The Differences Between a State and Federal Background Check

As an employer, it’s imperative to run the necessary background checks on potential employees. Conducting thorough government background checks on a job applicant gives you peace of mind that you’re choosing the best person for the position, as well as the ability to prevent problems that may arise from hiring someone with negative issues related to their past. 

While the FBI maintains the National Crime Information Center (NCIC), a database with information on felonies and misdemeanors, only law enforcement can access it. This insinuates that many employers must go through the process of conducting both a state and federal background check on potential employees. 

Take a look at the differences between the two, and how both can give you a better idea of who you’re hiring.

What Is a Federal Background Check? 

A federal background check will reveal crimes that were prosecuted at the federal level. The federal background check expectations and disqualifiers are generally far more serious crimes than state ones. They can include the distribution of drugs, illegal possession of firearms, arson, kidnapping, embezzlement, tax evasion, counterfeiting, bank robbing, and other major felonies. 


While more serious, these crimes are certainly less common, but that doesn’t remove the need to perform this check in order to preserve the safety of your existing employees, yourself, and your business.

Exterior of U.S. courthouse demonstrating the difference between state and federal convictions on background checks.

How Are Federal Background Checks Performed?

Federal crimes are prosecuted in United States district courts and may be appealed to appellate courts. Records that are searched in a federal background check can come from district or appellate courts. An employer can check for federal criminal records using PACER, a portal that allows any member of the public to instantly access electronic federal criminal records. 


Employers can collect any federal records, including bankruptcies, through PACER. It should be noted, though, that records available on PACER only go back to November of 2004. Most information related to a federal crime can be accessed using PACER, but some information, such as a person’s Social Security number and financial information, is removed.

What Is a State Background Check? 

Most crimes are prosecuted at the state and county level. A single state’s record details crimes committed at the state and county level for only the given state, while a multi-state check can cover all the states an applicant has resided. 


Records from state, county, and tribal territories will not be included in a federal background check. This includes crimes prosecuted by city police departments, county sheriff’s offices, and state authorities without federal agency intervention. 


State-level crimes may be comparable to federal ones, including robbery, arson, murder, and theft, but without the involvement of national or federal interest. Additionally, state offenses tend to come with less severe penalties.

How Are State Background Checks Performed? 

There is no tool available that allows an employer to conduct a national background check that would encompass all state-level crimes. Since a national background check is not available to employers, many order a multi-state background check in addition to a federal background check. 


A multi-state background check includes records from all of the states with online databases. A small number of states do not have their records online, so someone has to go to a courthouse to search the records in these instances. An employer can also order a county-level background check on a job applicant. 


What Is Involved in a Background Check? 

There are many aspects to both a state and federal background check, and knowing what’s covered can help employers decide how to order the appropriate searches with the information provided.

Employer interviews job candidate after performing a state and federal background check for criminal records

Criminal History 

Criminal history helps employers determine if someone is a safe and reliable employee. Some database checks don’t run for specific subcategories, and you may need to order additional state and federal background investigations for things like sex offender status and the like. 


You may also order a motor vehicle record (MVR) which will give driving history. This can identify drug and alcohol problems as well as indicate whether an individual is a safe driver. This check is especially important for jobs that include the use of a company vehicle.

Former Employers 

With many applicants providing false or misleading information on their resumes, it is important to verify past employment. An employment history verification will check an applicant’s dates of employment, position, salary, job duties, work habits, and eligibility for rehire. 

Personal References and Connections

Personal references and connections include the references provided by an applicant and those references’ crimes. A thorough background check can also verify organization and society membership, personal and professional references, and professional licenses. It may also lend itself to people like landlords, which can be contacted to ensure you’re hiring someone who is responsible.

Credit History 

A state and federal background check of an applicant’s credit report will reveal information related to payment habits, judgments, liens, bankruptcies, previous addresses, prior employment, verification of Social Security Number (SSN), and aliases used.

Education Verification 

It is easy to produce phony diplomas and degrees, which makes it vital to verify an applicant’s education history. A background check can verify high school diplomas, GED certificates, trade school certifications, college and university attendance, degrees, grade point average, and class ranking.

Employment Eligibility 

E-verify enables an employer to verify information provided on an applicant’s I-9 form against Social Security Administration and Department of Homeland Security databases to determine eligibility for employment.

DataCheck’s Thorough State and Federal Background Checks 

Conducting a thorough state and federal background check is an important part of the hiring process. DataCheck has helped many employers get information on job applicants’ criminal records that could be considered in hiring decisions. 


We can search federal, state, and county criminal records to provide complete information on a job applicant’s background. Contact us today to learn more about the background check services we can provide for your company!

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