Having a criminal record can prohibit a person from doing many things in life, including travelling to certain counties. But while entry restrictions against criminal offenders are incredibly strict in countries like the USA and Canada, the rules in most European countries are far more relaxed. European criminal conviction checks are uncommon, and most EU borders have employed other security measures, including the introduction of the ETIAS visa waiver program.
Can someone with a criminal record travel to Europe?
Many countries in the world have strict no-admission policies for foreign visitors with criminal records, especially for violent or serious crimes. In the United States, travellers can be denied entry even if they have a minor criminal conviction from as far back as 50 years prior.
In comparison, European countries and especially the Schengen Area countries have far more relaxed rules surrounding entry for travellers with a criminal record. In general, visitors to the Schengen Area will not receive a European criminal conviction check at border control.
However, it is important to tell the truth if asked about a criminal record by a border official or on a form. Minor criminal offences should not prohibit entry to the Schengen Area. Travellers who have served 3 years in prison or more, or who have been convicted of illegal smuggling or drug offences with a 2-year prison term or more, are likely to be refused visa entry.
What European countries can I visit with a criminal record?
Although most European countries will not refuse entry for prior criminal offences, some have stricter policies, while others are even more relaxed. For example, the UK allows entry for the concept of “spent” convictions, which means that any conviction with a prison term between 6 and 30 months, served more than 10 years previously, does not need to be declared.
On the other end of the spectrum, Germany has its own specific rules regarding criminal records. Those convicted of a public order violation with jail time of more than 3 years, drug-related crimes with prison sentences of more than 2 years or any kind of human trafficking offense will be refused entry. Lying to a border official is also immediate grounds for rejection. However, like many other EU member states, German officials will be more concerned with crimes committed within their own borders or in other EU countries.
How can European countries detect criminal history?
While European countries are largely unconcerned with minor offences committed outside EU borders, crimes registered within the EU are another matter. Since 2012, all EU countries have been connected to ECRIS, the European Criminal Records Information System.
This shared database was created in order to improve the exchange of information about criminal convictions in the European Union. In addition to allowing local security forces easy access to the full record of any previous convictions across the EU, it also takes away the possibility of escaping convictions by relocating to a different EU country. Therefore, it is important to tell the truth about any EU criminal record attached to the passport of the traveller.
Currently, ECRIS is used around 3 million times a year to exchange information of previous criminal convictions. A criminal record is shared in around 30% of the cases when one is requested. These requests are normally made during criminal proceedings or when someone applies for certain authorised purposes, such as a firearms licence or working with children.
Apply for the ETIAS visa waiver with a criminal record
The ETIAS visa waiver will launch towards the end of 2022 and it will become a requirement for many nationalities which can currently enter the Schengen Area without any form of travel authorisation.
On the ETIAS application for there will be some security questions regarding criminal activity and all applicants will be screened by eU-LISA (the department of the EU responsible for criminal data management). However, the EU have made it clear that only those responsible for serious crime or terrorism will be denied an ETIAS visa waiver.
The ETIAS visa waiver is being implemented in order to provide a better travel experience to third-country nationals, and to improve border control against terrorist and other security threats and will be available for 60 eligible countries. Applicants will have to complete a simple ETIAS application online, filling in personal data and details about travel plans. Once approved, the ETIAS will be received by email and the applicant can print a copy of their travel authorisation to Europe to present at border control.
In this regard, it is of the utmost importance to understand that ETIAS is a visa waiver, which is not the same as a visa.
In the end, getting into Europe with a criminal record is not as problematic as some other territories, as long as the offences are not serious. The best option for citizens of eligible countries will be to get the ETIAS visa waiver before traveling to Europe once it becomes available.