What is the longest a background check should take?

When employers run background checks on potential new hires, it’s common for applicants to wonder how long the process will take. Most candidates want their background checks completed as quickly as possible so they can get an offer and join the new company. However, thorough background checks take time. Rushing the process can lead to missed information and possibly flawed hiring decisions.

How Long Do Background Checks Usually Take?

There is no legally defined timeframe for completing background checks. Some can be done in just a few days, while others take several weeks. According to the Society for Human Resource Management, the average time to complete a background check is three to five business days.

However, that figure depends heavily on the type of check being performed. Some of the key factors that determine background check length include:

  • The number and type of checks being performed
  • Whether the checks are done manually or using automation
  • The depth of information being verified
  • How many employers, schools, and other agencies need to be contacted
  • How quickly responses are received from verifiers

Background checks that only verify basic information, like past employers and education, are generally the quickest. More complex reports involving criminal record searches, fingerprinting, and drug tests take longer.

Common Background Checks and Estimated Times

Here are rough time estimates for some of the most frequently performed pre-employment background checks:

  • Identity and past address verification – Instant to 24 hours using automation
  • Right to work checks – Instant to 24 hours using automation
  • Professional license and credential verification – 1 to 3 days
  • Employment history verification – 3 to 7 days
  • Education history verification – 3 to 7 days
  • Criminal records search – 3 to 10 days
  • Sex offender registry search – 3 to 10 days
  • Driving records check – 5 to 10 days
  • Credit history check – 5 to 10 days
  • Civil court records search – 1 to 2 weeks
  • Bankruptcy records search – 1 to 2 weeks
  • Federal court records search – 1 to 3 weeks
  • Drug testing – 1 to 2 weeks
  • International background checks – 3 weeks or longer

What Makes Background Checks Take Longer?

While most routine background checks take less than a week, there are many things that can add time to the process. Checks that are broader in scope, encounter obstacles, or require extra verification steps will always take longer. Some of the top reasons background checks get delayed include:

  • Manual verification – Automated systems are faster. Manual checks involve emailing, calling, and waiting for responses.
  • Non-responsive verifiers – Schools, courts, and past employers can be slow or fail to respond.
  • Incomplete applicant information – Applicants must provide the full names, dates, and other facts needed to perform checks.
  • Multiple past residences – Each location must be checked for criminal and other records.
  • Common names – More time is required to match generic names against various databases.
  • Statewide criminal searches – Federal searches are faster than searching courthouses across an entire state.
  • Jurisdiction delays – Some courts and agencies respond faster than others.
  • Older records – Finding paper-based records can take longer than checking digital systems.
  • Drug test lab delays – Labs can get backed up, delaying test results.
  • International checks – Screening across borders always adds more time.

When Should Employers Consider Extending Timelines?

Most employers set standard timelines they expect background checks to be completed within, such as one week. However, they should account for exceptions when setting those expectations. Factors like those above can routinely push completion times past the standard window.

Companies should consider allowing more flexible timeframes when:

  • The position requires extensive screening beyond the basics
  • The applicant has an extensive education or employment history
  • The applicant has very common names and identifiers
  • The applicant has out-of-state work and education history
  • Drug tests are required
  • The applicant has international backgrounds

Extending timelines by a week or two for complex cases can help prevent most delays.

How Long Should Employers Wait on Background Checks?

While employers should account for hiccups, they also cannot afford to let background checks drag on indefinitely. After a reasonable period of time, they will need to make a decision one way or another.

As a rule of thumb, if checks exceed the standard window by two weeks or more with no clear resolution in sight, it is reasonable for employers to move forward based on the information they already have. Candidates also cannot be realistically expected to wait in limbo for months on end.

The typical maximum timeframes employers wait on delayed background checks are:

  • 1 week checks – Wait up to 2 additional weeks
  • 2 week checks – Wait up to 4 additional weeks
  • 3 week checks – Wait up to 6 additional weeks
  • 4+ week checks – Consult legal counsel on timeframe

When faced with extended delays, employers have a few options:

  • Make a preliminary hiring decision using available background check data
  • Push back the applicant’s start date until checks are finalized
  • Revise the offer to be contingent on cleared checks
  • Withdraw the offer if delays exceed maximum timeframes

Speeding Up the Background Check Process

Employers have several options when it comes to expediting background checks:

  • Use automated systems when possible – Automated checks using databases and online search tools are faster than manual processes involving phones, emails, and paper records.
  • Provide complete applicant details – Ensuring applicants submit all past addresses, education, legal names used, and other data minimizes research time.
  • Use release forms – Signed release forms allow background screening companies to retrieve records directly from verifiers.
  • Set reasonable timelines – Avoid setting expectation for completion faster than the typical time for that check type.
  • Follow up promptly – Check in with applicants and verifiers to get missing information instead of waiting.
  • Pay for rush fees – Some verifiers offer expedited services for urgent cases if the employer pays rush processing fees.
  • Start checks early – Begin background checks after initial interviews instead of waiting for a job offer.
  • Use background check firms – Outsourcing to firms specializing in these services avoids companies having to do everything in-house.

Legal Considerations for Background Check Timeframes

While most employers are anxious to get background checks done quickly, it is important not to cut corners. Rushing checks can jeopardize accuracy. It is also illegal to short-circuit processes required by legislation like the Fair Credit Reporting Act (FCRA).

Key legal considerations around background check timing include:

  • Obtaining applicant consent before running checks
  • Giving notice before using third-party consumer reporting agencies
  • Providing applicants a chance to dispute any negative findings
  • Only making legally allowable inquiries, such as not asking about age, race, religion, or disabilities
  • Avoiding the appearance of discrimination by consistency applying policies and timelines

HR and legal counsel should work together to ensure completion timeframes adhere to all applicable laws.


Most background checks can be completed within one to two weeks. However, factors like international records, drug tests, and unresponsive verifiers may push some checks to four weeks or longer. While anxious employers may want accelerated timelines, legal compliance and accuracy should be prioritized over speed.

To help control completion times, employers should use automation, provide complete applicant details, authorize records release, and start checks early. But they should also build in timeline flexibility for complex cases. With reasonable expectations set upfront, background screening can obtain the necessary information without derailing the hiring process.

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