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Can You Travel With a Criminal Record? Here’s What Experts Say

In this month’s "Dear Eugene," we answer the question of how having a criminal record could impact your travels.

Inspired by our intrepid founder, Eugene Fodor, Dear Eugene is a new monthly series in which we invite readers to ask us their top travel questions. Each month, we’ll tap travel experts to answer your questions with the hopes of demystifying the more complicated parts of travel. Send your questions to [email protected] for a chance to have them answered in a future story.

Dear Eugene, I have a felony on my record. Will that impact my ability to travel internationally?

Many travelers may have convictions on their records and rightfully wonder if that can prevent them from traveling. Because of the complexities of the law and the nature of security procedures, that’s not always a straightforward answer. Traveling internationally adds another layer of complexity, as many countries compare inbound passenger lists to international police databases and have varying rules on who can be admitted.

What Counts as a Felony?

It depends on the jurisdiction. Each state and the federal government classify crimes differently, so a felony in one state may not be a felony in another, but a criminal record is an overall picture.

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“The FBI keeps a national database, as does the Department of Justice, and states have their own,” noted Janet Portman, an attorney licensed in California and the executive editor of Nolo. So, a “criminal record” is simply a list of a person’s convictions. All convictions, felonies, and misdemeanors are in those databases, as are dismissals and arrests.”

But does a criminal record keep a passenger from flying? It depends on a number of factors.

Domestic Travel Considerations

When travelers purchase a plane ticket for domestic travel they don’t go through a lot of criminal records checks. Airlines collect Secure Flight data (a full name and birthdate) to compare with the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) Secure Flight watchlist. There’s not a lot of detail out there regarding what gets travelers on the list, but it’s not as simple as having a felony conviction or not. Certain serious federal crimes (like air piracy or hijacking) are a surefire way to get on the list, but those types of crimes aren’t as widespread.

“People with criminal records could end up on this list, called the Terrorist Screening Database, which is maintained by the Terrorist Screening Center and is intended to counteract potential threats of terrorism and risks to airline safety,” explained Portman. “Specifically, the No-Fly List prohibits the people on it from flying within the US or to the US.; and the Selectee List subjects its listees to enhanced screening before boarding a flight.”

Another consideration is court orders or parole. Courts may restrict a defendant’s movements during the trial, and parole officers may limit travel for offenders in their charge, but they don’t generally rely on transportation providers to enforce those orders for them. Most people with criminal convictions who are subject to travel restrictions will be well-informed about them, so there aren’t likely to be any surprises at airport security checkpoints.

Law enforcement can, however, alert the TSA in some cases when they’re pursuing a warrant and believe the suspect may attempt to flee by air. The TSA isn’t law enforcement, but it will alert law enforcement (airports have dedicated police battalions) when necessary.

“The Transportation Security Administration does not screen airline passengers for criminal records,” a TSA spokesperson told Fodor’s. “However, the agency does screen for prohibited items to ensure that airline passengers are not in possession of any threats to aviation security.”

International Travel Considerations

While domestic travelers may not be subject to the scrutiny of their criminal records, international travelers typically are. Some countries are stricter on this than others, but a common example is American travelers who attempt to enter Canada with certain convictions for firearms, drug possession, or drunk driving.

“Several factors are used in determining admissibility into Canada, including involvement in criminal activity, human rights violations, organized crime, security, health, or financial reasons,” explained a spokesperson for Canada’s Border Service Agency. Under Canada’s immigration law, individuals who have committed or been convicted of a crime may be considered ‘criminally inadmissible’ and may not be allowed into Canada.

Strictly speaking, however, even entry restrictions in force by another country won’t prevent travelers with criminal convictions from boarding the flight. The spokesperson further explained that travelers won’t be aware they’re not admissible to Canada until they arrive at the border.

Canada’s perspective is relatively commonplace. Government border agencies only require airlines to verify that passengers have the travel documents necessary to board a flight to their country—they don’t screen criminal records until after the flight is complete. So yes, in most cases, it’s possible to fly with a felony conviction.

But what can travelers who suspect they may have difficulty entering another country do prior to travel? Thankfully, it’s not completely opaque. Again, using the example of Canada, travelers can check the government’s website to find out reasons they might not be admitted. Travelers with convictions can also find out how they might overcome their convictions under Canadian immigration law—that is, they have to demonstrate to immigration officials that their past convictions don’t make them a threat to the security and safety of Canadians. It can be a time-consuming process, and there’s no guarantee applications will be successful.

The European Union, however, has less strict rules and allows most travelers with minor infractions to enter the Schengen Area (the E.U.’s common border) without much difficulty. Travelers with criminal records—particularly those with felonies or serious crimes—should still check with the embassy or consulate of the E.U. country they’re planning to enter to make sure they won’t have difficulty. Travelers with convictions may need to apply for a separate visa to enter the country.

Can Traveler’s Insurance Cover Denied Entry Into a Country?

How can travelers insure against the nightmare scenario where they fly for hours to reach a foreign border, only to be turned away? In short—they can’t—not even with travel insurance. Travel Insurance policies only cover unforeseen events, and travelers are mostly aware of their own criminal records. Insurers expect travelers to have their admissibility to the countries on their itinerary sorted prior to travel, so being turned away at the border won’t be covered by an insurer.

However, travelers who are going through the visa process to mitigate their criminal record to enter a foreign country have another option. These travelers can purchase a Cancel For Any Reason policy, which allows them to cancel their trips and receive a refund for any reason (not just the covered reasons like illness or bereavement). This allows travelers with criminal records who ultimately have their visas or exception requests denied to claim refunds for their nonrefundable expenses.

In short, airlines won’t typically bar passengers with basic criminal records from traveling, and passengers with felonies can also travel internationally—usually after a significant amount of homework.

WorldTravelAddict March 29, 2024

I always like any information on how criminal convictions impact travel, but most articles, including this one don't even mention that sex offenses are a completely different challenge altogether.  There are many hundreds of thousands of people in the US with sex offense convictions, some very minor and yes, some serious, but as far as the US government is concerned, all should be punished for a lifetime.  If I travel from the US to any other country, the US sends a notice to the other country and tells them about my very old conviction and any counttry who recieves these notices with a few exceptions will turn you away.  There are too many people with these types of convictions to write an article like this and fail to mention that yes, felonies can be problemmatic for travel, but any type of sex offence convition, even a 20 year old misdemeanor will be a major problem.  Contacting your destination country in advance will not accomplish anything with a sex offense.  Even if the country responds favorably, the border agent is likely to refuse your attemted entry, potentially due to the notice that the US sends

williamalford7377 March 26, 2024

I had a 16 hour layover at Singapore Airport on my way to Thailand. Had no idea about these laws  I had an 8 pack of Dentine Gum, 2 vape pens and a carton of Marlboros. They actually had an outside smoking area on the roof of the transit area. I definitely chewed my gum and smoked my vape inside the airport. Glad I didn't get caught. Those fines would have ruined my vacation.