Is There a Military Background Check Process?

When someone decides to enlist in the armed forces of the United States, what is the procedure? The government has a responsibility to ensure the suitability of every recruit. Federal regulations require government agencies to conduct a background check on every recruit. These regulations extend to the military, too. A background check is a fundamental part of the recruitment process. Everyone who joins up to serve must go through one. Some may even face more rigorous screening than others.

Many military positions involved access to different levels of classified information. There is controlled access to such information for national security. Security clearances grant that access. While many may think of clearance as an issue for government office workers, many soldiers have clearance, too. There is an entirely separate military background check process for obtaining clearances.

The government’s screening process is methodical and thorough. There are often several steps to consider during enlistment. What should people expect from this process? Here’s our breakdown, from before basic training to applying for a clearance.

The Military Background Check Process During Enlistment

During the enlistment, individuals fill out an extensive questionnaire – a part of the process for all service branches. This questionnaire includes questions about criminal history. Unlike in the private sector, there are no “ban the box” laws in the military. Recruits should be thorough and honest in reporting their criminal history during this early stage. Today, this questionnaire is electronic.

Submitting fingerprints is also a requirement for an Army, Navy, Marines, or Air Force background check. The military uses FBI fingerprint checks and other methods to identify criminal records associated with a recruit. Recruiters pass this information along through MEPS or Military Entry Processing Stations. MEPS then uses other government support to run and evaluate a background check and order credit history checks. Recruits must also undergo a urine sample-based drug test.

A further background screening occurs when a recruit appears at a MEPS location. Other exams (such as a physical exam) take place now. A background interview occurs in which recruits may need to answer questions about drug abuse or violations of the law. Refusing to answer will likely result in disqualification. Falsifying answers could be a crime. Again, honesty is the best policy.

How Far Back Do Military Background Checks Go?

Recruits should expect the criminal background check to reflect at least ten years. However, it is also possible for the government to consider records even older than that. Those applying for a security clearance may have their entire record examined. Expunged and sealed records will appear on these records. Even juvenile records will appear on a military background check.

The scope of these checks increases the importance of honest questionnaire answers. Recruits should not omit any element of their history during the application process. There may always be the opportunity to provide context. Falsifying or omitting records undermines the recruitment opportunity.

What Does a Military Background Search Look For?

An armed forces background check looks for evidence of crimes that make the recruit a risk. Evaluating trustworthiness is a significant element of this process. Arrest records may appear to military agencies conducting a background check. However, misdemeanor and especially felony records are of greater importance. Civil infractions and non-criminal citations, such as traffic tickets, usually won’t appear in these checks.

What Makes You Fail an Army Background Check?

There are no clear public guidelines on how the military evaluates background check results. Recruits caught in a lie or omitting information may lose their opportunity. Those with multiple felonies may have difficulty completing the enlistment pipeline. Grave crimes, such as manslaughter or murder, are also likely to be a barrier to joining the armed forces. For the many kinds of lesser felonies and misdemeanors, what counts as a red flag can vary. The government considers every check on a case-by-case basis.

Government Security Clearance and Background Checks

Many Military Occupational Specialties (MOS) require a clearance. In some branches, such as the Air Force, clearance is more common for the average servicemember. Background checks to earn these clearances are among the most in-depth in the armed forces. This process is usually distinct from the MEPS background check, which is more of an overview. Recruits must fill out the special SF-86 questionnaire form for these investigations. The SF-86 requires disclosing large amounts of personal information, including employment history and criminal background.

Clearance background checks examine criminal history and much more. Checks can include reviewing records from everywhere an applicant has worked for the previous ten years. There are also extensive personal interview segments. The government contacts family members, colleagues, and others for Top Secret clearances. During this background investigation, agents will likely examine an individual’s social media presence. In contrast, the average Army recruit may not always face a social media screening.

Security clearances, once granted, are typically valid for five to fifteen years, depending on the level of clearance. For instance, consider military personnel with a “Top Secret” security clearance. They must often go through the background screening process again every five years. A person with a lower-tier “Confidential” security clearance may only need to renew that clearance every 15 years. You can learn more about the clearance process in our overview of government background checks.

How Long Do These Screening Processes Take?

A military background check that doesn’t require a clearance may not take much time. It could only take a few days or a week before you can proceed to the next stage. In some cases, MEPS investigations may take longer—possibly weeks. Factors such as volume, FBI wait times, and other circumstances can influence the timeline. Individuals should consult with their recruiters for more information on turnaround times.

Security clearance for sensitive positions may take significantly longer. It may take weeks or more to complete an investigation for a Secret or Top Secret clearance. Honesty and thoroughness on the SF-86 will streamline the process.

Preparing for the Military’s Criminal Background Investigation

For those preparing to join the armed forces, it’s critical to understand what to expect from a military background check. An essential criminal history investigation is the minimum you should expect. A very in-depth and encompassing search may occur when you apply for a clearance. For those approaching this process, there is one fundamental takeaway. Be up-front and detailed during the application process to improve the likelihood of a positive recruitment outcome.

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Michael Klazema

About Michael Klazema The author

Michael Klazema is the lead author and editor for Dallas-based with a focus on human resource and employment screening developments

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