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3 min read

Quick Guide: The Difference Between "National" and "Federal" in Background Checks

National Vs Federal background checks


I’m sure you know that background screening terminology, services, and technology can be a little confusing.

Like many other HR professionals, you may be looking for a background screening company to educate you about what exactly you can expect in their background checks. For many reasons, including how screening services are named across the industry, questions can still remain.

That’s not the only problem. You don’t want to wrongly identify what service will get you the background information needed.  We have seen some employers have difficulty deciphering labels for a few searches in particular, best summed up with a central question:

What is the difference between the “national” criminal database and the “federal” criminal history search?

In many other situations, it is completely reasonable to assume that the words “national” and “federal” are interchangeable. Think about it, “national” parks are on “federal” lands and the “Federal” Bureau of Investigations” deals with matters of “national” security. It quickly becomes clear how industry jargon and legal distinctions can confuse HR professionals when it comes time to build a background check package.

Well, when it comes to background screening, “national” and “federal” are actually quite a bit different. Understanding the difference can be beneficial to your background screening process as the terms indicate different sources that return very different results.

Keep reading below and we’ll tell you exactly how these types of searches differ. Mistaking one for the other is not an error you’ll want to risk.



The Importance of “Database” in a National Criminal Database Search

First off, let’s discuss the National Criminal Database. This search is great at helping you find jurisdictions where criminal records might be hiding. It looks beyond the obvious places like where your applicant lived, worked, or went to school.  If a person committed a crime while on a business trip, at the cabin, or at the beach for spring break, this search could point you in the direction of that record.

How does it do this? Well it’s actually a database. It can search over a half billion records (varies by background screening company) that may include criminal records from counties, department of corrections (DOC), administrative office of courts (AOC), and offender registries from all 50 states. This search covers a lot of ground with a lot of other sources to identify potential locations of criminal records, but in general you won’t find federal offenses in national databases. A national criminal database search helps you by returning “tips and leads” from a database with vast information sources.

A search with this much power is not without limits. It is important to think of a national criminal database search as a supplemental service. If a potential record is returned on the national criminal database search, it may only show up on a background report AFTER a secondary search, such as a county or state criminal record check, verifies the record.

But there’s a reason why a survey found this to be among the most common searches employers include in background checks. Not all criminal records are uncovered by searching in locations disclosed by a candidate. A nationwide criminal database search helps cast a wide net to find potential locations of criminal records. In fact, according to a Verified Credentials user report, 75% of potential records identified in a nationwide search are committed in locations NOT disclosed by applicants. Think about how you could find even more relevant background information simply by including a national criminal database search as part of your background check strategy.

Rethinking how much you thought you knew about the National Criminal Database? Get more answers here ››


Pinpointing Serious Crimes with Federal Criminal Record Searches

Much like a county criminal search, the source for federal criminal searches is the original courthouse records. The U.S. has 94 federal district courts, and a federal criminal search can search one, multiple, or all of those districts depending on your needs. Compared to a national criminal database with upwards of a half billion records, a federal search isolates records from several million federal-specific cases.

As you can see, this is in no way casting a wide net to a variety of sources nationwide. A federal criminal history search pinpoints federal district court records (the primary and reportable source) for federal crimes.

And why look at federal crimes specifically? Well, federal criminal searches can reveal serious crimes such as: bank robbery, child pornography, kidnapping, cybercrimes (i.e. hacking), drug trafficking, illegal sale of firearms, and more. It’s true that serious crimes are found with other state and county criminal searches too. But federal crimes cross state lines or are specifically federal offenses and will only be found at the federal courthouse.

What was traditionally considered a white-collar crime search for finance and executive employees can be broadened to many other scenarios. Wouldn’t you want to know if your new hire for an IT or technology job has serious cybercrime on record? If so, it may be time to unpack the value of federal criminal searches in your current screening program.

Thinking of more job positions where a federal criminal history search could be important? Learn more about types of federal crimes ››


How to Tell the Difference

Next time you find yourself reviewing your screening needs, don’t be fooled by a few things:

  1. “National” Criminal Database Searches are typically “tips and leads” databases and not a stand-alone solution.

  2. “Federal” Criminal History Searches uncover serious crimes that cross state lines and other federal offenses accessible via 1 of 94 Federal District Courts.

As you can see, “national” and “federal” in background screening indicate completely different searches and sources. The national criminal database is great at identifying jurisdictions where criminal records might be hiding and the federal search reveals high level, serious federal offenses. Basically, the two searched return VERY different results. Being aware of this difference means you can be confident in knowing that your screening program is searching everything you want and need it to.

Not sure what “national” and “federal” searches are in your background check? Let’s take a look ››

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