Depending on the circumstance of your arrest, the details can come back to haunt you whenever someone runs a background check on you. If you’d rather know for sure what prospective employers, renters, or whoever else will see on your record, you can run a background check on yourself. We show you how to do it below.
While one in three US adults have some sort of criminal record, many more will have been arrested at one time or another. Perhaps a student prank got out of hand, or perhaps they just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.
Are arrest records public?
Not all arrests lead directly to a criminal record, of course. Lots of people are arrested and then released without charge or subsequently found not guilty. But they have still been arrested and a question we get asked all the time is whether details of this arrest will appear on their record and if so, what impact might it have on things like job applications.
In this article, we will explain exactly what information you can expect to show up on a criminal background check, how you can take a look at your own record today, and what you can do to get that record changed.
What criminal information can show up on a background check?
Lots of background checks are run with a focus on the criminal record information they can reveal. But not everyone is clear about precisely what criminal information is held on your record in the public domain. The answer is, almost everything including:
- Felony convictions;
- Misdemeanor convictions;
- Court records – such as dockets, orders, decrees, and judgment;
- Warrants issued against you;
- Incarceration records;
- Civil cases against you;
- Listings on the sex offenders register; and
- Arrest records – even if no charge was brought
So, if you have been arrested, that information will appear on a criminal record check even if you were never charged or convicted of an offense.
What criminal information will not show up on a background check?
Before you begin to panic about this, there are a few caveats to consider. With as many as one in three US citizens having some sort of criminal record, it would be impossible and deeply unfair for employers to be allowed to discriminate against all of them. It would also mean many jobs in the US would go unfilled.
That is why the government has legislated to restrict the information that employers and other professional background searches can unearth. The Fair Credit Reporting Act (FCRA) is the main bit of legislation that governs background checks. Under this law, employers, landlords, and other professionals are not permitted to consider any criminal record that is more than seven years old. So, if you were arrested more than seven years ago, this information should not appear on a background check.
There is even more good news. In some states, the law has made this window even smaller. So, if you have been arrested in the past seven years, check your local state laws because they could mean your arrest is still outside the permitted reporting period.
How to get criminal records sealed or expunged
If your criminal record contains a misdemeanor or even a less serious felony, it might be possible to get that record hidden away or even deleted entirely. There are two possibilities:
- Expunged – An expunged record is one that a court agrees to permanently delete from your criminal record.
- Sealed – A sealed record is one that the court agrees to remove from your record. This record is sealed and remains on file so if you do end up in trouble with the law again, it can be unsealed and returned to your record. But, crucially, it will not show up on a background check.
If you have a criminal record you think you might be able to get sealed or expunged, the first thing to do is to consult your lawyer. They will advise you whether it is possible.
You will also want to check what the criteria to have a criminal record sealed or expunged is in your state. These criteria can vary from state-to-state but typically include things like not having any other arrests or convictions over a set period and fulfilling any jail sentence or paying any fine you were handed down.
If you are confident you can meet all the criteria in your state, you will need to submit a formal request to the courts. They will process this request at their own pace, which is usually not quick, but if approved your record will then be either sealed or expunged and from that point onwards.
This approach will work for criminal records but you cannot use it to remove arrest details from your record.
A note of caution
The last two sections have hopefully encouraged you that, even if you do have an arrest on your record, your prospective new boss or landlord may not have to find out about it. But we do also have to inject a note of caution:
Even if your arrest was more than seven years ago, or you have managed to get a criminal record sealed or expunged from your record, there is still a possibility that the information could appear on a background check.
Background checking sites source their information from criminal record databases. These are supposed to be kept regularly updated but the truth is that some are more efficient at this than others. Some courts are also not very efficient at sending updated information across. As a result, records that should have been removed can sometimes still show up.
There are also other ways that background checks can find out about a criminal past. If the offense in question was quite high profile and was reported in the media, those reports could come up on a background check.
LEARN MORE: What happens if you fail a background check?
If either you or your friends posted anything on social media about the offense or being arrested, this could also appear on a check. It shouldn’t be too hard to remove social media content but mainstream media content will be much harder.
How to find out what information shows up on your own background check
If you have been arrested in the past and want to know if it will show up on a criminal background check, the best thing to do is run a background check on yourself.
Employers and landlords use specialist consumer background checking sites to conduct their searches. But there are also lots of reputable background checking tools on the market too. These are not automatically compliant with FCRA and state laws so cannot be used professionally, but will still use the same sources and generate information that is just as accurate and comprehensive. The information they can dig out includes criminal history as well as any other media or social media content that might reveal records that are otherwise hidden.
Running a background check on yourself is a fast and simple way to see what information about your criminal and arrest history is held in the public domain. It can help you to decide if you have anything to worry about and be prepared for any difficult question that might be put to you in an interview.
Best background checking site to check your criminal history
The big dilemma is which background checking site to use. There are hundreds out there but each one uses different algorithms and data source meaning results can vary enormously. We have been testing all the top background checking sites to see which offers the best and most reliable criminal record and arrest data. Following these extensive tests, we have identified our top two criminal record background checking sites:
TruthFinder offers incredible accuracy in the criminal records information they uncover, even with incomplete or incorrect starting information. Truthfinder also has a two-tier pricing structure, with a one-month subscription starting from just $27.78 or you can opt to pay $23.02 for two months. The basic package is able to dig out a full criminal record check that should return such information as sex offender registers, driving records, and data about known relatives.
If you are willing to pay a little more for the premium package, you will get every record available including hard-copy records from county courts. TruthFinder pulls all this information together in impressively detailed reports. They also have a 24/7 customer support team available and uniquely you can access them on a toll-free number. For accurate and detailed information, you won’t go far wrong with Truthfinder.
Instant CheckMate really impressed us with its ability to balance speed and accuracy in its service. It generated its reports faster than any other site we tested and its comprehensive reports were highly detailed and easy to follow. Managing your Instant Checkmate searches is easy as well thanks to their excellent desktop dashboard and user-friendly mobile apps.
Instant Checkmate’s offers a comprehensive criminal records search service. It is able to access detailed records including things like sex offender registers, and arrest details quickly and accurately. Even feeding it misleading information didn’t stop it from finding the right data fast. The information Instant Checkmate unearths is presented in well-laid out and easy to follow reports we impressed us.
Prices start at $34.78 per month, but if you choose a three-month subscription you can pay just $27.82 per month. This is a bit higher than some of its competitors but given the speed and quality of their results, our researchers felt it still represented good value for money.
Do pending charges show up on a background check?
Pending charges will usually show up on a background check but the rules do vary depending on the state you are in and the type of offense you have been charged with.
In some states, pending felony charges will appear but pending misdemeanor charges will not. In some, all charges will appear. Some states even allow employers to request to be informed once a pending charge becomes a conviction.
It is usually wise to assume that your pending charges will show up on a background check and to be open and honest with them. If you want to be absolutely sure, the best thing to do is check your own record to see what appears.
How long do arrests stay on your record?
The law regarding how long an arrest will stay on your record is set at state level, so it is advisable to check the situation where you live before looking up your own records to see if your old arrests still appear.
Most arrests will disappear after a certain number of years but if you were arrested for a more serious offense such as a sexual crime or a serious driving offense. It is possible to petition a court to remove an arrest from your record. You will need to make an application and then the court will decide if you the requirements to have your arrest removed from your record.
What exactly is a background check?
Not a lot of people know this, but an awful lot of information about every US citizen is a matter of public record. This means that anyone has the right to access this information and find out details about anyone in the USA.
This used to be a time-consuming and laborious job and was only done by private detectives and archivists. But digitization has opened up these public records to the whole country.
A background check is an automated service that has created algorithms to search through these public records in a matter of moments and pull together information about a person into a single report. The sort of information they can access includes:
- Criminal Records
- Employment histories
- Academic records
- Sex offender register entries
- Details of licenses held
- Driving records
- Social security records
- Social media records
When all this information is combined together, it creates a compelling picture of a person’s life and their character.
What are background checks used for?
Background checks have become increasingly an increasingly popular way of quickly understanding what a person is like. These days they are used for all sorts of things including:
- Employment checks – Employers will usually run a specialist background check to ensure an applicant’s resume checks out and they aren’t hiding a secret criminal past.
- Tenant checks – Landlords will often run background checks on prospective tenants before handing over the keys to their property.
- Criminal checks – If you think someone in your neighborhood or community might be hiding a secret criminal past, you can run a background check to find out if they have a criminal record.
- Tracking down a lost family member or friend – Most of us have that old school friend or long-lost cousin we’d like to get back in touch with. A background check is a quick and easy way to track them down, find out what they are up to, and re-establish contact.
- Looking into someone’s past – When your daughter starts dating a strange new guy or a reclusive neighbor arrives on the block, it is perfectly natural to want to find out more about them. A background check lets you do that and find out everything you might want to know fast.
- Checking your own records – Running a background check on yourself is a really simple way to find out what information about yourself is in the public domain and might be discovered by a prospective employer or landlord.
The short answer to the question at the heart of this guide is yes, arrest information will show up as part of a criminal background check. But the situation is a bit more complicated than that as we have explained. If your arrest was more than seven years ago, it shouldn’t appear on your records at all. But that doesn’t guarantee it won’t, so we would advise you to run a background check on yourself to see what information comes up.
We have recommended the three best background checking sites to use and also offered some broader guidance on what criminal record data you can expect to see and how you can get some of it removed.
Have you ever lost out on a job or apartment because of details of an arrest that emerged on a background check? Do you wish you had been more prepared and known how to deal with the situation better? Do you have any advice or tips for our readers that we haven’t mentioned in this guide? It is always helpful to get reader’s stories and input, so please do share your experiences and advice with us using the comment box below.