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How Far Back Do Background Checks and Criminal History Checks Go?

If you have a criminal record in your distant past, you may well worry how it may affect a job or rental application. Today, we’ll demystify just how far back criminal background checks go, plus how to take a deep dive into your own record by running an advanced background check on yourself.

How Far Back Do Criminal History Checks Go

Everyone has a few things in their past they aren’t too proud of. For some, it might be dating someone sketchy or choosing the wrong college. But for some, youthful exuberance and student pranks got out of hand and the end result was a criminal record.

We are always told that people should bounce back when they make a mistake, but in this day and age that can be harder than it sounds. Just about every employer will run a background check and this can dig up all sorts of things from your past, including stuff you’ve forgotten and stuff you would rather your prospective new boss didn’t know.

You might be thinking that if there is a criminal record that shows up on your background check, you have no chance of getting a decent job. But that isn’t necessarily the case. As we will explain in this article, there are a number of regulations that determine what criminal information an employer can and can’t see.

There is a simple way of checking what shows up on your background check and also a few things you can do to hide a previous criminal conviction too. All will be revealed if you keep on reading.

What exactly is a criminal history check?

Most employers and landlords will run a criminal history check on you before offering you a job or letting you live in their property. It will be part of a broader background check which is common practice now for both employers and landlords.

A background check is a precautionary measure to make sure you aren’t hiding anything relevant in your past and that the information you have provided is accurate.

The sort of information a typical background check will reveal includes:

  • Criminal records (state, county, and city)
  • Financial records
  • Credit history
  • Employment history
  • Military service
  • Work authorization
  • Education history (high school and college)
  • Driving record
  • License details
  • Social media profiles

On their own, none of these records reveal a huge amount about a person beyond verifying established information. But employers and landlords also value background checks because when all this information is combined, it can provide an accurate and compelling insight into what a person is actually like.

Most landlords will not want convicted criminals living in their properties, particularly if they have records for things like drugs, criminal damage, arson, or failure to pay rent. Many employers to want to hire people with no criminal past and in some jobs, these checks are essential. If you are applying for a job as a driver, it is imperative you don’t have a record of driving convictions, banks don’t want staff with a history of fraud, and so on.

But there are some employers who will run a mile if they see someone with a criminal record, even if that record is historic and has no bearing on the job they are applying for. This doesn’t really seem fair and can create real problems for people who have a record but are now reformed.

If your conviction was a long time ago, you might be wondering if it will show up on your criminal history check. This is a very good question and, as we will explain further down, there are some laws that dictate what information employers can and cannot see.

But the quickest and simplest way to find out if your criminal record shows up on your background check is to run a background check on yourself.

Employers and landlords will use specialist background checking sites. But there are also plenty of public background checking sites around too and anyone can use these to run a background check on either themselves or someone else.

Most effective background checking sites

Public background checking sites are a quick and easy way to see if your criminal record shows up on your files. There are lots of public background checking sites out there but their performance can vary significantly. For something as important as this, you need to be sure you are using a site that will return accurate and comprehensive information.

This is why we have been testing all the top background checking sites to see which offers the best service for checking out your own criminal history. We found that there were two sites whose performance far outstripped the others we tested. Our top two background checking sites are:

1. TruthFinder

TruthFinder - Editors choice

TruthFinder is an ideal background checking site if you want detailed and accurate results. Even if you input misleading data, TruthFinder’s algorithms have a knack of finding the right results. This consistent accuracy and the detailed results it returns make TruthFinder ideal for those who want a sense of what a professional search could return. It even performed well in digging out any sealed or expunged records that might still be accessible

TruthFinder delivers its results in reports that are both detailed and accessible. These are backed up by a desktop dashboard that is exquisitely designed and some very user-friendly mobile apps too.

The TruthFinder customer support service is another impressive feature. It is available 24/7 on a toll-free number and staffed by a really friendly and helpful team. With competitive prices ($27.78 monthly, or $23.02 per month if you sign up for 2 months at a time) and reasonable speeds too, TruthFinder is another excellent choice.

EXCLUSIVE DEAL: Looking for deep insight into your own public record? Try TruthFinder, one of the industry titans. Get the service with our generous reader discount.

2. Instant CheckMate

Instant Checkmate - Editors choice

Instant CheckMate’s big selling point is speed, as is evidenced by the name. If you need results that are both fast and accurate, Instant CheckMate can turn around your results in just a few minutes. These super-fast speeds don’t come at the expense of quality and detail either. Its results are impressively accurate and in our tests, if sealed records were still accessible, Instant CheckMate had a pretty impressive record of finding them.

The dedicated Instant CheckMate desktop dashboard is well-designed and easy-to-use and with a choice of this or the dedicated iOS and Android apps, managing your searches is easy.

There is an excellent customer support staff on hand if you encounter any problems and all this costs $34.78 per month or $27.82 a month if you sign up for three months. At these prices, Instant CheckMate is not the cheapest option but it is definitely the fastest.

What will show up on my criminal history check?


A public background check, such as those provided by the two sites recommended above, will simply trawl through all their data and pull together any information they can find about a person. If a piece of information exists and is in the public domain, any of those two background checking sites should find it.

But professional background checking sites, such as the ones used by most employers, landlords, and other professional organizations function a little differently.

This is because they have been specially designed to comply with the various rules and regulations that govern professional background checks in the USA. The main piece of legislation is the Fair Credit Reporting Act (FCRA) but there are also various other laws designed to prevent discrimination on the grounds of race, gender, financial circumstances, and so on.

RELATED READING: How exactly do background checking companies source their information?


The laws around what criminal records are allowed to be revealed in a professional background check are complex. There are both state laws and federal laws, so the rules even vary depending on where you live too.

Under federal law, a professional background check is not permitted to reveal any criminal records on charges that were filed more than seven years ago. Some states, including Hawaii, Illinois, Massachusetts, Minnesota, New Jersey, and Rhode Island have tighter rules while a few cities and municipalities have banned employers from seeing criminal records altogether.

As a result, if your criminal record dates back more than seven years it shouldn’t appear on your background check and your employer is not allowed to use it as grounds not to hire you.

Are all criminal records wiped from the system after seven years?

If your criminal record is older than seven years, it cannot legally be used as a reason not to hire you or rent you an apartment. It should also not show on a professional background check either. But unfortunately, that isn’t always the case.

Different background checking sites use different data sources and sometimes the algorithms they employ or the sources they use can contain errors which means a record does still show up.

Even if they do see the record, they are not permitted to use the information as a reason not to hire you. But they can, of course, find other reasons not to hire you and not tell you about the information they have discovered.

This is also against the law. If an employer chooses not to hire you on the basis of information found in a background check, they are obliged to tell you the reason and provide you with a copy of the report.

But not all employers are so straightforward and not all background checking services are reliable and this can be a toxic combination.

Can I get my criminal record deleted?

Yes, you can. For many minor misdemeanors and even a few felonies, it is possible to apply to a court to have your record either sealed or expunged.

The rules on what criminal records can be sealed and expunged and how long after a conviction you are eligible to apply for the process varies from state to state. Typically, you will have to wait between five and seven years after the conviction, have no further criminal incidents on file, and meet whatever local terms and conditions apply.

If you want to seal or expunge your criminal record, you should first check what the law is where you are and then consult with your lawyer to get advice on how to proceed. If you are successful, an expunged record should be deleted from all public files while a sealed record is not accessible to anyone except with the court’s explicit permission.

There is a big caveat to this option though. While an expunged or sealed record shouldn’t show up on your background check, there is no absolute guarantee it won’t. Courts are not always efficient at updating their records and the datasets that are used by professional background checking sites might not be updated for months, if at all.

Even if your record is successfully removed, there are other sources of information that can still reveal a prior criminal conviction. If it was a big enough incident there might be local or even national media coverage of the crime. There could also be references to it on social media too.

It is well worth getting a criminal record sealed or expunged if you are entitled to do so. But it doesn’t mean a professional background check definitely won’t find out about it.

Why you should run a criminal history check on yourself

If you want to know what criminal history information does show up on a background check, the best thing you can do is run a check on yourself to find out.

You won’t be able to use a professional service, but you can use a high-quality public background checking site like the ones we have recommended in this article. They can often turn up even more information than a professional search can.

If something does show up that you think shouldn’t be there or that you would rather a new boss or landlord didn’t know about it, you can then explore some of the options suggested in this article to remove them.

Alternatively, you can be prepared in advance so if your boss does ask you some difficult questions, you are ready with a good explanation.


A criminal record background check should go back no more than seven years under federal law. It is sometimes possible to remove records earlier if you can persuade a court to delete or expunge them.

However, as we have explained in this guide, this doesn’t mean that mistakes don’t happen and sometimes records that shouldn’t show up still do.

If you want to avoid this, or at least be prepared for the worst, the best thing to do is run a background check on yourself to see what shows up. In this article, we have explained how to do this and also recommended the best three sites to use.

Has your criminal record ever stopped you from getting a job or an apartment? How did you deal with a background check revealing something you wanted to keep hidden? Do you have any tips or suggestions for our readers? It is always helpful to get reader feedback and advice, so why not share yours with us today using the comment box below?

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