What Does a Federal Employment Background Check Look Like?

By Michael Klazema on 6/19/2018

Every person hired for a job with the federal government must submit to a federal employment background check. What that background check includes depends on the specific job, particularly the level of access it involves to sensitive or confidential information.

All federal employment background checks are designed to make sure each person hired to a government job is “reliable, trustworthy, of good conduct and character, and loyal to the United States.” At a basic level, these background checks usually include criminal history searches and credit history checks.

If the position does involve access to sensitive or confidential information, then the person being hired must also obtain a government security clearance. All security clearances require additional checks that may include interviews with spouses, roommates, neighbors, friends, work colleagues, family members, or acquaintances.

There are three levels of security clearance that may be required for a federal government job: Confidential, Secret, and Top Secret. The depth, length, and details of a government background check will vary depending on the level of security clearance as well as the requirements of the job.

The default background investigation for Confidential and Secret security clearances is known as a “Tier 3” investigation. The main part of this investigation is a National Agency Check (NAC), which is standard for all security clearance background checks. It looks at results from previous government investigations, as well as the FBI fingerprint criminal history database. Other types of federal agency background checks may be part of the NAC depending on the nature of the position.

Other checks for the Tier 3 investigation include selective service registration verifications for male candidates, employment history checks, residence history checks, educational verifications, credit history checks, and local law enforcement background checks anywhere the candidate ever lived, worked, or attended school.

Candidates in the running for Top Secret security clearances must go through “Tier 5” investigations. These investigations essentially incorporate all the pieces of Tier 3 investigations but with the Continuous Evaluation (CE) added. CE re-checks government workers randomly when they are in between investigations. These automated checks look at everything from criminal history to financial information (liens, bankruptcies, and the like) and credit checks. CE screenings also include checks of employees’ social media profiles if those profiles are publicly accessible.

In terms of background checks, the main difference from one tier to the next is the amount of time the security clearance remains valid. For instance, a Confidential security clearance lasts for 15 years. A Top Secret clearance is only good for five years, after which the background check process has to start over. Secret security clearances are valid for 10 years.

Because the federal government is such a vast entity, federal employment background checks can vary significantly from one job to the next. Not only will the job affect whether a candidate needs to have a security clearance or not, but it will also influence which convictions lead to disqualifications.

According to the Office of Personnel Management, which handles most background checks for federal jobs, each federal agency department or agency is responsible for deciding whether a person is suitable for a position. In other words, a conviction that might lead to a disqualification for one job—such as a DUI—might not be a deal-breaker for a different federal agency.

One of the most important things you can do if you are applying for a federal job is to be as truthful and honest as possible in all your responses. You will be asked to answer questions about past jobs, addresses, and more—often with dates. The more accurate you can be, the better.

It’s a good idea to look at your own criminal history background check before you apply for a federal job (or any job, for that matter). That way, you can get a better idea of what employers might be seeing when they screen you. At, we offer self-search products for both national criminal history checks and driving record checks. Visit our “Personal” products page today to run your self-background check.


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