International travel is an aspiration for many. It offers an opportunity to explore different cultures, make new friends, and visit amazing sites. For others, it can mean an exciting job offer or study at a renowned school.
Whatever the reason behind this travel, one thing is for certain, a passport is needed. When crossing borders, one needs to present legal identification documentation. A passport is the standard the world over.
For those with a criminal history, it raises the question; can a felon get a passport?
When a felon is released from prison, there are already many challenges to face. Trying to find decent housing and a reasonably paying job is tough enough. Not to mention certain freedoms that are denied like voting and gun rights.
For felons that manage to get their life back on track, the desire or opportunity to travel may arise.
In the grand scheme of things, it is not a must to travel. The majority of people never even travel out of their home state, leave alone the country. However, being able to do so can be very liberating and offer a chance to exploit certain prospects.
Those that have been incarcerated have experienced what it means to be restricted. Many would welcome this sense of freedom.
Here we will look at whether a felon can get a passport. We will also look at specific circumstances where such a privilege would be denied. If there is any recourse, we will also review the terms.
Let’s begin with what the law says.
Many people with a criminal past have gone on to travel extensively across the world. Getting a passport will mostly depend on how serious a crime you were convicted of. Some crimes are considered more severe than others.
However, before we get to that, let’s look at the status of the conviction. Many felons may be living in the society, but are still under the supervision of the prison system. Those on probation or parole fall in this category.
In most cases, they are not permitted to travel out of state without suitable authorization. This typically comes from their probation/parole officer. Because of the monitoring involved, POs are not often inclined to grant this permission.
So if asking can you get a passport with a felony and on parole, the answer is no.
If traveling for pleasure, there is no likely chance of authorization. The best option would be to wait until you completely serve out your sentence.
Permission may, however, be granted for emergencies like medical treatment. Decisions are made on a case to case basis. Even then, you will have to strongly justify the need for such travel.
It is also possible for a person to be restricted from travel even before any conviction. Those still facing proceedings for felony charges are not allowed to travel. A court may place an order restricting travel if they think you are a flight risk.
If you have an outstanding felony arrest warrant, this can also prevent you from getting a passport.
To get a passport later, the person may need to provide documentary evidence that the order has been lifted. Whether a conviction happened or not.
Getting back to the seriousness of the crime committed, these are outlined in the law. There are just a few crimes that disqualify felons.
1. Drug Trafficking
Minor drug offenses like minor marijuana possession are often not a problem. Drug charges that involved the transport of illicit drugs across the border are viewed differently.
Under 22 U.S. Code § 2714, persons convicted of felony drug offenses shall have their passports revoked. These violations should relate to the production or trafficking of a controlled substance.
This ineligibility lasts as long as the prison sentence and any probation/parole time. The Secretary of State is however allowed to consider passport applications in emergencies.
Once you have served your full sentence, it is possible to apply for a new passport. Do check with the courts to ensure that any restrictions placed by the court have been lifted. You may need the paperwork to support your application.
The U.S. Constitution does allow for passports to be denied for applicants who have taken arms against the government. Plotting to overthrow the government or espionage are acts of treason and can deny you this right.
3. Unpaid Child Support
If wondering; can a convicted felon get a passport with unpaid child support, the answer is it depends. If you have child support arrears exceeding $2,500, you are not eligible to obtain a passport. When arrears reach this level, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services will put your name on a list. This list is one of the checks performed by the U.S. State Department before issuing passports.
It may become necessary to clear the arrears or work out a payment plan. Then you can have your name removed from the list.
4. Unpaid Federal Loans and Debts
There are cases where travelers have had to be repatriated back to the U.S. after being incarcerated abroad. Some may have needed to be evacuated with their families. This is not usually done for free.
Federal assistance in the form of a loan is usually sought for such arrangements. The repatriated parties are supposed to repay this. They cannot regain their passports until this loan is cleared.
Those owing a large amount to the IRS may also be legally denied a passport. If the overdue taxes are over $51,000, the State Department may be notified.
5. Passport Fraud
If you have been found to have obtained a passport fraudulently, you may be denied subsequent applications. The same applies to cases where a passport is fake or tampered with in any way.
If none of the above apply to you, you stand as good a chance as any non-felon in securing a passport.
Let’s now look at the process involved.
The process of applying for a passport is the same for everyone. It requires the completion of certain forms and attachment of supporting documents. This includes proof of citizenship, identification, passport photo, and fees.
Citizenship evidence can be in the form of an earlier passport, birth certificate, certificate of naturalization or citizenship. Secondary forms of evidence may also be submitted. Identification should be in the form of a government-issued photo ID.
For passport photos, there are requirements to abide by concerning profile, background, resolution, size, and quality. The amount you pay for fees will depend on the type of passport being applied for. Both the passport application and execution fees are non-refundable.
Whether the application is to be done in person depends on if it is a renewal or not.
1. Applying in Person
Those that are required to apply in person fall in one of the categories below:
- It is their first U.S. passport
- They are minors under the age of 16 years
- Previous passport was issued when under the age of 16 years
- The previous passport was issued over 15 years ago
- Previous passport has suffered damage beyond normal wear and tear, has been stolen or lost
For such cases, the applicant will need to fill out Form DS-11 and provide the supporting documents. This is the passport most felons are likely to apply for.
The renewal process is easier as it can be undertaken through the mail. To qualify for this, all the conditions below must be met:
- You have a passport to submit alongside your application
- Passport has suffered no more than normal wear and tear damage
- It was issued after reaching 16 years of age
- It was issued in the last 15 years
- The passport carries your current name or you can document any name change
If you fulfill all the terms above, you are eligible to apply for a renewal by mail.
When it comes to felons and passports, try to include court paperwork that confirms the completion of sentencing.
Passport processing can take up to two months, during which background checks will be carried out. To avoid the risk of delay, simply attach this paperwork. If you need your passport to be expedited, this will prove helpful.
This will also ensure your records are up-to-date by the time the State Department makes its own checks.
Also, if you are doing a renewal, send the application only through the United States Postal Service (USPS).
Now we have reviewed the qualifications and process of getting a passport. This document only serves as identification when crossing borders. You will need permission from the other country to get in.
Now let’s look at whether felons can travel abroad.
Now that you have your passport in hand, the next step is to pick out a destination. Every country is different in how they handle the matter of foreign visitors.
Some will outrightly deny entry to felons based on responses during visa applications and background checks. Others will have an exclusion period. It prevents felons from entering until they have completed a certain period since conviction or release.
The UK is one such country that considers felons rehabilitated if their conviction is spent. It means 10 years should have passed since a felon served a sentence of over 30 months.
These varied conditions can prove tricky for a felon to navigate. Short visits to most countries do not require a visa. This applies to such countries as Mexico, Thailand, and Caribbean nations.
The Schengen Area is a 26-member country zone in Europe that has one external border. You can enter visa-free anywhere within the zone and travel within unrestricted.
Luckily, most countries do not have access to U.S. crime databases. Felons can often gain entry to visa-free countries without much hassle.
For those countries that require a visa, the decision can be known even before booking tickets for travel.
A U.S. passport is quite powerful. A U.S. passport holder can travel visa-free to 174 countries and get a visa on arrival in 10 more. These are often however conditional with stays expected to be no more than 90 days.
For felons expecting to stay for a long period, visas are almost always required. Some visa applications do ask for details concerning criminal history, while others do not. As a general rule of thumb, it is best to be honest as any discrepancy can prove costly.
Here are some tips on what felons traveling should do before boarding a plane.
Contact the Embassy
As mentioned, every country has its own rules on who to grant entry to. Some are quite flexible about offenses that are felonies here, while others can hold even misdemeanors against you.
For instance, Canada is known to be quite strict and runs background checks through the U.S. National Crime Information Center database. Many European nations are more relaxed and may not classify the same crimes as felonies.
The best approach would be to look up information on the country’s embassy website. You can even call or email your inquiries to figure out if it is worth making an application. It can help you better choose your destination and avoid the cost and embarrassment of being sent back.
Do The Research
For visa-free destinations, you will want to have a solid idea as to whether you can be granted entry hassle-free. Thankfully, there are plenty of online forums where you can raise the question with felons that are seasoned travelers. A little research can go a long way in learning what to expect and how to behave.
You may also discover that laws have changed, so try to keep abreast of the latest travel guidelines. For instance, the Schengen area member states are soon to introduce an information-sharing database. If you commit a crime in any of their countries, the others will be able to access this information.
The less attention you draw to yourself when clearing customs, the better. Be courteous when speaking to customs officials, and do not engage in criminal acts.
Many have been caught breaking customs regulations or even trafficking drugs. Once you get caught up in even minor violations it may call for closer scrutiny.
Even before you get through, be truthful. Do not lie on your visa application or arrival card. If they do ask about criminal history, be sincere.
Expect The Unexpected
Even with the best-laid plans, things can easily go wrong. The border official could be having a bad day and you become the victim. With travel sometimes being unpredictable, you need to be prepared for possible failure.
As said, you may find that a destination that was once easy to get into now has new regulations. Many who used to travel freely to Cancun have found that Mexican officials are now cracking down on felons.
Be prepared for the possibility that your conviction may work against you. Even if it has been many years since your release.
Get Your Record Expunged
An expungement of your criminal record is advisable as soon as it is legally possible. This is helpful not just when traveling internationally, but also when looking for employment.
While experiences often vary, getting your record expunged may help ease your travel experience. It will reduce the chances of your criminal record popping up during security checks by customs officials.
Consult with a lawyer to find out if your particular conviction qualifies for expungement.
There are many benefits to be derived from being able to travel the world. Being a felon certainly complicates this, but does not make it an impossibility.
The longer the period you travel with a clean record, the less trouble you will have with customs. But you can only discover this by taking the leap.
Once you are done with your entire sentence, take the necessary steps to apply for your passport. Enhance your chances of securing it the first time around by providing paperwork that confirms you fulfilled your mandate.
Consulting the right people can also help. You can narrow down to destinations that have a good track record of not hassling felons. When you finally make your choice, confirm with the embassy concerned before making travel arrangements.
Be sure to remain law-abiding during your travels. As mentioned, some countries will begin sharing information and any unsavory incidents can go on record. This may make it harder to gain entry on subsequent trips.
Recidivism rates tend to be high, especially in the first year after release. If you feel the temptation may be high, delay travel plans until you are better settled at your job and community.