Traveling with a criminal history
There isn't a single, authoritative source to consult on travelling with a criminal history but, for many countries, the information can be found on the relevant country's immigration agency website or by searching legislation.
Many countries don't welcome criminals for obvious reasons, but what criminal history is relevant and the period that must have elapsed since a past conviction varies from country to country. For some countries, particularly Canada and the US, even a minor criminal conviction 50 years ago can cause you to be refused entry, while others would require a conviction for a violent or serious crime to be refused entry. This page also lists ways (if known) to circumvent a bar on entry due to a criminal history.
In general it is very difficult if not impossible to travel to any country if you have violent or repeat criminal convictions in the past, or if the conviction is very recent. Some countries prohibit their own citizens from leaving if they have serious criminal histories. However, in general, the authorities are not concerned about petty offences.
If you are on probation or parole you must follow the travel policies set by your probation officer to the letter, leaving the country (or even your county in the US) without permission will result in a violation. Generally offences committed in the destination country counts more than offences committed outside of their country.
Requirements vary with the type of visa. All countries that issue retirement visas require a criminal background check, basically a letter from police in your home country saying you have a clean record, and many countries require that for working, immigration or student visas as well. For a tourist visa, few if any countries check that carefully, but many do ask about criminal history, at least sometimes.
If you are asked about your criminal convictions, you must (and generally should) answer truthfully. Any false statements could result in a lengthy or permanent bar to entering that country, particularly the USA or Canada. Other countries, like the UK and its former colonies, have a concept of "spent" convictions that do not have to be declared once the conditions for "spent convictions" have been met, and that's about the only time you can get away with not answering truthfully.
The United States of America is generally very strict with criminal records, no matter how minor or how long ago it has been. They do not have any concept of "spent" or "pardoned" convictions, meaning you must truthfully answer any questions about criminal convictions even if your convictions have been spent or pardoned in your country. For citizens of any country who are eligible for the Visa Wavier Program, being convicted of any crimes, having proceedings pending, or even a previously refused visa makes you ineligible for the visa wavier program!
There are numerous crimes that render you ineligible to enter the US, and these includes "crimes involving moral turpitude", among other things. There is only a loose definition of "crimes involving moral turpitude" and the actual offenses are ever changing. Some of them may be minor such as shoplifting, while others can be very serious such as murder. The actual penalty for the conviction does not matter. If you are convicted of a crime involving moral turpitude, then you are ineligible to enter the US and little relief exists for this.
Strangely, an exception to this is "purely political offences." Again, this is also a very loose definition that the immigration officer can interpret anyway he wants. Being convicted of an "aggravated felony" is even worse, though just like crimes involving moral turpitude, these also have a very loose definition, therefore the offences can change over time. However, there is absolutely no relief, and anyone deported or excluded for this reason cannot ever enter the US.
Do not even attempt to enter the US if you have been previously deported without a proper visa! Doing so is a felony (and a serious felony at that) under US law, and is punishable by up to 20 years in prison. Do not lie about your convictions when questioned, as chances are they will find out. The US conducts extensive security checks on all visa applicants.
While Canada's policies on criminal record are strict (any convictions no matter how minor or how long ago makes you inadmissible) it is possible to overcome the inadmissibility by submitting an application for "rehabilitation". This process can take a long time and requires numerous references to prove that you are in fact rehabilitated and that further offences are unlikely. If you do not want to wait that long and must go to Canada you may be able to apply for a temporary resident permit, however the reason must be justified and vacations are not considered a justified reason.
If you have been convicted of driving while impaired by alcohol or drugs, you will probably be found criminally inadmissible to Canada as this is an offence under Canada's Criminal Code.
All potential visitors, whether applying for a temporary resident visa or requesting landing permission at the border must be of good moral character, and under Canadian law this means having a completely clean criminal history. Any offence, misdemeanour or felony, regardless of how minor or how long ago it took place could exclude you from Canada for a period of time or indefinitely. Some US citizens have been turned back while attempting to drive across the border. Even former US President George W. Bush needed to apply for a waiver to enter on an official state visit during his term in office because of a past D.U.I. There are a few exceptions, and if you are inadmissible because of a criminal conviction, you do have some options.
A minor misdemeanour (what Canadian law calls a "summary conviction") may keep you out of Canada for at least five years from the date you finish your sentence. More serious offences ("felonies" in US law, "indictable offences" in Canadian or British law) may require you to wait up to ten years, or in the most serious cases obtain a pardon or other civil relief locally before applying for entry. Some relatively minor infractions in other countries (minor drug possession tickets in countries where they are not handled through the criminal system, or drunk driving in jurisdictions which treat this as a simple traffic violation) are considered criminal convictions for the purpose of immigration law, as Canada's Criminal Code treats these as crimes. Even if you were never arrested, charged with a crime or sentenced it is possible to be turned away by a border guard on suspicion of criminal activity. Additionally, you cannot enter Canada if there are current charges pending against you or a trial is under way.
Although unlikely as a visitor who meets all other entry requirements, you may also be refused if you have significant unpaid debt, have an active civil judgement against you, or have recently declared bankruptcy. This is more likely to be an issue if your nationality requires a visa to enter Canada. In these cases, you can regain your ability to enter Canada by either paying the debt in full, showing evidence of a payment plan in good standing or after a bankruptcy showing a history of financial solvency over the period of a few years.
Offences committed before the age of 18, parking tickets, local ordinance violations and crimes of conscience (such as publishing statements critical of the government in China) generally do not result in inadmissibility. Similarly, non-criminal traffic tickets usually do not result in inadmissibility, although if you were ever required to appear in court over a traffic violation (not simply going to court to challenge a ticket) or you accumulated enough points that your license was summarily suspended or revoked, you may be inadmissible and should contact a Canadian embassy or high counsel for advice.
If you have a single misdemeanour or summary offence on your record and it's been at least five years since you finished your sentence, and your offence would be punished with a prison term of 10 years or less in Canada, you can be deemed rehabilitated on the spot by an immigration officer without formally applying in advance. That being said, you have one chance in your entire lifetime at this type of rehabilitation and the border officer's decision is final. The burden is on you, the visitor, to provide proof that you have indeed reformed and are unlikely to re-offend. Possible proof includes but is not limited to:
- Police "good conduct" reports
- Character references
- Letters from employers, pay stubs, tax returns or other documentation showing that you have steady employment
- Evidence of any educational, volunteer or treatment experience that you've completed since your conviction.
Bring everything you have that suggests you're living a stable and crime-free life. The more documentation you have and the less the officer has to rely on your word that you've turned your life around the stronger your case is for being admitted.
If you are turned away, or if your offence makes you ineligible to be deemed rehabilitated, you can apply for individual rehabilitation directly to Citizenship and Immigration Canada (CIC). Again, at least five years must have passed since you completed your sentence. An application for individual rehabilitation has onerous documentation requirements, costs between CAD200 and CAD3,000 depending on the nature of the offence and whether the application requires approval from the Minister of Justice (all except the most straightforward misdemeanour convictions do) and can take up to a year to get an answer. While you can compile the documentation and submit the application yourself, both CIC and many who have gone through the process highly advise retaining an immigration attorney to complete and file the application on your behalf. If you are denied rehabilitation, there is no right of appeal, you will not be given specific reasons as to why your application was denied, and you must wait at least one year before applying again.
Temporary resident permits
If you aren't qualified for either type of rehabilitation or are turned down, another option is a temporary resident permit, a one-time waiver for an inadmissible person to enter Canada. This is not the same as a temporary resident visa, but the two can be applied for together if you are from a country requiring such a visa. These are very rarely granted - only for "exceptionally compelling humanitarian grounds" or "reasons of significant national interest". Unless you're dealing with a documented family emergency, can afford to hire a really good immigration attorney or have connections in Canada (such as a Member of Parliament) who can intervene on your behalf, don't even bother applying for one of these.
Obtaining a pardon or unconditional discharge will generally restore your ability to travel to Canada, and depending on your circumstances you may have much more luck going this route. If the crime was committed in Canada, there's a centralized process you can go through and odds of success are fairly high if you've shown commitment to turning your life around and kept your nose clean since then.
If your pardon or discharge was issued for a crime outside Canada, be sure to bring documentation to that effect with you to the border or when applying for a visa.
Immigration authorities may perform a credit check and review your overall financial history as part of the character and risk assessment when applying for a visa or for landing permission at the border. Credit checks are not automatic for temporary visitors; they typically occur as part of a larger background investigation that results if the officer cannot ascertain your ability to support yourself. Minor issues (such as an occasional late credit card payment) are not a major concern. That being said, if you have frequent late payments, chargeoffs, liens, repossessions, or a bankruptcy, in the past few years, definitely be prepared to explain yourself (and having recent pay-stubs or other evidence of steady funds available for review is highly advised.)
On the other hand, if you are applying for any type of long term visa (such as a work or study permit) or are immigrating to Canada, your credit will be checked as part of the background investigation, and visas are occasionally denied for recent financial problems or just for having a large amount of unpaid debt, even if it's in good standing (e.g. student loans). Unless you can prove your credit problems were due to circumstances beyond your control (e.g. prolonged disability or illness, failed business venture, identity theft, etc...) or are prepared to hire an immigration attorney, cleaning up your financial state of affairs at home prior to making plans for working or moving to Canada is strongly advised.
If you have a civil judgement against you (whether paid or not), or are currently a defendant in a pending lawsuit for unpaid debt, depending on the circumstances you may be inadmissible, contact an immigration attorney for advice. Additionally:
- The People's Republic of China along with several Gulf countries (Bahrain, Kuwait, Qatar, and the United Arab Emirates) treat default in and of itself as a criminal offence punishable with a jail term.
- In the United States, apart from child support or taxes, default is not a crime. However, in many states evading collection attempts once a debt has progressed to litigation (usually by not showing up for hearings or failing to submit requested documents to the court) can lead to a criminal contempt charge, fines and a jail term.
If either situation applies, you are inadmissible and will need to go through the standard rehabilitation procedure prior to travelling to Canada. In addition to the requisite time requirement, you will also need to show that the debt in question is paid in full or satisfactory arrangements are in place to pay it.
Besides a criminal record, CIC lists a host of other situations that may prevent admission into Canada. While most of these shouldn't be an issue for the average traveller (e.g. previously deported, human rights violations, involvement with terrorism or organized crime), there are a few that do occasionally complicate or bar entry for visitors:
- Letters of Introduction and Other Documentation:
- Business travellers are required by law to present a letter of introduction on corporate letterhead to immigration on arrival. The letter must follow a standardized format specified by CIC and contain a statement of financial support. CBSA is very serious about this requirement and refusals for not having a letter are common.
- If visiting friends or family, you are not officially required to have a letter of introduction, although having something in writing (even an informal e-mail) from your host with their contact information is helpful, should immigration decide to verify your story.
- Tourists should be prepared to provide details about their itinerary - places of interest, hotels that will be stayed in, etc... Having this information (including addresses and phone numbers for hotels) printed out ahead of time is strongly advised.
- All visitors may be asked to show that they have confirmed travel arrangements for departing Canada, as well as "binding ties" to their country of origin or residence (such as a family, job or university studies to return to).
- Health concerns: If you have a serious or chronic condition, and the immigration officer has to consider whether you could end up burdening Canada's healthcare system during your visit, you may be found medically inadmissible.
- It's possible to overcome a medical refusal by obtaining an exam from a nominated physician and have them certify that you will not burden the healthcare system. If this applies to you, the immigration officer will give you the required paperwork along with further instructions.
- Obtaining medical insurance that will cover you in Canada, while good advice for all, may especially help in borderline cases.
- Support funds : If asked, you will need to prove you have enough funds to support yourself and dependants while in Canada.
- For Western tourists, a valid major credit card (not a debit, ATM, or bank card - which may not even work in Canada) usually satisfies this requirement.
- If you do not have a credit card, a recent bank statement or pay-stub is also acceptable.
- Inadmissible family members can also result in your admissibility being called into question. That being said, this is discretionary and rare, and depending on the reason for your family member's refusal it may or may not affect you. If your relative was denied entry because they:
- have health, financial, or credit problems - your admissibility is unaffected.
- have a Criminal Record - you may be found inadmissible, although in practice this almost never happens unless your relative's crime made national news headlines.
- are a Human rights violator or a known member of an organized crime, terrorist, or hate group- you're inadmissible, call a lawyer.
As a general rule, admissibility and rehabilitation decisions cannot be appealed beyond a supervisory review at the visa office or border. The only exception is if you can prove the decision was based on wrong information (for example you were acquitted of a crime, but that fact was never properly recorded.) That being said, you are usually allowed to apply again once any specific issues relating to a refusal have been corrected, once the requisite time has passed for rehabilitation, or one year after being denied rehabilitation.
The United Kingdom has a concept of "spent" convictions (application forms) and immigration officers wishing to exclude or remove someone on the basis of a criminal conviction must prove that the offence is not spent and therefore the person is not rehabilitated. A conviction is "spent" if more than 10 years has passed since imprisonment (if any) between 6 and 30 months. Any imprisonment over 30 months cannot ever be spent and therefore will always count against you. Imprisonment of less than 6 months or fines have an even shorter rehabilitation period (around 5 years or less).
The immigration officer wishing to deport you, or refuse entry on the basis of criminal conviction must prove that your convictions have not been "spent". The burden of proof is on them, not you, so if you were refused entry due to a criminal conviction chances are your offence is not spent. If the offence is spent, then you don't even have to tell them about it and they cannot use it against you even if they do know. For consecutive prison sentences the rehabilitation period would begin at the time you were last in prison, unless the sentence is over 30 months.
The rules for the EU, specifically the Schengen Area, regarding character concerns are relatively lax. Questions about criminal convictions are not asked when applying for a Schengen visitor/business visa and border agents (there are no landing cards for data entry) usually don't ask any questions about this either.
If any officials or forms ask you if you have a criminal history you still have to answer truthfully but, in general, if it's not more than 3 years of imprisonment, or crimes involving alien smuggling or drug offences that resulted in more than 2 years of imprisonment, then they will not refuse you entry or a visa on those grounds. Countries like Germany do have specific rules that state anyone convicted of an offence relating to public order with a sentence of more than 3 years, a drug offence with a sentence of more than 2 years, and any offence related to alien smuggling are subject to deportation. Like the UK, they are more concerned with offences committed in their country, rather than outside of the EU. Do not lie in any visa application or when answering questions to officials, because in Germany this lie will mean you can then be deported. Not all countries have the same rule regarding character concerns, so some EU countries may be more lax, however Germany is known to be a rather strict country so it is a good guideline on rules for the EU.
Australia and New Zealand
These countries are rather strict regarding character concerns but Australia specifically says "in the last 10 years" so it is not known if convictions more than 10 years old are "spent".
There are sporadic sources that suggests that these countries have a concept of "spent" criminal convictions and have rules in place that prohibits officials from obtaining information on spent convictions, but it is not known if it is automatic or it must be applied for like Canada.
There are already other concerns that are just as strict such as being deported from any country (New Zealand), health concerns like being HIV positive or even having cancer or diabetes, that can result in a visa being denied, entry refusal or deportation.