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Sheila – Travelling to the USA on an ESTA despite having a criminal record

Sheila contacted our helpline for some advice after she’d booked a family holiday to America.

Sheila explained that after completing the Electronic System for Travel Authorisation (ESTA) form which had been approved, she started to worry that she should have disclosed her husband’s criminal record from 2011. Stories she’d read online seemed to suggest that on arrival in America the American authorities would be aware of his conviction and immediately deport him.

We explained to Sheila that we were aware of many people with convictions who had travelled to America on an ESTA without any problems. We informed her that UK passports contained no link to the Police National Computer (PNC) and therefore US immigration wouldn’t be able to see details of her husband’s criminal record when they scanned his passport. The stories that Sheila had seen online related to a family who were known to the UK police and whose passports had been ‘flagged’ with an Interpol alert notice.

We advised Sheila that biometric data (fingerprints and iris scan) would be taken on entry into America which would then link to their passports but not criminal record data in the UK.

On her return from America we contacted Sheila who stated that her husband had been picked out for a random check on entry into the US. He denied having any convictions and was allowed entry into the US using his ESTA.

Sheila told us:

“We had a fantastic, relaxing and enjoyable holiday in the USA and can’t thank you enough for putting our mind’s at rest.”


This case demonstrates that it can be relatively easy to travel to America on an ESTA, even if you have a criminal record. However, if you’re picked out for a random check at passport control you will have to continue to deny that you have a criminal record which many people would find difficult to do.

Many people understandably prefer to go down the official route of applying for a visa. If you take this option, make sure that you leave enough time; it can take up to six months for a visa to be granted.

If you’re looking to live or work in America at any time in the future then it’s probably best to go down the official visa route. Applications for work or residency visas could flag up the fact that you’ve previously travelled using an ESTA which you shouldn’t have done.


Notes about this case study

This case study relates to Unlock’s helpline.

Names and details have been changed to protect the identity of those involved.

Published January 2020

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