In order to answer this question, it's important to know that there is a difference between citizens and non-citizens' right to travel outside of the U.S., especially if they have a criminal record.
Traveling as a U.S. Citizen
If you are a U.S. citizen and you wish to travel outside the U.S., you can usually travel outside the U.S. even with a criminal background. However, you shouldn’t have any outstanding warrants for serious crimes such as felonies. A person with an outstanding warrant can face serious repercussions if they attempt to leave the United States as it would seem like they were attempting to flee the country to avoid arrest.
But there are some countries that take criminal records very seriously and may deny you entry if you have a criminal record or a certain criminal charge. For example, Canada is very strict about having a DUI on your record and may deny you entry if you have a single DUI charge. It is important to research the country that you are traveling to and see if there are certain things that may deny you entry.
Traveling as a Non-U.S. Citizen
On the other hand, if you are NOT a U.S. citizen and you seek to travel outside the country, you should take precautions if you have a criminal background. In general, leaving the U.S. does not pose a problem, but you may encounter difficulties upon attempting to re-enter.
Visa holders and resident aliens must have their ID’s scanned before re-entering the U.S., as well as possibly have their biometrics taken (such as fingerprints). If records reflect that you have committed a crime, it is possible that you might be directly escorted to jail and subject to an immigration hearing. From there, an immigration judge will conclude whether you will be allowed to remain in the U.S. or be subject to removal/deportation to your country of origin.
How Can I Avoid Difficulties When Traveling?
Before you even schedule your trip outside the U.S., you should contact an immigration lawyer to help you go over your criminal records. Your attorney should send a request to law enforcement and immigration authorities to ensure that they have current copies of your records. You may be asked to submit additional documents and have your fingerprints taken.
If nothing noteworthy appears in your criminal records, it should be possible for you to travel outside of the U.S. However, these steps are not a guarantee that you will be able to re-enter the country without being subject to an investigation. Recently, U.S. immigration authorities have begun working together with local police departments and the FBI in order to obtain criminal records of non-citizens.
Be sure to check the laws of your destination to see if they will refuse entry to individuals with your criminal background. Many countries will bar individuals who recently served time in prison or individuals who have committed specific crimes.
Again, be sure to consult thoroughly with an attorney before attempting to travel, especially if you have felony charges on your record.
What Else Should I Know About Traveling with a Criminal Background?
You should be aware that for resident aliens/visa holders who request records from law enforcement or immigration authorities, there is a risk that you might be opening yourself to a criminal investigation. This includes investigations regarding yourself, or even other persons who may be affiliated with you.
Recent changes in immigration policies have created a stricter atmosphere when it comes to the presence of convicted non-citizen felons in the U.S. Non-citizens have also been removed even for non-violent immigration crimes, depending on the situation.
So if you have a criminal background, you should not attempt to leave the U.S. without first consulting with an immigration attorney and doing your research.
Can I Obtain a Passport with a Criminal Record?
If you are a U.S. Citizen, then you will have no problem gaining a passport. A passport cannot prove you will commit a crime or provide any history of your criminal record. Passports are just identity documents only providing proof of citizenship to the United States.
However, you can be kept from obtaining a passport if you owe over $2,500 of unpaid child support or if you have an outstanding debts owed to the U.S. government. Overall, the government has a right to withhold a passport from any person they view to be a threat to national security.
Can I Travel Outside of the U.S. if my Record was Expunged?
Expungement or sealing of your record would not prevent your criminal record from showing up at a government agency. An expungement only keeps employers from seeing the record and the record will still show up when you are traveling outside of the United States.
How Can an Immigration Lawyer Help?
Traveling outside the U.S. could pose some risks for non-citizens with a criminal background. You may wish to find a qualified immigration lawyer to help you if you have travel plans. If you have been convicted of a crime during your stay in the U.S., an immigration attorney can represent you during immigration hearings. Immigration laws change very frequently, but an immigration lawyer can help you stay informed of recent changes.