Having a criminal record doesn’t mean you need to stay on house arrest forever. Most people with criminal records, even those with felony convictions, are eligible to get a US passport. There are only very limited circumstances in which US citizens with criminal records can be denied passports or have their passports revoked.
Drug Trafficking Convictions and Passports
Under current US law, the only crime that disqualifies people from getting or keeping a passport is international drug trafficking. This applies to people who have been convicted of a felony or misdemeanor drug offense, who used their passport or crossed an international border while committing the crime. The US State Department will revoke the valid passport of convicted drug traffickers or refuse to issue a new one. (For the letter of the law, see 22 U.S. Code § 2714). However, this only applies during the period of incarceration and parole. Once the parole is over, they are eligible to apply for a passport again.
Passports for Convicted Sex Offenders
In early February of this year, the “International Megan’s Law” was passed by Congress and signed into law by President Obama. This legislation calls for the State Department to put a marking on the passports of certain sex offenders. It’s not yet known what that mark would be, but it would be used only on passports of people convicted of a sexual offense against a minor. The law also authorizes the State Department to revoke existing passports of these sex offenders and require them to get new, marked passports instead.
As of this writing, the “International Megan’s Law” has not yet gone into effect, but we do not advise that travelers convicted of sex crimes against children try to get a passport now to evade the law.
Other Passport and Travel Issues
Another crime-related reason a passport application may be denied is if an applicant has an active warrant for a felony, or if they are awaiting trial and are considered a flight risk.
Although the vast majority of US citizens with prior felony convictions are able to get passports with no problems, they may still face problems when trying to travel overseas. Canada is notorious for refusing entry to US citizens with criminal records, even those with misdemeanor convictions. (For more information, see the CIC website.) Many other countries will ask about criminal records on their visa applications, and a felony conviction may be grounds for a consulate to require a personal interview with the traveler, or for the visa to be denied.
If you are concerned about how your criminal record may impact your ability to get a US passport, we recommend you apply for a passport using a passport expediting service. Even if you don’t need your passport in a hurry, using a service is a good idea because their agents can act as your advocate and discuss your case with Passport Agency personnel.