How to Get a Fingerprint Background Check and What to Expect

Berry Mathew

Updated on:

How to Get a Fingerprint Background Check and What to Expect

Many companies use fingerprint-based background checks to screen candidates. They are often required for employment in regulated industries like financial services or healthcare.

These checks search the FBI’s Integrated Automated Fingerprint Identification System for criminal records. The system includes arrest and disposition records for criminal and civil cases.

What is a Fingerprint Background Check?

A fingerprint background check is a way to verify an individual’s identity and conduct criminal record searches. Typically, candidates will visit their local police department or similar venue to have their prints electronically scanned by a kiosk and then cross-referenced with the FBI’s Integrated Automated Fingerprint System (IAFIS). When a match is found, information about the crime—such as arrests, convictions, and deferred adjudication—will appear in the results.

Fingerprints are often required by law to obtain certain professional licenses, such as those for engineers, doctors, realtors, attorneys, stockbrokers, and architects. Additionally, some states require fingerprint-based criminal background checks for teachers and childcare workers.

Despite these common uses, fingerprint-based criminal background checks are not the most reliable method for conducting a background check. Fingerprinting only returns results from records filed with the FBI, which may only sometimes contain complete or accurate information. Furthermore, relying on fingerprint-based background checks can disparate impact people of color and lead to unintentional discrimination.

If your organization is allowed or required to conduct fingerprint-based background checks, Sterling can help you meet those requirements with a seamless and modern candidate experience. We are one of a few companies approved by the FBI to channel fingerprints and can offer a range of services, including on-site mobile fingerprinting.

How Do Fingerprints Work?

Fingerprint background checks research an individual’s criminal history by comparing fingerprints to federal records. This screening type is often required for certain jobs, including teachers, law enforcement, and security guards. Unlike name searches, which rely on information from public databases, fingerprints are a unique identifier that can’t be faked or tampered with. This makes them an effective way to check whether someone is who they say they are, especially for jobs that require a high level of trust and security clearance.

To get a fingerprint background check, an applicant must visit a local police department or similar location to have their prints taken by a certified technician. The fingerprinting process is painless and straightforward. However, applicants must follow the operator’s instructions closely if touching their fingers too hard or attempting to “help” the technician could smudge the print and delay the results.

A fingerprint background check can reveal various information, from previous arrests and charges to more general details about the person’s life, like their date of birth, address, and employment history. However, it’s important to remember that the FBI fingerprint database is incomplete and inaccurate. As a result, making a decision based on this data may create legal risks for employers. This is because people of color are disproportionately arrested, and using fingerprint background checks that return incomplete or inaccurate information could unintentionally discriminate against them.

What Are the Benefits of a Fingerprint Background Check?

A fingerprint background check can help employers make confident hiring decisions. It’s a quick and accurate way to gather information about an individual, especially federal records, that may not appear on other checks. It can also give an employer a strong indication that a candidate has never been arrested.

But fingerprint searches have some limitations. For example, they don’t always find criminal records because not all crimes are reported to the government with a fingerprint record. They only show up if the crime was committed in the past five years. The Integrated Automated Fingerprint Identification System, the FBI’s go-to database for fingerprint records, has about 70 million profiles.

In addition to finding criminal records, a fingerprint check can uncover civil convictions and arrests, including those that resulted in no conviction. For instance, a person arrested for possessing a fake ID can have those charges dropped off after a year if they never went to court.

While fingerprint-based background checks have some limitations, they are a valuable tool for employers to use in their criminal background screening process. They are especially useful for confirming an individual’s identity, as no two people have the same fingerprints. But before you decide to conduct a fingerprint background check, it’s important to understand the facts about what these checks can and cannot do.

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How Long Does a Fingerprint Background Check Take?

Fingerprint-based background checks compare an individual’s fingerprints to the FBI’s Integrated Automated Fingerprint Identification System (IAFIS), a massive database. The information contained in this database can include arrests, charges, and the resolution of cases.

It can take weeks or even months to receive the results of a background check conducted using fingerprints because the databases need to be updated regularly. Additionally, the IAFIS database contains many records that law enforcement officers or court clerks still need to verify for accuracy. As a result, some information may be inaccurate or outdated, and employers who make adverse employment or professional licensing decisions based on these results could face legal liability.

In addition to the federal government, some states have fingerprint-based criminal history databases, which can also be used for background checks. The information in these databases comes from local, county, and state police departments, district attorneys’ offices, courts, and other criminal justice agencies.

These records detail arrests, indictments, convictions, and sentences and may contain incarceration status and other details. While third parties and businesses that sell background checks often use these same databases to provide information, they cannot verify fingerprint-based records like law enforcement agencies can. Therefore, these searches are generally less thorough than fingerprint-based background checks.