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US Travel with a Canadian Criminal Record

Having a criminal history certainly creates a great deal of uncertainly for Canadians with regard to US travel. While some convictions will almost guarantee denial of entry without a US travel waiver, for others it is much less clear.

Even though Canada offers pardons to some offenders, they are not necessarily recognized by the US (US customs usually does not care that you were pardoned). Further, Canadian criminal records can be acquired from CPIC and stored permanently in the US database even after a pardon has been issued. Even though the Canadian CPIC record may be clean of convictions, the information may still be held and accessible to US customs in their own system (see below).

Can you travel to the United States with a Criminal Record?

It depends.

The US Customs and Border protection service has a right to refuse admission into the United States for any individual who is not a US citizen. While Canadians are exempt from Visa requirements to enter the US for the purpose of travel, the US customs service still has the discretionary power to deny them entry.

When you present yourself at a US port of entry and your passport is scanned into the US database, they will often check the CPIC record (Canadian Police Information Center) to look for criminal convictions. If a conviction shows up, they may deny you entry into the United States because of it.

While it is unclear exactly how the US and Canada share information relating to customs, it is generally accepted that once the US discovers a record in CPIC they will store it in their own computer system indefinitely. This means that even if your offense is pardoned and removed from CPIC, the US will still have a record of it if you attempted to enter the United States prior to the pardon being granted and wiped from the CPIC system.

As a Canadian, you have a right to obtain your CPIC record under the Freedom of Information Act. It is advisable to ensure your CPIC is clean before attempting to enter the United States. Failure to do so may result in your record being permanently stored in the US computer database and thus you continually being denied access to the United States even after you are pardoned.

What crimes does the US deny travel entry to?

If you have been convicted of a crime of "moral turpitude" you will be denied entry into the United States without a travel waiver permitting your entry.

Some common crimes that the US does not consider crimes of moral turpitude include: common assaults, break and enter, liquor violations, firearm violations, drunk driving, and tax evasion.

Just because your conviction isn't listed as a crime of moral turpitude does not mean you will be allowed to enter the United States. Customs officers still have the right to refuse you entry without any specific reasons.

Customs may still choose to refuse you even if your conviction isn't for a crime of moral turpitude. This often happens when people lie about previous convictions that are visible in the computer system. Obviously, remaining polite and truthful is important for all people wishing clear US customs and enter the US (particularly those with criminal records of any sort).

Could I have a problem travelling to the US if I was found not guilty, or was later pardoned?

You could still have a problem.

US customs have a right to ask any question they wish of you, including "have you ever been arrested?". Even if you are found not guilty, or if you were found guilty and subsequently pardoned, the truthful answer to this question is still "yes" (because you were arrested). 

Also, even if you were pardoned, if asked by customs if you were ever convicted of anything, the truthful answer is still yes (you were still convicted, despite being later pardoned). Don't assume that just because you don't have a conviction showing in CPIC that your contacts with the police or criminal justice system won't become an issue upon inspection.

Since you don't know for sure what computer databases the US customs has access to you could be accused of lying to US customs if you answer these questions incorrectly. Provincial police databases keep permanent records of all charges ever filed against you (even those that were later withdrawn, acquitted, or pardoned). Does the US customs have access to provincial criminal information databases? We don't know for sure. It's possible that they do.

There are several immigration agreements between Ontario and the United States with regard to mobility (for example, the availability of enhanced driver's licenses). It's quite possible that Ontario is sharing their police databases with the US customs.

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