Criminal Record FAQ
A criminal record is an important document that could have a big effect on your life. It's important to know as much as you can about the report.
Still, many people have questions when it comes to criminal records. This page will attempt to address some of the biggest issues concerning the topic and answer some of the most frequently asked questions.
NOTE: While the question “How to obtain my/a criminal record?" is frequently asked, that process varies depending on the state the crime took place in and the severity of the offenses on the record. Check out our Criminal Records guide for more information.
General Criminal Record Info
What is a background check, anyway? When will you need one? And must you always admit to having one? We answer all that and more below.
What's the difference between a criminal record and a criminal background check?
Your criminal record is exactly what it sounds like: a list of criminal acts you've been arrested for, accused of, or found guilty of perpetrating.
A background check is an investigation into your past and present and could include a number of different inquiries, from your previous employment status to your credit history.
A criminal background check is a specific type of background check looking exclusively into people's criminal histories. It digs through additional documentation, such as court records and police records, and will likely turn up more detailed information than a typical background check, such as someone's:
- Known aliases.
- Description of appearance, including any tattoos or other identifying marks.
- Prison terms.
Can my criminal record be seen in other states?
Yes. Due to online databases, it's much easier now for law enforcement agencies to share criminal history information across state borders.
If you apply for a job, an apartment, or any other situation which may cause a background check, your criminal record will be traceable, even if the check is being conducted in a different state than the crime took place in.
Furthermore, when you apply for a license in a new state, the Department of Motor Vehicles will have access to your previous driving violations.
Do I always have to answer “yes" when asked if I have a criminal record?
In this situation, honesty is the best policy. Many employers, landlords, or others interested in this information will run a background check on you, so if you lie about having a criminal record, that information will typically come up later on in the application process, anyway.
Because of this, it's possible that coming clean in your application could give you a better chance at getting the job, apartment, or whatever it is you're applying for—rather than trying to cover up your past.
However, if you've had your criminal record expunged, you can typically answer “No" to this question without any future consequences.
When do I need to order a criminal record?
You most likely will not be required to order your own criminal record for any situation. However, there are a number of reasons why you may want to have a copy of your criminal record on hand, including:
- Preparing for a job interview.
- Emigrating to a new country.
- Applying for a visa or passport.
- Seeking out a financial loan or mortgage.
- Applying to adopt a child.
Criminal Record Contents
What exactly does the document entail—or leave out? Find out below.
What information is on a criminal record?
Depending on which organization your criminal record is filed with and the jurisdiction in which that agency can be found, the information available on your criminal record will vary.
However, the document will usually include at least some, if not all, of these facts:
- Your name, date of birth, and address.
- Any incidents where you were arrested.
- Pending charges against you.
- Charges against you that were dismissed.
- Charges of which you have been acquitted.
Your criminal history report can include a wide range of offenses, from misdemeanors like petty theft to serious felonies such as armed robbery.
How far back does a background check go?
Most likely, many aspects of your life have been officially recorded from the time of your birth. Since a Social Security number scan is a factor in many background checks, an individual or agency ordering the check could essentially see personal documents from the time you were born.
With criminal background checks, this answer depends on several factors, including:
- How far back in a person's history an employer or person ordering a background check cares to look.
- How far back the specific source keeps its records.
- Criminal records are typically stored piecemeal by the agency which made the arrest and/or the jurisdiction where the offense took place or was processed. Each of these organizations have different policies regarding record keeping.
Are traffic violations included in my criminal history?
In general, minor traffic accidents or moving violations do not show up on background checks. Typically, these incidents become less pertinent to both law enforcement agencies and car insurance providers the older they become—unless the driver shows a dangerous pattern of wracking up a number of accidents.
After a certain number of years, it's even possible in some states that minor traffic violations will be taken off the public record.
However, these sentiments typically do not apply to DUI or DWI charges. A driving violation may also show up on your criminal record if you ignored the ticket or failed to pay the fine and had a warrant for your arrest issued as a result.
What does an FBI background check show?
Occasionally, an employer will order an FBI background check on an individual. The federal agency has access to both state and local agency records due to its extensive database of the fingerprints of every person who has been arrested in the U.S.
Using the information in its fingerprint archive, the FBI will typically produce a background check including
- All of the arrests of the person in question.
- The date of the arrests.
- The charges levied against the person.
While these reports will include both felonies and misdemeanors, it's unusual for an FBI background check to have any information on moving violations or minor penalties.
Sealed & Expunged Criminal Records
Not all criminal records are the same. Sealed or expunged records play by a slightly different set of rules. Find out more about this special type of document below.
What is a sealed or expunged record?
There's a difference between sealing or expunging a record.
When your record is expunged, that means it has been destroyed. Whether or not your record can be expunged depends on several factors, including:
- The severity of the crime(s) involved.
- Whether your case was dismissed.
- Whether or not you were found guilty.
- How long ago the crime took place.
- Whether or not you have been convicted of multiple crimes in the past.
A sealed record is one which is no longer made accessible to the public. In these cases, the records themselves are maintained—whether physically or digitally—but can only be accessed by the public via a court order.
However, law enforcement agencies and the courts will still have access to a sealed record.
How do I seal or expunge my record?
This process varies drastically by state, and also depends on whether the perpetrator was an adult or juvenile at the time as well as the severity of the crime. Typically, however, the process will always involve hiring an attorney.
See our guide on how to expunge or seal your criminal record for more information.
Are there any limits on a sealed record?
In a word: Yes.
Again, this is a state-specific situation, but there are a few general circumstances that may arise.
Many states will allow someone to seal or expunge their record only once. Therefore, if you apply to have your record sealed, the court will be able to see if there are any records in your past, expunged, sealed, or otherwise.
If you are arrested again, some states may allow a prosecutor to look into your history, to see if your past offenses—expunged, sealed, or otherwise—have any effect on the current charges levied against you or any subsequent sentence you may receive if you're convicted of the new crime.
When applying for certain jobs—especially government-related positions or those dealing with sensitive information—many states will allow a background check to include expunged or sealed records.
Lawyers may also be permitted in certain states to bring up past crimes committed by testifying witnesses, whether or not they have been expunged or sealed, depending on the circumstances of the case and the crimes in question.