Is a fingerprint background check the gold standard for criminal record screening? Many people think so—but it’s not necessarily true. Lawmakers often turn directly to this type of background screening when crafting new laws. During the era of rideshare disruption, requiring checks for drivers became a common cause in many states. Legislators require them in many other industries, too. Even employers may think a fingerprint check is the most comprehensive verification option possible.

In reality, there are many misunderstandings about this solution. Though it has a time and a place, it may not always be the best tool for hiring. Ideally, it is a supplement instead of the sole option. Let’s learn more about this approach to running a criminal background check. We’ll break it down and answer key questions like “What do fingerprints show?”

What is this type of background check?

Fingerprints are highly variable and often mostly unique from person to person. These features are, therefore, easier to tie to one person. In contrast, someone might share the same name and even the same birthday with someone else. That could lead to confusion during a name-based criminal record search. Because prints are so unique, they typically form the basis of the most permanent criminal records. Fingerprint-based background checks compare an individual job applicant’s prints with all the prints held in a major database.

Applicants often have to make time to submit the data for these checks. Most often, individuals must visit a police station or kiosk that provides fingerprinting services. Applicants may need to have their hands scanned digitally to produce electronic fingerprints. They may otherwise need to submit ink-based cards. This data then gets sent off to a government agency for checking. The process may take anywhere from a few days to several weeks.

What does a fingerprint background check look for during that time? The goal is to find prints that match the set submitted by a job applicant. A match may occur for several reasons.

About fingerprint matches

If someone allegedly commits a crime, police typically take a set of prints during the intake process. The police may then file the prints with records related to the arrest or crime. When an employer orders one of these checks, a match may occur for criminal records related to the applicant. What else does fingerprinting show? Employers may see whether the individual committed a felony or a misdemeanor. There may be some other details, such as the date of the offense.

The major print databases also contain data for individuals who don’t have criminal records. These databases include anyone who submits their prints as part of a background check. Those records live on forever in the official systems. Legal gun buyers also submit prints as part of the purchase process. Those who must submit to mandatory fingerprinting for employment also surrender their print data to the system. This category includes workers such as teachers, some healthcare providers, and others.

Understanding the different databases available

Not every fingerprint background check required by law directs employers to check the same resources. This is where some of the issues with this solution begin to become apparent. The most extensive database is the Integrated Automated Fingerprint Identification System. The IAFIS is the most popular choice for checking prints against known criminal records. The Federal Bureau of Investigation maintains this database, which contains approximately 70 million records. When people refer to an FBI background check, they usually mean checking IAFIS.

Each state may operate its own AFIS, too, however. State police departments may collect fingerprint data and keep it to themselves. Reporting this data into the FBI’s system happens on an irregular basis. Not every criminal record has print data associated with it, and some may not have any.

How far back does a fingerprint record check go? There is no limitation on a “lookback period” for this data. If an individual’s prints were ever reported into the system, they will appear when searched.

Laws that mandate this type of screening may vary in what databases employers should check. Some specify the FBI database. Others require you to consult with the state police. In some cases, you may need to check both. Using these resources as a matter of compliance is essential for doing your duty under the law. However, you may not want to rely exclusively on them for your background check process.

The drawbacks of relying only on fingerprinting checks

The 70 million records held in IAFIS might sound like a considerable number. In reality, it represents a smaller number of potential matches than you might think. Compare that number to the number of name-based records we maintain for the US OneSEARCH background check. The database contains more than 650 million records. This data spans all 50 states and includes Washington, D.C., Guam, and Puerto Rico.

In other words, relying solely on fingerprinting could mean missing out on relevant records. Remember, these databases are resources for law enforcement to track offenders across crimes. Their primary purpose was not for employment. As such, gaps in the data are common. State police may not always promptly send data to the FBI. Sometimes, those prints never arrive or are even lost. Police may fail to take prints during arrests, too.

There is another major drawback to consider, too. Fingerprints tie in to arrest records first, not conviction records. There may be no way to tell from the file whether the outcome was a conviction. In many states, employers cannot consider non-conviction arrests. In fact, does not include any arrest records in its databases. Relying on arrests could lead to unintentional discrimination and possible litigation.

Building a more comprehensive screening process

Each type of screening tool has valuable applications. In the case of using an individual’s fingerprints for checks, that value lies in compliance. Employers should use this solution when the law requires them to do so. When hiring for sensitive job roles, adding an extra layer of diligence may also make sense. However, they do not have the final say in criminal history background checks.

Databases like those we use for the US OneSEARCH offer more comprehensive coverage. Matching records by name and birthdate provides a reliable way of discovering more about applicants. These searches pull records from official state resources based on court data. That feature makes them less likely to miss relevant data. Learn more about using this in-depth resource for your business in conjunction with any required fingerprint background check today.

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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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