I have had background checks conducted on me in private sector positions. Do these background checks carry over to the federal government, or do I need to start the process all over again? Why is it necessary if I do not have any criminal record?

Everyone hired for a federal job undergoes a basic background check of his or her criminal and/or credit histories to ensure that all federal employees are “reliable, trustworthy, of good conduct and character and loyal to the United States.” The U.S. Office of Personnel Management, a central agency that serves as the corporate human resources organization for the federal government, performs the majority of background checks. In addition, federal positions that include access to sensitive information generally require a security clearance. This clearance must be obtained to determine the applicant’s trustworthiness and reliability before granting him or her access to national security information. 

Types of Security Clearances and Background Checks

Positions in the federal government are classified in three ways: Non-Sensitive Positions, Public Trust Positions and National Security Positions. Each of these positions requires some level of background investigation. The elements that make up a background investigation vary depending on the level of clearance that is deemed necessary for a position. Background investigations for lower risk levels generally rely on automated checks of an individual’s history. For a secret clearance in a national security position, the investigation requires agents to interview people who have lived or worked with the candidate at some point in the last seven (or more) years.

Once the agency has selected a candidate to hire, the applicant will typically receive a job offer contingent upon successfully obtaining a security clearance. The extensive background investigation takes place after the initial offer has been accepted.

The length and depth of the background investigation will depend on the position’s requirements, as well as the type of security clearance needed (if applicable) for a particular job or internship. This process may take several months or up to a year depending on backlog, need for more information, depth of the investigation process and other factors.

In order to help speed the process along, begin to gather relevant information now. Once you are offered the position, you’ll be asked to submit a series of forms and information about yourself. Gather this information now so you can save time on your end. You can view the forms for background checks (SF-85: Questionnaire for Non-Sensitive Positions) and security clearances (SF-86: Questionnaire for Non-Sensitive Positions) on the Office of Personnel Management’s website.

Once you have submitted the documentation, the designated agency will proceed with the investigation, depending on backlog and priority.

Last Reviewed February 29, 2024