You are here

Fingerprinting as Part of the Background Check Process

Fingerprinting as Part of the Background Check Process


Fingerprinting is required for noncriminal justice national background checks. Fingerprinting is used to determine an individual’s identity so that a complete criminal history record can be generated. Since a print of one finger has never been known to exactly duplicate another fingerprint (including those of identical twins), it is possible to identify an individual with just one fingerprint impression; fingerprints can also be used throughout an individual’s life. Fingerprints are used to track records of criminal actions, such as arrests and dispositions, and to compile criminal history reports for job applicants, including applicants for direct access employment under the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) National Background Check Program (NBCP). This resource page provides a high-level description of the role of fingerprints in the background check process and how they fit into the NBCP. States should contact their Criminal Justice Information Services (CJIS) systems officers (CSO)/State Identification Bureaus (SIB) with questions and/or requests for information about fingerprint-based background checks.


Why should States use a fingerprint-based background check?
What is the difference between criminal fingerprinting and civil fingerprinting?
Who collects applicant fingerprints under the NBCP?
What fingerprinting methods are available?
How are fingerprint records submitted?
What information is submitted with civil fingerprints?
Are fingerprints retained?
What are the main civil fingerprinting challenges?
Additional Resources

Why should States use a fingerprint-based background check?

Section 6201 of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act of 2010 requires a State criminal history record check and a fingerprint-based national criminal history record check on each applicant for direct access employment in States participating in the NBCP.

What is the difference between criminal fingerprinting and civil fingerprinting?

Fingerprints are generally taken for one of two reasons: for criminal investigation and charging, or to complete a background check pursuant to a civil or statutory authority. Therefore, fingerprinting falls into two broad categories: criminal and civil. Criminal fingerprints are taken upon arrest and after court disposition. When required by State statute or policy, these prints and the associated arrest or disposition information are submitted to the SIB by the appropriate law enforcement agency or court jurisdiction. The SIB uses them to generate a State criminal history record. The local or State arrest and disposition information and fingerprints may be subsequently provided to the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) to establish the FBI Identification Record (this is the criminal history record or “rap sheet”). The record may be updated as additional arrests and dispositions occur.

Civil fingerprints are obtained for pre-employment screening, licensing requirements, and other statutorily authorized purposes. These fingerprints and the required applicant information (see “What information is submitted with civil applicant fingerprints?” below) are used to obtain State and/or federal records. The fingerprints are compared with those used to establish criminal records held by the SIB and/or the FBI. The appropriate criminal history information is then made available to the requestor (in most cases, this is a governmental agency).

Who collects applicant fingerprints under the NBCP?

Under the NBCP, a variety of organizations can collect fingerprints, depending on the CMS-approved model in each State. In some instances, potential employers or State agencies may be authorized to collect fingerprints. In other cases, law enforcement agencies or approved electronic fingerprinting vendors conduct the fingerprinting.

What fingerprinting methods are available?

Two fingerprinting methods are available: ink-and-roll and electronic fingerprinting, also called live scan. For the ink-and-roll method, all 10 fingers are rolled on ink pads and then rolled onto paper cards. The accompanying demographic and other information (see “What information is submitted with civil applicant fingerprints?” below) is typed onto the card.

For electronic fingerprinting, each live scan device uses a sophisticated scanner to create a digital image of each fingerprint. Software in the device verifies the quality of the fingerprints. Live scan machines also perform checks to help ensure the completeness and accuracy of the identifying information that must be submitted with the fingerprint images. Because the information on live scan records is already digitized, these records are typically processed faster than hard cards. Due to its efficiency, accuracy, cost-effectiveness, and speed, live scan is the preferred method for collecting fingerprints.

How are fingerprint records submitted?

In general, fingerprint records for NBCP applicants are submitted by the fingerprinting entity (e.g., potential employer, State agency, vendor, or law enforcement agency) to the SIB. The SIB is responsible for forwarding fingerprint records to the FBI.

Hard cards are typically batched and mailed to the SIB. Effective April 2012, the FBI stopped processing hard cards. In cases where hard cards are still used within a State, the SIB will need to scan the hard cards and submit them to the FBI electronically.

Generally, live scan records are transmitted to the SIB via secure telecommunication. Electronic transmission to the SIB may occur immediately, or may be deferred until the close of business of the day the fingerprints were taken. The SIB returns an electronic acknowledgement of receipt.

What information is submitted with civil fingerprints?

Each fingerprint submission includes the following for the person being printed:

  • name;
  • aliases (if applicable);
  • residence;
  • citizenship;
  • place of birth;
  • date of birth;
  • sex;
  • race;
  • height;
  • weight;
  • eye color;
  • hair color; and
  • Social Security number.

All fingerprint submissions also include an originating agency identifier (ORI) number, indicating which agency is requesting the fingerprints, and a code indicating the reason the individual was fingerprinted. Each grantee State agency should coordinate with its CSO/SIB to identify the appropriate ORI number and reason fingerprinted code to use in its submissions. The ORI number and the information in the reason fingerprinted field provide necessary information for determining the requesting agency’s authority to receive the FBI criminal history background check results. For more information about data required to be submitted with applicant fingerprints, please go to https://www.fbibiospecs.org/EBTS/Compliance/Default.aspx (see Additional Resource 1 below).

Are fingerprints retained?

Each State has its own SIB, which serves as its fingerprint and criminal history repository. After an applicant’s fingerprints are taken, the fingerprints are forwarded to the SIB, and then subsequently to the FBI. The FBI does not retain applicant fingerprints under the NBCP, but States with rap back programs may retain fingerprints at the SIB in accordance with State policy.

What are the main civil fingerprinting challenges?

There are three main civil fingerprinting challenges: ensuring accessibility to fingerprinting technology, verifying applicant identity, and meeting all fingerprint card standards and requirements.

When live scan technology is used, one possible fingerprinting challenge is ensuring that enough live scan machines and trained operators are available to meet background check needs. As seen among NBCP grantee States, this issue can arise in larger population centers, where high demand may outstrip the capacity of a central fingerprinting facility when background check programs are added or expanded, and in rural areas, where the distance between facilities with live scan machines can be significant. Even if hard cards are used, the lack of availability of trained fingerprint technicians can be a challenge.

Further, there are concerns that applicants who have criminal records may ask others to use false identities to submit fingerprints on their behalf (see Additional Resource 2 below). The National Crime Prevention and Privacy Compact Council’s Identity Verification Program Guide addresses this issue. The guide recommends training people who capture applicants’ fingerprints to be able to recognize both counterfeit documents and official forms of identification. The guide also provides a list of suggested document types to use for identity verification.

Finally, there is the challenge of meeting fingerprint card quality standards and requirements. Fingerprint cards can be rejected for erroneous, incomplete, or indiscernible fingerprint images. Other rejections occur when the data included on the fingerprint record in addition to the fingerprints (e.g., name, date of birth, citizenship) is missing or incorrect (see Additional Resource 3 below). In large part, these challenges can be overcome with adequate training for those who take fingerprint images. Also, use of live scan machines can assist image-takers with ensuring that fingerprints are of sufficient quality and in the proper order.

Additional Resources

  1. FBI Biometric Center of Excellence: FBI Biometric Specifications. This web page provides information on the Criminal Justice Information Services Division’s initiatives on FBI biometric standards. Accessed at: https://www.fbibiospecs.cjis.gov/
  2. National Crime Prevention and Privacy Compact Council Identity Verification Program Guide. This guide provides recommendations on setting up an applicant identity verification program. Accessed at: https://www.fbi.gov/services/cjis/compact-council/identity-verification-program-guide-booklet
  3. Top Ten FBI/IAFIS Rejects Codes Based on August 06-August 07 data. This web page lists the 10 most common causes of fingerprint card rejections. Accessed at: https://www2.fbi.gov/hq/cjisd/iafis/top10reject.htm