Americans impacted by felony convictions can travel to foreign counties, but the logistics can be complicated. There are a number of factors that will be taken into consideration: Your ability to obtain a passport; The country you intend to visit and do they require a US citizen to obtain a visa; The type of crime you were convicted of; and, The length of your sentence.
For our purposes here, the term “visa” excludes short-term “visitor visas” of ninety days or less. Most every country that lets you in will stamp your passport with a short-term “visitor visa” or similar indicator.
Most, but not all, convicted felons can eventually obtain a passport. In fact, if you have a passport and are involved in the criminal justice system, you need not turn it over to law enforcement unless you are ordered to do so by the court (please note that such court orders happen very frequently). Also, if you have served your time in custody and are on federal supervised release or state parole, it would be wise to discuss your plans with your probation/parole officer well in advance.
Upon application, the State department will scrutinize your background if you have a criminal record, but the limitations for granting or renewing a passport are narrow. If you have been convicted for international drug trafficking you cannot get a passport until your full sentence has expired, and if you have been convicted of a violent, or sex offense, you are unlikely to get a passport at all.
If you will be doing a lot of traveling, the State Department offers a U.S. passport card, a scannable supplement to a passport, which can get you through border security more quickly.
Once you have your passport, how about leaving the country? Some countries require you to obtain a visa for any length of stay, even stays of less than 90 days. However, many of the countries Americans choose to visit do not require visas at all.
Let’s look at the countries that physically border America.
Mexico does not require a visa; however, the government may deny entry to persons convicted of “serious” offenses which include armed robbery, drug trafficking and sex offenses. Mexico also requires documentation of your motor vehicle if you are driving. The Mexican border patrol will want to see your vehicle registration or a document, obtainable on-line from a Mexican consulate, attesting that you will not try to sell your car in Mexico.
Canada is one of the hardest countries for justice impacted Americans to enter. It is difficult for Americans with any kind of conviction or arrest to enter the True North. This applies especially to persons convicted of driving while intoxicated or reckless driving at any level.
Recently, Canada has somewhat relaxed its requirements, and the government will issue a certificate of “rehabilitation” to qualifying persons. Many immigration attorneys advertise their ability to assist the penitent in getting this certificate, but it will cost you. If you are wondering how the eagle-eyed Canadian border patrol can spot your complicated past, the U.S. and Canada share national crime databases. Border officers can check your background instantly.
The nations of the West Indies are easy to visit (except for Cuba, of course.) To the best of my knowledge, none of them require visitor visas or check for criminal records. The importance of tourism to these happy islands supersedes mulling over the checkers in your past. In the case of this Connecticut justice impacted person, I received my new passport, with the endorsement of my state parole officer, before my sentence was over so my fiancée and I could honeymoon in Jamaica.
Brazil and India make no inquiry into a traveler’s criminal past. You may plan to go to carnival in Rio or Diwali in Mumbai without a hassle. Japan officially does not allow persons with a felony record into their country but, unlike Canada, they have no reciprocal checks of American records. Likewise, African countries do not restrict entry to Americans with criminal records but have varying visa policies.
Another form of travel that many people enjoy is cruising. In general, cruise lines do not restrict justice-impacted persons from being passengers. However, Disney and some other cruise lines reserve the right to refuse passage to persons with criminal records. You should also be aware of the restrictions in counties where the ship docks. (Again, this is generally not a problem in the West Indies.)
Traveling to Great Britain is somewhat like Canada. British law forbids convicted felons from entering the country. However, many immigration attorneys claim that they can obtain waivers from this restriction. Also, the “immigration document” that you fill out before passing through British customs (usually on the plane before landing) does not ask about your history. So, you may slip through.
Other countries in Europe are part of a treaty called the Schengen Agreement1. Schengen Zone countries currently have visa-free arrangements for travel from the United States. Individual countries also have additional rules for the justice impacted, basically for persons who have served sentences longer than three years.
Beginning in January 2024 Schengen will require visitors to fill out a registration form on-line prior to entering the zone and pay an $8.00 fee. This is a new policy called ETIAS, European Travel Information and Authorization. The final details of the form have not been made public, so it is not known if this will affect the treatment of justice-impacted individuals. Several countries in Eastern Europe are not part of Schengen and have varied policies on entry.
As a practical matter, if you have a criminal history, it would be prudent for you to check with the consulate of any country you intend to visit before buying your ticket. Nothing could be worse than to be denied entry and then spend the night at a foreign airport waiting to take an unscheduled flight home.
A prepared traveler is a happy traveler. Bon voyage!
- The current Schengen countries are as follows: Austria, Belgium, Croatia, Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Iceland, Italy, Latvia, Liechtenstein, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Malta, Netherlands, Norway, Poland, Portugal, Slovakia, Slovenia, Spain Sweden and Switzerland
Thomas U. Gage is a member of the Ministry’s White Collar Support Group that meets every Monday evening on Zoom.