When someone has a criminal record, that could mean a number of different things. It could mean that you were wrongfully arrested and were never charged; it could mean that you were convicted of a crime; or it could mean that your charges were acquitted or the case was dismissed. Having an arrest record doesn't mean a crime was actually committed—but employers, landlords, and licensing agencies don't see it that way.
To help people with arrests or convictions on their record build better futures, California law gives them the option to "erase" those things from the record. Most people usually jump to 1 of 2 solutions: expungement and record sealing. While these two remedies are similar, the differences are important to understand.
Expungement Is Not the Same as Record Sealing
In California, sealing a record offers the greatest relief any person with an arrest record could ask for. If your arrest didn't result in a conviction (see here for information), then you may be able to argue for your "factual innocence" in a hearing. This would remove your arrest record from public access, so it wouldn't appear on a background check. It would also allow you to answer "no" on any questionnaire asking if you've been arrested.
The best part? Sealed records are destroyed after 3 years.
Expunging a record is only for people who have been convicted as adults (juvenile records are usually sealed by the state automatically until they're 18). Expungement in California is virtually identical to a dismissal. Essentially, your conviction record is changed from "convicted" to "dismissed," allowing you to answer honestly with "no" if you're asked if you've been convicted of a crime. For the most part, an expunged case will not appear on a background check—however, it still exists.