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how far back does a fingerprint background check go

A fingerprint background check is often considered the gold standard for criminal history screenings in employee background checks. Many people assume that all criminal records are linked to fingerprint data and that fingerprinting can therefore yield broad, near-comprehensive background check findings that a simple name-based check might not. However, fingerprint background checks have many of the same limitations that other types of background checks do—including in how far back they can go. 

The most common type of fingerprint background check is the type run through the FBI’s Integrated Automated Fingerprint Identification System (IAFIS). IAFIS is the largest database of fingerprint information on United States soil, spanning more than 70 million criminal records. It includes information on individuals who have been fingerprinted for non-criminal reasons—for instance, those employed by the federal government or serving with the U.S. military will typically go through fingerprinting. 

Especially in the context of the FBI fingerprint database, answering the question of how far back a fingerprint background check goes is complicated. Most states have laws that restrict how far back any background check can go. When conducting employee background checks, employers must comply with the laws in their state—many of which do not allow reporting of criminal history information that is more than seven years old. 

Technically, an FBI fingerprint check can go back as far as a person’s record goes. The check simply pulls any data associated with the fingerprint in question—be in personal information (name, address, family members, etc.) or criminal history information. There is no federal law that limits how far back criminal checks can go, which leads to some confusion regarding FBI fingerprint checks and reporting limits. 

Another complicating factor is that not just any employer can access the FBI database. The database was initially intended for law enforcement purposes and is still mostly only accessible to police departments and other government entities (such as licensing bodies and public school systems). 

If your business intends to conduct fingerprint background checks to screen potential hires, adhere to all state laws in reviewing the results. If a conviction shown on the report exists outside of the reporting time limit enforced by your state, you should not consider it as part of your hiring decision.