How to Do a Federal Background Check Online

If you’re performing an online background check on a potential employee or property renter, you may think you’re getting a complete look into your candidate’s criminal history. However, you may not be seeing the full picture if you’re conducting a national background check — the service provided by many background check companies — without running a federal background check. 

The good news is that you can conduct your own federal background check online. Even better, it’s a relatively inexpensive and hassle-free process.

What does a federal background check include?

A national background check is often what people think of when they hear the term “background check.” After all, these reports provide the information needed about people who are applying for a job, signing a lease, or even starting a new romantic relationship. National background checks include different data depending on the nature of the screening, but may include information on a person’s:

  • County and state criminal records
  • Major traffic violations
  • Sex offender status
  • Verified identity
  • Credit score
  • Employment history
  • Social media profiles

A federal background check, however, provides a report only on federal records. Most notably, it provides an individual’s federal criminal history, or whether or not they were charged with a crime higher than at the county or state levels. These scans verify records through federal district courts (where crimes are prosecuted) and federal appellate courts (where verdicts are appealed,) rather than at the local level.

Again, depending on the nature of the screening and who is conducting it, a federal background check may include different pieces of information. A comprehensive report may include facts regarding:

  • Federal crimes an individual committed 
  • Federal crimes an individual allegedly committed (in other words, crimes they were charged with that are currently processing, that were dismissed, or that they were not convicted of)
  • Date(s) the crime(s) occurred
  • Date(s) of arrest(s)
  • Date(s) of incarceration
  • Lawsuits filed by or against the individual
  • The person’s Social Security number (SSN)
  • Name and address changes
  • Employment history

It’s important to note that when you run a federal background check on a job or rental applicant, you won’t gain insight into their criminal history at state or county levels. For the most thorough information on a candidate, you should conduct a national background check as well, including a screening of their county and state criminal records.

Who should run a federal background check?

While everyone has access to certain public records, employers and property renters may be the most inclined to run federal background checks. Certain types of business owners benefit the most from this type of screening, including employers who are hiring for:

  • Government jobs
  • Jobs that rely on the use of sensitive information, such as financial account numbers, SSNs, and/or Employer Identification numbers (EINs)
  • Positions that require employees to work with vulnerable populations, including children, senior citizens, people with physical disabilities, people with mental disabilities, and/or people with mental illness
  • Jobs in which employees have access to weapons, such as security positions

How to do a federal background check online

To run a federal background check online, you’ll use the Public Access to Court Electronic Records (PACER) website. You’ll need to set up an account, and there may be fees associated with your background check.

To set up your PACER account:

  • Visit PACER.gov.
  • Click Register on the top menu bar.
  • Click Start.
  • Click View (this option allows you to search for, view, and print read-only information).
  • Enter your personal information, and click Next.
  • Create login information, and click Next. 
  • If you want to keep a credit card on file, enter your payment information, and click Next. (Note: there is no fee for creating a user account, but you may be charged fees for accessing information. You can also decline to add any credit card information until you’re ready to look at documents. If you don’t add billing info, simply click Next.)
  • Review PACER’s Policies and Procedures, check the acknowledgment box, and click Submit.

Once you have signed up for an account, it will take seven to 10 business days for you to receive activation instructions in the mail. You won’t be able to start searching until you’ve received this information. 

Once your PACER account is activated, you can begin your federal background check by visiting PACER.gov and clicking Case Search Sign In at the top right corner of the homepage. Once you’ve logged in, you can research an individual’s criminal history one of two ways:

  • If you know which case you’re looking for and where the crime occurred, you can select the court from the Where Would You Like to Go? dropdown list. You’ll be taken to your chosen court’s PACER page from there, and you can search by a personal or business name.
  • If you aren’t looking for a particular case and want to run a more general search, you can use the PACER Case Locator tool (PCL)

Keep in mind that even with a PACER account, you’ll only have access to public records that haven’t been sealed by the Department of Justice (DOJ) or the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI,) in most cases. However, if you’re an employer at a government agency or a private institution with the necessary legal authorization (like a school, hospital, nursing home, or other business that serves vulnerable populations), you have access to DOJ and FBI records that aren’t available to the public. These searches are based on positive identification (such as fingerprinting or DNA matching), not PACER.

There are many times when it’s necessary to go a step beyond a standard background check by also running a federal background check. For employers serving people who are at risk of abuse or for property owners renting their buildings for the long term, verifying that a potential candidate isn’t dangerous to their clients or community is surprisingly simple with a federal background check.