Passport Fraud: Overview of Criminal and Immigration Laws

Overview of the laws governing passport fraud, why and how it's committed, and what the consequences may be.

By , Attorney · University of Arizona College of Law

Passport fraud is a federal crime and not one taken lightly by the U.S. government. The U.S. Department of State's law enforcement arm, the Diplomatic Security (DS) Service, uses special agents who coordinate with other federal and international law enforcement agencies in more than 160 countries around the world to investigate passport and visa fraud.

This article will first provide background on the crime of passport fraud and address the penalties under U.S. law.

How Do People Use False U.S. Passports?

A U.S. passport is regarded as among the most valuable travel and identity documents in the world. It allows citizens unrestricted passage in and out of the U.S. as well as into other many countries around the globe. That makes procuring a U.S. passport extremely desirable to terrorists and other criminals.

According to the DS, obtaining a U.S. passport fraudulently (a crime in and of itself) is almost always done to facilitate another crime, such as illegal immigration, contraband smuggling, economic crimes, and terrorism.

Who Typically Commits Passport Fraud?

According to the U.S. Department of State, the most typical passport fraud crimes are committed by:

  • people attempting to illegally obtain U.S. citizenship
  • people wishing to hide or change their identity
  • fugitives
  • terrorists
  • people committing financial fraud, and
  • people committing other crimes, such as drug trafficking and alien smuggling.

How Is Passport Fraud Usually Carried Out?

U.S. passports are among the most secure travel documents that exist. The photos are digitized and each passport contains a chip that is machine-readable where all the biographical data is duplicated, including the photograph.

Additionally, the U.S. passport contains over 30 different security features. When immigration officers screen U.S. passport holders to enter the U.S. and many other countries, the passport is electronically scanned to check that the photo in the passport matches the photo on the chip. With all these features, it has become extremely difficult to use a physically altered U.S. passport.

As a result, one of the most common types of passport fraud involves people using the passports of other people who look similar to them. These passports might be stolen, or borrowed from a family member.

Another type of passport fraud occurs during the application process. Typically, an individual will first try to obtain a U.S. driver's license using false or impostor documents and then try to obtain a passport. The Department of State checks many different databases for each passport application to detect impostors.

Some people use fraud or forgery to try and circumvent the requirement for both parents to sign the applications for children under 16.

Penalties for Conviction of Passport Fraud

For a basic, first offense of passport fraud under 18 U.S.C. § 1542, such as lying on a passport application, you can be fined $250,000 and sentenced to up to ten years in prison.

If the fraud involves trafficking in narcotics, the penalty increases to up to 20 years in prison. If international terrorism is involved, the penalty is up to 25 years. Even if the incident does not result in a criminal conviction, the perpetrator faces a permanent U.S. immigration ineligibility for making a false claim to U.S. citizenship.

Lost and stolen passports are being fraudulently used by terrorists and other criminals at any given time and the problem is considered the one of the single largest threats to U.S. national security. Therefore, if you've committed passport fraud for any reason, you can expect that the government will assume you are engaging, or intend to engage, in serious criminal activity, and that you are a threat to the United States. It's likely that you will be charged with a federal crime and prosecuted. Get an attorney's help right away.

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