Visiting Canada with a criminal record

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Visiting Canada with a Criminal Record

Any traveller who has a criminal record and who wants to visit Canada on a Canadian eTA or visa might experience problems because of their past criminal offenses. Their past lives could return to haunt these individuals, at least when it comes to visiting Canada.

In the first place, Canada applies the principle of criminal inadmissibility to people who’ve had a brush with the courts or the law in another country. On top of that, those with a criminal record won’t always be able to leave past convictions behind them as time goes by calling on the principle of ‘rehabilitation’. The latter normally applies when a person with a criminal record is no longer inadmissible because at least 10 years have passed since the end of his or her jail sentence.

Applying for criminal rehabilitation

In Canada, criminal offenses you committed in the past have consequences well beyond the end of any jail sentence you might serve. How severe depends on the number of criminal offenses you have on your criminal record and the type of convictions involved.

Normally, criminal offenses can be dealt with via the criminal rehabilitation process by seeking the approval of the Canadian immigration authorities if you want to visit that country. The issue becomes increasingly complex, however, if you have more than one criminal offense on your record.

Unless these offenses were relatively small, in most cases the Canadian authorities won’t grant such a person what is known as ‘deemed rehabilitation’. In these cases, even though a long enough period might have passed since their jail sentence and the person might see him or herself as fully reformed, they will still have to submit an official application for criminal rehabilitation.

What kind of criminal offenses could lead to inadmissibility?

Canada can refuse anyone admission for criminal offenses that would be regarded as serious by Canadian courts if they had been committed in that country, i.e. they would have led to jail sentences of more than 10 years. In these cases, the type of crime and how the courts in your own country have judged it are not regarded as important. All that matters is whether a Canadian judge would have sent you to jail for 10 years or longer. Then Canada regards as a serious crime.

The following crimes are all regarded as serious by Canadian authorities: theft, assault, the use of weapons, bodily harm, and dealing in narcotics. For these crimes, your criminal inadmissibility can never be resolved with deemed rehabilitation. If you want to visit Canada, or pass through that country’s immigration system, your only option is to submit an official application for criminal rehabilitation.

What discretionary powers do Canadian immigration officials have regarding this?

In certain circumstances, when somebody has a criminal record because he or she committed even a single non-serious crime, they could still be prevented from visiting Canada. This could happen even if the necessary time for deemed rehabilitation has elapsed.

Canadian immigration officials are allowed to use their discretion during the screening process. This could lead to people being refused entry, the right to a Canadian eTA or a visa, or permanent residency even though technically they are not inadmissible any longer.

In certain cases, a Canadian immigration official might, for example, regard somebody as a risk to Canadian national security even though he or she meets all the criteria for deemed rehabilitation. Such a person will then be denied entry.

The unfortunate reality is that even if an official makes a mistake when denying someone entry, he or she would still be considered as being within their legal rights. They might, for example, make an incorrect decision based on an erroneous perception that someone poses a security threat. Another possibility is that the official could be uncertain about exactly what deemed rehabilitation is and how it should be applied in particular circumstances. In both cases the official would be regarded as acting within his or her rights when denying someone entry, thus leaving no opportunity for that individual to object on legal grounds.

Would it help to bring letters of legal opinion with me?

In the type of situations mentioned above, it might help to present a letter from an immigration lawyer with a legal opinion when applying to enter Canada. It has to clearly explain the concept of ‘deemed rehabilitation’ and even more importantly, how it should be applied to the person in question. It’s not very likely that an immigration official will reject a letter from a Canadian immigration lawyer that explains why you qualify to be allowed entry into Canada.

The issue of whether you have a criminal record or not also comes up when you apply for a Canadian visa or eTA. The application form contains a question as to whether you have ever committed a crime in any country, and whether you have been arrested for that crime, charged with it, or convicted of it. You have to give as much information as possible.

This applies to any conviction, wherever or whenever it occurred. When the application is received by the Canadian Embassy, the eTA will be processed and they will then decide whether or not you can be regarded as ‘rehabilitated’. If the answer is positive, they will issue an eTA in your name.


If somebody has a criminal record that lists an offense or offenses that occurred very long ago, there is still no guarantee that Canadian authorities will allow them into the country. Even in cases where the individual qualifies for deemed rehabilitation, Canadian immigration officers have the last say and they will decide whether he or she is permitted to enter Canada or not.