Ask The Festival Lawyer: Can I Travel to Canada with a DUI Prior?

Photo by: Art Gimbel
by The Festival Lawyer | @FestivalLawyer Tue August 08, 2017 | 11:30 AM

Hey Festival Lawyer! I saw your post about Shambhala Music Festival and I have a question you might be able to answer. A few years back, I was charged with a DUI. It was a wake up call for me and I have completed my fines and jail sentence and have been off probation for over a year. Do you have any idea if I'll be able to still go to Shambhala some day? I heard Canada can be strict about letting people come visit who have had prior convictions.

Yes it’s that time of year. All over the world, festies in the know are getting ready to head for Shambhala, a music festival held August 7 through 10 in Salmo, British Columbia.

Shambhala is known for its good vibes, its consistently great lineup, and for being a leader of using a “harm reduction” approach to many of the issues festivals face when it comes to drugs.

However, a lot of festival-goers traveling to Canada with a DUI (or other misdemeanor offense) on their record may not even realize they could have difficulty entering the country. Canada considers drunk driving to be a very serious offense. In fact, an American who has been convicted of a DUI is considered “criminally inadmissible” and therefore not legally allowed to enter Canada.

You may have read on a message board somewhere stories of people who were allowed to cross the Canadian border even though they have a prior drunk driving offense on their record. Or you may have heard about persons who were stopped and questioned about their criminal history but then allowed into the country. The simple fact is that Canadian border officers have complete discretion to allow, or deny, entry to anybody at any time.

You know those restaurants signs that say “We reserve the right to refuse service to anyone”? Well, Canada basically has a giant one on its border. If you walk in blind, you might get across, or you may be stopped. You may get pulled in for interrogation, and then allowed to cross, or you may be sent back. Without taking further legal action you really have no idea what will happen when you try to cross.

What You Should Know

It used to be that a DUI was a permanent bar to entering Canada. The good news is that Canada has relaxed its rules in this area. Depending on the facts of your case, how long ago it was, and how you have behaved since, you may still be allowed entry into Canada even with a criminal history.

In the case of a DUI prior, you will need to show either that you are 1. Criminally Rehabilitated or that 2. You Qualify for a Temporary Resident Permit (TRP).

Determining whether you qualify for rehabilitation is a bit complicated legally. I asked Marisa Feil (an immigration attorney who handles a lot of these cases) if she could help me make a video for festival goers about how to qualify for admission to Canada.
When I told her what I was contacting her about she told me “Well, I could help you make one or you could use the one I already made.” You can check her awesome video out here:

Ms. Feil noted whenever possible, it's better to go through this process of rehabilitation, especially if you are going to be making numerous trips to Canada. Also, ideally it’s best for festies to start this process well in advance of the festival they wish to attend. Advance processing currently takes about 12 to 18 months for a criminal rehabilitation.

On the other hand if your DUI prior is more than five years ago you may also qualify for a one-time entry permit called a Temporary Resident Permit. A TRP is a temporary solution where you ask to be allowed to enter Canada for a specific period of time for a specific reason. To obtain a TRP you have to show that you have a “valid reason to be in Canada” and pay a processing fee. A Canada TRP currently takes about eight months to process, so again, it is best to apply well in advance of your intended travel date.

I asked Ms. Feil to talk about typical costs for this process. “Typical legal fees are between 1,500 to $3,000 in attorney fees as well as government processing fees, which are generally $200 CAD unless there is serious criminality, which has a fee of $1,000 CAD. These fees get paid directly to the government.”

Travelling With Criminal Record Marisa Feil Canada

But What About “Grasshoppers”?

Shambhala Music Festival 2016 William Selviz

Photo by: William Selviz

You know the parable of the grasshopper and the ant? Well, from my experience, festies tend to score fairly high on the “grasshopper” side of that scale. Yes, there are tons of festival-goers who plan out their lineup and get their camping supplies gathered months before a festival begins. But festival-goers also tend to be spontaneous and often will decide last minute to go to a festival.

So what if you decide “I just have to get to Shambhala this year!” Is that even possible? The good news is that Canada allows border entry applications so theoretically you could decide at the last minute to apply for admission and try to cross over.

I asked Marisa what the odds that you might be able to make it across. “Honestly, the odds are not too good," she said. "Usually I counsel people to wait until they are eligible for rehabilitation and then we submit that application to clear them permanently for any purpose. But she also noted, “That said, with a well done application, it is possible that a port of entry/border application could be approved by an officer who finds it hard to say no to someone who has gone to such efforts, just to be in Canada for a couple of days.

In other words, yes, if your spirit animal is calling you to Shambhala, you can try to get there last minute. Here are some simple tips to increase your odds.

What Shouldn’t You Do?

Motion Notion 2015 Motion Notion   01

Photo by: Motion Notion

Don’t Lie. Routine screening upon entry into Canada always includes the question, “Have you ever been convicted of a crime?” Don’t lie. If you are caught misrepresenting your record your chances of ever getting across the Canadian border are going to drop harder than a ______. (insert your own “Harder than a ____ set drop joke here.)

Remember Canadian Immigration officers can ban you on the spot for an extended time and can even ban you from entering Canada for life. (Festival Lawyer sidenote: I’m not going to lie, being able to say “I have a lifetime ban from entering Canada” sounds kind of badass. It’s not Marcellus Wallace revoking-your-L.A.-privileges level of cool, but still.)

Don’t attempt multiple crossings. Do not attempt entry at a different border crossing on the same day thinking you have a fresh chance with a new officer. Denied admissions are updated immediately in a centralized database and will be visible at all ports of entry. If you look like you are trying to evade the system you will further jeopardize your ability to enter the country for the rest of your life.

Don’t screw over your friends. Be aware there is a chance that the driver of the car or people traveling with you could also be deemed inadmissible – and even face criminal charges – if they are aware you are inadmissible. So be careful not to drag other people into your decision to cross.

What Should You Do?

Shambhala Music Festival 2015 Xavier  Photography   01

Read the website. The Canadian government's website on this couldn’t be more unlike an American government website. By that I mean it has an amazingly thorough and clear legal flow chart of your options as well as an online application.

Do a Record Clearance if you can. Again, this is most likely something you will need have done ahead of time. But I will tell you that I have had clients who have suffered DUI convictions confirm for me that things are much easier if you do a Record Clearance in your home state before attempting this process.

Stress your business reasons for entry. Stress any job or other business purpose you may have in going to the festival as opposed to just saying you are “going to hear sick beats.”

Be talented. Yes, performing at Shambhala would constitute a “valid reason” under Canadian law to enter. Marisa confirms that she has represented a number of persons performing at various Canadian music festivals and concerts. She states these folks are extremely likely to get a TRP as they are providing a benefit to Canadians.

Finally, and most importantly be polite and be positive.

Shambhala is famous for its efforts to create a positive, feel-good scene at its festival. For example, the fest has roving “Shambhassadors,” who are volunteers who spread “Shambhalove” by making sure that attendees are safe and comfortable and are having a great time.

In fact, one of the very first Festival Lawyer articles about ways you can spread positive vibes at a festival was co-written with Britz Robins of Shambhala. Whenever I talk to Canadian attorneys they always stress how important it is to show politeness and respect for authority to Canadian law enforcement officers. This is always true when dealing with any type of law enforcement officer, but would seem to be even more important given Canadians’ national stereotype of being polite. You were already planning on bringing positivity and good vibes to your festival game, so start early on your way to Canada!

Got a question for the Festival Lawyer? Email him at

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Disclaimer: Although the Festival Lawyer is a lawyer he is not YOUR lawyer. The ATFL column gives general information about legal topics, NOT legal advice. The law is complex, varies a great deal from state to state, and each factual situation is different. Also, “The Festival Lawyer” is a fictional character. Think of the Festival Lawyer more like a legal spirit guide, encouraging you to educate and inform yourself.

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Shambhala Music Festival

Start Date: August 10, 2018
Salmo, Canada