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Criminal record background checks: FAQ

Criminal record background checks: FAQCriminal record background checks are common for anyone working with children, the elderly or the disabled; for most executive and accountancy positions and for almost all government employees.

How is a criminal record background check done?

Criminal record checks are quite complex and involve searching a number of different databases. Some checks can be done using the FBI’s National Crime Information Center (NCIC) though this set of records is not available to all employers, to the public or even for all positions. Most criminal record background checks are carried out by searching federal court indexes, state department of corrections records, state and county criminal databases, and national and federal criminal databases.


However, records are checked by name rather than social security number and simple mistakes such as incorrect spellings, changes to names, or confusion because of multiple matches for common names can cause false results. Having a trained and thorough researcher working on your behalf and cross checking names against date of birth, social security number and driver’s license is crucial in order to get accurate results.

What does a criminal record background check cover?

See our page on criminal background checks for more information on the type of results these checks can reveal.

How are records stored?

Most states now have computerized criminal record databases but few allow off-site access. Therefore a researcher must go to each courthouse to check records and even for free checks may have to make a written application for information which is then retrieved by a clerk. In other states records are not computerized, penal code violations are not listed and the disposition is rarely included. In these cases it is necessary to visit the courthouse to check if the information found is relevant. These additional searches can take quite some time to perform.

So how can online services offer criminal record background checks?

Online criminal record checks should only be used to check that a criminal record does not exist. If any information is revealed it is usually necessary for a court runner or researcher to visit the county courthouse and check the records in person. Additionally, most computerized records only include searches for inmates of federal prisons and not city or county jails. Consequently online checks can miss important cases of violations of state or local laws.

How much does a criminal record background check cost?

Criminal record checks can cost as little as $15 but the cost depends on the number of courts and records searched and for an individual who has lived in a variety of locations the costs can be much higher.