International travel can be exciting but overwhelming. An essential (and often overlooked) part of travel planning is reviewing the laws of your destination country, which may be very different from American laws.

U.S. citizenship will not protect you from being charged, detained or prosecuted under another country’s laws, even for unintentional infractions. Ignorance of the law is not an acceptable or successful defense.

U.S. legal protections are not transferable to other countries

Your rights as an American are not transferable to other countries — you’ll be judged by the local laws. For example, you could be arrested in Singapore for jaywalking or littering, or even caned for vandalizing property. Once you’re charged, there are limits to what the U.S. embassy can do.

If you’re arrested or detained in a foreign country

According to the U.S. Department of State, you should ask the prison authorities to notify the closest U.S. embassy or consulate if you’re arrested in a foreign country.

The U.S. embassy or consulate can:

  • Provide you with a list of local, English-speaking attorneys
  • Contact your family, friends or employer (with written permission)
  • Visit you regularly and provide you with reading materials and vitamin supplements
  • Ensure that prison officials are providing you with reasonable medical care
  • Explain the local criminal justice process
  • Ensure that prison officials permit visits with a member of the clergy of your religion of choice, if requested
  • Establish an overseas citizens services trust (aka OCS trust) that friends and family can transfer funds into

The U.S. embassy or consulate cannot:

  • Get you out of jail
  • State to a court that you are innocent (or guilty)
  • Provide you with legal advice or represent you in court
  • Serve as your official interpreter or translator
  • Pay your legal, medical or other fees

Kidnapping, wrongful detention and travel advisories

Politics, economic downturns and terrorism can amplify travel dangers. On July 19, 2022, President Biden signed an executive order to strengthen efforts to bring home Americans who have been kidnapped or wrongfully detained. The order added “D – Wrongful Detention” to the list of travel risk indicators.

Before you travel, review the U.S. State Department’s Travel and Advisory Alerts for information on your destination country’s entry and exit requirements, local laws and customs, health and safety conditions, transportation and other facts.

The State Department rates travel risk on a scale of 1 to 4:

  • Level 1: Exercise normal precautions (lowest risk)
  • Level 2: Exercise increased caution
  • Level 3: Reconsider travel
  • Level 4: Do not travel (highest risk)

Enter the country name for detailed information on the threats. Certain regions within the country might have higher threat level indicators. For example, a country may have an overall Level 2 advisory, but the western part of the country may have a Level 3 rating due to upcoming elections or possible political unrest.

The State Department issues reasons for travel advisories using these classifications:

Risk indicatorMeaning
C — CrimeWidespread violent or organized crime is present in areas of the country. Local law enforcement may have limited ability to respond to serious crimes.
D — Wrongful DetentionThe risk of wrongful detention of U.S. nationals by a foreign government exists.
E — Time-Limited EventA short-term event (election, sporting event or other incident) may pose a safety risk.
H — HealthA health risk, such as a disease outbreak or crisis that disrupts the country’s medical infrastructure, is present. If the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issues a travel notice, that may also be a factor for this indicator.
K — Kidnapping or Hostage-TakingCriminal or terrorist individuals or groups have threatened to seize, detain, injure or kill individuals, or they have already seized, detained, injured or killed individuals to compel a third party (including a governmental organization) to do or abstain from doing something as a condition of release.
N — Natural DisasterA natural disaster or its aftermath poses a danger.
O — OtherThere are potential risks not covered by other risk indicators. Read the country’s travel advisory for details.
T — TerrorismTerrorist attacks have occurred, or specific threats against civilians, groups or other targets may exist.
U — Civil UnrestPolitical, economic, religious or ethnic instability could cause violence, major disruptions or safety risks.

Laws, customs and individual rights may be different

Never assume that the country you’re visiting is legally similar to America. Laws protecting human rights, women and LGBTQ individuals may not exist in other countries. And certain freedoms and rights may be limited or unprotected. For example:

  • Recognition of same-sex marriage 
  • Recognition of child custody agreements or adoptions
  • Use or possession of prescription medications (including medical cannabis or other controlled substances)
  • Use or possession of recreational drugs or alcohol
  • Women’s rights
  • Access to health care
  • Due process or the right to a speedy trial
  • The right to a personal lawyer or public defender
  • Human rights
  • Rights prohibiting unreasonable search and seizures
  • The need for probable cause
  • Freedom of speech
  • The right to assemble
  • The right to dispense and disseminate information or pamphlets
  • The right to drive or operate a vehicle
  • Choice of personal attire

Preparing for international travel

Take these steps before traveling internationally.

Educate yourself

Pack your bags thoughtfully

Contact the U.S. Department of State if you’re unsure whether it’s legal to travel with certain items outside the U.S. Never mail packages or agree to carry items for others; you risk detainment, prosecution and incarceration.

If you doubt the legality of an item, leave it behind.

Share your itinerary with someone

Make copies of your travel documents like your passport, driver’s license, travel insurance claims hotlines, birth certificate, marriage certificate, children’s birth certificates, adoption records and passports, and give them to a trusted individual. That way, they’ll have the critical information needed in a crisis.

Other travel tips include:

  • Check in with a trusted individual during your travels.
  • Know the location of the nearest U.S. embassy or consulate.
  • Never leave your bags unattended.
  • Keep your carry-on items organized in a secure travel bag that’s easy for you to access but hard for others to tamper with.
  • Alert your credit card company about your travel plans and ensure you’ll have access to credit and emergency cash advances.

Get travel and kidnapping insurance

Travel insurance doesn’t cover arrests or illegal activity, but it can help with medical coverage, trip cancellations and extended stays. Depending on where you’re traveling, you might want to add kidnapping, ransom and extortion. Some credit cards also offer travel insurance perks, but they’re not as robust as a separate policy.

Every travel policy differs, so talk to your insurance agent about your travel plans and coverage options.

The bottom line is that prepared travel is smart travel. Make a plan, stay informed and remain connected when traveling internationally.

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