary action.
  • Motor vehicle record (MVR) – Used to screen for driving convictions such as driving under the influence (DUI) and traffic violations.
  • Gun permit – Proving a right to carry a firearm by presenting a valid gun permit.

How Long Will My Background Check Take?

The time it takes to complete a background check depends entirely on the specific screening required.

Identity Background Check

This element of a background check can be performed in a very short timeframe.

It involves searching for the necessary information online using specialized databases accessible by a verified background checker.

Data returned in this type of search can include a sex offender registry search, a national criminal database search and a Social Security number trace.

Criminal Record Check

For applicants who have lived in the US for their whole lives, a criminal record check is pretty quick, often returning results within one or two days.

However, if an individual has spent time living outside the US, the criminal checks must extend to the relevant countries and can add anything up to thirty days on to the expected timeframe.

Criminal records are held both in individual states and centrally at the FBI. The checks reveal incidents of arrests, warrants, court records and sex offences.

You may also have to provide your fingerprint as part of a criminal record check.

Your fingerprint is then checked against more than 35 million other fingerprints stored by the FBI on the Next Generation Identification (NGI) system.

Employment within government organizations – including schools, fire departments, hospitals and airports – all require a fingerprint check. This check typically takes up to three days to return results.

Past Employment Check

Employment history checks can be time-consuming as they involve contacting the HR departments of a candidate’s previous employers to verify details of their employment.

The candidate may be asked to sign to confirm that they permit their past employers to share this information.

This check can typically take up to three business days but will take longer if any employment was outside the US.

Credit History Check

A credit check allows a potential employer to access a candidate’s credit report, which provides an overview of any outstanding balances, mortgages and loans, among other things.

It is most likely to be performed on candidates hoping for a career in finance.

An employer may wish to see how an individual manages their personal financial affairs before allowing them to handle finances on behalf of their company.

A credit check usually returns results within one to two days.

Education Background Check

An education background check is particularly important for roles that require a minimum qualification to perform correctly. These checks verify that the candidate has been truthful about their educational attainments and that they have the necessary knowledge and skills required for the role.

This type of check also identifies whether a legitimate and accredited body has awarded a qualification, as opposed to a so-called ‘diploma mill’, which is an unaccredited organization that awards diplomas for a fee, for little or no work in return.

Delays in education background checks can sometimes be due to long holidays or lack of staffing. If there are no hold-ups, they should typically take a few business days to complete. Applications to international establishments will take longer.

How Long Does a Background Check Take?How Long Does a Background Check Take?

Professional Qualifications

It is usually relatively straightforward to check for memberships to trade organizations or professional bodies, so this type of check typically takes only two business days or so.

Global Watch List

The Global Watch List is an international database of suspected or convicted criminals deemed to pose a threat to countries globally.

It also identifies individuals who may be prohibited from working in specific areas, such as healthcare practitioners struck off their register or those banned from working in finance.

This check can take up to two working days to complete.

Motor Vehicle Record Check

A motor vehicle record (MVR) check is essential for someone applying to work in a role that involves driving.

The check screens for any motor-related convictions or violations, including serious offences such as DUIs and minor discretions such as unpaid parking tickets.

Individual states carry out the MVR, so the length of time for the check can vary. Usually, the results are returned within one to three business days.

Gun Background Check

When a person wishes to have the right to purchase and carry a gun, they are subjected to a gun background check before being granted permission. These checks are processed through the National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS) and are extremely quick, taking just minutes to complete. The Federal Bureau of Investigation must perform them.

If it is expected that an employee is to handle firearms in any capacity as part of their role, they need to have a firearms license in place.

Gun stores, shooting ranges and cash transport services are just some of the many job roles that require a gun license.

Aside from handling firearms in the workplace, many US states have a Bring Your Gun to Work law, permitting employees to store firearms in their locked vehicle whilst on their employer’s property.

If this applies to your workplace, your employer may ask to see proof that you have the right to carry a gun which you can confirm by presenting your gun license.

Why Might a Background Check Take Longer Than Expected?

From time to time, background checks may take longer than planned. This can be for any number of reasons, and when a combination of checks is required, the chance of delay is greater.

Some of the reasons a background check may take longer than planned are:

  • Organizations are closed for holidays. This is particularly relevant for educational checks where a school or university can be closed for an extended period.
  • Some of the required information is stored outside of the US. As well as being more difficult logistically, official offices overseas may have a backlog of work that adds further delay to the checks.
  • The employer has not completed the request forms correctly. Forms must be complete and accurate, otherwise the screening service will return them to the person requesting the data to make the necessary amendments. Employers are also responsible for completing release forms, which are a federal legal requirement to allow access to data about the applicant. A mistake in either of these steps will delay the checking process.
  • Searches may have to be performed manually if a county court is not using fully digitized records. This is more time consuming than searching computer database records and can take up to 30 days to complete.
  • If a candidate has not heard from the employer for some time after commencing background checks, it may be that the checks are complete, but the employer is still deciding whom to hire. Candidates are advised to keep lines of communication with the employer open, so they can stay up to date with how their application is progressing.
  • The sheer size of the databases involved. There are more than 3,200 jurisdictions in the US, and the methods used to access records can vary across them. Although some have digitized records and accept online applications for searches, 30% require in-person direct access. Screening companies often employ court runners to perform these manual requests, but when this is needed, the checking process can take longer.
  • Once search data returns, the company is obliged to check and review all results before presenting them to the candidate. If the company does not perform this promptly, the delay can slow down the process.

What Can a Candidate Do to Speed up the Process?

Once an employer commences background checks, the speed at which things happen is out of the candidate’s hands. However, there are things you can do beforehand to prevent delays and keep things running as smoothly and quickly as possible:

  • Be truthful – Nothing is going to slow down the checking process faster than an employer discovering that a candidate has lied. If the applicant hides something during the interview process, the checks will inevitably expose the truth. This deceit then brings the candidate’s integrity into question, potentially putting an employer off continuing with the hire. Any unexpected findings are presented to the candidate, as they legally have the right to verify the accuracy of the information. Again, this holds up the entire process, so even if the revealed fact doesn’t affect a job offer, it could delay things considerably.
  • Respond promptly – Don’t hesitate when replying to communication from the screening provider. If there are any unforeseen issues, the screening provider may need to contact the candidate to clarify details. The quicker these enquiries are answered, the quicker the screening service can complete the background checks.
  • Be organized – Get your personal and professional information in order. Background checks require specific details and information about the applicant. If these important documents can be ready for the screening provider, the process can commence quickly.
  • Make sure data is accurate – A candidate might make a mistake when giving the address of a referee, or provide the wrong contact details for an educational establishment. In this case, the screening company will have to spend time chasing the correct information, which will inevitably delay the checking process.
  • Inform the employer of any past names or aliases – If any variances in name appear in the identity searches, manual searches may be needed to verify the candidate’s identity, which can delay the check.
  • Provide W-2s from previous employers – These forms will give the screening company a good overview and starting point for verifying details of past employment.
  • Contact referees – Get in touch with the people you have put forward to provide references so they can look out for the request and respond as promptly as possible.

Final Thoughts

Waiting to hear back from an employer following a job interview can be a nerve-racking experience. An anxious candidate may be tempted to ask their interviewer how long the background checks will take, but unfortunately, there is no definite answer to this question.

For candidates, knowing that they are being subjected to rigorous, in-depth background checks can make the wait even tenser.

An average background checking procedure takes just three to five days, but there are a lot of potential issues that can extend this timeframe, sometimes by up to 30 days or more.

A candidate can help prevent delays by having an awareness of what they can do to assist and what exactly is involved in the background checks.

Providing relevant information and being truthful throughout the application process are both critical factors in avoiding delays. If the background checks raise any discrepancies or issues, the candidate has a right to address these by law.

In most instances, the candidate must exercise patience while the employer and screening service carry out the checking process.

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