Criminal Background Checks

A Guide to Understanding National Criminal Background Check Databases

Criminal Background Checks

National criminal databases, more aptly called multi-jurisdictional databases, are vital to the background screening process. While some employers may start criminal record checks at the county or state level, multi-jurisdictional databases explore criminal record information from national resources. Using such a resource in a criminal background check helps identify unsuitable applicants by searching a wider pool of information than you would find in a single state.

However, the differences aren’t always easy to understand. Some employers aren’t sure when to choose a multi-jurisdictional criminal database. Others aren’t convinced that it’s necessary to search these resources. Some may wonder how to find access to a high-quality database–all valid concerns. 

Ultimately, access to a credible and well-maintained national criminal database can reveal more in-depth clarification of an individual’s criminal history than a traditional search alone. Let’s dig into why that is, starting with the basics for those unsure how national databases function.

What is a national criminal database?

On the surface, the idea of a database of records from across the country seems simple. However, there is more than meets the eye at play here. Consider a county criminal record check, for example. These searches go directly to a primary source of criminal information: the county courts. In contrast, multi-jurisdictional databases comprise a collection of data from different sources nationwide. 

A typical national criminal database compiles information from various jurisdictional sources, including:

This kind of database provides in-depth scrutiny of an applicant’s criminal history. Where geography inherently limits county or state record searches, national databases transcend county and state lines to offer an expansive approach to background checks.

Two entities create and maintain national criminal databases: the federal government and private firms. The difference between the two is significant. Understanding that difference is vital to building an effective hiring process.

One example at the federal level is the National Crime Information Center (NCIC), a system operated by the FBI. The NCIC helps law enforcement agencies find fugitives with active warrants, locate missing persons, and track down stolen property. However, the NCIC database is only available to some federal, state, and local government agencies. The database is unavailable to most private employers.

There is also the National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS). The primary purpose of NICS involves providing information on potential firearm buyers. Searching the NICS database allows licensed gun dealers to determine whether the buyer can legally purchase a gun. Disqualifications include felony convictions, involuntary commitment, and other major red flags. Similar to the NCIC database, NICS is not accessible to the general public.

Because most private employers cannot use federal databases, private firms offer an alternative for conducting a more nationally focused criminal record search. Private background check providers create their own national criminal databases and search this data to generate background reports for their clients. Doing so requires assembling information from multiple sources and keeping it current.

Depending on the provider and the database, these sources can include county court records, sex offender registries, terrorist watch lists, and more. Because there are so many potential sources for information, two background check companies’ databases could be entirely different. 

Additionally, each private background check company may have different methods or schedules for checking their sources. More frequent updates are better as they help to keep the information as fresh and relevant as possible. However, there will always be some delay between when a criminal record appears in a regional database and when that same record updates in a proprietary database. Choosing a provider that updates frequently is important.

As such, clients looking for national criminal database searches should ask about a provider’s update schedule. Similarly, ask about sources. You will want the database with the most data sources because it means that your search is broader and more likely to find any red flags about a background check subject.

Why should I use an instant search of a national criminal record database?

Will a county criminal history search do the same job as a national criminal database search? Most employers start the pre-employment background check process by looking for a candidate’s criminal records at local courts. The reasoning is simple: A person is statistically more likely to have a criminal record closer to where they live and work. Therefore, county criminal checks often have the best chance of surfacing a person’s recent criminal past—or so the thinking goes.

The problem with this reasoning is that it assumes that people don’t travel, not even to adjacent or nearby counties. For most, this assumption does not hold. Some people commute to work in other counties. Others frequently return to the same destinations to visit family or vacation. Diverse travel patterns may take a person across the country or worldwide, meaning criminal records aren’t always held close to home.

Of course, running a background check everywhere a person has ever set foot is not reasonable. It is also fair to assume that if a person visits a vacation destination once for three or four days, there are slim chances of finding a criminal record in that area. However, for due diligence in a background check, you should assume that applicants might have a record in other locations. You can’t assume that only a statewide criminal history search is safe. State boundaries are as easy to cross as county lines.

In these circumstances, it’s clear that both county and state-based searches, used in isolation, have shortcomings.

Proprietary national criminal databases offer an effective solution to this conundrum. Searching these resources lets employers look beyond county and state lines without ordering individual background checks for several locations. Such tools offer practical ways to expand the reach of a background check without increased effort, difficulty, or overall cost.

As an added benefit, many national criminal databases include sex offender registries, national and international exclusion or “watch” lists, and more. These tools are essential for safe hiring, often offered as separate, individual services. Depending on your provider, requesting their national criminal database search may be cheaper than ordering separate products.

Are instant criminal searches as thorough as other options?

There are often manual steps when running a county criminal check. Sometimes, background check providers must even send “court runners” to county courts in person. These court runners then speak with court clerks, who manually search and pull criminal records. In comparison, national databases often act almost like the “Google” of the background check world, allowing users to input the subject’s name and identifying information and delivering almost-instant results. 

Access to near-instant processing is a vital benefit of a national multi-jurisdictional search. However, some assume that instant checks are less reliable than checks that take longer to process. In truth, wait time does not indicate how thorough the background check is. When speaking of national criminal databases, the true tests of precision are the number of records included and how often the database receives updates.

Some argue that no genuine national criminal background check database exists in terms of thoroughness. Others doubt the effectiveness of these databases. As with anything, the highest quality national database checks best negate these criticisms and make a multi-jurisdictional search a valuable background check service.

What about the accuracy of instant searches?

Generally, an instant criminal search is only as accurate as the local, state, or federal agency reporting the data. Private entities such as compile multi-jurisdictional databases from many different sources. Our ability to update this information depends on how often a county court or state repository updates its data. 

As such, we have limited control over update frequency, as it varies between each data source. Some sources update daily. Others only do so semi-annually. We recommend exploring our interactive coverage map for a source-specific update frequency.

Overall, though, data strength is one of many aspects that sets apart from our competitors. We go to great lengths to acquire and maintain our data and offer as broad a reach of criminal record information as possible. Additionally, on average, we pride ourselves on updating our database with new records within five days of receipt.

Aren’t instant searches different from a genuine national background check?

When questioning whether national criminal history searches exist, skeptics (rightfully) point out that there is no fully inclusive nationwide database of criminal records. Although movies and television often depict criminal searches in this fashion, the reality is that no official central location exists for collecting and storing all local, state, and federal criminal records together. As such, the criticism that there is no such thing as a “national” criminal database is technically valid.

Even if there were a central location to collect all criminal records, it would be a challenge to keep it up to date. As of the 2020 Census, there are 3,143 counties and county equivalents (such as boroughs, parishes, etc.) in the United States and Washington, D.C. Add another 100 county equivalents to U.S. territories like Puerto Rico and Guam. If there were an actual nationwide database, some records would probably not make it through the many levels of federal bureaucracy – such as in the case of the NCIC. The larger that database becomes, the more challenging it is to have an accurate, fully up-to-date database.

While these claims and criticisms are accurate and fair, they still miss the point. Checking a database of records compiled nationwide gives employers and landlords more peace of mind. The result may not be as thorough as searching some idealized and hypothetical database that holds every criminal record from American history. However, multi-jurisdictional searches are much more comprehensive than searching only a few county or state records—and they’re much more preferable than doing nothing.

What shows on a criminal background check?

Criminal records and subject demographics available vary based on the source when using our database checks. For instance, some data sources provide full dates of birth for each subject; others may only give the birth year or no birth details.

Other information associated with criminal records also varies depending on the source. Some checks include plea, disposition, and degree of offense. In other cases, the data source may provide obscure or limited details about the record. We can only report what the courts provide to us.

How far do criminal history checks go?

The answer to this question varies depending on the state. Seven years is the average lookback period for background checks in the United States, though some states allow a 10-year range. Some states mandate 7 or 10 years, while others have no such laws. However, believing that criminal records vanish after some time is incorrect. The FCRA does not bar the reporting of old conviction data; only states may do so. Review the law in your area to better understand what you can and cannot consider.

How current is the data?

The potential for databases to have incorrect or out-of-date information is often seen as another argument against national criminal data banks. While some directories may lack updates, other providers make it a point to update their databases frequently.

We collect publicly available information from hundreds of data sources, including county courts, administrative offices of the courts, state departments of corrections, and many more. We have limited control over their update frequency since each source maintains its system. Some sources only make information available on a quarterly or semi-annual basis. Providers should update most sources monthly and critical sources (such as sex offender registry records) at least twice a month. It’s advisable to compare the frequency of updates and the updating processes of different providers.

Data strength is one of many aspects that sets apart from our competitors, and we go to great lengths to acquire and maintain our data. We continually evaluate our processes to ensure timely and quality results and an expansive collection of records.

Does “no records found” mean my subject has no criminal past?

When you execute a database search through, you should know that there is always a possibility that your search will result in a “no records found” message. It does not automatically mean that a candidate has a clean record. You might not find records in a database search for many reasons. These include:

Of course, it is also always possible that your candidate has no criminal record. A record may be empty if you’ve been diligent and thorough in how you order vetting products and where you search.

How extensive is the database?

Our US OneSEARCH database currently contains over 650 million criminal records derived from a comprehensive list of sources. It ranks as one of the largest criminal conviction databases in the industry. Based on a comparison of publicly available data about the number of sources of conviction data used by providers, our in-depth resource sits near the top. A free criminal background check is unlikely to offer such depth or recent data.

Understanding identity verification requirements

California, Connecticut, Maine, Minnesota, and Indiana currently require consumer reporting agencies, including, to verify criminal matches found during our instant database search. Doing so requires going directly to the source of the record before reporting such information. Due to this requirement, we cannot provide instant access to criminal records in these five states even if we find potentially matching records. If we find no records, you’ll still receive the report instantly.

Is a verified search still an instant search? Yes and no.

Using our US OneVERIFY search option, a criminal record search will still return precise results instantly. Still, when we discover criminal records that are a possible match, the system automatically changes the status to ‘in progress.’ At the same time, our quality assurance department verifies each hit with the respective source. Depending on the number of hits and the response time from each search, this can take a few days. Our average turnaround time for a verified search that initially has hits is 1-3 business days.

Why are federal criminal records not included in an instant database search?

The federal courthouses do not make their criminal records available to private criminal database operators.

Do your reports provide date of birth and Social Security number information?

No, Social Security number information is private and not publicly available. However, date of birth information is commonly found in public records. Many of our criminal record data sources include date of birth in their information. Some do not. In California, birth date information became unavailable on most criminal records beginning in 2021.

Do I get the same details as a direct count criminal record search at a court?

Opponents of national criminal databases argue that they don’t go into as much detail as a county search, although it is true it is part of a reasonable trade-off. While the traditional county criminal search has more detail, national criminal databases cover a much larger geographic area. A more extensive scope offers deeper insight into an individual’s potential criminal history. 

The most important thing to understand when using a national criminal database is that these databases aren’t a replacement for a county criminal search. Instead, such tools provide employers a more affordable way to develop a broad view of a candidate’s history as a first step in the screening process.

Explore our interactive coverage map to learn more about’s coverage of counties in our criminal database.

Explore interactive coverage map.

Crimes And Criminal Records

What qualifies as a “criminal record,” and what records appear on a national criminal database check?

A crime is an act or omission that the law makes punishable. A crime can also breach a legal duty that becomes the subject matter of a criminal proceeding. Common law in the United States recognizes only two classes of crimes: serious crimes called felonies and minor crimes known as misdemeanors. All other “infractions” or “citations” are civil matters - not criminal.

What is a criminal record?

A criminal record summarizes an individual’s run-ins with law enforcement agencies. This type of record provides details of all arrests, convictions, sentences, or parole violations a person has accumulated. It also contains records of charge dismissals or not-guilty verdicts. Actual police records, which aren’t typically available to employers, may include personal information about the subject’s physical appearance, aliases used by the subject, different dates of birth, and so on. A record available to employers usually includes information about the charge or type of crime and its resolution in the courts.

To learn more about what types of information a background check includes, read our full article: 

What shows up on a criminal background check?

Are criminal records public information?

Yes. All criminal records, save those formally “sealed,” are part of the public record. Because these records are public, employers can consult them as part of the pre-employment process. However, if a record is under seal, it is no longer accessible to the public. Only law enforcement agencies and court-approved entities can access sealed records. While the terms “sealed” and “expunged” often appear together regarding criminal records, there is a difference. A sealed record remains hidden, while an expunged record technically no longer exists.

What types of criminal records do we make available?

We collect criminal record information from various federal, state, and county public records. Our sources include:

We do not report on police arrest records on a criminal background check for employment. However, our database includes both misdemeanor records and felony records.

What are Criminal Records at the State Level?

Most states have statewide repositories that collect criminal records from all counties in that state. Why is checking a state criminal record vital for thorough vetting? These checks offer a valuable expansion of the scope of a background check beyond individual county searches. State records can simplify discovering criminal records outside the immediate area where the subject lives and works. These checks are an in-between step from hyperlocal county searches and broader national searches.

At, we currently process repository searches in-house for 30 states using the different electronic systems in those states. For 14 other states, the state requires us to request the relevant agency for repository searches directly. Finally, some restrictions prevent us from accessing the state repository systems in six states: California, Louisiana, Massachusetts, Nevada, Ohio, and West Virginia.

What are Federal Criminal Records?

Federal criminal records differ from those stored at county courts or in state repositories. Those criminal records represent violations of state law. County courts process individuals with cases charged and tried in such cases. Meanwhile, federal criminal records represent violations of federal law handled by U.S. District Courts.

Crimes committed on a federal level may include drug trafficking, firearms violations, or crimes committed against an agent or entity of the federal government. Note that some federal criminal cases may originate from state or county-level crimes, and those records may reside in county or state repositories. These records involve cases where the state and federal governments prosecute individuals for the same crimes separately.

What does the criminal record search reveal about the severity of the offense?

What are some examples of criminal records? Most jurisdictions classify an offense as an infraction, misdemeanor, or felony. “What is an infraction?” and “What is the difference between a misdemeanor and a felony?” are common questions in the background check world. Let’s do a quick review.


Not typically considered a crime, an infraction is most often a simple violation of a minor state or county law. Rather than requiring a jail term upon conviction, someone found guilty of an infraction generally receives a fine or community service. Infractions may include disorderly conduct and public nuisance offenses. 

Traffic offenses are usually infractions. The exceptions involve more severe offenses where harm occurs or could occur, such as “driving under the influence” or “hit and run” violations. So, do traffic tickets show up on criminal background checks? No, because they are infractions. But will a DUI show up on a criminal background check? Yes, because states charge these crimes as either a misdemeanor or felony, not an infraction.


Misdemeanors are a minor offense compared to felony crime. The misdemeanor is a type of crime punishable by incarceration, typically in a local jail rather than a state prison. Misdemeanors rarely carry a jail time requirement of more than one year. However, a few states classify a misdemeanor as an offense carrying a sentence of two or even five years, depending on severity.


Felony offenses are more severe than misdemeanor crimes. A felony carries a penalty of incarceration from one year to life, usually in state prison. High fines also often accompany felonies. Some violent felonies, such as first-degree murder, may even include the death penalty as a possible sentence in some states.

What does the criminal record say about the outcome of a case?

You may see one of several types of statements about the outcome or “disposition” of a case. Here’s a quick overview of the most common words to recognize and understand on a criminal database background check:

Many people experience confusion about dismissed cases or acquittals and how they factor into a criminal record. For additional context, read our previous post: Charged But Not Convicted: Do Dismissed Cases Show on Background Checks?

Can background checks see pending charges?

Yes, a pending criminal charge will appear on a criminal information check. A criminal case takes time to work its way through the court system. A pending case is not evidence that the defendant committed the offense. Instead, it is evidence that the case is still in the midst of court proceedings. A defendant with a pending criminal case may be unwilling to discuss the details of the alleged offense during the case.

While pending cases can and do show up on criminal history checks, there can be some variation in how long it takes a criminal background check to flag them. Read this post to learn more: How Long Does It Take for a Pending Charge to Show up on a Background Check?

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