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Foreign Workers Be Warned: FBI Criminal Background Checks are Bogus

FBI Criminal Background Checks are now being required by many countries for work visas and residence permits. Though there is a big problem with this.

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Criminal background checks are becoming required documentation for applying for work, residence, or other long term visas in more and more countries throughout the world. While the rationale of these background checks are reasonable — what country wants foreign criminals and convicted perverts washing up on their shores? — the implementation is cumbersome at best, completely bogus at worst, and is putting many foreign workers in tight places — oftentimes in bureaucratic Catch-22s.

The requirements for obtaining a criminal background check are different for different countries, there is no international database that can be tapped. Sometimes, it’s relatively easy to get one — you just submit your fingerprints, pay a fee, and a few weeks later it’s in front of you. Sometimes, it’s impossible. I have an Australian associate in China who was not able to get a criminal background check from his home country simply because he had no criminal record (the relevant authorities didn’t know what to put down on the form), another who couldn’t get one because he didn’t have residency in his country of citizenship, and I just recruited a woman from Canada who had to wait over 3 months for her country’s lethargic legal system to produce one.

Getting these checks done is becoming one of the most onerous hoops to jump through in world travel. Unfortunately, it’s not looking like it’s going to get any easier. What was once an obscure requirement doled out only to people seeking permanent residence, taking a high level position, or adopting a child, is now gradually becoming standard fare for everyone intending to work abroad. What’s perhaps more irritating than the fact that these background checks are yet another bureaucratic gauntlet to wiggle through is that the documentation itself can be confusing and, in some cases, downright misleading.

It was recently requested that I get an FBI criminal background check by the sponsor for my visa in China, just in case the immigration department would require it. No problem, I don’t have a criminal record, I have nothing to hide or to worry about. So I printed out the forms from the FBI’s website, rolled my fingerprints into the specified blank squares, made the $15 payment, and mailed it all in. Three weeks later the report was delivered to my parents-in-laws’ home in Maine. Easy stuff.

It turned out that I didn’t actually need to produce this report for extending a residence permit in my province, and the manila folder with my background check in it sat idle on Barb and Sol’s kitchen table. When I returned there a couple of weeks ago for a visit I cracked it open to see what the report said. The result was amusing:

It wasn’t a criminal background check at all, it was an arrest record.

Worst still, it was an arrest record that didn’t include the final legal outcomes.

In the United States of America you are innocent until proven guilty. I was never proven guilty, I just had the distinction of having the shit kicked out of me by some meathead cop for declining to be illegally searched after getting interrupted while savaging food from an Aldi’s dumpster.

*Editor’s note: It rarely works in your favor to do anything suggested in those little “What to do if the police harass you pamphlets” that activist groups like to give out. The only thing saying, “I do not consent to this search” is going to get you is your head pounded up against a concrete wall and a few leather gloved fists planted upon your jaw. As an added bonus, your request for appropriate legal due processing may even provoke the police officer to say something witty to his partner like, “You have to read him his rights, he knows the law” and, later on, perhaps a jest like, “What are you, a law student or something?” In other words, cops are the law, not the obedient followers of such. Never think otherwise, anywhere.

So after I was so physically disrupted from my food requisitioning activities, handcuffed, and carted off to jail, I was then processed along with some homeless dude and a big black transvestite who seemed to be a regular. The guy who snapped my mugshot and, uh, inspected me, looked over what the cop and written up in his report. He then looked up from his desk and said, “This didn’t really happen, did it?”

“Probably not,” I replied.

It turned out that whatever the cop had written on that form was so ridiculous that when I went to court the judge just looked at me, asked what I was doing in a dumpster, and apparently finding my response adequate, threw out the case. . . but not before the DA interjected that, “The State of New York would like to request that the defendant is not allowed on the premises of Aldi supermarkets.” The request was granted. Fair enough.

So I really had no cause to worry when I applied for that background check. No cause to worry until it came back and had a record of me violating Article 195.05 Obstructing Government Administration along with 140.05 Trespass.

A person can be arrested for just about anything, and an arrest is not directly indicative of guilt — at least anywhere outside of Russia. Completely innocent people are arrested all the time, and an arrest, in and of itself, means very little in terms of actual criminality.

There was no further explanation on the FBI criminal background check about my so-called offenses. There was no indication that the case was thrown out and that I was found not guilty. It just had those two offences listed as though they were part of my “criminal” record.

Now, let’s look at the realistic implications of this. There is a massive chasm of communication separating virtually all bureaucratic institutions in the world, especially when this communication is occurring across international, cultural, and linguistic boundaries. This is further compounded by the fact that bureaucratic officials tend to immediately go cross eyed when looking upon a form they are unfamiliar with. So now I have what is supposed to be a criminal background check administered by the FBI in the United States of America that is written in English which is intended to be read and interpreted by some low level official in some other country who may not even be able to really read that language. Now, what do you think my chances are of having my true criminal status properly understood?

While the intent behind requiring criminal background checks from applicants for longer term visas may be reasonable, its implementation is inherently bogus.


Filed under: Travel Problems, Visas

About the Author:

I am the founder and editor of Vagabond Journey. I’ve been traveling the world since 1999, through 90 countries. I am the author of the book, Ghost Cities of China and have written for The Guardian, Forbes, Bloomberg, The Diplomat, the South China Morning Post, and other publications. has written 3687 posts on Vagabond Journey. Contact the author.

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VBJ is currently in: Papa Bay, Hawaii

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