Safety & Security
Violence is a leading worldwide public health problem and a growing concern of US citizens traveling, working, or residing abroad. International terrorism and crime are risks anywhere in the world, but international travelers operating in an unfamiliar environment face particular hurdles. Travelers may not have access to networks of friends or family to assist them. Local government responses to problems may be different from what US residents expect, or an effective local government may not exist to respond at all. Language barriers, unexpected costs, or different cultural mores can also complicate what happens in an emergency. The best way for US residents going overseas to manage their risk is to prepare before they travel. Travelers should research conditions at their destination to learn what risks they are likely to face and have a plan to mitigate those risks while they are abroad.
Research and preparation
Travelers need information to make good decisions about risks while traveling and to make plans to deal with those risks. The Department of State’s Bureau of Consular Affairs publishes comprehensive information on safety and security concerns for every independent nation, along with basic advice for safe travel anywhere, at http://travel.state.gov. More information can also be found at individual embassy and consulate websites, all of which can be found at www.usembassy.gov. The Department of State also publishes travel alerts and travel warnings that focus on emergent or chronic safety issues in countries around the world. They encourage all US citizens to avoid travel to areas with major threats to safety and security. Travelers should take these warnings seriously as they cover areas where security threats and instability severely limit the help the US government can offer to its citizens in those areas.
Travelers should enroll with the Department of State’s Smart Traveler Enrollment Program (STEP) before leaving on their trip. This will allow them to receive updated information about safety and security conditions and messages about emergent threats while they are abroad. The governments of the United Kingdom, Canada, and Australia also have excellent websites with safety and security information for travelers.
One of the most common threats to the safety of US citizens abroad comes from criminal activity. Travelers to foreign countries are viewed by many criminals as wealthy, naïve targets, who are inexperienced, unfamiliar with the culture, and inept at seeking assistance if victimized. Traveling in high-poverty areas or regions of civil unrest, using alcohol or drugs, and traveling in unfamiliar environments at night increase the likelihood that a traveler will be the victim of crime.
Travelers should take the time to research crime trends and patterns at their destination through the Overseas Security Advisory Council at www.osac.gov. Strategies for avoiding becoming the victim of a crime overseas are, for the most part, the same common-sense habits that people should follow everywhere, but the following actions should be stressed with international travelers:
- Limit travel at night, travel with a companion, and vary routine travel habits.
- Do not wear expensive clothing or accessories.
- Avoid accommodations on the ground floor or immediately next to the stairs, and lock all doors and windows.
- Take only recommended and safe modes of local transportation.
- If confronted in a robbery, give up all valuables and do not resist attackers. Resistance can escalate to violence and result in injury or death.
Victims of a crime overseas should contact the nearest US embassy, consulate, or consular agency. The Department of State can help replace a stolen passport, contact family and friends, obtain appropriate medical care, explain the local criminal justice process, and connect victims of crime with available resources. However, they do not have the legal authority to conduct a criminal investigation and prosecution.
International terrorism is also a threat to US citizens abroad. The Department of State maintains a worldwide caution addressing this threat on its consular affairs website. Terrorist groups continue to plan attacks against Western interests in multiple regions, including Europe, Asia, Africa, and the Middle East. These attacks may employ a wide variety of tactics, including suicide operations, assassinations, kidnappings, hijackings, and bombings. Possible targets include high-profile sporting events, public transportation systems, residential areas, business offices, hotels, clubs, restaurants, places of worship, schools, shopping malls, and other tourist destinations where US citizens gather in large numbers.
Although terrorism is a worldwide threat and can be a major cause of concern to travelers, it should be seen in context. In 2014, 24 private US citizens were killed in terrorist attacks overseas, 8 were injured, and 3 were kidnapped. Although threats of this type cannot be totally eliminated, travelers can lower the chance they will be a victim through knowledge and planning:
- Look out for unattended packages or bags in public places and other crowded areas.
- Be cautious of unexpected packages.
- When packing, choose clothing that does not identify one as a tourist (such as T-shirts emblazoned with the US flag or logos of the traveler’s local sports team).
- Try to blend in with the locals.
These strategies incorporate the same defensive alertness and good judgment that people should use to keep safe from crime at home or abroad. Awareness is key—taking precautions to be aware of surroundings and adopting protective measures.
Just as important as learning about safety and security conditions at a traveler’s destination country is to learn about legal differences that may cause problems for US citizens. Many countries have weapons laws that are much stricter than those in the United States, such that a single loose bullet in a suitcase can lead to arrest and possible jail time. Some countries prohibit certain religious activities or the possession of religious literature. Prescription medications that are commonly used in the United States may be illegal in another country. Some countries do not have the same free speech protections as those in the United States, and statements made in public or online can lead to arrest or detention. These and other legal differences can be researched online at the Department of State website.
Since travelers may become the victim of a crime, regardless of the precautions they take, they should have plans for what they will do in an emergency. Travelers should make photocopies of their travel documents and leave a copy with a friend or relative at home along with a detailed itinerary and contact information if possible. They should also have the contact information for the nearest US embassy or consulate where they are traveling. Many medical insurance programs, including Medicare and Medicaid, will not pay for medical treatment overseas. Travelers should ensure they have adequate medical coverage before going overseas. If their current insurance does not cover their trip abroad, they should consider additional insurance that can pay for their medical expenses abroad or help return them to the United States if that becomes necessary. For more information, see Travel Insurance, Travel Health Insurance, & Medical Evacuation Insurance in this chapter.
Department of State Consular Affairs
- Know Before You Go: http://travel.state.gov/content/passports/english/go.html
- Alerts and Warnings: http://travel.state.gov/content/passports/en/alertswarnings.html
- Country Information: http://travel.state.gov/content/passports/english/country.html
- US Citizen Deaths Overseas: http://travel.state.gov/content/travel/english/statistics/deaths.html
Federal Bureau of Investigation, Crime Statistics: https://ucr.fbi.gov
Overseas Security Advisory Council: www.osac.gov
Robyn K. Prinz, Ronnie Henry