USCIS Background Check Process for Green Card Application, Explained

The criminal background check process is crucial in any green card petition. Every individual applying for a green card must undergo a background check.

The U.S. government agencies that conduct background checks for permanent residency card applicants are the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), and sometimes other law enforcement agencies.

These background checks are aimed at ensuring the security and welfare of the United States and involve a review of the applicant’s criminal, national security, and other background information. This check is mandatory regardless of the individual’s ethnicity, age, religious beliefs, nationality, or gender.

In this article, we’ll discuss the background check process for green card applicants and its importance in such petitions.

What Is a Green Card Background Check?

The green card background check is an immigration process designed to verify the identity of a permanent resident card applicant and also provide other crucial information about them.

For instance, the USCIS would want to ensure that only eligible applicants can apply for an adjustment of status and receive immigration benefits if approved. For this reason, a background check eliminates or confirms any inadmissibility grounds. 

Say, for example, the applicant has a criminal record that would prevent them from obtaining a green card under normal circumstances. In that case, the individual reviewing the petition will not know anything about this record without conducting a background check. 

Most importantly, the USCIS wants to ensure that you’ll not be a threat to the U.S. community if granted a green card.

For instance, individuals with certain criminal records, such as terrorism and human trafficking, cannot be granted a green card.

Other crimes that may prevent an individual from obtaining a green card include aggravated felonies, fraud and misrepresentation, drug-related crimes, and a history of crimes of moral turpitude (theft or battery).

Read More | Can I Get a Green Card With Criminal Record?

The only way to determine whether the individual has anything in their record that could jeopardize their application to register lawful permanent residence is by conducting a background check. 

The Green Card Background Check Process Explained 

During the green card background check process, you may be required to present documents like birth certificate, passport, government-issued ID, and police certificates from countries you have lived in for more than six months.

You may be also required to present a reference letter or employment verification letter during the background check process. These letters can provide important information about your character, financial stability, and employment history which the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services uses to determine your eligibility for a green card.

Read More | What Documents Do I Need For Green Card?

The USCIS uses a variety of methods to ensure the security and welfare of the United States and determine an applicant’s eligibility for a green card. A typical background check process for an immigrant visa involves three parts, as explained below

1) Background Investigation 

When you arrive at the U.S. point of entry, the immigration official will run your details through an Interagency Border Inspection System (IBIS).

The step, also known as a ‘Name Check,’ combines files compiled by law enforcement from various security agencies to determine whether you would be a national security concern if granted access to the United States.

Keep in mind that this process only applies to applicants filing for a green card from outside the U.S.

2) Fingerprint Collection

USCIS must collect applicants’ fingerprint records during the green card application process, regardless of age. When you file an application to become a green card holder, you’ll receive a notification, usually via mail, to attend a biometric service appointment at your local Application Support Center (ASC). You can use this USCIS tool to locate your nearest Application Support Center.

At the ASC, the officials will collect your fingerprints, take your photographs and obtain your signature. These records are usually valid for 15 months from the processing date by the FBI. 

The submitted fingerprint records are then sent to the FBI, and once processed, they will reveal your administrative or criminal history.

In some cases, the results may reveal that your fingerprints cannot be used to conduct a background check due to certain reasons (technical issues, errors in record-keeping, lack of records, or insufficient information) beyond your control.

  • Technical issues: Sometimes, the quality of the fingerprints is not suitable for analysis;
  • Insufficient information: the FBI might not be able to complete the background check, if it doesn’t have enough information in its database;
  • Lack of records: There will be no records available for the FBI to review if the individual has never been arrested or fingerprinted before;
  • Errors in record-keeping: There may be errors in the way that records are kept, which can lead to discrepancies and prevent the FBI from using fingerprints.

In that case, you may be able to apply for a waiver of inadmissibility. Examples of qualifying reasons to waive the fingerprint requirement include the following:

  • A medical condition that makes your fingerprints unusable;
  • Birth defects that make it difficult or impossible to obtain your fingerprints;
  • Physical deformities or skin conditions that make it difficult or impossible to obtain your fingerprints;
  • Psychiatric conditions;

Note that only certain authorized USCIS officers can provide this waiver. Before that, the officer must certify that:

  • they met with the applicant in person;
  • they or an unauthorized person attempted to collect the applicant’s fingerprints; and
  • they could not obtain the applicant’s fingerprints or a single legible fingerprint. 

Also, if the FBI cannot process your fingerprints for a background check, they may use alternative methods to complete the background check, such as reviewing the individual’s name and personal information against criminal databases (for example, Interpol) and other records.

If the FBI is unable to conduct a background check, the green card application may be delayed or denied.

3) FBI Name Check 

The FBI conducts name checks on all green card applicants using its National Name Check Program (NNCP) and its Universal Index (UNI). 

This UNI contains records about personnel, administrative matters, applications, and criminal activities compiled for law enforcement. The results are then shared with USCIS in response to the requests filed by the green card applicant. 

What Happens If I Miss My Fingerprint Appointment?

It is always advisable to attend your fingerprint appointment. Failure to appear for the scheduled fingerprinting appointment without notifying USCIS could result in the abandonment of the green card application. 

Are Older Adults Required to Attend the USCIS Fingerprint Appointment When They Apply for a Green Card? 

In the past, individuals aged 75 and above were exempted from the fingerprint requirements due to difficulties capturing readable prints. However, newer screening technology now includes individuals in this age group. 

That said, you may request an accommodation if you cannot physically attend the biometrics appointment. This only applies to applicants with disabilities or those who are homebound or hospitalized

To qualify for these accommodations, you must provide a copy of the appointment notice and your medical documentation to prove your inability to physically attend the appointment at the local field office. 

When Does the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services Receive the Background Check Results?

It may take two weeks to receive the background check results. However, there may be some delays lasting a month or more due to government backlogs and other unavoidable circumstances.

What Should I Do If I Have a Criminal History and Want to Get a Green Card? 

Having a criminal history could jeopardize your chances of obtaining a green card. That said, the nature of the criminal history will ultimately determine your eligibility.

For instance, aggravated felonies, illegal drug involvement, and crimes involving moral turpitude will make you inadmissible.

In that case, it is always advisable to consult an experienced immigration attorney if you have a criminal history. The attorney will review the unique circumstances of your case and offer crucial advice. 

What Is an Aggravated Felony? 

Per U.S. immigration laws, an aggravated felony is a crime punishable by death or a prison sentence of more than one year. These include but are not limited to the following:

  • Violent crimes
  • Murder
  • Rape
  • Sexual abuse, including statutory rape
  • Theft
  • Burglary
  • Drug trafficking
  • Money laundering
  • Fraud
  • Obstruction of justice
  • Perjury
  • Tax evasion

An aggravated felony also includes any attempt or conspiracy to commit one of these crimes. If you are convicted of an aggravated felony, you may be subject to mandatory detention and ineligible for any form of relief from removal from the United States.

What Is Illegal Drug Involvement?

Illegal drug involvement is any criminal activity related to the production, distribution, sale, possession, or use of illegal drugs. This includes any activity that helps to finance or support the drug trade, such as money laundering or drug trafficking. 

Illegal drug involvement is a serious offense in the United States and can lead to deportation to your home country or denial of entry for green card applicants

What Are Crimes Involving Moral Turpitude?

USCIS defines crimes involving moral turpitude (CIMTs) as “crimes that are per se morally repugnant and intrinsically wrong.” In other words, a crime of moral turpitude is an act that is considered a violation of community standards of justice, honesty, or good morals. 

Examples of crimes that may be classified as CIMTs include but are not limited to murder, rape, robbery, burglary, and child abuse. In addition, any crime that is considered to be heinous or abhorrent would likely fall under this category. 

As such, the USCIS may use a CIMT criminal conviction as a basis for denying or revoking someone’s immigration status. If you have been convicted of a crime that could be classified as a CIMT, it is important to understand the potential implications it could have on your immigration status.

And if you have any questions or concerns about your particular situation, talk to an immigration attorney for advice.

Can I Lie About My Criminal Record During the USCIS Background Check for Green Card Process?

Lying during the green card background check process or elsewhere in your immigration petition could seriously jeopardize your chances of becoming a lawful permanent resident or receiving other immigration benefits.

This is because willful misrepresentation is considered a valid ground for inadmissibility per U.S. immigration laws. 

Keep in mind that the background check process reveals so much information about the applicant. So when the immigration officer asks you a question about your history, chances are they already know the answer and only want to verify whether you’re being truthful.

The USCIS also reserves the authority to conduct other background checks where necessary. So again, if you’re concerned about your criminal history or anything else on your record, you should consult an experienced immigration lawyer to learn more about your options.

That’s a better decision than lying in your immigration application or during the green card interview


  • Commit To Citizenship Staff

    Commit To Citizenship‘s team consists of individuals who have successfully immigrated to the United States and have learned how to avoid common mistakes in filling out immigration applications. Our team works closely with immigration lawyers to ensure that all content provided on our website is up-to-date and accurate. We offer guidance on a range of immigration topics, including green cards, diversity visas, and DACA.