When travelling, considering your criminal record is not usually on your pre-departure checklist. However, if you are crossing the border out of or back into the United States, Border Patrol and immigration agents have an interest in ensuring more than that you adequately completed your customs declarations. Are these agents looking into your criminal background when you hand over your passport?
The answer varies, but in most cases, a full-scale background check does not occur for every traveller crossing the border. Instead of conducting large-scale background checks at border control, agents will usually rely on a basic arrest warrant search. This process often involves consulting the National Crime Information Center, or NCIC. Border Patrol also has access to the counterpart system for Canadian nationals.
When a border agent scans your passport, the computer system runs your information against the NCIC database and flags any active arrest warrants. The NCIC is not comprehensive, and not all active arrest warrants are present in its database. However, attempting a border crossing in either direction with an active warrant may still result in an arrest.
United States citizens and some non-citizens, such as Canadian visitors, can expect to have their information run through a criminal history database for warrant detection. Deeper and more detailed background checks only take place if a border agent has cause for suspicion or is randomly selecting travellers for additional scrutiny. In these situations, CBP will direct you to a waiting area for other screenings.
During secondary screenings, expert a more detailed look at your criminal history information from the NCIC. At this stage, agents may detect certain criminal records, which could result in a denial of entry for non-citizens. The US does not deny entry to its own citizens for having a criminal record. For individuals not selected for additional screenings, outstanding and active warrants are typically the only things that Border Patrol agents will find and consider.
Background checks play a central role in legal immigration, a separate process from border crossings. Legal immigrants must complete a series of background checks before visa issuance and entrance, though the nature of this vetting process is in flux with the potential for additional procedural stages in the future.
If you have concerns about what might appear on background checks at border control, check your own records through backgroundchecks.com.