Travelling is both easier and harder to do for Canadians in the 21st century. On the one hand, the infrastructure to travel, like cars, trains, and planes, is better than ever. Trips to the other side of the world that once took months and put people at physical and medical risk can now be undertaken in just over 15 hours and are much safer.
On the other hand, the notion of borders and travel authorization or permits are now much more strictly controlled than they have ever been in the past. A few centuries ago, borders were just lines on maps, and people could freely cross into nations or disembark on a ship without needing a passport, visa, or other official travel documentation.
So while the ability to move from one location to the next has vastly improved, the administration behind permitting people to enter into other nations has gotten more complicated. Now photos, thumbprints, and even background checks may all be a part of the travel process. There’s one big thing that can have a considerable impact on the ability of the average Canadian to travel, and that is a criminal record.
The World is More Concerned with Security
Travelling abroad is good for the soul, and in some cases, it may be a necessary part of a career for those who need to conduct business in other countries. However, as with Canada, many nations prefer to have people visit their shores who are less likely to “cause trouble,” and one of the things that can immediately raise a red flag is a criminal record.
The level of difficulty regarding travel varies around the world. Different regions of the world will have unique policies as to how a criminal record holder will be dealt with. Some nations will be a bit more forgiving about the presence of a criminal record. Others will have less tolerance and even conduct on the spot background checks, which, if a record is found, will result in immediate denial to enter that country.
It’s important to note, however, that the above refers strictly to criminal convictions. Few nations will do anything about someone who has a series of unpaid traffic tickets or fines for jaywalking, for example. But if a crime was severe enough to warrant a trial and resulted in a conviction, stiff fines, or jail time served, with a probationary period, that is a different matter entirely.
So what does this mean for Canadians who want to go to another country but they hold a criminal record?
The Big Risk: Lying
One of the big questions that any Canadian with a criminal record has to wrestle with is, “Should I be honest about my conviction?”
Being asked about criminal activity when entering another country is almost inevitable. As you near your destination, you will receive an immigration card and have to fill out your traveller details. Among the items that the form asks is whether or not a traveller has ever been convicted of a crime, and, if so, what the crime was.
In theory, travellers are supposed to answer this honestly and, if a criminal conviction is present, put in the details. In reality, not everyone follows the rules and merely fills out “no.” They may do this for many reasons even if this is not true; for example, they may believe it is faster and simpler and will get people through customs quicker.
However, every single time a traveller lies, there is a risk. People who lie when completing these forms are counting on a number of factors to play out in their favour. They are hoping that the lines for travellers coming through immigration are large. They are hoping that the immigration officers at their destination are more concerned with processing people as quickly as possible instead of being thorough. And last but not least, they are hoping that they do not appear suspicious enough when interacting with an immigration officer that the officer will take extra action to conduct a background search.
The Consequences of Being Dishonest about Your Record
People with criminal records who undertake this gamble may win out in the end. But on many occasions when the risk doesn’t pay off, the consequences are significant. People who do have a background check conducted on them are in a serious amount of trouble because there is now documented proof that they lied on an official government form. Checking off “no” to a criminal record when the computer database retrieval clearly shows the presence of a criminal record is proof enough of lying to a government organization and is usually dealt with appropriately.
It’s not unusual for people who are caught lying about a criminal record to be legally prohibited from entering a country again. However, different nations have different policies and procedures about criminal records, so your choice of destination very much determines what your options are.
Criminal Record & Travel Processes Around the World
Singapore, a city-state in Southeast Asia and located between Malaysia and Indonesia, is regarded as one of the most advanced, stable, and highly developed cities in the region. That makes it a natural gathering point for cargo bound around the world as well as businesses setting up regional headquarters in the area.
Despite having stringent laws, Singapore does not actually include any questions about a criminal record on their visa cards for travellers to fill out. However, there is a chance that you may be asked about a record by an immigration officer at the airport. In this case, it is probably better to answer honestly. But in most instances, people with criminal records can easily travel to Singapore without any legal complications.
Japan, on the other hand, has pretty strict immigration laws, though enforcement is not as reliable. Japanese immigration law states that if a person has served a year or more of jail time, with or without labour, then they are legally unwelcome in the country.
They also include questions on their immigration cards about whether a traveller has a criminal record or not. So while the honour system is clearly at play here, there are now definite ramifications for lying, since your lie is officially documented.
The European Union
Since the European Union (EU) encompasses so many countries, the documentation process here is a lot more streamlined and straightforward. For one thing, visitors choosing to stay 90 days or less in the EU don’t even need to fill out a visa, and so there’s no real worry about being honest regarding the presence of a criminal record because it’s simply not going to come up.
On the other hand, for work purposes or visits longer than three months, the process is different, and you’ll have to think more carefully about how you want to respond. There will be more risk—and more severe consequences—if you lie under greater scrutiny.
The United Kingdom
Now that the United Kingdom (UK) is splitting from the EU, its own travel policies are going to be taking more precedence. The legal system in the UK has a concept known as “spent,” which essentially accepts the idea that a person may have become rehabilitated if enough time had passed between a crime and the attempt to enter the UK.
Crimes will have different limitations concerning when or how the spent concept applies. So this is one of those areas where criminal record holders in Canada will need to look at their conviction and see how it lines up with UK law on when a crime is considered “spent.”
The United States
Here is the most common destination of all for many Canadian travellers. Due to our proximity to the United States, it’s easy for lots of Canadians to hop on a plane or even drive south to the border and cross over in a car. But doing so, while easy, has some strict restrictions for people with criminal records.
The United States and Canada have a deeply intertwined security and legal system regarding border patrol. As a result, many policies between the two countries are in agreement and very elaborate. One of these is the policy on criminal record holders.
In the United States, Customs and Border Protection has the legal authority to permanently bar entry to any Canadian who is found to have committed a crime that qualifies as “moral turpitude” according to United States law. These crimes are pretty much what you’d expect from the name alone. Criminal convictions for drug trafficking, theft, fraud, assault, murder, or rape all fall under the moral turpitude category.
Expect Border Security to be Heightened
The United States, in particular, has increased its emphasis on border security. For Canadians, this means that now, more than ever, trunks are being searched at the border, officers are asking for phones and other computing devices to conduct spot checks, and more questions are fielded about intentions for visiting the country.
As a result, it should come as no surprise that far more backgrounded checks are being conducted than they were in the past. So if you either make the mistake of filling out a form on a plane declaring that you do not possess a criminal record, when in fact you do, or attempt to cross the border, you may be in some trouble. If you have a check conducted, revealing your criminal history, you are not going to be allowed to leave the airport or are going to be turned away at the border.
Travelling with a Criminal Record the Right Way
There are essentially two ways for you to legally enter the United States of America if you have a criminal record.
The first is to get a pardon or record suspension that seals your conviction. In this case, if U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) conducts a check, they will find nothing because your record will appear “clean.” However, this solution only works if you have never had a background check conducted before.
If CBP has already looked you up, and you have been found to have a record and were barred from entry, that data is downloaded from the Canadian Police Information Centre (CPIC) database to that of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), and it is permanently visible. The DHS data will be used from now on, so whenever you cross, even if you now have a record suspension, they will know about and make a decision based on your history.
The other solution is to get a document known as a U.S. entry waiver. The Department of Homeland Security issues this document after a Canadian has successfully applied. It states the DHS is aware of your record but is waiving standard legal procedure in your case and allowing you to enter the USA.
Getting a U.S. Entry Waiver – I-192 I-194
A U.S. entry waiver is not easy to get. It is only good for between one trip and five years, and then you must be re-apply for one. The application requires numerous supporting documents, including employee confirmation and letters of reference from valid sources. You must supply court records, numerous applications forms, and a non-refundable processing fee of USD 585. Even after all that, it may take anywhere between 6–14 months to find out whether an application has been approved or rejected.
The U.S. entry waiver process is extremely complex and lengthy. If you want the best possible chance of success, you should talk to groups experienced in helping applicants get through the requirements. But keep in mind that while getting an entry waiver makes entering the United States much more feasible, this is only for the United States.
Gaining entry into other countries will require individual actions and protocols, so always make sure to check first. If you’re planning to visit a country other than the United States, look into what the requirements are and if there are any restrictions, penalties, or outright bans on travellers with criminal records who wish to enter these nations. Every nation will have different standards about these policies.
If you need help applying for a U.S. entry waiver or have some questions about obtaining a record suspension, contact us today.