A criminal record can limit the number of opportunities in life for a felon, and this is also often true when it comes to international travel. Countries such as the United States and Canada have incredibly strict policies: travelers can be rejected entry even if they have a minor criminal conviction from as far back as 50 years prior.

However, although most other countries have strict no-admission policies for foreign visitors with violent or serious convictions, many countries will still grant entry to travelers with a minor criminal history, especially if a significant amount of time has passed. In general, the policy for admission for travelers with a criminal record in Europe is far less strict than in North America.

Requirements for Going to Europe with a Criminal Record

Although the policy can differ between individual countries, in general, criminal conviction checks are not carried out at European borders for foreign travelers coming for short stays for tourism purposes. Citizens coming from visa-free countries for a holiday in Europe will normally not be asked about a criminal record.

However, it’s important to tell the truth in the rare case you are asked about your background by a border official, as lying could only make the situation worse.

From 2021, travelers from previously visa-exempt countries coming to the Schengen Area will be required to pre-register an ETIAS visa waiver online for short stays. The application process for this electronic travel authorization will involve security checks to pre-identify any public safety risks to Europe.

European Criminal Records Information System on Convicted Third Country Nationals

On April 9th, 2019, the European Commission gave its final approval on a proposal to create a European Criminal Records Information System on convicted third country nationals. The goal behind this central system is to improve the exchange of criminal records information about convicted non-EU citizens and stateless persons. The exchange of data is done through the exisiting European Criminal Records Information Sytem, or ECRIS.

According to Vĕra Jourová, "the new system will make it faster and easier for law enforcement authorities to spot third country nationals previously convicted in the EU." ECRIS will provide support and improve police and judicial copperation. This system will also help in the fight against crime and terrorism.

ECRIS-TCN will have several features including:

  • Authorities will have access to the online database and will be able to search with a hit/no-hit search mechanism: a hit will identify the Member States from which full criminal records can be obtained.
  • ECRIS will only enclose identity information such as fingerprints, and where available, facial images.
  • The system will be managed by the eu-LISA agency, which will also manage the ETIAS system as well as other large-scale information systems in the area of freedom, security and justice.
  • Besides contributing to criminal proceedings, ECRIS can be used for other authorized purposes such as clearing persons to work with minors or getting a license to handle fire-arms.

Additionally, further legislation proposed by the Commission is being negotiated and would make it possible to check the ECRIS-TCN database when an ETIAS visa waiver is requested through the ETIAS system, when evaluating visa applications through the Visa Information System (VIS), or when investigating identity fraud.

Travel to Europe with a Criminal Record with ETIAS

Once the ETIAS authorization is implemented, travelers from previously visa-exempt countries will be required to complete an ETIAS application online for stays up to 90 days with a 180-day period of any of the 26 Schengen member states.

The ETIAS requirements will involve having an eligible passport valid for at least 6 months upon entry to the Schengen Area, and will also require applicants to answer a series of questions about security and health matters.

Although these are yet to be finalized, the application is expected to include questions regarding criminal history. However, as the system is geared towards identifying terrorist threats, those going to Europe with a criminal record for a minor offense are unlikely to face complications with the application and should be able to get an ETIAS visa waiver without problems.

Can I Travel to Europe with a Serious Criminal Record?

Travelers going to Europe with a criminal record for a holiday are currently not asked about minor offenses, especially upon entry to any of the 26 countires in the Schengen passport-free zone.

Travelers with more serious offenses may face problems entering the Schengen Area ETIAS countries for short stays. Those who have served more than 3 years of jail time, or have been convicted of human trafficking or drug offenses with more than 2 years of jail time, are likely to be refused entry.

However, the policy can vary between countries. For example, Germany has much stricter rules than most of the other Schengen member states, as the county reserves the right to immediately deport anyone with:

  • A public order conviction with a sentence of more than 3 years.
  • Drug offenses with a sentence of more than 2 years.
  • Any offense related to human trafficking.

However, German border officials are more concerned with offenses commited within their own country rather than outside the EU, as is also the case in the United Kingdom. However, the UK also employs the concept of ‘spent’ convictions, which can allow travelers with a criminal record to enter the country if they are considered rehabilitated.

The UK considers a conviction ‘spent’ if more than 10 years have passed since the traveler last served jail time (sentences between 6 to 30 months). Jail time of over 30 months cannot be ‘spent’ and will always be held against the traveler. Imprisonment of less than 6 months or fines incur a shorter rehabilitation period of around 5 years or less.

If the imprisonment is considered ‘spent’ then the traveler does not even need to declare the conviction, and it cannot be used against them even if immigration officials are aware of the offense.

Finally, those going to Europe with a criminal record should bear in mind that the final decision for entry often comes down to the individual discretion of the border control official, so it’s important to be polite and truthful when presenting your case.