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Published: Jan 05, 2024 9 min read

Employers use background checks to confirm and verify the information on an applicant’s resume, such as their educational credentials and work history. But how far back does an employment background check go?

Keep reading to learn what background checks entail, the timeframes for various kinds of searches and your legal rights as an applicant.

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How far back do employment background checks go?

Employment background checks can typically go back as far as seven to ten years, though that timeframe can vary depending on the type of check, the position being applied for, industry regulations and state or local laws.

It’s important to note that the Fair Credit Reporting Act (FCRA) — as well as state and local regulations — provide job candidates with rights that employers cannot violate. For example, employers must get your written consent before conducting a background check.

Criminal history check

In most cases, the lookback period for criminal background checks is seven to ten years. These checks can turn up publicly available arrest records, court records and criminal records for felony arrests and convictions as well as pending cases.

Some employers, but not all, will also request searches of misdemeanor records. While results from misdemeanor searches will only include records from the last seven to ten years, felony convictions could appear on your record for life, unless you have them expunged.

Certain states have restrictions regarding the kind of information that employers can collect or how far back in your records they can look, while other states mandate or allow more thorough background checks.

Maryland law, for instance, states that background checks for jobs involved in transportation or ridesharing must search the applicant’s “entire adult history,” including convictions older than seven years. California, on the other hand, prohibits consumer reporting agencies from presenting misdemeanor or felony information that didn’t result in a conviction.

Employment history verification

Employment history verification checks typically go back seven years and confirm an applicant’s previous employment dates, job titles and, sometimes, salary information.

Education verification

Usually, there are no restrictions on how far back education verification checks can go. This check will confirm your educational history, including the schools you attended, the degrees or certifications you earned and any honors or awards you received.

Professional license verification

Professional license verification checks can go back as far as the date when the license was first issued. Employers may use this kind of check to confirm that you hold a certain professional license, verify the date it was issued and check for a history of disciplinary actions or censure.

Credit history check

A credit history check involves obtaining your credit report from one or more of the major credit bureaus.

Note that employers can only obtain your credit report with your written consent and the report they receive might not include your credit score. Additionally, credit reports can only show information from the past seven years (although certain types of bankruptcies can be reported for longer.)

As with criminal history checks, some states have different laws regarding credit history checks. For instance, Colorado law states that an employer can only run a credit check as part of a job application in the following circumstances:

  • The employer is a financial institution
  • The credit check is required by law
  • The applicant’s credit history is directly related to the job position for which they’re applying

Social media check

Some employers might perform a social media review of an applicant’s public social media accounts.

There is no restriction to how far back an employer can look on social media. However, several states have passed laws forbidding employers from asking applicants for passwords or login information in order to check their private social media accounts.

Reference check

Reference checks usually have no time limit, although employers may limit the scope of the review as a cost- or time-saving measure. This check involves contacting your references, including your former employers, colleagues and supervisors.

In some cases, such as for FBI background checks or other background checks performed by a government agency, your references (and even your neighbors) may be interviewed in person.

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Factors that determine the timeframe of employment background checks

The lookback period for a background check depends on several factors, including the type of position being filled, the industry and the applicable laws in your city or state. For example, if you're applying for a position that requires a professional license or other certification, the employer may need to go back further than seven years to verify your licensing details, if the law allows it.

Additionally, employers in specific industries, such as health care, finance and government, may have stricter background check requirements than those in less-regulated industries.

Legal requirements for background checks

These types of screenings are typically conducted by background check services, also known as consumer reporting agencies, that specialize in employment and/or tenancy searches. Federal law strictly regulates these kinds of background check companies as well as the actions of employers conducting history checks.

Employers must follow all applicable state and federal laws during the background check process. Here’s a look at some of them.

Fair Credit Reporting Act

The Fair Credit Reporting Act (FCRA), passed into law in 1970, is a federal law regulating how credit reporting agencies can collect, access, use and share consumer credit information. The FCRA also established guidelines for employers who use background checks to make hiring decisions.

Under the FCRA, employers must obtain your written permission before running a background check and give you written notice that a background check will be conducted. Though you’re free to refuse such a request, the employer isn't obligated to continue considering you for employment if you do so.

After performing a background check, should the employer decide not to hire you based on the results of the background check, it must send you a notice informing you of its decision, along with a copy of the report and the contact information for the background check company that conducted the screening. It must also provide you with enough time to dispute any inaccurate information.

Federal laws

In addition to the FCRA, there are several federal laws that protect the rights of job applicants.

  • Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibits discrimination based on race, color, religion, gender or national origin.
  • The Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967, which prohibits discrimination against those 40 or older.
  • The Consumer Credit Protection Act of 1968, which requires employers to inform applicants and employees that they may use credit reports in employment decisions.
  • The Equal Opportunity Act of 1972, which prohibits discrimination in housing, employment and other arenas based on race, color, religion, national origin or sex.
  • The Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990, which prohibits employers from discriminating against applicants with disabilities or asking for health or medical information.
  • The Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act of 2008, which prohibits employers from making personnel decisions using genetic information.

State laws

Employers have to comply with state laws when conducting background checks. These laws vary, and some states restrict the types of information employers can request or how far some checks go.

State laws can also dictate the timeframe of general background checks and the types of jobs that require them. For example, transportation jobs may require a thorough review of an applicant’s driving records as part of the hiring process.

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How far back does an employment background check go? FAQs

How far back can an employer go on a background check?

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Generally speaking, employers can go back from seven to ten years when conducting background checks. However, this will depend on several factors including the position being filled, the type of check being conducted and applicable state or local laws.

What shows up on an employment background check?

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The information that can show up on an employment background check depends on the type of check being conducted. Background checks typically include criminal history searches, employment verification, educational history checks, professional license verification, a credit report, reference checks and social media checks.

How long does it take to receive background check results?

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The timeframe for receiving pre-employment background check results varies considerably depending on the nature and complexity of the check. For most background checks, employers should receive results within a few days but more in-depth background checks and international searches can take considerably longer (up to several weeks).

What are my rights as an applicant when it comes to background checks?

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Prospective employers must obtain your written consent before conducting a background check. They must also provide a copy of the background check results and give you adequate time to dispute any inaccurate information.

Applicants have additional rights in some states. For instance, 37 states and 150 counties and cities have ban-the-box laws, such as those in Kansas and Maryland that prohibit state employers from conducting a criminal records check or inquiring about any criminal convictions until they grant you an interview. New York has a similar law, the Fair Chance Act, which prohibits an employer from asking questions about your criminal history until they make a job offer.

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