How Long Does a Background Check Take for a Government Job?

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Although government jobs offer the most employment security, applying to an available position can be intimidating, knowing you’ll be put through a background check. However, if you have a clean record and the qualifications to clinch the position, you may wonder, “how long does a background check take for a government job?”

In this article, we’ll examine background checks relating to government jobs, answering questions like why they’re necessary and, of course, how long they take.

Short Answer

If the government job requires security clearance, the background check can take several months, whereas jobs that don’t require clearance may take between 30 to 90 days or less. It also depends on other factors, such as the complexity of the applicant’s background and the amount of information they provide.

Federal vs. Regular Background Checks

You could be forgiven for thinking background checks for government jobs aren’t that different from checks done by normal companies. After all, both organization types look into whether potential hires have criminal pasts. Also, both employers aim to hire the best candidate for the role and perform the checks so they don’t regret their hiring decision down the line.

However, the key difference between checks done on a candidate applying for a regular job vs. a government job is the amount of trustworthiness government agencies expect from their potential employees.

The Matter of National Security

As discussed above, some government jobs require a security clearance. Candidates who fill such positions may deal with sensitive information that borders on the nation’s security. If the said information were to fall into the wrong hands or become public, it could empower adversarial nations, cause mass panic, etc.

Notably, potential employees who won’t ever handle state secrets may not be exempt from stringent background checks. So, for example, even though a janitor won’t ever be present in a Pentagon foreign policy issue meeting, they’ll still need access to the room to clean it when it’s unoccupied.

Therefore, government agencies require discreetness, trustworthiness, and reliability from potential hires. In other words, a bad hire can put the nation at risk, hence the thorough screening of employees before filling sensitive positions.

What the above means for a potential government employee is that their background check will take longer to complete compared to checks done at regular companies or other institutions. Whereas at a normal company, a background check may take no longer than 30 days, checks for government jobs can last as long as a year.

Types of Federal Background Checks

You can categorize federal background checks in terms of positions that don’t require security clearance and those that do.

No Clearance Needed

All government employees must undergo a standard background check before being hired. The government collects information on new hires for positions not requiring security clearance via standard form 85 (a.k.a. SF-85 or OPM-SF-85). If you’re applying for a janitorial, secretarial, or managerial position, expect to fill this form.

Even though these roles may not require the candidate to handle state secrets and other highly classified information, their background tests are still stringent.

Public Trust Positions

Background checks for public trust positions are a rung higher than standard background checks. Potential employees go through a National Agency Check. Although not as extensive as checks for positions requiring security clearance, National Agency Checks are quite in-depth. If you plan to work in immigration, customs, or the police force, expect this check.

Security Clearance Needed

Meanwhile, applicants to job openings in federal agencies requiring security clearance must fill the SF-86. Moreover, there are three types of job openings that reflect how much clearance is required: Confidential, Secret, and Top Secret.

These background checks go in-depth, touching on the applicant’s professional and personal life. The employer will scrutinize and verify every item on the applicant’s resume, including their educational background and employment history.

Additionally, these background checks may look into the applicant’s licenses (firearm, driving, etc.). On the personal life side of things, the employer will look at the applicant’s social media posts, spouse, etc.

For examples of agencies that perform these stringent checks, think the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the Central Intelligence Agency, etc.

What the Government Looks for When Checking Backgrounds

When checking a potential employee’s background, a federal government agency may check for the following:

  • Criminal Record: Like any employer, government agencies want to know whether you’ve been convicted of a crime, arrested for driving under the influence of drug possession, etc.
  • Previous and Current Employment: Expect the government agency to look into your employment history when applying for an open position there. Also, they’ll contact your current employer to verify whether you work where you claim to.
  • Credit History: The government will also look into your credit history when making a hiring decision. Your credit score, declarations of bankruptcies, etc., are all fair game in a federal background check.
  • Family Records: Most sensitive government jobs require only candidates that are US citizens. Therefore, employers will investigate your family history, birth records, etc., to investigate whether you’re a US citizen.
  • Education: Some positions require candidates with a solid educational background, with some prioritizing alumni of renowned universities in the country. Expect the government to verify your claim that you studied at Yale.
  • Relationships and Associations: A large part of background checks for government jobs involves interviewing close associates of the candidate. Some checks even go as far as interviewing current and former spouses (applicable to candidates who’ve had a divorce).
  • Place of Residence: Government employees may verify your address and interview your neighbors when conducting a background check on you.
  • Social Media Posts: As mentioned above, expect the employer to look at your social media posting history if you’re applying to a position that requires a security clearance.

The above isn’t an exhaustive list. Due to the level of security clearance needed for people filling some positions, checks may delve incredibly deep (as mentioned above).

When Do Background Checks Begin?

Government agencies run background checks on potential employees before extending official offers of employment. However, you’ll first be given a tentative offer before receiving an official one.

You can think of the tentative offer as a temporary offer that the agency can rescind at any time (For example, if your background check comes back with red flags).

Therefore, you can safely assume the agency has begun the background check process once the HR department gives you a tentative offer.

Additional Factors to Consider

Background checks for government jobs can take a while, and the following factors may prolong the process:

Insufficient Information

Human error may cause an applicant to omit information on a form. This omission may cause delays during the background check stage of the application, prolonging an already protracted process by weeks, if not months.

Additionally, if the applicant fails to answer every question on a questionnaire, it could delay the background check process.

The Complexity of Applicant’s Background

Some applicants may have complex backgrounds, causing the investigation to take longer than is typical.

For example, the applicant may have passed through the foster system and changed schools multiple times during childhood. Alternatively, the applicant may have changed their legal name or reverted to one of their parent’s surnames after their parents’ divorce.

Thus, when performing a background check on applicant A, the investigator would have to investigate every school to confirm they have accurate information. Meanwhile, verifying applicant B’s name change may require visits to multiple registries.

Residents of Multiple Jurisdiction

If an applicant has lived in multiple jurisdictions (perhaps due to the nature of their job), it’ll increase the number of places the investigator will have to visit when performing a background check.

Tools Available to Government Agencies When Performing Checks

Government agencies may use some of the following tools to collect information on you to conduct background checks:

Federal Database

Because state laws differ, they don’t present a complete picture of the candidate’s criminal record. As such, government agencies will rely on a national database when confirming whether potential candidates have criminal pasts.


Government agencies utilize questionnaires to extract information from potential hires, which is an excellent way to learn about candidates’ psychology. Also, the information provided by candidates is on record, meaning fraudsters can be whittled out during the interview phase of the hiring process.

Reasons Why You May Be Disqualified After a Background Check

If you receive a rejection notice after undergoing a federal background check, it could be for one of the following reasons:

A Criminal Background

If you’ve been arrested or charged with a crime in the past, you’ll be at a disadvantage when competing with other applicants for the job. However, even if you’re not convicted, crimes like fraud, tax evasion, embezzlement, etc., will understandably influence the decision of whether to take you on as an employee.

Falsifying Information

It’s best not to test the investigative powers of government employees. You’ll be passed over during the hiring process if you’re caught in a lie (for example, inflating your accomplishments or lying about where you worked). Additionally, you may open yourself to criminal prosecution, as the US Criminal Code criminalizes falsifying information. So only provide accurate information.

History of Substance Abuse

Alcoholics and drug addicts aren’t likely to pass background checks for government jobs, as they pose an enormous risk to their co-workers and associates. Also, if you have a history of substance abuse but have since kicked the habit, the fact could still potentially hurt your chances of getting the job.

Lack of US Citizenship

You won’t be eligible for employment in a government job if you’re a green card holder or on a work visa. It goes without saying that illegal immigrants need not apply. These employers prioritize US citizens, and that goes double if the job requires the employee to have security clearance.

Failed Suitability Determination

Government employers assess a candidate’s suitability for the role to determine whether the candidate’s character and comportment adequately protect the agency’s image or service. Unfortunately, you won’t get the job if you’re deemed unsuitable for the position.


These days, there isn’t a lot you’re not disqualified from once you declare bankruptcy. Why should it be any different for a position where you’ll be privy to sensitive information?

Frequently Asked Questions

Do I Have to Disclose My Social Security Number for a Background Check?

Yes. Since your social security number (SSN) is a unique identifier, you’ll have to provide it to verify your identity. However, you can rest assured that the government treats personally identifiable information with the utmost care, so it’ll keep your SSN safe.

Should I Be Honest About Past Drug Use?

Yes. Form SF-85 only examines the previous year when looking back on drug use. It’s best to assume that the employer will dig up this information anyway, so there’s no point in getting caught in a lie.

Will I Be Disqualified if I Have a Criminal Record?

Surprisingly, a criminal record doesn’t preclude you from applying to federal positions. Check this Second Chance Act Federal Job Search Guide by the United States Office of Personnel Management to find out how to improve your chances.


Background checks for government jobs may take longer depending on if the position requires a security clearance. These background checks usually begin when the applicant receives a tentative offer, which the government agency can revoke at any time.

The main reason why government agencies have stringent background checks is that they need their employees to be trustworthy, reliable, and discreet. So if you don’t have any skeletons in your closet and have been given a tentative offer, you’re one step closer to getting the job once the background check is complete.