Traveling to The US With A Criminal Record: What to Expect

Everybody loves a smooth journey, particularly when traveling internationally. The United States is not merely a tourist destination; many individuals travel for school, jobs, business, and medical reasons.

However, the US has a strict border admission method, and a few matters, including a criminal past, can prevent you from coming into. If you or a loved one is visiting the US with a criminal record, keep reading. We will offer a comprehensive guide on what you need when traveling with a criminal record, including what convictions stop you from entering America or offenses the country deems serious.

Photo : Anete Lūsiņa

Get Informed

Getting informed is one of the most crucial recommendations on any traveler’s checklist. You must inquire with the US embassy or consulate in your country concerning the choices available for those who need to travel with a criminal record. So, before making any plans like booking flights, gather all the info you will need to enter the nation safely and easily.

Offenses that can prevent entry

A criminal conviction is not the only factor that might keep you from entering the United States. Even though you have never been convicted of a crime, some transgressions, such as the ones listed below, can prevent you from entering the nation.

  • If you were caught without a visa and deported.
  • If you have ever been convicted of more than two offenses and have spent at least five years in prison.
  • If you have broken rules and restrictions on prohibited substances. This felony includes any type of trafficking or crime of this nature.
  • If you have committed a crime of moral turpitude, which includes money laundering, prostitution, passing wrong inspections, benefit fraud, sexual violence of any nature, aggravated assault, tax evasion, driving under the influence, bribery burglary, assault intended to do serious harm, theft, and any major criminal activity.

Fortunately, there are certain exceptions applied when entering the country.

  • If you were sentenced, convicted, and served jail time for less than a year even if the sentence was longer.
  • If you committed the crimes of moral turpitude shown above when you were below 18.
  • If the crimes you committed below 18 were done more than 5 years ago.
  • If you were convicted of driving under the influence.
  • If you were arrested but not convicted.
  • If you were convicted but acquitted.

Nonetheless, if you have multiple convictions for crimes like driving while drunk and other crimes of moral turpitude, you will be denied entry to the US. Even with a pardon, the US still treats such crimes like criminal convictions, and this may still prevent entry into the country. Keep this in mind when traveling to the US with a criminal record.

Getting an ESTA with a criminal record

If you belong to a member country of the Visa Waiver Program, you can apply for an ESTA. An ESTA is an automated document given to eligible US travelers in the VWP. The application process collects relevant bio-data and asks specific eligibility questions to determine if you can get the ESTA.

Questions asked concerning criminal activities involve:

  • If you have participated or plan to participate in activities such as terrorism, sabotage, espionage, or genocide.
  • If you have once committed serious damage to property, or harm to another person and have been arrested or convicted of it.
  • If you have committed crimes like fraud or misrepresentation when getting a US visa for yourself or another person.
  • If you have once violated laws on the possession, distribution, and use, of illegal drugs.

Minor traffic offenses without an arrest and conviction do not affect your ESTA application. Nevertheless, if you answer yes to any of the above, you could be denied an ESTA and need to apply for a visa instead.

Getting a US visa with a criminal record

Traveling to US with criminal record

When you are applying for a non-immigrant visa, having a criminal record can affect whether your visa application will be accepted or denied.

When applying for a visa, the first step will be to complete the DS-160 application form, which has a ‘Security and Background Section’ with specific questions on criminal activities including:

  • If you have been involved in, or plan to engage in money laundering.
  • If you have ever violated or participated in the violation of laws on controlled substances.
  • If you have been arrested or convicted of any crime or infraction.
  • If you have once incited, helped, perpetrated, commanded, or participated in violent, political, or extrajudicial executions.

You will also need to fill out the Personal Data Sheet and present an official document detailing your criminal history.


Traveling to US

Immigration law in the US can be complicated to understand. Border control officers may not be trained on how to interpret the law and entry accepting entry or denial is at their discretion. A criminal record can potentially deny you access to travel to the US but as you can see above, not all crimes do, and you can be eligible for an exception depending on the nature of the crime, how serious it was, and any special circumstances surrounding the process.

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Jimmy Im has traveled to 113 countries, stayed in over 600 hotels and has flown a million airmiles. He lives in New York City.

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