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CIMT: Travel to the US with a Criminal Record

Crimes of Moral Turpitude & US Immigration Rules 

When applying for entry to the US you must declare any arrests, convictions or cautions. You are required to provide full disclosure of all offenses, regardless of the country of arrest or conviction.

It may be possible to gain entry to the United States with a past conviction, but much will depend on the nature of the crime. Often this centers around whether the offense is considered a ‘crime of moral turpitude’ (CIMT).

Being granted a visa or ESTA authorization will not guarantee you entry once you arrive into the US. At the border, officials have powers to conduct further checks and to interview you. If any of the grounds for inadmissibility under US immigration law apply to you, you may be refused entry and deported.

No traveler is immune to scrutiny at the US border. From high-profile celebrities, to global sport stars, senior business executives and tourists, all can fall foul of the system and risk being refused entry if they have a past criminal conviction which they have not declared or sought the required waiver in advance of travel.

The US immigration system is notoriously rigorous and before you consider traveling to the country, you need to check your eligibility for entry.

What is a CIMT?

Crimes involving moral turpitude are one of six criminal grounds for inadmissibility:

  1. Crimes involving moral turpitude
  2. Violations of controlled substance laws
  3. Conviction of more than one offense
  4. Drug trafficking
  5. Prostitution and commercialized vice, and
  6. Commission of a serious crime in the US for which the immigrant asserted immunity from prosecution.

You may encounter difficulties if the crime is classified as CIMT. Under US law, CIMT is defined as ‘conduct 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’. It is something that is ‘reprehensible and intrinsically wrong’.

Despite this being a set definition enshrined in US law, in reality these statements are open to interpretation when applied to individual cases. This makes CIMT the source of considerable confusion among travelers.

How do I know if my crime is classed as CIMT?

For visa applicants with a criminal record, it can be difficult to assess whether your crime is a CIMT.

General guidance from the US Department of State outlines the most common elements involving moral turpitude to be fraud, larceny and intent to harm persons or things.

Some of the specific crimes that the US courts have deemed to be CIMT include:

      • murder
      • manslaughter
      • aggravated assault
      • rape
      • spousal or child abuse
      • incest
      • robbery
      • fraud
      • kidnap
      • theft
      • animal fighting

Even with these general guidelines, there are small details in cases that can make a big difference to whether a crime is deemed to be CIMT. Taking professional advice on your circumstances can help you understand your options and make the necessary applications and disclosures to give you the best chance of success.

If the crime was of moral turpitude

If you have been arrested or convicted of committing a CIMT you will be viewed as inadmissible to the US and your visa application or ESTA application to travel under the Visa Waiver Program is likely to be rejected.

CIMT exceptions

Even if your crime is generally viewed as constituting a CIMT, there may be factors that could lead to you gaining lawful entry to the US. For example, your age at the time of the offense and the length of time that has passed since you committed the crime may allow for greater discretion in deciding your admissibility status.

Age at the time of offence
If you were under the age of 18 when you committed the offence and more than 5 years have passed since your conviction and/or release from a custodial sentence your crime may be classed as exempt and you may be permitted entry to the US.

Petty offence exception
This exception centers on the length of the sentence you received for the crime. If the maximum sentence for the crime you committed was a year or less and the sentence you received was under 6 months then your CIMT may be overlooked on the petty crime exception.

If your offence meets one or more of the exceptions, you still must declare it on any application to enter the United States.

Note, however, that these exceptions may only be of benefit if you have a single CIMT. If you have multiple CIMTs you are highly likely to be refused admission to the United States.

What if my crime is not classed as CIMT?

If your crime is not classed as CIMT you are still obliged to declare it on any visa or waiver application to enter the United States.

The US Embassy states that if you have been arrested or convicted – even if the arrest did not end in a conviction – in any country you must declare this on your application. The only possible exception would be if the offence was a minor motor offence and it was dealt with through a fixed penalty notice or another out of court settlement.

ESTA or Visa?

The Electronic System for Travel Authorization (ESTA) is a visa waiver that allows qualifying nationals of participating countries (including the UK) to enter the United States. It allows pre-approved applicants to visit the US for up to 90 days for tourism or some business purposes.

Travelers must complete the online ESTA application form and secure authorization before trying to gain entry to the US under the VWP.

The form comprises a series of questions designed to determine your eligibility under the criteria for visa-free travel to the USA. As such, there may be circumstances where you are ineligible for ESTA and are not permitted to travel to the US on an ESTA. This could include where you have a committed a crime and answer yes to these questions on the application your ESTA:

      • Have you ever violated any law related to possessing, using or distributing illegal drugs?
      • Do you seek to engage in, or have you ever engaged in terrorist activities, espionage, sabotage, or genocide?
      • Have you ever committed fraud or misrepresented yourself to obtain, or assist others to obtain, a visa or entry into the United States?

A refused ESTA does not in itself mean you cannot travel to the US. It means you cannot travel under the visa waiver program. You should instead look to apply for the relevant US visa with an accompanying waiver of inadmissibility. For example, if you are traveling for a business visit or tourism purposes, you should apply for a B visa as well as the waiver of inadmissibility.

It is important to note that visa and criminal waiver applications are more involved than the ESTA application, in terms of time, cost and effort.

Compiling a comprehensive and detailed submission will be critical to provide the adjudicating officer with sufficient evidence and information to make an informed decision on your application in light of your criminal record and any mitigating or other factors in support of your admissibility.

You should also prepare well for the visa interview. During this interview your suitability for entry to the US will be assessed based on your criminal history and other factors. It’s important to prepare fully for this interview and the likely questioning by the Consular officer, as well as ensuring you have the relevant documentation to support your application such as the police certificate detailing your arrest/conviction.

Failure to declare CIMT & past convictions

It is a criminal offense to fail to declare a past offence or conviction in an application for an ESTA or visa. You will be deemed to have given false information for the purposes of obtaining a waiver or visa. In some cases, you could be prosecuted under the Immigration and Nationality Act and given a maximum sentence of two years or even up to 10 years under the US Code Title 18.

When you enter the US, you will be asked a series of questions at your point of entry and your answers will be checked against those given on your application. If your answers conflict with the information given previously you may be refused entry and sent back to the UK.

If you do not declare details and successfully travel to the US on an ESTA this could lead to difficulties in the future if you want to visit the US for an extended period. Any future applications for a US visa will require a copy of your Police Certificate which may disclose details you have withheld on an ESTA application. This may give the US immigration authorities cause to deny your visa application even if the crime is not deemed to be CIMT.

Need assistance?

The law and immigration rules surrounding CIMT and travel to the US are complex and subject to discretion and the particular facts of your case, which can make it difficult to predict how the adjudicator could decide on your application.

If you have a criminal record or have ever been arrested, visiting the US may seem unachievable and the rules surrounding entry can be overwhelming and unclear. If you are planning to travel to the US and have any past criminal history, should seek expert legal advice.

NNU Immigration specialize in helping travellers with any issue relating to past convictions and criminal waivers. Whether you are an employee concerned about securing a visa for a transfer to the US, a parent wanting to take your family on the holiday of a lifetime or a business owner wanting to move into the US market, we can help assess your case and advise on the options available to you.

If you are worried about the impact of a past criminal conviction on your ability to travel to the US, contact us.

This post does not constitute direct legal advice and is for informational purposes only. 

By Nita Nicole Upadhye

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Book a fixed-fee telephone consultation with one of our US immigration attorneys.

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Need legal advice?

Book a fixed-fee telephone consultation with one of our US immigration attorneys.

Need specialist advice? Book a fixed-fee telephone consultation with one of our US immigration experts.