Depending on the type of information needed, a company may go back to your first job when conducting a background check. Some information may not be available for a certain number of years--information such as a social security number check only reports that the social security number you used is valid as of this point in time. Other information is available only for a set number of years. A company that does a thorough background check looks at job history, criminal record, credit history and public records, such as court records.
Financial service institutions usually require extensive background checks, and usually go back as far as seven to 10 years to check for criminal records. Other companies that are hiring for positions that do not directly involve cash may check criminal records going back only a few years.
Employment verification checks are based on the needs of the individual company. Some companies check only the last two or three places of employment. If you have a spotty work history with periods of unemployment, or have changed jobs frequently, a company may check your entire job history. Often, an ex-employer will not keep records over a certain number of years, and if they do, the records are in storage. Depending on the type of job you are applying for, your ex-employer may be asked to retrieve records out of storage (particularly for high-security jobs).
If the job you are applying for requires a degree, then a company will contact all educational institutions you attended to verify that you completed coursework and earned a degree. Colleges and universities keep enrollment and graduation records on file in perpetuity, so this information is readily available for background checks. If you attended a school, but did not finish a degree, add the course work to your resume, rather than lie about the degree.
If a company needs to review your credit history, it can check back as far as it wants, but adverse scores are usually dropped from a credit report after seven to 10 years. Information that is not kept limits the amount of time a company can check, because the information on a judgment that is over seven years old may not be on a credit report. That same information may be available through the court records, unless the case was sealed. While some files may be in storage, they can be retrieved unless the court destroyed the records.