How Long Do Background Checks Take, What to Expect, and All Your FAQs Answered

Information is power, and background checks have become integral to our lives. Whether you’re a job seeker, a tenant looking to rent an apartment, applying for a loan, or simply curious about the process, understanding how long do background checks take and why they happen is crucial. Someone is looking into your past and judging you for it. But what are they looking for, exactly?

Let’s unravel the mysteries surrounding background checks, shedding light on their purpose, the intricacies involved, and the legal policies governing them.

What is a Background Check?

A background check is a tool individuals and organizations use to learn about someone’s history.

Think of it as a thorough investigation that examines different aspects of a person’s life. It involves checking things like their past jobs, any interactions with the law, their financial track record, and even their online presence. All this information creates a comprehensive picture of who they are.

But why bother with all this digging?

We make daily decisions in life, from hiring the right person for a job to finding a good tenant or even choosing a potential partner. Background checks help us confidently make these decisions, ensuring we make choices in our best interest.

Why Are Background Checks Conducted?

At first glance, it might seem like a routine process—an investigator delving into your past, examining your digital footprint, or digging through your criminal record to make sure everything checks out.

However, behind each background check lies a unique set of motivations and circumstances. Understanding these underlying reasons can provide insight into why you might come under scrutiny and how it can affect your future.

Employment Screening

Employers conduct background checks to assess candidates’ suitability for a job. They want to know that someone is trustworthy, reliable, and meets specific job requirements before offering them a job.

This process can include verifying past employment, checking for criminal records, and assessing an applicant’s credit history, especially if the job involves handling financial responsibilities or sensitive information. The goal is to make informed hiring decisions that minimize risks for both the company and its employees.

Tenant Screening

Landlords use background checks to evaluate potential tenants’ rental history, credit, and criminal records. In doing so, they aim to protect their property and ensure all residents’ safe and secure living environment.

Running a background check helps landlords identify individuals who are more likely to pay rent on time and maintain the property responsibly.

Financial Transactions

Financial institutions often perform background checks when extending credit or offering loans. These checks help assess an individual’s financial history, including their credit score, outstanding debts, and payment history.

Lenders use this information to determine the borrower’s creditworthiness and the level of risk associated with giving them a loan.

Security Clearances

Background checks are crucial for granting security clearances in cases involving national security and government contracts. These checks delve deep into an individual’s history, scrutinizing their loyalty, trustworthiness, and potential vulnerabilities to espionage or blackmail.

However, some jobs and volunteer positions may also require it. If you want to work as a bank teller, for example, you may need to undergo a security clearance to ensure you can be trusted with handling customers’ money and financial transactions.

The goal is to ensure that only individuals with the utmost integrity and reliability can access sensitive information and classified materials.

General Curiosity

Some people might just want to know more about you. It could be a neighbor checking if the neighborhood is safe for their kids or someone you met online making sure you’re not a catfish.

People you know might look you up online by searching your name, checking your social media, or trying to find public information about you. This curiosity can influence what they think of you, so it’s important to be careful about what you post online to make a good impression and protect your privacy.

Other Possible Reasons

Here are more potential reasons why you could need a background check:

  • Running for public office
  • Becoming an adoptive or foster parent
  • Adopting a pet
  • Immigrating to another country
  • Acquiring a firearm
  • Supervising children or vulnerable populations
  • Starting your own business
  • Going into business with a partner
  • Applying for insurance
  • Attending high-security events

What Information Does a Background Check Include?

Now that you know why you might have to get a background check, what details are actually being looked at?

There is no standard of what this process entails, as each check is done for a different purpose. However, here is the most common information verified during a background screening.

Social Security Number

Your Social Security Number (SSN) is often the starting point for a background check. It helps confirm your identity and allows the screening process to access various records associated with your SSN. These records can include your tax history, employment history, and even criminal records.

By providing your SSN, you grant permission for background check services to delve into these records, helping to paint a comprehensive picture of your past.

Criminal Background Check

This involves searching local, state, and federal databases for an individual’s criminal history, including arrests, convictions, pending charges, and probation or parole status.

Credit History Check

A background check may require a review of your credit reports, which include payment history, outstanding debts, and credit utilization.

Lenders will most certainly look into your financial situation before giving you any money, but landlords and employers might also dig into this information. They want to see if there are any red flags or potential risks associated with your financial history that could impact their decision to work with you or rent to you.

Employment Verification

Employers go the extra mile to check an applicant’s work history, job titles, and employment dates to make sure their qualifications and integrity check out. They do this by contacting past employers, using background check services, or even comparing your resume to your LinkedIn profile to ensure everything aligns with your application. So don’t lie!

Reference Checks

Of course you are going to do everything you can to show you are a wonderful person, but what do others think?

By connecting with your references, employers and property managers not only learn about your qualifications but also your personal qualities and values. This direct insight from those who know you both personally and professionally often paints a vivid picture of your character and integrity, contributing to a more well-rounded assessment.

Education and Training Verification

Screeners want to be confident that your claimed educational achievements are not just words on paper but authentic qualifications. They will confirm your education, double-check that you have specific degrees or certifications needed for the job, and may even talk to licensing boards for certain professions.

Being honest about your education is important because not telling the truth can cause big problems. These issues could range from job disqualification and reputation damage to legal consequences, making transparency in education crucial for a trustworthy professional image.

Driving Record

A driving record check tells us about how someone drives. It includes checking if they have a valid driver’s license, have any traffic tickets or accidents, and have been caught driving under the influence.

This check is vital for jobs involving driving and for landlords or insurance companies to see if someone is a safe driver. Keeping a clean driving record is crucial for getting these roles or good insurance rates.

Online Social Media Presence

When someone checks your online and social media presence as part of a background check, they look at your public profiles on websites like Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn to see what you post, share, and comment on. This helps them understand your behavior and what kind of person you are. They also make sure that what you say online matches what you’ve told them in your application.

Even though they can only view what you’ve shared publicly, you need to maintain a positive and respectful online presence nowadays, especially when applying for jobs where your online conduct is relevant. You never know who might be watching, when something could be documented (like a screencap), or what might appear in a Google search about you.

Additional Information

Speaking of Google searches, here are a few more aspects of your life that may be uncovered during the vetting process:

  • Dating Profiles: Beyond their intended purpose, dating profiles can also be a valuable resource for anyone looking into you. By creating a detailed dating profile, you’re essentially providing a way for others to double-check the information you share.
  • Property Records: Property records can reveal information about your real estate holdings and ownership history, offering a glimpse into your financial situation.
  • Personal Websites or Blogs: Blogs can be used to understand more about a person’s hobbies, interests, and perspectives. However, this can work against you if the content is questionable.
  • Family Background: Understanding an individual’s family background can help grasp their upbringing, values, and cultural influences, providing valuable context about them. Although this can border on discrimination, it would be relevant during an adoption process, for example.
  • Online Reviews and Comments: Those comments and ratings you leave online might not seem like a big deal, but they can say a whole lot about how you present yourself publicly and communicate. So leave the drama for your next movie night and keep your online presence squeaky clean.
  • Mutual Contacts and Social Circles: Examining mutual contacts or social circles can help gauge an individual’s connections and relationships with others, offering insights into their social life and community involvement. For example, being Facebook friends with sketchy and uncredible people could be a big red flag you want to avoid.
  • Medical Records: While typically not part of standard background checks due to privacy regulations, some specialized positions may require access to an individual’s medical history or health-related information, usually with explicit consent or legal authority.

What Are My Rights Surrounding Background Checks?

Knowing that a background check can unveil much of your personal information like this is a little scary and concerning, isn’t it? Especially when there are literally 1.75 billion search results for “free background check USA” online, meaning anyone can use these sites to take a peek into your past.

Thankfully, these free background checkers are limited, relying on old public records, often missing details or simply getting them wrong. But more thorough background checks are available for a price.

So how do you protect yourself? What legal rights do you have to keep your personal information private?

Fair Credit Reporting Act (FCRA)

The FCRA is a federal law that regulates the collection, dissemination, and use of consumer credit information. It requires employers and landlords to obtain the consent of individuals before conducting background checks and ensures that accurate information is reported.

Additionally, the FCRA gives individuals the right to dispute inaccurate information in their background check reports and request corrections.

Ban the Box Laws

To promote fair hiring practices and reduce discrimination against applicants with criminal records, “Ban the Box” laws have been enacted in many states. These laws prohibit employers from asking about criminal histories on job applications.

The goal is to give individuals with past convictions a fair chance to be considered for employment based on their qualifications and skills rather than their criminal history. And it seems to be working, as the list of companies that will hire felons and people with criminal records is growing.

Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC)

The EEOC enforces federal laws that prohibit discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex, or national origin during the hiring process, including background checks. Employers must ensure their background check policies comply with these guidelines to avoid discriminatory practices.

State Laws

State laws can add an extra layer of complexity to background checks. Some states have specific regulations governing the use of background checks for employment or housing purposes. Both employers and individuals need to be aware of and adhere to these state-specific laws to ensure compliance.

How Can I Prepare for a Background Check?

When you’re applying for an apartment, a loan, or a job, the anticipation of a background check is a given. Fortunately, you know what they’ll be looking into, so you can take some steps ahead of time and prepare for a background check.

  • Gather Documentation: Collect relevant documents, such as identification, certificates, and proof of qualifications.
  • Review Your Information: Carefully review your resume, application, or any submitted forms to ensure accuracy and consistency.
  • Online Profile Check: Examine your social media profiles and online content to ensure they present a professional and respectful image, adjusting privacy settings if necessary.
  • Contact References: Notify your references in advance, letting them know they might be contacted, and provide your current contact information.
  • Address Concerns: If you have any concerns about items that may surface during the background check (e.g., legal issues), prepare to discuss them honestly if asked.
  • Credit Review: If a credit report is part of the check, review your credit history to address discrepancies or outstanding matters.
  • Criminal Records: If you have a criminal record, be ready to explain the circumstances, rehabilitation efforts, or steps taken to resolve the situation.
  • Provide Consent: Give your consent as required by law and the entity conducting the background check, typically by signing a release form.
  • Know Your Rights: Familiarize yourself with your legal rights and privacy protections under applicable laws, which may vary by jurisdiction.
  • Ask Questions: Seek clarification on any aspects of the background check process you’re uncertain about by communicating with the relevant party.
  • Stay Informed: After the background check, inquire about the results if they’re not provided automatically. This way, you can address discrepancies or inaccuracies.

Being proactive, honest, and well-prepared demonstrates your commitment to transparency and cooperation, which can help ensure a successful outcome.

For more long-term aspirations, such as securing a mortgage or adopting a child, you can expect a background check somewhere along the way. In these cases, keeping your records clean becomes even more important as you pursue your goals.

How Long Do Background Checks Take?

It can be nerve-wracking waiting for your background check results to come back. After all, its outcome can drastically change your fate. You are probably already imaging your first day at your new job or exploring your new neighborhood in your head, wondering when it will become a reality.

The time a background check takes can vary, so it’s hard to give an exact answer. However, most are completed within a few days to a few weeks.

Things like how complicated the check is and the responsiveness of previous employers, educational institutions, or law enforcement agencies can influence this timeframe.

A simple check should take a few days, if not only a few hours. If you’ve had records checks done before, subsequent investigations may go much faster. More comprehensive checks, especially those involving international records or extensive investigation, can take several weeks or even longer.

It’s best to check with the organization or agency conducting the background check for a more specific estimate in your particular situation. However, to give you some idea, here are the approximate timelines to expect:

Employment Background Check:

  • Standard check: 2 to 5 business days
  • Extensive or international check: 1 to 3 weeks

Criminal Background Check:

  • Instant online database check: Minutes to a few hours
  • County or state-level check: 2 to 7 business days
  • Federal-level check: 1 to 2 weeks

Tenant Background Check:

  • Standard check: 2 to 5 business days
  • In-depth check or eviction history: 1 to 2 weeks

Gun Purchase Background Check:

  • Instant check for most cases: Minutes to an hour
  • Delayed or extended check: Up to 3 business days

Financial Background Check (Credit Check):

  • Instant online report: Minutes to a few hours
  • Detailed credit report: 1 to 3 business days

Security Clearance Background Check:

  • Basic clearance: 3 to 6 months
  • Higher-level clearances (e.g., Top Secret): 6 months to over a year

Volunteer or Non-Profit Background Check:

  • Standard check: 2 to 5 business days
  • Extensive or international check: 1 to 3 weeks

Adoption Background Check:

  • Domestic adoption: 2 to 6 months
  • International adoption: 6 months to over a year

Although a lot of these hold-ups are out of your control, to help speed things up, pick references who are easy to reach and eager to help, and make sure you’re submitting thorough and accurate documentation.

While the waiting period can feel like an eternity, it’s important to remember that background checks are conducted with care to ensure accuracy. Rushing through it could work against you.

If it’s taking longer than expected, staying in touch with the people involved is a good idea, like your potential employer or landlord. You can ask them politely about the status of the check and let them know you’re still interested and excited about the opportunity. Being patient and professional during delays can make a positive impression.

Can I Run a Background Check on Myself?

Have you ever wondered what comes up in a background check about you? If you have, try running a free background check on yourself.

It can be especially useful if your applications keep getting turned down without a clear reason. By checking your records, you might find some clues and figure out if something in your background is causing these problems (and then fix them ASAP!).

Take a moment to Google yourself and look through your online profiles (be sure to log out first). This simple step can help you spot any information about yourself that’s easily accessible to anyone searching for you on the internet.

Don’t forget to review your credit report too, which you can get for free. It’s a crucial move for keeping your financial situation in good shape. By doing this, you can quickly spot any errors and work on boosting your credit score, which paves the way for better financial prospects down the line.

Background Check FAQs

Can I get a free background check?

Yes, you can find some basic background checks for free online. They may include public records like criminal history and court records, but they likely won’t show everything. If you need a more thorough background check, like for a job or a place to live, you might have to pay for it because it can be more detailed and accurate.

What are background check services?

Background screening services are specialized platforms that gather and provide information about individuals from a variety of sources, such as public records and databases, compiling it into comprehensive reports. These services serve various purposes, including criminal history checks, employment verification, tenant assessments, and identity confirmation, and ensure compliance with privacy and data protection laws.

What are the best background check sites?

Determining the “best” background check site can depend on your specific needs and priorities. However, here are a few reputable background check websites often considered among the best:


Do your research and read user reviews to determine which background check site aligns best with your specific needs, considering factors such as pricing, report comprehensiveness, and user experience. And keep in mind that some background check sites may be more suitable for personal use, while others cater to businesses and employers.

How much does a background check cost?

Background check costs vary, typically ranging from $20 to $100 or more, depending on the level of detail needed. A good employer will reimburse you for the out-of-pocket cost.

Are background checks confidential?

Background check results are typically confidential and should only be shared with those who have a legitimate need to know, such as employers or landlords.

Who can request a background check?

Employers, landlords, government agencies, financial institutions, and other authorized entities can request background checks, typically with the individual’s consent.

Do I have to give permission for a background check?

In most cases, yes. Individuals typically need to provide written consent for a background check to be conducted. However, remember that some background checks, like public records searches, are exactly that—public. They may not require your consent as the information is generally considered accessible.

Can I request a copy of my own background check?

Yes, under the Fair Credit Reporting Act (FCRA) in the United States, individuals have the right to request a copy of their background check report from the reporting agency.

Can I dispute inaccurate information in my background check report?

Absolutely. The FCRA is your go-to tool for challenging inaccurate information in your background check and requesting corrections. Get a copy of your background check, review it carefully for errors, and if you find any mistakes, contact the agency that provided the report and explain what’s wrong in writing.

Are there limits to what can be included in a background check?

Yes, there are limits. Some information, such as bankruptcies older than ten years, cannot be included in a background check report. Certain types of non-conviction information, like arrests without subsequent charges or convictions, may also be subject to restrictions in some jurisdictions.

Can a background check affect my chances of getting a job or a rental property?

Yes, it can. Negative findings, such as a criminal record or poor credit history, may impact your chances, depending on the employer or landlord’s requirements.

Does a background check request mean I got the job?

A background check request doesn’t guarantee you’ve got the job. It’s part of the standard hiring process, which includes various assessments and evaluations. The final decision typically follows once all aspects have been reviewed, however, it is a good sign that they are interested in learning more about you.

What if I have a criminal record? Can I still pass a background check?

If you have a criminal record, it doesn’t necessarily mean you won’t get the job or rental property. It depends on several factors, including the nature of the offense, its relevance to the role or property, and the employer or landlord’s policies.

Some organizations may consider rehabilitation efforts and the time that has passed since the offense when deciding. Being honest about your record and prepared to discuss it during the application or interview process is crucial.

Can I refuse a background check?

Yes, you have every right to decline a background check, but chances are extremely high that you won’t move forward with the application process if you do. Refusing a background check implies you have something to hide, even if you don’t.

If you have a good reason to refuse one, it’s best to discuss your concerns upfront to see if there’s a way to address them without jeopardizing your application.

What happens if I fail a background check?

Failing a background check can be a setback, whether it’s for employment, housing, or another situation. When this happens, you’ll typically receive a notification along with the reasons for the failure. It’s crucial to review the findings carefully. If there are inaccuracies, work to correct them.

Consider discussing your situation with the relevant party to see if there’s room for resolution or if they can provide guidance so that future attempts are more successful. Otherwise, all you can do is move on.

Is drug testing part of a background check?

While drug testing is not inherently a part of a background check, some employers may include it in their pre-employment screening process. This is especially common in industries where safety and job performance are critical, such as transportation, healthcare, or positions involving heavy machinery.

Background Checks Explained

You can’t avoid them, so you might as well learn the ins and outs of background checks. They have different purposes, like ensuring safe workplaces and protecting financial transactions.

Empower yourself by understanding their reasons, what they involve, and your rights to safeguard your personal information. Knowledge is your key to success in the world of background checks!

Amanda Kay, the founder of My Life, I Guess, provides valuable career advice and support for anyone striving to make a living and, more importantly, make a life. Whether it's navigating job searches, learning new skills, overcoming unemployment, or dealing with debt, My Life, I Guess has been a go-to resource for career guidance and financial stability since 2013. Amanda's expertise and relatable approach have been featured in trusted publications such as MSN,, Yahoo! Finance, the Ladders and Fairygodboss.

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