It is generally illegal for any non-U.S. citizen with a criminal record to enter the United States unless that criminal record has been properly disclosed to immigration authorities. Many travelers to the U.S. must obtain a visa before arriving, and a criminal records search is a part of the visa application process. For the others — citizens of U.S. visa waiver countries and Canada — all arrests and disclosures must be made with U.S. Form I-192, also called an entry waiver form. The entry waiver must be submitted well in advance of travel to the U.S., and an approved copy must be surrendered to immigration officers on entry. Travelers with criminal records who attempt to cross the border without either a visa or an approved entry waiver are usually subject to deportation, arrest, and property confiscation.
The purpose of an entry waiver is to allow people convicted of certain crimes to bypass the rule prohibiting convicts from crossing U.S. borders. U.S. immigration law takes a very strict stance against admitting other countries’ convicts, even just for short periods. With an entry waiver, Canadians and citizens of some European and Asian countries who do not need visas must declare in advance of their arrival any past arrests or convictions. Official court records, any arrest paperwork, and fingerprints must also be submitted. If all of this is provided to immigration services, immigration services may elect to waive the entry bar for the applicant.
All transgressions, no matter how minor, must be described on the form, with the exception of driving offenses for Canadians. Canadians convicted on drunk driving charges or arrested for driving while intoxicated must usually bring conviction papers with them when they travel, but driving offenses alone are not usually enough to require a waiver. Immigration authorities still maintain the right to refuse entry, however. Canadians who are not sure if their driving records will bar their entry into the U.S. should speak with an immigration attorney or other expert before traveling.
Crimes that have been pardoned or expunged are not usually exempt. The United State’s stance is that any conviction or arrest is enough to bar entry, even if a criminal’s home government has pardoned the offense. Immigration officials have access to international arrest and warrant databases, and they can often see criminal records that travelers have not disclosed. If such a traveler appears at a border crossing without an entry waiver, he or she is subject to arrest for illegal entry.
Getting an entry waiver can take anywhere from six months to a year to process, and there is no guarantee that it will be approved. If denied, the applicant can apply again. Even an approved waiver has a limited shelf-life, however, and is good for typically only one trip. A new waiver must be obtained for subsequent future travel.
In practice, this means that foreigners with criminal records must go through the entry waiver program each and every time they want to enter the United States, for the rest of their lives. Even if one entry waiver was approved, there is no guarantee that subsequent applications will be. Immigration officials reserve the right to deny an entry waiver for almost any reason.