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How Long Does a Federal Background Check Take?

By Michael Klazema on 10/30/2019

How long does a background check take? In the case of the average employment background check, the answer is between a few days and a few weeks. At backgroundchecks.com, we even offer checks that process instantaneously. For federal background checks, the answer can easily shift from a few weeks to a few months. 

Anyone seeking a job with the federal government—or even a contracting position—will need to pass a federal employment background check before starting the position. The background check process is meant to ensure that each candidate is “reliable, trustworthy, of good conduct and character, and loyal to the United States.” In some cases, passing the check not only allows the candidate to take a job with the government but also gives him or her a federal security clearance. How long the background check process takes will depend on the level of clearance that the position requires.

Not all government jobs require a security clearance. The ones that don’t typically feature a fairly standard employment background check with facets such as criminal history searches and employment verifications. These checks won’t take much longer than the average background check. If the position involves access to sensitive or confidential information, it will include a security clearance background check. This check will add several steps to the background check, which will elongate its processing time considerably. Often, security clearance checks even involve interviews with the job candidate’s acquaintances—spouses, family members, neighbors, roommates, and more. 

There are three levels of federal security clearance: Confidential, Secret, and Top Secret. In most cases, background checks in the first two categories will take one to three months. Top Secret background checks are more in-depth and will often take twice as long. 

In general, Top Secret background checks take four to eight months, but they have been known to take more than a year in certain situations. If you 1) have lived or worked overseas, 2) have traveled extensively outside of the country, or 3) have relatives who hail from overseas or have spent considerable time outside of the country, you can expect your background check to take longer. The federal government has been known to struggle with considerable background check backlogs in the past, which can add more time to the clock. 

In general, “How long does a background check take?” is considerably harder to answer for federal checks than it is for the average employment background check, particularly with high levels of clearance. For more information on background check timelines, visit our Learning Center today.


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