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Travelling with a Criminal Record – 5 Things You Need to Know

Travel is a favourite pastime of Canadians, and as Canadians, we’re privileged to be able to see the world. Unfortunately, for people with criminal records, travel is not so easy. There are many misconceptions around attempting to cross the border with a criminal record. These false notions have consequently resulted in many Canadians and residents being turned away, arrested or detained at the borders around the world. If you have a criminal record, It’s important to know what your record is and take the appropriate steps to ensure a hassle-free border crossing. 

The border with our neighbour to the south (The United States of America – #amerikuh) is the most well documented and our most frequently crossed border. To save writing a novel, we’ll focus on it. With few exceptions, whether entering by sea, air, or land, those who hold a criminal record are not allowed to enter into the United States without a U.S. Entry Waiver. UB Border Guards (US Customs and Border Protection – aka CBP) have access to the CPIC database, which holds all Canadian criminal records. CBP may access your record within CPIC by simply entering your name and date of birth.

Once Border Officers have pulled up your criminal record, they have the ability to see your convictions, sentencing, and any non-conviction charges.  They also have the ability to save the file within their own database, meaning that they may access it if you attempt to cross into the U.S. again from any port of entry – even if/after you’ve been pardoned. 

Before you try and cross any border with a criminal record, here are the 5 things you should know:

#1:  A Criminal Record is a Criminal Record 

A misconception is that if your record does not fall under “crimes against moral turpitude” (e.g., DUI or Assault), you will not be withheld from entering the United States. However, this is not guaranteed because U.S. border officials are given full discretionary authority over who may enter and who may not. Border officials routinely deny entry to Canadians and residents of Canada with a criminal record, no matter what the offence.  Even those with criminal records for offences that may not appear serious can still be denied entry. Any criminal record could be denied entry into the United States.

#2  Charges Don’t Disappear!

The notion that old charges will not appear, or will not matter to Border Officers when crossing into the states, has landed many Canadians in trouble. Even if a charge is 40 years old or more, individuals can still be denied entry into the U.S.  Regardless of whether the charges seem dated, or a person’s record has been clean for decades, Border Officers can deny access to anyone.

#3: Just because you haven’t been denied, doesn’t mean you won’t be denied! 

Some travellers have crossed over to the U.S. with a criminal record on many occasions and have yet to be denied entry.  This has lead individuals to believe they will not have any issues in the future. The notion that you will be fine because you have not yet been denied entry into the U.S., in spite of your criminal record, is completely false.  Often, Border Officers will do secondary screening on non-U.S. citizens attempting to enter. This is where your criminal history will appear, and at this point you may be denied entry, barred, or detained.

#5:  CBP can Still See Withdrawn Charges and Pardons!

One issue that has caused many Canadians issues at the border when attempting to enter the U.S. is the fact that withdrawn charges, a discharge, or a stay of proceedings, will still appear on a criminal record.

Obtaining a Canadian Pardon (Record Suspension) is a valuable and important step for all Canadians and residents with a criminal record, however, the U.S. does not recognize foreign pardons as grounds for entering their country. Even individuals who have not technically been convicted may still experience issues when attempting to cross over to the U.S. Even those who have been previously Pardoned are not in the clear.

What should you do if you have a criminal record and want to travel?

Step 1: Complete a Criminal Record Check. Checks can be done through your local police or services like My Criminal Record Check: https://mycrc.ca/

Step 2: Obtain a Pardon, Now called a Record Suspension

Obtaining a Record Suspension is a valuable and important step for all Canadians with a criminal record, however, the U.S. does not recognize foreign pardons as grounds for entering their country.  A Pardon will not guarantee your legal entry into the United States.  

Step 3: Apply for a U.S. (or country you plan to travel to) entry Waiver before making any plans to visit another country. 

Taking chances with Border Officials when attempting to enter another country without a valid Waiver could put an end to any planned vacations, cause extreme embarrassment, or even result in you being detained. Taking the time to apply for a waiver in advance (especially in the US), and crossing into the states with the proper documentation can save you from being denied, arrested, detained or worse.