Travelling to the US – Travelling without a visa

Aim of this page

This section looks at travelling to the US without a visa if you have a criminal record.

It forms part of our information on travelling to the US including:

Why is this important

In 2015, over 4.9 million people visited the US from the UK. A significant number of these will have some form of criminal record. Many people successfully apply for a visa through the US Embassy but many will simply choose to travel under the Visa Waiver Program (VWP) without declaring their criminal record.

It’s important to be clear about the possible consequences of choosing not to disclose your conviction.

The Visa Waiver Program (VWP)

What is the Visa Waiver Program?

The VWP enables nationals of participating countries, including the United Kingdom, to travel to the US for tourism or business for stays of 90 days or less without obtaining a visa.

Historically, travel under the VWP has been free. However, under a new US law that became effective on 4th March 2010, a fee of at least $10.00 is to be charged for each authorisation under the Electronic System for Travel Authorisation (ESTA) for visa-free travel to the United States.

For more details on the VWP, and those who cannot travel under it, visit the Travel.State.Gov website. Essentially, you may use the VWP to travel if:

  • You have received an authorisation to travel under the VWP through the Electronic System for Travel Authorisation (ESTA).
  • You present the appropriate type of passport valid for six months past your expected stay in the United States (unless country-specific arrangements provide exemptions, which the UK does).
  • The purpose of your stay in the United States is 90 days or less for tourism or business (Visitor (B) visa).
  • If arriving by air or sea, you are travelling on an approved carrier and have a return trip ticket to any foreign destinations.
  • You can demonstrate the intent to stay 90 days or less in the United States and demonstrate sufficient funds to support yourself while in the United States.

When do I have to apply for a visa instead of using the VWP?

You must meet the guidelines listed in the section above in order to seek admission to the US under the VWP. Those who do not meet these guidelines must apply for a visa.

The Electronic System for Travel Authorisation (ESTA)

Previously, a non-immigrant visa waiver arrival/departure form was completed before travel to the US. This process now has to be done electronically before travel.

Since 12th January 2009, you have to register with the Electronic System for Travel Authorisation (ESTA) via the system’s website before you travel. Effectively, the ESTA replaces the previous requirement for you to fill in a green visa waiver form every time you enter the US. Instead, the ESTA is valid for multiple entries over a two-year period as long as you do not change passports in the meantime. Since January 2010, VWP travellers who have not obtained approval through ESTA should expect to be denied boarding on any air carrier bound for the United States.

You may travel under the VWP if you have received an authorisation to travel under the VWP through the Electronic System for Travel Authorisation. The ESTA process asks questions regarding criminal convictions. If you answer ‘yes’ to the questions that are asked during the ESTA process (see here for further information) regarding convictions, you will be told that you are not eligible to travel under the VWP and will instead have to apply for a visa.

What can you do if you’re ineligible to travel under the Visa Waiver Program (VWP)?

If your criminal record means that you are ineligible to travel under the Visa Waiver Program (VWP), then there are two options:

  1. Apply for a visa
  2. Lie on the ESTA form and travel under the VWP.

Many people who contact Unlock ask “If I don’t declare my conviction, is there any way they can find out?”. The answer is, if you don’t tell the US about your criminal record, they probably won’t find out.

Lying on the ESTA form

Access to the UK Police National Computer (PNC)

The United States does not have access to the Police National Computer (see the FOI response below). The security services do share information about high-profile crimes, serious offences or if someone is a security risk, but this is not done as a matter of routine.

However, the United States authorities are able to seek details of any criminal convictions held on the Police National Computer on an individual request basis through Interpol channels. This rarely happens.

Potential offences for non-disclosure

If you attempt to travel under the Visa Waiver Program and as a result have to make a false declaration to the questions asked as part of the Electronic System for Travel Authorisation (ESTA) process, you are potentially committing a criminal offence under US law. In particular, two areas of law are relevant:

  1. The Immigration and Nationality Act – Sec. 275. [8 U.S.C. 1325] – Entry of alien at improper time or place; misrepresentation and concealment of facts – Maximum 2 years in prison
  2. U.S. Code Title 18, Part 1, Chapter 75, Section 1546 – Fraud and misuse of visas, permits and other documents – Maximum 10 years in prison. Further details can be found below.

People lie all the time – but is it right for you?

We speak to people all the time who are weighing up whether to lie on the ESTA form or whether to apply for a visa. Ultimately, this is a decision that only you can make.

For some people, the potential offences for non-disclosure, coupled with the anxiety they’d feel when travelling, makes them decide that applying for a visa is the right route to go.

For others, hearing from friends that have travelled with no problems makes them think that there won’t be a problem.

Taking the decision to lie can make it more difficult to apply for a visa in the future as any visa application will highlight the fact that you’ve travelled ‘illegally’ in the past (this would presumably throw into doubt any claim you make to be a law-abiding citizen). If you think that there’s a chance that you may want to live or work in the US in the future, then lying on the ESTA form may not be the right decision for you.

How would the US find out about a conviction?

We made a Freedom of Information Act request to the Home Office to clarify the situation. We asked …..

“I would like to ascertain the current procedure in place for information on the Police National Computer (or other criminal conviction-related information) to be shared with the United States.

I would like copies of any agreements that have been made to allow the United States access to information on the PNC (or access to other criminal conviction information).

On a similar note, I would like to ascertain, within the response to my request for the information above, if the United States authorities (whether the US Embassy in the UK  or the US Security department) have access to criminal conviction information of individuals who travel to the US without the individual concerned having previously applied for a Police Certificate under the Visa Scheme that is in place through the US Embassy.

In short, I would like to know how the US authorities are able to ascertain whether an individual from the UK has a criminal record. This presumably relates to any agreements that are in place between the US authorities and the Home Office for sharing of such information, and it is these agreements that I would like to receive copies of.”

They responded…

“Thank you for your e-mail of 25 June in which you asked for the current procedure in place for information on the Police National Computer (or other criminal conviction-related information) with the United States.

The Home Office does not hold a copy of any agreement by which information on the Police National Computer (or other criminal conviction-related information) is shared with the United States. We are however aware of the general process by which information is shared. In deciding to release the information we have considered that the public interest in relation to the exemptions set out in Section 31(1)(a) [the prevention and detection of crime] and 31(1)(b) [the apprehension and prosecution of offenders] of the Freedom of Information Act falls in favour or providing the information.

The public interest reason in favour of withholding the information is to make sure that those who have committed crimes or who have otherwise come to the attention of the law enforcement authorities in each country are not aware that information is shared between the United States and the United Kingdom. The Public Interest Test arguments in favour of disclosure are that it is important for members of the public to be aware that information is shared between the two countries. By doing this the public can be re-assured that criminals are not able to escape justice by moving country, or by committing crimes in a country that is not that of their nationality. In this case the public interest argument in favour of withholding the information is outweighed by the arguments in favour of releasing the information.

The United States authorities do not have routine access to criminal record information held on the Police National Computer nor is the Police Certificate Process routine access to the PNC by the American Authorities. The Police Certificate arrangements are with the individual applicants who may or may not choose to subsequently share the content of the certificate with the US authorities. Further information on the ACRO Police Certificate Process can be found on the ACRO website at http://acpo.police.uk/certificates.asp and on the application form page of the same website at http://acpo.police.uk/Certificates/Application%20Form%208.doc.

The United States authorities are able to seek details of any criminal convictions held on the Police National Computer on an individual basis through Interpol channels.

Criminal conviction information on US Nationals who have been convicted of offences in England and Wales is extracted from the Police National Computer and sent, via Interpol channels to the United States in cases where there are fingerprints available and when the conviction is for imprisonment for 12 months or more or the offence is against national security or where sharing would be in the interest of pubic protection.”

To download a copy of the full response from the Home Office, click here.

Annex A – The US Code, Title 18, Part 1, Chapter 75, Section 1546

The text below is taken from the above legislation (available here) and details a potential offence under US Immigration laws for failing to disclose a criminal record when travelling to the US:

“Whoever knowingly forges, counterfeits, alters or falsely makes any immigrant or non-immigrant visa, permit, border crossing card, alien registration, receipt card, or other document prescribed by statute or regulation for entry into or as evidence of authorised stay or employment in the United States, or utters, uses, attempts to use, possesses, obtains, accepts, or receives any such visa, permit, border crossing card, alien registration receipt card, or other document prescribed by statute or regulation for entry into or as evidence of authorised stay or employment in the United States, knowing it to be forged, counterfeited, altered, or falsely made, or to have been procured by means of any false claim or statement, or to have been otherwise procured by fraud or unlawfully obtained; or

Whoever, except under direction of the Attorney General or the Commissioner of the Immigration and Naturalization Service, or other proper office, knowingly possesses any blank permit, or engraves, sells, brings into the United States, or has in his control or possession any plate in the likeness of a plate designed for the printing of permits, or makes any print, photograph, or impression in the likeness of any immigrant or non-immigrant visa, permit or other document required for entry into the United States, or has in his possession a distinctive paper which has been adopted by the Attorney General or the Commissioner of the Immigration and Naturalization Service for the printing of such visas, permits, or documents; or

Whoever, when applying for an immigrant or non-immigrant visa, permit, or other document required for entry into the United States, or for admission to the United States personates another, or falsely appears in the name of a deceased individual, or evades or attempts to evade the immigration laws by appearing under an assumed or fictitious name without disclosing his true identity, or sells or otherwise disposes of, or offers to sell or otherwise dispose of, or utters, such visa, permit, or other document, to any person not authorised by law to receive such document; or

Whoever knowingly makes under oath, or as permitted under penalty of perjury under section 1746 of title 28, United States Code, knowingly subscribes as true, any false statement with respect to a material fact in any application, affidavit, or other document required by the immigration laws or regulations prescribed thereunder, or knowingly presents any such application, affidavit, or other document which contains any such false statement or which fails to contain any reasonable basis in law or fact –

Shall be fined under this title or imprisoned not more than 25 years (if the offence was committed to facilitate an act of international terrorism (as defined in section 2331 of this title), 20 years (if the offence was committed to facilitate a drug trafficking crime (as defined in section 929 (a) of this title), 10 years (in the case of the first or second such offence, if the offence was not committed to facilitate such an act of international terrorism or a drug trafficking crime), or 15 years (in the case of any other offence) or both.”

Frequently asked questions

Many people with convictions travel to the US every year from the UK, they do not disclose their convictions and they travel without any issues. However, to do this, you will need to lie as part of the ESTA application process and by doing this you are potentially committing a criminal offence under US law. We are not aware of anybody that has been prosecuted for this, but we are aware of instances where individuals have been questioned by officials and sent back to the UK on the next flight (at their own cost).

If your visit is for business, this could have implications on your future employment. Not knowing what would happen if you were questioned can be extremely worrying. For those who are travelling for a holiday, the anxiety could ruin your trip. If you think that it is better to lie on the ESTA, you will need to be prepared to continue the lie if you are questioned face to face by an Immigration Officer in the US. This can be quite a frightening experience.

Discuss this with others

Read and share your experiences on our online forum.

Key sections include:

Useful links

Below you will find links to useful websites relating to this page. More specific details (including addresses and telephone numbers) of some of the organisations listed below can be found here.

More information

  1. For practical information – More information on travelling to the US
  2. To read personal stories – You can read stories about this posted on theRecord, our online magazine under the tag of travelling to the USA
  3. To discuss this with others – Read and share your experience on our online forum
  4. Questions – If you have any questions about this you can contact our helpline.

Get involved

Help us to add value to this information. You can:

  1. Send your feedback directly to us
  2. Discuss your views and experiences on our online forum
  3. Share your story by contributing to our online magazine, theRecord.
This page was last fully reviewed and updated in August 2017. If you’ve spotted something that needs updating, please let us know by emailing the details to advice@unlock.org.uk.

 

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  • Rachel

    Hi,

    If I’m convinced for blue badge fraud, will I be allowed in
    to the usa?

  • Tommy

    Im getting married in new york next year and 1 of my mate was convicted of driving with no car insurance n got a ban n fine will he be able to still get an esta

  • dannys

    Driving without insurance isn’t moral turpitude, so he can answer no to the question.

    Look at it this way, you may forget to renew your insurance, that doesn’t mean you have committed a crime that is “inherently base, vile, or depraved, and contrary to the accepted rules
    of morality and the duties owed between persons or to society in
    general”.

    The only way this could affect your travel plans is if CBP asked you, on arrival, if you have every been arrested, you lie, you then get refused entry for the lie, not the crime.

    DUI is also NOT moral turpitude, and one DUI will have no effect on travel. (just thought I’d drop that in)

    CBP operate a website where they have questions and answer pages, they also operate this ESTA system. If in any doubt ask them or look for there Q&A page on the website.

    Have a good wedding.

  • Angela

    Hi my husband was part of a group involved with arson ( burnt a school down), he was 14 at the time and has never been in trouble since. This was in 1986 because he was under 18 does it count as moral turpitude.
    Thanks

  • Richard Murphy

    Would a conviction for death by dangerous driving 20 years ago be considered as moral turpitude?
    Thanks

  • lynnette

    hi i was done at age 17 for common asult on school bully will this stop me getting into usa i never been in trouble since

  • Gayle Louise Stephen

    My fiancé had a caution for possession of a small quantity of marijuana in 1994 when he was just 14 years old and has not committed any other related crime since so this will have been stepped down. He was not arrested and was not required to attend court because he accepted the caution. Would he be eligible under the visa waiver program or would he still have to apply for a visa in full?

  • Dean Anderson

    “serious damage to property, or serious harm to another person or government authority,”

    Nothing about moral turpitude any more. So its fairly straight forward Common assault is not serious, ABH and GBH are serious. Criminal damage is a different matter as you can be charged with this for a minor scuff to arson.

  • Dean Anderson

    Nope common assault is a minor offence

  • Dean Anderson

    Moral turpitude is not on the question. Have a read of the declaration again and I am sure you can make a better decision

  • Dean Anderson

    That is a crime intent to deceive the Government so I would say you would have to put yes in the box and go down the visa road

  • Dean Anderson

    Go to the USA embassy

  • Adam

    Regarding Dean’s comments “Nothing about moral turpitude any more.” and “Moral turpitude is not on the question.”

    This is misleading: the article doesn’t say it’s in the question, it says it’s in the guidance for the question – and it still is. You need to click “guidance” to see it.

  • Derek

    Hi my son was convicted of battery in 2008 and does this count. I can’t find the answers anywhere

  • Hannah

    Did you get an answer on this? My partner has the same conviction.

  • Aoprove

    Christopher Stacey
    Co-director | Unlock, for people with convictions
    email: christopher.stacey@unlock.org.uk
    phone: 07557 676433

    Sent from my mobile

  • sarah

    I was convicted of vandalism when i was 15, should i put yes ? and explain the situation if asked

  • Christopher

    Can you have entry to the USA if you have been convicted of common assault by beating

  • James

    Hi I was 15 (juvenile) and shoplifted I wasnt taken to court, no fingerprints were taken and no pictures were taken would this affect me getting an immigration visa?

  • Andrea Kay

    My partner had a convictoion for violent disorder in 2002. There was no custodial sentence and a one year football banning order which may turn up as ‘not active’ on his police certificate. Previously to be safe we declared this as were concerned about the whole moral turpitude question but from the guidance above it appears to not require a visa. My question is if he previoisly held a visa and tries to go down the esta route would he the be barred from a tourist visa if eata is refused and if esta is granted is that it or could they cross check and refuse entry because he previously beld a tourist visa as a result of this conviction
    Im assuming the visa would be granted as the charge is the same as the previous application and he has no convictions since

  • Andrea Kay

    Asking very much the same. My partner applied and was sucessful after a conviction for violent disorder football related back in 2002. He had no custodial sentence so im terrified the fact you were turned down in 2005 for a visa means they have changed the rules. Im not sure if the esta checks previois applications and have a lot riding on getting him a visa granted.

  • Elliot

    I think they are two different things, I was refused visa free entry, which means I have to apply each time.
    My other half spoke to someone who worked at the embassy’s at the time, and he told her it is down to the immigration/consulate person you get on the day, they maybe having a bad day etc.
    I would hope that they use more criteria than that

  • Heath

    My Daughter has a charge of petty larceny from 2013 and is getting very mixed advice as to whether this is a crime of moral turpitude. It was in relation to a stolen mobile phone which in the the procession of another person (old boyfriend) but she was included in the charges.
    She was 18 at the time and is wondering if she could still just apply for an ESTA or will she need to apply for a visa?

  • Lewis

    Just to clarify a few issues. Common assault is a broad category which the CPS has given information on.Included are the offences of ‘Battery’ (where physical contact has occurred) and ‘Assault by Beating’ (which is what you will now be charged with instead of Battery). The charges sound a lot worse than than they actually are. The good news is they both are classed as Common Assault which the Americans class as ‘Simple Assault’. This is not an offence they consider to be serious and not one of moral turpitude. This is due to common and simple assault having no intent to cause harm and the maximum sentence that can be received in both cases is six months custodial. This means that by answering ‘No to question one on the ESTA application you are not lying and therefore can continue with your travels.

  • Tyrone

    Hi, When i was 18 i made a stupid decision and decided to take some money from my place of work at the time and was taken to court got given a fine and completed all my community hours. I’m now 22 and i was wondering if id be eligible for an ESTA to travel to cali for 3 weeks?

    Thanks in advance.

  • Tyrone Elliott

    Hi, When i was 18 i made a stupid decision and decided to take some money from my place of work at the time and was taken to court got given a fine and completed all my community hours. I’m now 22 and i was wondering if id be eligible for an ESTA to travel to cali for 3 weeks?

    Thanks in advance.

  • Tracy

    My boyfriend has a dangerous driving conviction from almost 5 years ago As this isn’t mentioned within the crimes considered of moral turpitude I ticked no for the boxes on the form as I felt this was being honest but now I am second guessing myself as I have read so much online. I don’t know what to do for the best as we don’t have time to apply for a full visa and stand to lose a lot of money if we have to cancel. Help?!

  • Chiara

    I was arrested for drink driving a year ago, had a 12 month driving ban but no points. Can I tick no to the first question?

  • Kerry Russell

    hi I was convicted in 2010 for kicking my ex partners car in an argument just after he had left me I was convicted of criminal damage and received a £300 fine and costs can I safely say hat I have not committed a crime that resulted in serious damage on the esta application or do i need to apply for a visa please help
    thank you
    kerry

  • garry

    My daughter (then 15) told her former friend that she wanted her dead after her friend had gone behind my daughters back, and been with her ex-boyfriend. My daugther got convicted for something I would translate as “illegal threats”, and has to do a few hours of community service. Will she still be able to travel to the USA with an ESTA?

  • lydia

    Just wanted to share my experience with all of you.
    Our family of six are planning a trip to Florida. My husband has a criminal record of which we believed is a CIMT. LOTS OF PEOPLE WE KNOW SAID OH DONT WORRY JUST SAY NO on the ESTA. Some of these people have criminal records one has even done time on three separate occasions (one for assault on a Police Officer!) but they all got their ESTA’s and have been and returned a few of them several times.
    We thought that we would be truthful because we didn’t want to take the chance of being caught out and applied for a VISA (at great expense including the police certificate, travel etc). This criminal record I am talking about is 45 years ago, he got involved with a couple of no hopers, and absolutely nothing since, he got a suspended sentence (ie no prison sentence), two days ago he was DENIED a visa at the Embassy in London and now our travel plans are cancelled. He’s a pensioner for gods sake, a good man who’s been employed by the same company for 37 years and an absolute threat to no-one. It’s madness.
    Just because it says you must apply for a visa doesn’t mean you will get one.

  • Debbie – Unlock

    Hi Lydia
    It’s such a shame to hear of your experience, especially as the conviction was such a long time ago. It must feel as though you’re being unfairly penalised for being truthful. Have you been given the opportunity to appeal the decision?

    Take a look at this thread on our forum where people have shared similar experiences –
    http://forum.unlock.org.uk/Forum175.aspx

  • Tina

    Hi
    I am arranging for a family to visit the usa and one of the members was tagged by the police when he was younger for vehicle theft but wasn’t sent to prison. Can he get an ESTA

  • Adem Aydin

    I was charged with Assault by Beating, but also: Use threatening/ abusive / Insulting Words/behaviour with intent to cause fear of/ provoke unlawful violence. Do you think this would be considered moral turpitude?

  • avril westmoore

    i was arrested for receiving stolen property 46 years ago i understand this means moral turpitude and i will never be able to go on this holiday to usa that i have booked with other members of my family is this right

  • Peggy

    HI there. Did you get any further with this? I am in the same position but it was in late 2013. I have just been asked to go to the US in June and would love to go but am now wondering what the quickest and cheapest way to do this is? Any advice you have received that has been helpful would be really good to hear. Thanks

  • Paul C77

    I do not think there is a cheap way at all. So far my expenditure has doubled with changing of tickets, Embassy visits with hotel to stay at overnight, just booking the Embassy itself was £131. This is the most expensive, log winded and stressful 12 holiday of my life, and after all this, I still can be sent home on arrival at any of the airports at an time. It would be helpful if there was a clear system in place of what to do as at the moment it’s just various companies online guessing what they think we have to do, usually followed by various broken links that do not work. Not helpful to anyone and just causes further stress and a lot of confusion. A lot of the info online for nearly all sites on this subject needs updating too.