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Can I travel to America with a conviction?

Updated: Jun 1

What Uncle Sam expects...

IT depends.

It depends on what kind of conviction it is.

If you’ve been convicted of road traffic offences this should pose no difficulty in travelling to the United States.

Generally speaking.

But if you have convictions for violence (e.g. assaults), property offences (e.g. robbery, burglary, theft) or drugs you will -understandably- find it almost impossible to gain entry.

Broadly speaking, entry to the United States is governed by three criteria:

·       Crimes involving Moral Turpitude

·       Crimes not involving Moral Turpitude

·       Crimes involving Drugs.

"Rightly or wrongly many Americans see a
direct connection between immigration and
the drugs epidemic destroying their urban centres.
Immigration is now officially the
number-one issue among US voters today".


Crimes Involving Moral Turpitude.

The first thing you notice about this category of offence is the inclusion of “morality” as an indicator of criminal culpability. Most countries focus on actual criminal convictions or arrests when deciding to permit entry.

The United States is different. Much different.

In almost no other country does this semi-religious element (morality) help define entry.

The reason has probably got something to do with the power that religion wields in America.

No other industrialised country is quite so religious.

Historically, the more industrialised a country became, the less religious it was.

The US is the exception to this rule.

According to a 2023 Gallup poll, 75% of Americans identify with a religious faith. Christians make up 68% of this number. In 1965 when Gallup first started asking Americans how important religion was to them 70% answered “very important”. In 2023 that number had dropped to 45%.

But by industrialised standards it is still very high. In the UK a 2023 poll by Kings College London found that 23% of Britons agreed that religion was important to their lives.

A similar percentage agreed in France. Australia, Canada and Germany all had results less than 30%.


When applying for a VISA to the United States you will be required to fill in an electronic travel authorisation form (ESTA). These have been mandatory since 2009. These forms are made up of questions which you must answer.

One question asks whether you have been “arrested or convicted for a crime that resulted in serious damage to property, or serious harm to another person or government authority”.

What qualifies as “serious damage” or “serious harm” is not clearly defined, but it is connected to whether or not the offence was one which involved ‘moral turpitude’ or not.

The importance of a “guilty mind”
is the essential ingredient.


Crimes not involving Moral Turpitude

Offences generally regarded as not involving “moral turpitude” include drink driving and other road traffic offences.

These kinds of offences are ones which do not involve “intent”.

You cannot be convicted of theft unless you intended to steal, and you cannot be convicted of fraud unless you intended to defraud someone.

But you can be convicted of most driving offences (e.g. drink driving, dangerous driving, careless driving, speeding) without intending to commit those offences.

The importance of a “guilty mind” is the essential ingredient.


Crimes involving Drugs

If you have convictions for drugs, you will find yourself either temporarily or permanently barred from travel to the United States.

Right now, the United States is in the middle of a fentanyl and opiate crisis. Some media outlets are calling it an epidemic. On 15 May 2024 a Washington Post headline declared: “In grim milestone, US overdose deaths top 100,000 for third straight year”. 

The scale of the problem has been linked by some politicians to illegal immigration and border security.


You will be asked whether or not you use drugs. If you answer “yes” your application will be immediately rejected. If you’ve ever been found to be in close proximity to drugs your application will very likely be rejected.

In carrying out their security checks Homeland Security agents scour social media accounts to see whether someone has posted pictures of themselves either consuming drugs or being around those that are. The United States is no friend to people with drugs convictions trying to gain entry.



JUDGES DO NOT live in a bubble. They understand fully the impact a conviction can have. This is especially the case when it comes to drugs.

Every day in courts across the country people are prosecuted for possession of drugs. Every day judges issue the same warning. It goes something like this:

“Do you realise that if I give you a criminal conviction, it could stop you working abroad? It might even stop you travelling to some countries. It’s also a permanent record. Do you know that?”.


Different convictions have different consequences. A conviction for drink driving will very probably not stop you travelling or working in America.  

But when it comes to drugs, think of the fentanyl and opiate crises ravaging communities across America.

Rightly or wrongly many Americans see a direct connection between immigration and the drugs epidemic destroying their urban centres. Immigration is now officially the number-one issue among US voters today.

That’s something to bear in mind when that Homeland Security official starts examining your visa application…

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