How Long Does a Background Check Take?

How Long Does a Background Check Take?

By Jennifer Gladstone

A standard background check takes an average of 48-72 hours to complete.

But let’s take a step back for a second. It’s important to consider the fact that “background check” may mean something different to you than it does to another employer – and that difference can and will affect the overall length of time that your specific background check takes to complete.

Background screening companies—also known as Consumer Reporting Agencies (CRAs)—offer hundreds of services and thousands of service combinations. The combination of services impacts the time a background check takes. Naturally, a more in-depth background check often takes longer than a standard—or “shallower”—background check.

Background Check Time Frames

There are many types of employment background checks. Each one involves a different process and different sources, and thereby requires a different length of time. Some of the most common checks are outlined below, along with the general timeframe to complete each.

Tracing Social Security Numbers

How Long - SSN

The Social Security Number Trace is the jumping off point for all background checks. The trace instantaneously takes a name and date of birth and provides residential history, aliases and other key data. This information is then used to verify any matches that are discovered in criminal database searches. The SSN Trace lets us know when the number was issued and if it is valid. The issue date is very useful because if the number was issued before your candidate was born, you know you are not looking at a record for your candidate.

You would be amazed at how many people not only share the same name — as in our Michael Smith example earlier — but share the same date of birth as well. Performing the SSN Trace will help determine if a match is truly a match, or if it’s in name only.

The best searches pair the SSN Trace with County Criminal Searches (see below). Without the combination of the two, criminal records under aliases or in jurisdictions that the applicant did not list on their application might never be found. The SSN Trace combined with the criminal record search package helps prevent applicant dishonesty.

Searching National Criminal Records Database

How Long - NCRD

The National Criminal Records Database (NCRD) is used to uncover criminal offenses that happened outside the areas where your candidate has lived. Hundreds of millions of offense records are included in this multijurisdictional search of state and county criminal records.

Most criminal background checks that turn up no criminal records, or “clears”, can be returned instantaneously. Slight delays could be caused by common name matches or unreportable records showing up in the search. These issues take a little time to review, but this short delay will guarantee more accurate results.

Sources of information include:

  • State and local courts
  • Multi-state sex offender searches
  • FBI
  • U.S. Marshals Service
  • Department of Justice
  • Secret Service
  • U.S. Customs
  • DEA Fugitive and Most Wanted Files
  • Department of Public Safety
  • Traffic Court

Background check results can vary from state to state and county to county. Some areas are fully automated and up-to-date, which shortens turnaround time. Others are “clerk searched” courts, which means our researchers must wait on court clerks to pull the needed information. These requests are on top of the clerks’ normal day-to-day duties. In some locations the average turnaround time is two weeks.

Checking County Criminal Records

How Long - County Crim

EBI’s nationwide network of researchers conducts felony and misdemeanor searches of criminal records through hands-on searches at county courthouses across the country. If there is no “name match”, most of these searches clear within 48 hours. About 75% of all county criminal background checks fall into this category.

If there is a name match, it can take an additional 24- 48 hours for our staff to cull through all of the available information to make sure the record that was discovered belongs to your candidate. The additional steps to verify the match happens both in our office, as well as on location at county courthouses. While this does add some time to your background check results, it is essential.

As mentioned earlier, there are an astounding number of people that have the same name and date of birth. (To prove this, we actually searched a co-worker’s name and date of birth. He has no criminal history, but 259 other people with the same name AND birthday have records!)

Checking Motor Vehicle Records

How Long - MVR

This driving records search includes license validity, type, vehicle violations, restrictions, suspensions, revocations, accidents and convictions. The majority of states return these results within seconds. Alaska, Hawaii, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Washington, Wyoming and the District of Columbia return results within 72 hours.

Verifying Employment

How Long - Employment Verifications

Our Verifications Specialists perform in-depth, detailed and confidential verifications of employment.

Employment Verifications can include:

  • Dates of Employment
  • Salary
  • Titles and Duties
  • Reasons for Leaving
  • Rehire Status
  • Supervisor References
  • Customized Questions from Client

These verifications are completed within 72 hours. Our base package includes three attempts in three days to get the information. We can customize packages to meet your company’s needs, but additional requests can add to the turnaround time.

Checking Credit

How Long - Credit Check

Credit report checks are important for any applicant or employee in a role with financial responsibilities. They are an essential tool for reducing the threat of internal theft. Results of these searches can come from the three major credit bureaus (Transunion, Experian and Equifax), and are instant.

Healthcare Sanctions

How Long - Healthcare Sanctions

There are several types of Healthcare Sanction Reports to consider:

  • Sanctions that involve misappropriation of drugs either involving physicians, pharmacists, pharmacist technicians, or nurses
  • Sanctions that involve criminal convictions such as theft, DUI’s, etc. that the board finds out about and the individual is either given a fine with probation or suspension of license
  • Sanctions that involve an individual not paying an education loan
  • Sanctions that involve individuals on the exclusion list either for Medicaid fraud or abuse

If the sanctions are related to criminal convictions, the records will show up on the criminal background check results. A clean Healthcare Sanction Report can be completed in as little as an hour; if there are records, the turnaround time differs. It is not uncommon for these records to come back with only one identifier, which means more investigating must be done to confirm the record belongs to your applicant. This additional research can take as little as 2 to 3 days, or it can stretch out for a couple of weeks.

Verifying DOT Employment

How Long - DOT Verifications

If you are screening for a position that is DOT regulated, the turnaround time is extremely different. Some of the positions in this category include commercial drivers, pilots, train engineers and boat captains. By law, when researching a Commercial Driver’s License (CDL), you can only look at the last three years. Work history inquiries can go back further depending on what clients ask for.

The DOT also requires very specific questions that must be answered by the Human Resources or Safety departments. They have a full 30 days to respond to our request. It is very common for them to wait until the last moment to provide the information, so the average DOT search should be expected to take the full 30 days.

Verifying Education

How Long - Education Verifications

The education section on resumes is a hot spot for exaggerations and out-right lies. Verifications Specialists perform education verifications by contacting every educational institution listed by the applicant to confirm attendance dates, major, GPA and what degree was awarded. If you are verifying college or graduate level degrees, the verifications can take up to 72 hours. Checks on high schools can take longer, and it is important to note that summer and winter breaks can further add to the delay. The most difficult to reach can take up to 2 weeks.

Verifying Professional Qualifications

How Long - Professional Qualifications

For professionals in certain industries, license verifications are an important part of the vetting process. Some common licenses that should be verified include, but are not limited to: engineers, radiologists, nurses, nurse’s aides, lawyers, CPAs and financial planners.

While the turnaround times vary, it is important to verify a candidate’s listed credentials with all applicable licensing boards. Typically these searches are done online, but we also include any disciplinary actions associated with each license. In order to get that information, we have to contact the specific boards directly. That can take up to 5 or 6 days, depending on how busy they are.

Checking Global Watch Lists

How Long - Global Watch List Checks

These global checks search several databases covering US and foreign sanctions and watch lists. The sources are provided by US and foreign government sources, as well as other international organizations. This is an instant database search; however, any hit would be verified at the source and turnaround time would vary based on the source.

Why a Background Check Might Take Longer Than Expected

A standard background check will be completed in 48-72 hours (or sooner) 88-90% of the time. The remaining 10-12% of the time, external factors can delay a search.

Some of these factors include:

  • The specific jurisdictional requirements where the search is being conducted
  • Processes associated with certain jurisdictions, such as unique authorization forms
  • Technology limitations or incomplete records at the court
  • Holidays or court closures
  • The amount of information that requires additional investigation associated with the search

In addition to these types of external delays, it often takes more time to search a common name such as Michael Smith since there are many people with that name. Care must be taken to make sure the individual is the same Michael Smith applying for the position. Although investigations for unique names generally don’t require extensive investigation, they can contribute to the overall length of time.

Employment background checks are important. Employers have an increasing responsibility to know who they’re hiring, and to make sure they provide a safe work environment for their employees and clients. Furthermore, your employee is an extension of your company’s brand, so you should take reasonable steps to make sure you have a quality – and qualified – staff.

Background checks also play an important role limiting liability to companies with respect to negligent hiring litigation. Failure to complete background checks will impact product quality, work environment, and customer experiences, and will greatly increase a company’s exposure to liability.

We define a standard background check as one that tends to be most common; it satisfies the need for a quick turnaround time, but doesn’t make a significant sacrifice to the quality of the check. But a standard check may not be appropriate for all employers. The appropriate employment background check for you depends on what your company does, the position involved, and the cost tolerance your company has for the search.

How to Speed Up a Background Check

Unfortunately there’s no magic bullet for this one. The best way to speed up a background check is to make sure your candidate’s data is complete and accurate from the start. A misspelling or wrong number can trigger a rabbit-hole descent down a dead end. Background screening is a vital step to ensuring your candidates will add to the quality of your brand and to the safety of your workplace.

The amount of time you should expect the check to take depends on the combination of services you select for your particular industry and the role in question. A good screening partner can help you choose your package, and help you set appropriate expectations for your custom program.

It’s important to consider the fact that “background check” may mean something different to you than it does to another employer – and that difference can and will affect the overall length of time that your specific background check takes to complete.


About the Author

Jennifer Gladstone

Jennifer Gladstone

Jennifer Gladstone is a news anchor and journalist with more than 20 years of experience in front of the camera. She's worked in several markets, large and small, and has performed nearly every task needed in a newsroom. As EBI’s Screening News Editor, she keeps EBI’s customers and blog subscribers up to date on the latest screening news and legislative alerts affecting companies of all sizes.

One thought on “How Long Does a Background Check Take?

  1. One thing that isn’t really included above (and absolutely should be since it’s commonly known to CRA’s and employers alike) which can delay a background check is if you have had residences in multiple states – not just sex offender searches.
    If you’ve lived in different states, those state records need to be searched (driving, court, schools, residences, etc), and any employers in those states, for *every state* you have lived in.
    So if you’ve moved to a different state, expect delays of a full day or two depending how much you’ve moved.
    Also, consider a BBB review of whoever is doing your search, as well as internet reviews – do a background check on your background checker. Some companies are notoriously slow, very poorly rated (I know of one at 95% negative on BBB), or have had government suits filed against them.

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