How Long Does a Background Check Take?

Katie McBeth  | 

Performing a pre-employment background check is a smart move for any business or employer of any size. Background checks can show a variety of information: from past employers and aliases, to criminal history and military records.

However, there is one uncertainty that will always accompany background checks: how long do they take? Unfortunately, there is no clear guideline on how much time may pass before a background check is complete. Whether you’re doing the check yourself or you’re enlisting the aid of a third party agency, background checks can take anywhere from two or four days, to two months to get back to you.

Why is that so? As with any screening process, the more information that is requested or that is available, the longer it will take to sift through it all. Let’s look at how long typical background checks will take, and what you can do to try to speed up the process.

How Long Employee Screening and Background Checks Take

There are a few different forms of background checks, and each have their own average timeline. The most common criminal background check for employment will typically only take three business days to a week before you get it back.

Federal background checks, however, are typically more extensive, as they require security clearances. These can take up to a month before they are completed.

There are also many online “instant” background checks, but it’s important to be wary of their results — they are often based on outdated information or can include some serious inaccuracies.

If you’re working with a third party agency, they may give you a timeline of over a week. Waiting can be difficult, but it’s best to allow these background agencies to be thorough in providing accurate information about applicants.

Criminal Background Check

The average criminal record check for those residing in the United States will only take about three business days.

However, for people that have potential criminal history outside of the United States, that process can be delayed for up to ten to 30 days. It all depends on the country where the crime occurred, the authorities involved, how thorough their records are, how many matches there may be, as well as how fast they can return that information to the agency conducting the search.

Employment Record and Work History Checks

Less than a week

This type of background check can have a varying amount of time, as it often requires you to personally check with past employers of the applicant to verify employment. Keep in mind, some employers may require a release form before they are willing to comply with your request.

If the applicant was previously self-employed, you may be required to contact past customers or contractors that worked with the applicant. All of this is dependent on the cooperation of the applicant.

In general, an employment background check shouldn’t take more than a couple of days. International employment records may cause an additional delay.

Credit Checks

24-48 hours

Credit checks are not typical for employment purposes, but they can still happen. Additionally, banks and loan offices will always check credit before approving loans or credit cards. These types of checks often have a speedy turnaround — only take about 24 to 48 hours before they are completed. All they require is a request to one of the three credit bureaus, who will return the applicant’s credit score, which is based on the applicant’s credit history.

Driving History Checks

A few days to a few weeks

Unfortunately, there is no clear standard for how long driving history checks will take, as each state has their own protocol for how records are handled. The wait can be anywhere from a few days to a few weeks, but typically not longer than a month.

Education and Academic History Checks

Less than a week

Educational or academic history checks can be just as sporadic as driving checks, as they often depend on the school you’re outreaching, their records and reporting, as well as the season of the year in which you’re requesting a history. Because many people attend multiple schools, it can take additional time to contact each one. Keep in mind, some schools may not release information unless the applicant signs a release form.

When requesting information from a school, they can normally let you know if the applicant was a student there and what sorts of degrees or certificates they earned while attending the school. This will normally take only a few days, but keep in mind that it may take longer if you’re requesting during a holiday (Christmas break, Spring break, etc) or during the summer months, as they are often understaffed.

For international students, it can sometimes take a little longer, which may add a couple more days to your wait time. In all, an academic history check shouldn’t take more than a week, or seven business days.

Identity Checks

Instant/up to 48 hours

Depending on the sources being used, identity checks can be almost instantaneous, while others may take a couple of days. In fact, many employers don’t even need the assistance of third party agencies to check identity — they can just ask the applicant for a valid state identification card (ex: driver’s license), social security card, or government-issued passport.

However, more thorough identity checks — which often compare information provided by the applicant with official government records (such as comparing the name associated with a SSN) — can take up to two days.

Personal Background Checks

A few hours — a few days

Checking on personal information can require a social media search, looking for marriage records, or diving into known associates and family members. For a simple social media search, it can take just a few hours to gather all your information. For more extensive searches — such as for security clearance purposes — it may take an additional two or three business days to get all the relevant personal information on an applicant.

License and Credential Validation Checks

24-48 hours

Checking on professional licenses and certifications typically only takes about two business days, but can also vary depending on the state where those licenses were issued.

Military Record Checks

Anywhere from a day to a year

Unfortunately, there is no definitive answer for how long a military background check will take. There are simply too many variables involved in the search to determine an average time, including:

  • The departements being checked
  • The reason for the background check (security clearance is a common one)
  • The amount of time that individual spent in the military, and their various roles

Each department may be struggling with heavy workloads or may be waiting on government clearance to release information. Because of this, it can take anywhere from a few days to a few weeks to a year to get military background information on an applicant.

Sex Offender Registry and Watch List Checks

24-48 hours

Due to state laws based on the federal Megan’s Law mandate, each state is required to have a public registry of local sex offenders. Additionally, watch lists — such as for potential terrorists, known fraud practitioners, and those facing regulatory sanctions — can be easily accessible for those who are interested in investigating an applicant. Luckily, the availability of this information can make it fairly easy to perform this type of background screening, and it may only take a day or two before you receive the results.

How to Make Background Checks Go Faster

There are many elements about a background check that are out of the control of the employer, as well as the screening agency or investigator. Oftentimes you’ll have all the information you need to submit a request, but you still have to wait for the other party to respond. Because of this, there isn’t much you can do to speed up a background investigation.

However, what you can do is ensure that there are no inaccuracies with the information you’re providing. If information is inaccurate or incomplete, it can slow down the process, making it take much longer than expected. Two of the most common issues are:

  • Incomplete or inaccurate background check request forms. It’s important to make sure all the information is filled out and legible.
  • Failure to acquire permission via signature on a release form for an applicant’s background check. This is required by law — enforced by the Fair Credit Reporting Act (FCRA) — and applicants must also be notified through a separate letter that the background check is taking place. Agencies will be unable to perform a background check until they’ve received a copy of the signed and authorized release form.

Get the Right Information Up Front

When applicants are asked to fill out forms for potential employment — including information about past employers, education, etc — it is essential that they complete the form to the best of their ability. This critical information can help the background process proceed much smoother than if it had to correct or locate difficult-to-find information.

Additionally, third party agencies are required by law to ensure that any negative information tied to the applicant is accurate before it can be placed on the report. If the candidate is honest about past criminal records or other adverse information that may be relevant, then this can help any agencies speed along the process. However, if the negative information is over seven years old, then the agency may have to ensure they aren’t breaking any laws or regulations by including it on the report. This can sometimes slow down the process, but it’s essential for the protection of the applicant.

Get Names Straight

Aliases is also a common area of concern, as legal name changes can make it difficult to find past information on an applicant. One of the most common examples of this is when spouses take the legal last names of those they marry and forego their maiden name. Make sure the applicant notifies you of any previous name changes, as this can help streamline the process and ensure that it’s the most accurate.

Additionally, applicants with very common names (such as Smith) can make the process a little more difficult and time consuming for the background check agency, as they will have to compare the name with the date of birth and government identification.

Provide Accurate, Up-to-Date References

Screening agencies may sometimes contact the applicant in order to get more information about their past. This is more common when past educational institution or employers have closed, and the agency is unable to get a hold of the company or a representative. In these cases, they may ask the applicant for a copy of their W-2’s, diploma, certificates, or any other relevant information.

Finally, references provided by applicants are always a great source of information for employers. As an applicant, make sure you provide accurate information on how to get a hold of your reference, but also ensure that the reference is aware of the potential call they may receive in the near future. If a reference is caught off guard, they may not provide the best review possible (as they will have to think of something off the cuff), and they may not have accurate information on your work history. Letting them know of the call can help them provide a speedy response, as well as help expedite the background check process.

Just like the people you are researching, not all background checks are the same, and not all results will be provided within the same timeframe. The timeframes listed above are general and subject to change, depending on the applicant and the agency being used. Keep in mind, the more accurate and complete the information provided, the sooner the background check may be completed.


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Katie McBeth is a researcher and writer out of Boise, ID, with experience in marketing for small businesses and management. Her favorite subject of study is millennials, and she has been featured on Fortune Magazine and the Quiet Revolution. She researches SEO strategies during the day, and freelances at night. You can follow her writing adventures on Instagram or Twitter: @ktmcbeth

This post was updated September 5, 2018. It was originally published September 5, 2018.