Prior Criminal Offenses


If you are a U.S. or Canadian citizen and have ever had any type of criminal conviction, you should thoroughly check out current border regulations before you leave. The two countries now share all criminal information from sources such as the FBI’s National Crime Information Center (NCIC) database and the Canadian Police Information Centre (CPIC) database. If a border officer checks these databases, your criminal record for both countries will be right there on their computer screen.

That long forgotten youthful indiscretion, or an alcohol related driving offense, may very well bar entry into either country.  Many a hunter or businessman has landed at a Canadian airport, only to be sent back out on the next flight because of a 10 year old drunk driving offense or a Vietnam era civil disobedience conviction.  In 2010, Canada denied entry to 6,948 Americans because of prior criminal offenses.

There are a very wide range of serious and seemingly minor offenses that can prevent your entry into either country.  Given the difference in laws between the countries, it is often very difficult to figure out how the other country will interpret your conviction.  A conviction that prohibits entry into Canada may not prohibit entry to the U.S., and vice versa.

Generally speaking, serious offenses will make a person inadmissible to either Canada or the United States regardless of when they occurred.  You are also likely be stopped if you have a warrant out for your arrest, have pending charges, or a trial in process.   Minor offenses, especially if they are more than 5 years old, may be less of a problem.  All of these rules apply equally to minors.

You may hear stories of people who were allowed to cross the border even though they had a criminal offense.   Others will say that they were allowed to cross 2 or 3 times and were then stopped the next time they tried to cross.  Why?  Because it is always the final decision of officers at ports of entry to decide whether a person should be allowed into the country.   The simple fact is – if you have an offense on your record it may be a problem.

We have additional pages with detailed discussions on various aspects of this problem.  See:

Acquittals and Non-Convictions

In theory, an arrest that resulted in no conviction or an acquittal should not prevent you from crossing the border.  This also applies to suspended imposition of sentence, pre-trial intervention and conditional discharge programs. However, whenever anyone is arrested and fingerprinted, a criminal record is automatically created and officials can access those records indefinitely – even if the person is acquitted.    Border officials have complete discretion as to whether to let someone pass and even an acquittal might cause them concern and influence their decision.

In addition, there are frequently delays or errors in updating records so yours may be years out of date or may not show an acquittal.  There are also situations where the record has been updated but the case disposition is unclear to the border officer.   You can therefore be denied entry even if you were never convicted of a crime.

Pardon & Expungements

Many Americans and Canadians approach the border after being granted a pardon or an expungement for their conviction and assume that this will be sufficient for erasing their criminal record from the border agencies record systems. Unfortunately, Canada and the United States generally do not recognize each other’s pardon and expungement policies.  This means that having your offense expunged will not erase the conviction for the purposes of immigration or travelling into either country.

Border agents will still be able to see your conviction, and while they will also be able to see that it was expunged, this is not necessarily grounds for granting you entry to the country.  The only types of expungements that would completely remove inadmissibility are those that remove all traces of a previous conviction, including on your NCIC record (FBI).  This means that you can honestly report that you were never convicted of any offence, unequivocally.

Although having a crime expunged or pardoned will not resolve criminal inadmissibility to the country, it can help demonstrate that the individual has been rehabilitated when producing a Criminal Rehabilitation application or showcasing the fact that the person is not a threat to Canada on the Temporary Resident Permit application.

What Can You Do?

Does all this mean you will never be able to cross the border if you have a criminal conviction?  No.

Both the United States and Canada have procedures that can enable you to enter that country despite a criminal conviction.  You should review our pages on Resolving Inadmissibility to Canada and Resolving Inadmissibility to the United States for detailed discussion on how to overcome inadmissibility.

It is important to keep in mind that border officers for both countries have a significant amount of discretion in determining who to let into their country.  While it may seem intuitive, being as cooperative and as friendly as possible at the border can work wonders for being granted entry even with a criminal conviction. This is not the time to rail against the system and argue that the laws don’t make sense.

Several Things You Shouldn’t Do

Don’t lie.  If you are caught misrepresenting your record your chances of ever getting across the border again will drop significantly.  A U.S. border official will almost certainly ban you for 5 years on the spot with no chance to appeal. Canadian officers are no more lenient.

Secondly, do not attempt entry at a different border crossing on the same day thinking you have a fresh chance with a new officer.  Denied admissions are updated immediately in a centralized database and will be visible at all ports of entry.  If you look like you are trying to evade the system you will further jeopardize your ability to enter the country for the rest of your life.

Finally, there is a chance that the driver of the car or people travelling with you could also be deemed inadmissible – and even face criminal charges – if they are aware of your inadmissibility and your intent to hide it.

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