USCIS Background Checks: What Are They and How Do They Work?

Updated on April 10, 2024
At a Glance:
  • The USCIS conducts background checks to ensure the eligibility of applicants for immigration benefits and to protect the U.S. from potential risks.

  • Background checks are mandatory for all individuals seeking to immigrate, regardless of age, ethnicity, or nationality.

  • The process includes a background investigation through the Interagency Border Inspection System (IBIS).

  • Fingerprint checks performed by the FBI.

  • These checks are designed to identify public safety concerns, national security risks, and criminal backgrounds.

  • It is advisable for applicants to consider obtaining their own preliminary background check to understand their records and address any issues before filing their immigration application.
  • When applying for U.S. immigration, besides undergoing a medical exam, applicants must also submit fingerprints for an FBI background check. This essential step, conducted by the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), often raises questions about the extent and nature of the background scrutiny. Our guide below provides clarity on what to expect from a USCIS background check.

    Why Does the USCIS Require Background Checks?

    There are a few reasons why the USCIS conducts background checks:

    1. National Security and Public Safety: To ensure applicants do not pose a threat to national security or public safety.
    2. Criminal History Assessment: To identify any criminal history that might affect eligibility for immigration benefits.
    3. Verification of Information: To confirm the accuracy of information provided in the application.
    4. Compliance with Immigration Laws: To ensure applicants have complied with all immigration laws and regulations.

    These background checks are a standard part of the immigration process and are mandatory for all applicants seeking immigration benefits, including green cards and naturalization.

    Who Needs a USCIS Background Check?

    A USCIS background check is required for virtually all applicants seeking immigration benefits in the United States. This includes:

    Green Card Applicants

    Individuals applying for lawful permanent residency, regardless of the category (family-based, employment-based, refugee or asylee status, etc.).

    Naturalization Applicants

    Those applying for U.S. citizenship through the naturalization process.

    Deferred Action and Temporary Protected Status (TPS) Applicants

    Individuals applying for deferred action or TPS, which includes certain undocumented immigrants who came to the U.S. as children.

    Asylum Seekers and Refugees

    Those applying for asylum or refugee status in the U.S.

    Visa Applicants

    Depending on the type of visa, applicants may undergo background checks, especially for long-term visas such as work or student visas.

    Certain Family Members of U.S. Citizens and Lawful Permanent Residents

    In some cases, family members who are sponsored for immigration benefits by U.S. citizens or lawful permanent residents.

    These background checks are a critical part of assessing eligibility and ensuring the safety and security of the immigration process.

    How Do Immigration Background Checks Work?

    USCIS background checks involve several steps, three main steps and a number of extra steps, to ensure the safety and security of the immigration process:

    1. Biometrics Appointment

    USCIS schedules an appointment for the applicant to provide biometrics (fingerprints, photograph, and signature). This typically occurs after the submission of the application or petition.

    2. FBI Fingerprint Check

    The fingerprints are sent to the FBI for a criminal background check. This check reveals any criminal history in the U.S., including arrests, convictions, or outstanding warrants.

    3. Name and Background Check

    Along with fingerprint checks, the FBI conducts a name check against multiple databases. This process identifies any additional criminal, immigration, or national security concerns that might not be revealed through fingerprint checks alone.

    Review of Immigration Records

    USCIS checks its own records and databases for prior immigration applications, petitions, and interactions with the applicant. This helps verify the applicant’s immigration history and compliance with U.S. immigration laws.

    Interagency Checks

    In some cases, USCIS may coordinate with other agencies like the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), the State Department, and international agencies for more extensive security checks, especially if there are concerns related to national security or public safety.

    Continuous Vetting

    Some applicants may undergo continuous vetting where their information is routinely checked against new data as it becomes available.

    Final Adjudication

    Once all background checks are complete and clear, USCIS proceeds with the final adjudication of the immigration application. If issues or concerns are raised, they may request additional information or conduct further investigations.

    USCIS background checks are thorough to ensure each applicant meets the eligibility requirements for the immigration benefit sought and does not pose a security risk.

    USCIS Background Check Timelines

    The timelines for USCIS background checks can vary depending on the specific immigration benefit. Here’s a general overview:

    1. Green Cards: Background and criminal record checks typically take 6 to 12 weeks. Following a successful interview, the green card is usually issued about six months later.
    2. Naturalization: The processing time for naturalization applications, including background checks, varies widely based on location and other factors. On average, it can take anywhere from 8 to 14 months.
    3. DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals): Background checks for DACA applications can take several months to process. The entire application process, including background checks, can take up to 6 months or longer.
    4. TPS (Temporary Protected Status): The processing times for TPS background checks are similar to those for DACA, often taking several months. The entire process can extend beyond 6 months, depending on case complexity.
    5. Asylum / Refugees: The background check process for asylum seekers and refugees is typically more extensive and can take several months to over a year. This is due to the thorough vetting required for these categories.
    6. Visa Applications: For non-immigrant visas, background checks can take a few weeks to a few months, depending on the type of visa and individual circumstances. Some visas may require additional administrative processing, which can extend the timeline.

    It’s important to note that these are approximate timelines and can vary based on individual circumstances, USCIS workload, and other factors. Applicants can check the most current processing times on the USCIS website or through their online case status tool.

    Why You Should Get a Preliminary Background Check

    Conducting a preliminary background check before applying for U.S. immigration can be beneficial for several reasons:

    1. Awareness: Knowing what’s on your record helps you understand what immigration officials will see, preparing you for potential issues.
    2. Impact Assessment: Minor offenses, particularly older ones or those for which you’ve served penalties, may not significantly impact your application.
    3. Legal Consultation: For major concerns on your record, consult an immigration attorney before filing your petition to understand its potential impact.
    4. Error Identification: Check for errors, like unexpunged offenses, and rectify them before submitting your application.
    5. How to Proceed: Obtain your background check through a private investigator or seek assistance from an immigration attorney.

    Being proactive with a background check can help smooth your immigration process and address any issues upfront.

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    Final Thoughts

    Now you know the answer to “what kind of background check does USCIS do?”. If you don’t have a criminal history, then you don’t have anything to worry about. Even if you do, it won’t necessarily be detrimental to your immigration application. If you’re worried, just have your own preliminary background check done to understand exactly what you are dealing with and how you can resolve it.

    USCIS Background Checks FAQ

    Below, you will find some common questions about USCIS background checks and their answers.

    What is a USCIS background check?

    A USCIS background check is a security measure conducted for all immigration applications to ensure applicants meet eligibility criteria and pose no threat to national security or public safety.

    What does a USCIS background check include?

    It includes FBI fingerprint checks, name and background checks against multiple databases, review of immigration records, and sometimes, interagency checks.

    How long does a USCIS background check take?

    Timelines vary by case and type of immigration benefit. For instance, green card checks can take 6 to 12 weeks, while naturalization checks may take 8 to 14 months.

    Do I need a background check for a visa application?

    Yes, most visa applications require a background check, especially for long-term visas like work or student visas.

    Can a criminal record affect my immigration application?

    Yes, certain criminal offenses can impact your eligibility for immigration benefits. It’s crucial to disclose all relevant information accurately.

    How can I check the status of my background check?

    You can track your application status using the USCIS online case status tool or contact USCIS for updates.

    What should I do if there’s an issue with my background check?

    If issues arise, USCIS may request additional information or documentation. In such cases, respond promptly and consider consulting an immigration attorney.

    Is a background check required for DACA or TPS applications?

    Yes, applicants for Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) and Temporary Protected Status (TPS) also undergo background checks.

    Will my USCIS background check include international criminal records?

    USCIS may coordinate with international agencies for more extensive security checks, which can include international criminal records.

    Can I expedite my USCIS background check?

    Generally, it’s not possible to expedite background checks due to their thorough nature and security implications. However, you can ensure all submitted information is accurate to avoid delays.

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    Frank Gogol

    I’m a firm believer that information is the key to financial freedom. On the Stilt Blog, I write about the complex topics — like finance, immigration, and technology — to help immigrants make the most of their lives in the U.S. Our content and brand have been featured in Forbes, TechCrunch, VentureBeat, and more.

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