The federal court system is a three-tiered system with the United States District Courts, the trial courts, on the lowest level. Above the trial courts are the intermediate appellate courts, the United States Courts of Appeals. The highest appellate court in the federal system is the United States Supreme Court.

A conviction in the U.S. District Court may be appealed to one of the 12 regionally located U.S. Courts of Appeals. Appeals to the Supreme Court are limited. Of the thousands applications received each year asking that cases be heard on appeal by the Court, the justices of the Supreme Court only accept about 100 of them.

Just as in the Pennsylvania state court system, an appeal begins with the filing of a notice of appeal after a defendant is sentenced. Also, just as in the state court system, there are other avenues that a defendant may pursue to have his or her federal criminal conviction overturned or have the sentence modified.