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How Long Do Different Background Checks Take To Complete?

Erin Donaghue - Top10 Writer
A woman sitting in front of a laptop computer doing a background check
How fast are background checks? Here's the lowdown on the different types of checks and how long you'll have to wait for the results.

If you're the subject of a background check, you'll likely want to know how long it will take. Unfortunately, the answer will vary widely depending on the type of background check and the state you're located in. To understand how fast a background check turnaround time will be, we've compiled some helpful information to give you a better sense of how long you'll have to wait.

In terms of turnaround time, there are 3 different types of checks:

1. Instant background checks

A check of the national sex offender registry is one example of an instant background check -- a search of a single database that returns results on the spot. Another example of this is the National Instant Criminal Background Check System, a background check system required for firearm purchasers who are buying from a federally-licensed firearms dealer. Those looking for broader results fast may also want to look into paid online background check services, which return results from federal, state and county databases within minutes.

2. Basic background checks

Examples of basic background checks include criminal history background checks and employment background checks. It takes a bit longer to track down the information included in basic background checks because the processor may need to comb through multiple online databases, contact former employers and academic institutions and reach out to credit reporting agencies.

3. Detailed background checks

Examples of detailed background checks are FBI fingerprint checks, which are required for employees in certain sectors that work with children or vulnerable populations. They are usually conducted via state criminal justice agencies. A government security clearance background check is another example of a detailed background check for people authorized to handle classified information. These types of background checks take the longest.

While a detailed background check will offer up the most complete picture of a subject, the information in an instant or basic background check may suit your needs without the drawback of a lengthy turnaround time. It’s also important to remember that only authorized personnel can conduct an FBI background check or a security clearance check. If you’re an individual looking to conduct an informal background check on someone else, you may want to consider combining elements of both basic and instant background checks – like conducting a sex offender check along with a criminal history check – to increase reliability.

Common Types of Background Checks

Background checks are regularly conducted by employers in order to make informed placement decisions and mitigate the risk of choosing the wrong candidate, according to the Professional Background Screening Association. But there's a variety of different types of background checks intended for specific fields and purposes, and each one has a different expected turnaround time because of the level of legwork they require:

Sex Offender Database Background Check

Turnaround time: Instant

The national sex offender registry is an online database comprised of information about people convicted of certain sex crimes. As conditions of their convictions, these people are required to publicly report information including their name, address, and details about their offense.

Anyone can search this database, from employers who need to ensure the safety of their vulnerable clients to individuals concerned about sex offenders in their neighborhood. Because this is a centralized database, a search will return results instantly.

National Instant Criminal Background Check System

Turnaround time: Matter of minutes

The National Instant Criminal Background Check System is a database of criminal justice information, including arrests and convictions, maintained by the FBI. Before selling a firearm to a potential buyer, federally licensed firearms dealers are required to submit the potential buyer's information to NICS to ensure they aren't barred from owning a firearm.

The process takes minutes. Felony convictions are the most common reason for the system to reject an applicant.

Criminal History Background Checks

Turnaround time: Instant - 48 hours

Criminal history background checks involve searching various federal, state and local court information to determine whether the subject has any misdemeanor or felony arrests or convictions. Anyone from employers to people going on online dates might want to review this information. Paid online background check services can search multiple databases at the same time, resulting in results within minutes.

To conduct a criminal history search manually, you would need to determine the jurisdictions where your search subject has lived or worked and then search each jurisdiction's criminal court database. This can take anywhere from a few minutes, if the court database is available online, to a few days if the records are only accessible at the courthouse. Some states also offer a statewide jurisdiction search that typically takes about 24 hours.

Employment Background Checks

Turnaround time: 2-5 days

Employment background checks are conducted by employers to ensure a potential job candidate is being truthful about their qualifications and doesn't have a history that could potentially pose a risk to others. They typically encompass a criminal history check in addition to employment verification, education verification, reference checks, and sometimes driving history and credit checks.

Because these checks require getting in touch with former employers, academic institutions, credit agencies and motor vehicle bureaus to confirm information, they can take anywhere from 2-5 business days. Employers are required to comply with the Fair Credit Reporting Act and federal anti-discrimination laws.

FBI Fingerprint Background Checks

Turnaround time: 48-72 hours, up to several weeks

FBI fingerprint background checks are a kind of criminal history background check that involves comparing a subject's fingerprints against national databases of criminal justice information -- including the fingerprints of people with arrests and convictions -- maintained by the FBI. Typically, people who work with children or vulnerable populations are required to submit their fingerprints to a state criminal justice agency, which coordinates the check with the FBI.

If no criminal history turns up, depending on the state, the check can be complete in 48 to 72 hours. However, if arrests surface, the state technician may need to determine how the case was resolved by getting in touch with local law enforcement jurisdictions. This process may take days or extend over weeks.

Security Clearance Background Checks

Turnaround time: 95-121 days

Security clearance background checks are extensive reviews of applicants for U.S. government jobs with access to sensitive information. The security clearance investigation is usually conducted by the Defense Counterintelligence and Security Agency, but the specific government agency hiring for the role makes the final determination to grant or deny clearance.

The process involves an in-depth guideline system for evaluating a person's reliability, trustworthiness, and loyalty to the United States and usually includes interviews with the applicant and their current and former contacts. The process can take between 95 and 121 days, according to ClearanceJobs.com.

Turnaround Times for Common Background Check Types

Background Check Type
Average Turnaround Time
Sex offender database
National Instant Criminal Background Check System
Criminal History Background Checks
Instant-48 hours
Employment Background Checks
2-5 days
FBI Fingerprint Background Checks
48-72 hours, up to several weeks
Security Clearance Background Checks
95-121 days

Are Background Check Delays Possible?

If the background check involves more than a single database search, delays are always possible. Below are a few examples of common reasons for background check delays.

  • Inaccurate information on subject's application

If the subject of the background check accidentally offers up a last name that's mis-spelled or a date of birth with a typo, it can result in wrong information turning up during a search of online databases. This can result in back-and-forth and additional searches that can add extra time.

  • Delays in response from former employers or academic institutions

Typically during an employment background check, an employer will need to reach out to a job applicant's former employers and academic institutions to confirm information. However, if they don't hear back from these sources in a timely manner, this can add days or even weeks on to the background check process.

  • International background

Since different countries have different regulations for releasing information such as criminal history, it will take more time and effort to conduct a background search on a subject who has lived or worked abroad.

  • Non-digital court records

States or jurisdictions that don't maintain online court records, or whose public records policies don't allow the public to view these records without going in person to a courthouse, can mean additional time for a background check.

  • Poor fingerprint quality

If you're required to submit your fingerprints to a state agency for an FBI fingerprint check, it's possible for the quality of the fingerprint to be too poor for it to be compared against the FBI's database. This can mean additional time for you to obtain an additional fingerprint and for the agency to conduct an additional search.

How to Streamline the Background Check Process

The good news is there's a few ways you can head off some of the circumstances listed above. Most importantly, ensure the information you submit to the party conducting the background check is accurate and complete. If you've been known in the past by a different name, be sure to flag that so the background check technician can come up with complete results when they search online databases for your name.

You may also consider reaching out to your former employers and academic institutions -- especially if they are located outside the country -- to let them know they should expect a call from the person conducting the background check, and that you'd appreciate their fast reply. If you're required to submit your fingerprints to a state agency for an FBI fingerprint background check, ensure that you follow guidelines for fingerprint submission closely. You also may want to consider working with an FBI-approved "channeler" or intermediary that can help you expedite the fingerprint background check process for a fee.

Avoid background check delays

Multiple factors go into determining how long a background check will take, including the type of background check and the court record policies in different jurisdictions. One great way to avoid delays is to consider an online background check service like Been Verified or Check People. These services can offer a wide array of information from local, state and federal sources within minutes.

Erin Donaghue - Top10 Writer
Erin Donaghue is a criminal and social justice reporter, with an MA in journalism and over a decade of experience reporting and editing for various news outlets. In addition to Top10.com, Erin's work has been featured in publications such as the Washington Post, USA Today, CBSNews.com, and Huffington Post.

Note: Some or all background search services featured on this site are not subject to the Fair Credit Reporting Act, 15 USC 1681 et seq., ("FCRA") In order to make decisions about consumer credit, employment, insurance, tenant screening, or any other purpose that would require FCRA compliance, make sure you choose the appropriate service for you. Be advised that only consumer reporting agencies may provide consumer reports. This is applicable, but not limited to, a background search, credit background check, criminal background check, and/or driving record.