What is a Criminal Background Check?

Because so many people use the term "criminal background check" —in HR, the news media, and endless movies and TV shows—it's easy for us at Good Egg to think everyone must understand what a criminal history check is.

Yet whenever we stop and take a closer look, we quickly discover the opposite is true: most people don't understand what a criminal history check is, especially when it comes to the finer points. And like everything else in life, these finer points matter.

So let's do a deep dive into the basics.

What is a criminal history check?

At its simplest, a criminal history check (also referred to as a criminal background check) is the foundational element of a pre-employment screening program. Understanding a candidate's past—including criminal history—is an essential input to the hiring process.

Among other things, a criminal background check helps an employer assess whether previous behavior could negatively affect a candidate's ability to fulfill the responsibilities of the position and/or pose a potential risk to clients and co-workers. While not foolproof, past behavior is often indicative of future behavior (we discuss this concept in more depth on our Screening Continuum page).

A thorough background check, including a criminal history check, is an important contributor to post-offer decision making. (It's also worth noting that in many states and localities, the criminal history check cannot be performed unless a conditional offer of employment has been made.)

What's included in a criminal background check?

The most common background check consists of criminal history searches in counties where a candidate has lived in the past 7 years. These county searches are often supplemented with a nationwide criminal history database search, which provides a quick, affordable method to search for criminal conviction information that may have occurred in jurisdictions outside the candidate's address history.

NOTE: Any criminal convictions located in the nationwide database with identifiers that closely match the candidate's information will prompt the addition of "primary source" county searches to the background check order. This is necessary for validation purposes (we're not just needlessly adding additional costs).

The scope of a criminal background check can be adjusted based on the client's requirements, including the expansion of the address history from 7 to 10 years; the inclusion of address history for locations where a candidate has worked or attended school; and the addition of searches, such as federal criminal, sex offender database, and/or sanction searches.

Are pending cases included in criminal history checks?

Based on the Fair Credit Reporting Act (FCRA) and to the extent permitted by applicable state/local laws (as well as client-specific requirements), pending cases can be included in a background check report.

Are arrests included in criminal record checks?

Based on the FCRA, arrests can be included in a background check report where permitted by state rules. Client customizations are possible, as long as the client requirements are not diametrically opposed to the FCRA and/or relevant jurisdictional limitations on scope or restrictions on reporting arrest records.

If FCRA and state requirements are met, and the client has requested they be reported, arrests and pending cases are classified as "reportable non-convictions."

Are there different "types" of criminal background checks?

The default scope for a criminal history search is 7 years. Extended scope searches (10-year, full criminal history) can be supported at an additional cost to the client, to the extent permitted by applicable law.

Now, let's look at the different types:


County criminal check. This is a county-level court search for criminal convictions and reportable non-convictions associated with the applicant. Scope of search is 7 years. Average turnaround time (TAT) is 3 days, but again, this is an average.

Turnaround time varies based on jurisdiction searched and research method available: automated counties are returned same day/next day. Counties with on-site public access terminals used by court runners are returned in 1-3 days. In counties where information is only available by placing a request with the court clerk ("clerk-assisted"), the turnaround time can extend from several days to several weeks.

State criminal check. This is a statewide search (obtained directly from a state police department or state repository) for criminal convictions and reportable non-convictions associated with the applicant.

The scope of search is 7 years. The average turnaround time is 3 days. Again, this varies based on the state searched and research method available: automated states are returned same day/next day. States with on-site public access terminals used by court runners are returned in 1-3 days. In states where information is only available by placing a request with the state police ("clerk-assisted"), the turnaround can extend from several days to several weeks.

Statewide searches offer the client a wider research "net" for obtaining criminal history in areas adjacent to where a candidate has lived or worked. State-level repositories depend on the individual county courts to report data "up" to the state. Since there may be a time lag in the reporting from the county to the state, and the data reported can be inconsistent or incomplete, Good Egg recommends that customers use a state search as a supplement to county searches, which are based on address history.

  • An important note: Statewide criminal searches are not universally available. Some states do not offer the service. Some require a protracted and expensive process (like submission of fingerprints by the candidate). Some have data repositories that are not updated on a regular basis, so they are unreliable sources of information for background checks. Like county searches, turnaround time for state criminal checks will vary based on the source and fulfillment method.

Federal criminal check.

This is a nationwide search for crimes prosecuted against the applicant at the federal level, in any U.S. state or territory, which include tax evasion, bank robbery, kidnapping, and/or counterfeiting. The scope of search is 7 years. The turnaround time is 1-2 days unless additional research is needed, which could extend the turnaround to 5-7 days.

Federal criminal checks are conducted as name-match-only searches. When a match is found, additional research is conducted to determine if the match is, in fact, the candidate.

Nationwide criminal check.

This is a nationwide criminal database search for criminal history information associated with the candidate's primary and alias/maiden names in jurisdictions that fall outside the candidate-provided address(es) and address history obtained from the social security number trace.

The nationwide database is a compilation of information from various sources, including county and state criminal history repositories, department of correction records, and state sex offender registries. The frequency of the database updates is not readily known, and data is not considered primary source.

Because the results of the nationwide database search aren't considered primary source, results are not displayed to the client. Instead, the information obtained is used as a "pointer." Any reportable criminal history information found that closely matches the candidate's name and personally identifiable information (PII) is validated at the primary source, i.e., by processing a county criminal search, to determine if the information is reportable to the client.

What is automatically included in a "basic" criminal background check?

A "basic criminal background check" is in the eye of the beholder and is based solely on client requirements. That said, Good Egg offers a baseline package configuration that is the starting point for building out a screening program to meet the client's needs.

How do we work towards meeting a client's specific needs? Well, part of our discovery process with a prospect is to understand their business, including the positions to be screened, the number of hires expected per year, and the budget allocated for their background screening program.

Do you have more questions? Ask Good Egg!
While we hope the above provided a solid overview of criminal background check basics, we know you might have more questions. We're here to help. Also, be on the lookout for upcoming articles that dig even deeper into the background check process as well as myths and best practices.

Update and Bonus! We’ve written a series of blog posts on various criminal history check topics. Here's a list in case you missed any installments:

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Madge Patterson

Posted by Madge Patterson

Madge is the Director of Operations at Good Egg. A self-described “operations maven” she has spent the past 15+ years applying her passion for process improvement and optimization to various operations and program management roles in the background screening industry. She is an avid baker who often shares her creations with her Good Egg colleagues.

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