What Is Included in a Background Check?

From private companies to public institutions, background checks can be done for any number of reasons. Employers often conduct background checks on new job applicants, or you may even have one done before volunteering. Background checks help ensure safety, and they help employers avoid making a wrong hire that could be costly.

Because there are so many different situations in which a background check is needed, there isn’t a one-size-fits-all solution. Some background checks are pretty basic, while more comprehensive checks include a greater depth of information. The type of information that’s needed really depends on the nature of the position and what an employer deems important. Information that may be requested can include criminal records, motor vehicle records, credit history, drug screenings, social media, and verification of your identity, employment history, education, and other credentials.

Background Check Basics

When a company wants to check someone’s background, they have two options. They can conduct their own search or pay a third party that specializes in background checks. If they conduct their own search, they don’t need the individual’s consent before checking some information. However, there are some types of records that are confidential and require consent, including education, military, and medical records.

When a third party is used to conduct a background check, it has to be done in compliance with the Fair Credit Reporting Act (FCRA), which dictates certain legal restrictions about how a background check can be done and what can be included.

Criminal Records

Most background checks include, at a minimum, determining whether an individual has a criminal history. Depending on how broad of a search is requested, criminal records checks may be done at the local, state, and federal level. The types of criminal offenses a report shows typically include pending charges, misdemeanor or felony convictions, and any charges that have been dismissed or in which the individual was acquitted.

One thing to be aware of is that laws governing specific types of criminal record requests vary by state. For example, some states allow the use of arrest records, while others do not. The use of arrest records is somewhat controversial due to the fact that an arrest doesn’t mean the person actually committed a crime. Another factor to consider is that some states put a limitation on how far back arrest or conviction records can be requested.

Traffic Violations

People often wonder if traffic violations show up on background checks. In most cases, minor traffic violations do not stay on your permanent record, so they will not turn up in a criminal background check. However, if a ticket is not handled and a warrant is issued as a result, the violation would be more likely to show up in a routine check.

Even though minor issues aren’t reported on most criminal background checks, some employers choose to ask for a motor vehicle report if it’s relevant to the position, which would provide more information about your driving history.

Sex Offender Registry

Depending on the company conducting the background check, a sex offender registry report may or may not be included with a basic criminal records check. The national sex offender registry is available to the public, but many companies find that it is easier and more timely to contract with a third party to obtain a sex offender registry report. Background checks that include a sex offender registry report are most often requested when a position involves management, little supervision while working with the public, or working with vulnerable populations, such as children, senior citizens, or medical patients.

Identity Checks

Most employers will verify a person’s identity by checking a few pieces of information, such as the Social Security Number (SSN) provided and the address on file for that number. All employers are also required to fill out a form verifying that an individual is legally eligible to work in the United States.


In addition to checking someone’s identity, some employers choose to verify other information that a candidate provides on their application or resume. This can include checking employment history by contacting previous employers, and verifying degrees or other educational achievements by contacting the institution where they were earned. Most employers will also check the references provided by a prospective employee.

Credit Checks

While it isn’t a common component of most basic background checks, some employers will check an applicant’s credit. Employers do not actually see an individual’s credit score or account numbers. Instead, they get a general picture of your payment history, what you owe, and available credit. Most credit checks are done when a position involves handling finances or access to confidential information.

Employers are required by law to get an individual’s permission before running a credit check. Some states have laws that dictate how credit checks can be done or that prohibit them entirely, so this is something that may or may not be applicable depending on where you live.

Physical Examinations and Drug Screenings

Some employers ask applicants to have medical exams as part of the hiring process. This is done for a number of reasons, but primarily to make sure someone is healthy enough to do the job they’re applying for. Some types of jobs, such as law enforcement, may also require psychological evaluations. Many employers also conduct drug screenings as a way to ensure safety in the workplace.

Social Media

As social media remains an ever increasing part of our lives, more companies are including social media background checks in their hiring procedures. Social media background checks serve several purposes. One purpose is simply to obtain additional verification that the individual has the right qualifications for the position. Employers also use social media to get an idea of how the applicant is viewed by others and whether they present themselves in a professional manner.

Most often, the term “background check” is used to describe a simple criminal records search. Searching criminal records is certainly an essential part of the process, and it is often a company’s first line of defense against hiring someone who could prove unsafe or damaging. However, employers and applicants should both be aware that a background check can be as broad or narrow as a company needs.

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