Travelling to America (USA) – A simple guide

The below ‘simple guide’ is a brief introduction to travelling to the US if you have a criminal record. However because it is a simple guide, it doesn’t cover everything.  Our detailed guide includes more information, and can be found here.

Visa Waiver or Visa?

Generally, those travelling to the US for leisure or business stays of less than 90 days can travel under the Visa Waiver Programme (VWP). However, if you have been arrested or convicted of certain offences, you may be anxious about your eligibility to travel.

The questions asked about criminal convictions on the Electronic System for Travel Authorisation (ESTA) website are:-

  1. Have you ever been arrested or convicted for a crime that resulted in serious damage to property, or serious harm to another person or government authority? More information on what this means can be found in our detailed guide.
  2. Have you ever violated any law related to possessing, using or distributing illegal drugs?  More information on what this means can be found in our detailed guide.
  3. Do you seek to engage in or have you ever engaged in terrorist activities, espionage, sabotage, or genocide?
  4. Have you ever committed fraud or misrepresented yourself to obtain, or assist others to obtain, a visa or entry into the United States?

The ESTA form can be accessed online.  There is a help link at the top of each web page if you need further clarification on any of the above questions.

You can also follow the flow chart below to establish whether you’re eligible to travel under the VWP.


Travelling under the Visa Waiver Programme

If you can answer “No” to all of the above questions, your criminal record doesn’t prevent you from using the VWP. You can apply for an ESTA online and travel without having to obtain a visa.  See here for further information regarding the ESTA form and moral turpitude.

Applying for a Visa

If you are not able to travel under the VWP, you will have to apply for a visa. A visa is issued by a US Embassy and entitles the holder to travel to the US and apply for admission; it does not guarantee entry. An immigration inspector at the port of entry determines your eligibility for admission to the US.

Also, unlike UK law which allows you to withhold details of certain cautions and criminal convictions after a set period of time, applicants for a US visa must declare all qualifying arrests, cautions and criminal convictions. The Rehabilitation of Offenders Act does not apply to US visa applications.

Steps for applying for a Visa

These steps apply to obtaining a B-2 Visa (Holiday visa).  For information on applying for different types of visa click here.

If need to apply for a Visa, you are required to do the following:-

  1. Complete an on-line visa application form – You need to complete a non-immigrant visa application form (DS-160) and pay the appropriate fee. For further information please see our detailed guide.
  2. Provide details of your criminal record – You do this by completing a Personal Data Sheet (VC01).  For further information please see our detailed guide.
  3. Provide official confirmation of your criminal record – You do this by obtaining a police certificate from ACPO issued less than 6 months before your visa interview.  For further information please see our detailed guide.
  4. Arrange an interview at the Embassy – You need to arrange and attend an interview at the US Embassy. For further information please see our detailed guide.
  5. Attend the interview – For further information please see our detailed guide.
  6. Wait for a decision

How much will it cost and how long will it take?

What documentation will I need to take to the interview?

You will be required to take the following documents with you to the Embassy interview to support your visa application:-

  • Confirmation of the visa application page (DS-160) 
  • The Non-Immigrant Visa Interview confirmation letter
  • A print out of the receipt for the MRV application fee which is sent together with the Non-Immigrant Interview confirmation letter
  • Your passport
  • Any supporting material to help your case

More information about what you need to take is covered in our detailed guide.

Who is likely to be granted a visa?

The consular officer will take certain important factors into consideration such as the egregiousness or seriousness) of the crime, the severity of the penalty, other criminal activity and how much time has elapsed between the time the offence was committed and the visa application.  The emphasis of the interview from your position should be to persuade the interviewing officer that you are an upstanding member of society who would not engage in further criminal activity within the US.

The decision to issue a visa

What if I am found to be permanently ineligible?

If the US Embassy finds you permanently ineligible to receive a visa, it will mean a lifetime exclusion from the United States unless you obtain a waiver of ineligibility from the United States Department of Homeland Security Customs and Border Protection (DHSCBP).  Details of how to get a waiver of ineligibility can be found in our detailed guide.

What if I am refused a visa?

If the consular officer should find it necessary to deny the issue of a visitor visa, and does not recommend a waiver of ineligibility, you may apply again if there is new evidence to overcome the basis for the refusal.  In the absence of new evidence, consular officers are not obliged to re-examine such cases.