A multi-layer switch search engine architecture is provided. According to one aspect of the present invention, a switch fabric includes a search engine, and a packet header processing unit. The search engine may be coupled to a forwarding database memory and one or more input ports. The search engine is configured to schedule and perform accesses to the forwarding database memory and to transfer forwarding decisions to the one or more input ports. The header processing unit is coupled to the search engine and includes an arbitrated interface for coupling to the one or more input ports. The header processing unit is configured to receive a packet header from one or more of the input ports and is further configured to construct a search key for accessing the forwarding database memory based upon a predetermined portion of the packet header. The predetermined portion of the packet header is selected based upon a packet class with which the packet header is associated.