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Federal Criminal Records Check: A Complete Guide for Employers [2023]

federal criminal records check

As a hiring manager, you want to ensure your new hires are fully qualified for their positions and don’t have criminal convictions that could place your business, employees, and customers at risk.

Federal criminal records checks show whether your candidates have federal convictions that could threaten the safety of your company, employees, and customers.

Here’s what you should know about federal criminal record searches and why they are important.

What is a Federal Criminal Records Check?

A federal criminal records check searches records from the federal U.S. District Courts to identify criminal case information.

These checks leverage the government’s PACER criminal record system, which includes information from 94 federal courts and the various offenses over which they have jurisdiction.

While most criminal cases are tried in state and county courts, certain high-level white-collar crimes and offenses occurring across state lines are tried in federal courts.

What Does a Federal Background Check Reveal?

Federal criminal background checks only reveal information about criminal matters handled in the federal courts.

The federal system has jurisdiction over offenses that occur on federal land, crimes against federal employees, bank robbery, offenses that occur across state lines, and others.

Some examples of federal criminal categories and individual crimes include the following:

1. White-Collar Crimes

White-collar crimes are typically non-violent offenses such as:

  • Money laundering
  • Public corruption
  • Securities and commodities fraud
  • Insider trading
  • Medicare fraud
  • Mortgage fraud
  • Falsification of financial information
  • Intellectual property theft
  • Embezzlement
  • Tax evasion

2. Offenses Occurring Across State Lines

When a criminal offense occurs across multiple states, the federal courts have jurisdiction.

The following are some examples of federal offenses occurring across state lines:

  • Kidnapping someone and carrying them into a different state
  • Internet child pornography
  • Distribution of child pornography
  • Drug trafficking
  • Human trafficking
  • Computer crimes, including online identity theft, hacking, ransomware attacks, and others
  • Mail fraud

3. Offenses Committed on Federal Lands

The federal system has jurisdiction over any offense committed on federal land even when it would otherwise be handled by state courts.

Some examples of offenses that could be charged federally when they are committed on federal land include the following:

  • Murder in a national park
  • DUI on a U.S. military base
  • Arson by starting a forest fire in a national park
  • Trespass on federal property
  • Robbery of a post office
  • Theft of government property from a federal office building

4. Offenses on Tribal Lands

The federal courts have jurisdiction over crimes that occur on tribal lands, including reservations. Any offense that occurs on tribal lands is prosecuted federally instead of in state court.

Some examples of crimes that might occur on tribal lands include:

  • Murder
  • Robbery
  • Theft
  • Drug crimes
  • Driving under the influence
  • Sex crimes

5. Bank Robbery

The 1934 federal Bank Robbery Act made bank robbery a federal crime whenever this offense is committed against a bank, saving and loan association, or credit union that is a member of the Federal Reserve System.

Since most financial institutions are members of the Federal Reserve System, bank robbery is typically prosecuted in federal court.

6. Counterfeiting

Counterfeiting U.S. currency is a federal crime under 18 U.S.C. § 471 and is always prosecuted in federal court.

Why Is It Important to Check Federal Criminal Records?

Federal criminal records checks reveal high-level crimes committed by individuals that won’t appear on standard state or county background checks.

Employers can derive the following benefits from conducting these searches:

1. Protect Workplace Safety

Certain federal offenses are extremely serious and indicate that offenders could pose a serious risk of harm to other employees and the public.

Conducting federal criminal records checks helps employers confirm if an applicant has a federal conviction indicating they might threaten workplace safety if hired.

2. Mitigate Negligent Hiring Liability Risks

Conducting federal criminal background checks on candidates can help to mitigate negligent hiring liability risks that your company might otherwise face.

Hiring a candidate with a conviction that directly relates to the duties of the job or that unreasonably threatens the safety of your employees and the public could lead to serious harm and resulting lawsuits.

3. Maintain Regulatory Compliance

Employers in certain industries, including the healthcare, finance, and transportation sectors, are prohibited from hiring applicants with certain types of convictions.

Conducting federal criminal records checks can help employers operating within such industries maintain compliance.

4. Protect Intellectual Property and Sensitive Information

Candidates for high-level positions through which they will have access to your company’s intellectual property and the sensitive information of both your company and your customers should undergo federal criminal background checks.

These searches show whether a candidate has past convictions related to piracy, intellectual property theft, or fraud related to the sensitive financial information of customers.

5. Protect Your Brand

Employees are the face of a company’s brand. If you make the wrong hiring decision, your company could suffer significant reputational harm.

A federal criminal records check helps employers to make informed hiring decisions and weed out applicants who could harm their brand.

Which Applicants Should Undergo Federal Criminal Records Checks?

Federal criminal records checks generally reveal more serious types of crimes than state or county records searches because of the types of cases the federal courts assume jurisdiction over.

Employers that are hiring for jobs involving access to confidential information, trade secrets, or financial data typically request federal criminal records checks.

Those that hire healthcare sector employees and people who will work with vulnerable populations also can benefit from performing federal criminal records checks.

The following are some examples of the types of jobs for which federal criminal records checks should be considered:

  • Law enforcement officers
  • Doctors
  • Nurses
  • Pharmacists
  • Other healthcare professionals
  • Accounting and finance professionals
  • Certified public accountants (CPAs)
  • C-suite executives (CEOs, CFOs, COOs, etc.)
  • Banking executives
  • Jobs providing care for vulnerable populations, including disabled people, elderly people, and children

How to Get a Federal Criminal Background Check

Employers can conduct federal records checks in one of two ways, including searching on their own or working with a third-party background check provider.

Let’s take a look at each of these methods.

1. Do-it-Yourself Federal Criminal Records Checks

Employers can perform federal criminal records checks themselves by establishing an account online with the U.S. Courts Public Access to Electronic Records (PACER) system.

This system provides access to an online database of federal court records maintained by the U.S. government.

While it doesn’t cost anything to set up an account, you will need to purchase certain types of information with a credit card.

PACER search results cost 0.10 cents per page of the information returned for however many pages are included in a search. The fees are charged even when no record is found.


  • Might be relatively inexpensive if you’re searching with a case number instead of a name


  • Per-page fees can quickly add up when searching by name
  • Since personal identifying information is redacted, including dates of birth, addresses, and Social Security numbers, it might be difficult to determine whether a name-based record belongs to a particular candidate
  • Criminal case information from before Nov. 1, 2004 is not available on PACER
  • A PACER search won’t reveal conviction records from county and state courts, so additional searches will need to be performed
  • Can be time-consuming

2. Partnering with iprospectcheck

When you partner with a reputable background check company like iprospectcheck, you can quickly receive verified information about any federal criminal records a candidate might have.


  • All records are validated and verified before being reported
  • Our methods allow us to match records to candidates to avoid mix-ups
  • Affordable and predictable fees
  • Reports comply with the FCRA, Title VII, the Fair Chance to Compete for Jobs Act, and all relevant state and local laws
  • Reports returned quickly within a few hours to a couple of days
  • We conduct many other searches, including state and county criminal records checks


  • Fees, but they are affordable

Important Laws to Consider

Federal Laws

Fair Credit Reporting Act

The Fair Credit Reporting Act (FCRA) applies when employers rely on third-party background check providers to conduct background checks and is a federal law that protects consumer privacy.

Under the FCRA, consumer reporting agencies can’t report the following information when it is older than seven years for jobs paying annual salaries of less than $75,000:

  • Arrests that didn’t result in convictions
  • Chapter 13 bankruptcies (10 years for Chapter 7 bankruptcies)
  • Civil lawsuits
  • Paid tax liens
  • Civil judgments

These restrictions don’t apply to jobs paying at least $75,000 per year, and conviction information can be reported regardless of age.

The FCRA’s time limits on reporting information don’t apply to other types of employment background checks, including employment verification, education verification, professional license verification, and others.

For employers, the FCRA addresses what employers should do when they learn negative information on background checks.

If the information on an applicant’s background check makes you want to turn them down for a job, you must complete the adverse action steps before making a final adverse hiring decision.

Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964

Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (Title VII) prohibits discrimination by employers against applicants and employees because of their membership in certain protected groups.

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), which enforces Title VII, has issued enforcement guidance for employers conducting employment background checks.

According to the EEOC, employers should complete individual assessments of convictions as they directly relate to the duties of the positions for which an applicant is under consideration before making a hiring decision.

Fair Chance to Compete for Jobs Act

The Fair Chance to Compete for Jobs Act governs when federal agencies and federal contractors can ask applicants about criminal history information and conduct background checks.

Under this law, federal contractors and agencies can’t inquire about an applicant’s criminal history or complete criminal background checks until after the applicant has had an opportunity to interview.

Federal agencies can’t contract with federal contractors that ask about criminal history information earlier in the hiring process.

State Laws

There are many different state-specific employment background check laws.

You should consult legal counsel to learn about the laws in your state.

Certain laws that might apply to federal criminal records checks include ban-the-box laws and expungement laws.

Many states have passed ban-the-box laws, which control when in the hiring process employers can ask about criminal history information.

Expungement laws allow individuals to ask for certain criminal convictions to be expunged from their records. While expungement laws might apply to convictions in state court, there is no federal expungement law.

This means that if a candidate has a federal criminal conviction, it can’t be expunged.

Other Employment Background Checks Employers Should Consider

Conducting a federal criminal records check alone will not provide a complete picture of your candidate.

Most employers supplement federal criminal records searches with the following additional types of employment background checks:


1. How long does it take to obtain a federal criminal records check?

How long it will take to complete a federal criminal records check depends on how you conduct it.

If you complete the search yourself, it can take time to validate results when your applicant has a common name.

When you partner with iprospectcheck, our advanced technologies and research methods frequently allow us to return accurate and comprehensive reports within a few hours.

2. What should you do if an applicant shows up on a federal criminal records check?

If a background check report reveals an applicant’s federal criminal conviction, take the following steps:

  • Assess the conviction record as it relates to the job for which you are considering the applicant and workplace safety concerns.
  • Send a pre-adverse action letter with a copy of the report identifying the conviction of concern.
  • Give the applicant a reasonable time (a best practice is five days) to provide mitigating evidence or evidence showing the record is inaccurate.
  • Send a final adverse action notice explaining your decision not to hire the applicant with a copy of their rights under state and federal law.

3. What are the differences between federal, national, state, and county criminal record checks?

Federal, national, state, and county criminal records checks have the following differences:

  • Federal criminal records checks search for criminal convictions obtained within any of the federal U.S. district courts but do not show county or state criminal records.
  • National criminal records checks are not a standalone search and instead look for criminal information across all states and U.S. territories. These checks help consumer reporting agencies identify particular states and jurisdictions in which to conduct additional searches.
  • State criminal records checks show convictions within a single state but don’t show convictions in states that weren’t searched or in federal courts.
  • County criminal records checks show convictions obtained in the counties searched but don’t show convictions obtained in other counties or states. They provide the most up-to-date information on criminal cases within individual states.

iprospectcheck: Your Trusted Partner for Federal Criminal Background Checks

If you’re hiring for positions requiring access to sensitive information or carrying a high level of authority, it’s a good idea to conduct federal criminal background checks.

These searches reveal federal criminal convictions that won’t appear on standard county or state criminal background checks and can help to ensure you make informed hiring decisions.

At iprospectcheck, we perform federal criminal records searches for employers across all U.S. states and territories.

To learn more about our federal criminal records checks or to get a free quote, call us today: (888) 509-1979

DISCLAIMER: The resources provided here are for educational purposes only and do not constitute legal advice. Consult your counsel if you have legal questions related to your specific practices and compliance with applicable laws.

Know Before You Hire

About the Author
Matthew J. Rodgers

Matthew J. Rodgers

Matthew J. Rodgers is a highly accomplished business executive with over 30 years of experience providing strategic vision and leadership to companies ranging from the fortune 500 to iprospectcheck, a company which he co-founded over a decade ago. Matthew is a valued consultant who is dedicated to helping companies create and implement efficient, cost effective and compliant employment screening programs. Matt has been a member of the Professional Background Screeners Association since 2009 . When not focused on iprospectcheck, he can be found spending time with his family, fly fishing, or occasionally running the wild rivers of the American west. A lifetime member of American Whitewater, Matt is passionate about protecting and restoring America’s whitewater rivers.