International Celebrities Denied U.S. Entry Visas

If you’ve ever been denied a tourist or other visa to the United States, or been turned around and sent home when you got to the U.S. airport or border, you’re not alone. Major celebrities from around the world have also had the door closed in their faces. Their cases make the newspaper – yours don’t.

Oddly enough, it seems to be the musicians who have the most trouble gaining U.S. entry. What’s so dangerous about musicians? Perhaps it’s just coincidence, since the underlying reasons range from past drug use tor criminal convictions to national security grounds. All the same, it might be best that you not break out into song when next in line facing an officer of U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP).

Let’s take a closer look at who has gotten the proverbial “No,” and why.

Boy George: Denied U.S. Entry Visa

Warning: Reading this entry will put the song "Do You Really Want to Hurt Me?" so firmly into your head that you will wake up humming it next Monday morning. In any case, singer Boy George (real name: George O'Dowd) had to cancel a 2008 U.S. concert tour when the U.S. authorities refused to issue him an entry visa.

Was it because of the drug bust he’d had in the U.S. a few years previous? Actually, no. The reason was apparently that Boy George was awaiting trial on a charge of falsely imprisoning a male escort at his home in London. (With handcuffs. He was convicted and sentenced to 15 months.)

Let’s not dwell on those handcuffs. Instead, here’s a helpful hint: The best way to remove the tune "Do You Really Want to Hurt Me?" from your head is to start singing "Karma Chameleon."

Ian McEwan: Initially Denied U.S. Entry Post-Flight

Despite having won nearly every major British literary prize (with works like "Atonement"); lunched with first lady Laura Bush on a previous U.S. trip; and been invited to make a West Coast lecture tour, novelist Ian McEwan was stopped by CBP en route to Seattle in 2004. The U.S. authorities (in Vancouver, Canada) denied him entry into the U.S. for 36 hours before finally giving him the green light.

The reason? When McEwan presented his passport, expecting the standard visa waiver that’s available to British citizens, officials asked what he planned to do during his U.S. visit. His answer, that he would be lecturing and getting paid for it, did not make them happy.

Under the terms of the Visa Waiver Program (VWP), you are not supposed to work for pay in the United States. (For more information on the VWP, see “Visa Waiver Program.”)

A Department of Homeland Security (DHS) spokesperson said that McEwan should have gotten either a B-1 visa, for business purposes, or an O visa, which is especially for journalists. In fact, after immense public pressure, McEwan was finally given a business visa for entry.

After landing in Seattle a mere 90 minutes before his first scheduled lecture, McEwan reportedly told the packed house that he was thankful to DHS "for protecting the American public from British novelists." And he couldn’t resist noting that one official asked him, "What kind of novels do you write: fiction or nonfiction?"

Humor aside, McEwan worried (rightfully) about the fact that his passport had been stamped "Refused Admittance;" a permanent stain on his U.S. immigration record.

M.I.A.: Denied U.S. Entry Visa

London/Sri Lankan rapper M.I.A. (real name Maya Arulpragasam) was denied a visa to visit or work in the U.S. in 2006. The exact reasons were unclear, but some suggested that it may have had to do with her song lyrics, which could be interpreted to show support for the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). It was a separatist militant organization in Sri Lanka that the U.S. considered to be a terrorist group.

Cat Stevens: Escorted Off the Plane and Sent Back to Britain

Singer Cat Stevens was on a passenger plane flying to Washington in 2004 when the plane was diverted by FBI agents to the Bangor, Maine airport, 600 miles away. Then they escorted Stevens off the plane and sent him back to Britain, for "national security" reasons.

The singer, who had converted to Islam and changed his name to Yusuf Islam, was on a watch list, likely for having donated tens of thousands of dollars to the militant Palestinian group Hamas. (But the airlines didn’t notice he was on the watch list before letting him on the plane – oops.)

The singer was also denied entry to Israel in 2008, for similar reasons, despite having received an invitation to perform by President Shimon Peres.

Amy Winehouse: Denied U.S. Entry Visa

With songs like “You Know I’m No Good” among her musical hits, perhaps the late Amy Winehouse should have expected trouble trying to attend the Grammys in 2008. She had been nominated for awards in six categories.

But the U.S. Embassy in London denied her visa request, reportedly because of her ongoing battle with drug addiction and her arrest in Norway for cannabis possession the previous year.

U.S. immigration laws are especially harsh on anyone with any sort of drug record. Drug traffickers, drug addicts, and drug abusers will all be refused entry, being “inadmissible” to the United States. For more on these and other grounds of inadmissibility, see “Immigrant Inadmissibility to the U.S.

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