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Safe Trip Abroad: Taking Precautions

Staying Safe

Part Two: Taking Precautions

Taken from public domain information in - Department of State Publication 10110, Bureau of Consular Affairs - revised 9/93

Millions of U.S. citizens travel abroad each year and use their U.S. passport. When you travel abroad, the odds are in your favor that you will have a safe and incident free trip. Even if you do come into difficulty abroad, the odds are still in your favor that you will not be a victim of crime or violence.


Use the same common sense traveling overseas that you would at home. Be especially cautious in, or avoid areas where you are likely to be victimized. These include crowded subways, train stations, elevators, tourist sites, market places, festivals and marginal areas of cities.

Don't use shortcuts, narrow alleys or poorly-lit streets. Try not to travel alone at night.

Avoid public demonstrations and other civil disturbances.

Keep a low profile and avoid loud conversations or arguments. Do not discuss travel plans or other personal matters with strangers.

To avoid scam artists, beware of strangers who approach you, offering bargains or to be your guide.

Beware of pickpockets. They often have an accomplice who will:

  • jostle you
  • ask you for directions or the time
  • point to something spilled on your clothing
  • or distract you by creating a disturbance.

A child or even a woman carrying a baby can be a pickpocket. Beware of groups of vagrant children

Wear the shoulder strap of your bag across your chest and walk with the bag away from the curb to avoid drive-by purse snatchers.

Try to seem purposeful when you move about.

Even when you are lost,act as if you know where you are going. When possible, ask directions only from individuals in authority.

Know how to use a pay telephone and have the proper change or token on hand.

Learn a few phrases in the local language so you can signal your need for help, the police, or a doctor.

Make note of emergency telephone numbers you may need: police, fire, your hotel, and the nearest U.S. embassy or consulate.

If confronted by superior force, don't fight attackers -- give up valuables.


Keep your hotel door locked at all times. Meet visitors in the lobby.

Do not leave money and other valuables in your hotel room while you are out. Use the hotel safe.

Let someone know when you expect to return, especially if out late at night.

If you are alone, do not get on an elevator if there is a suspicious-looking person inside.

Read the fire safety instructions in your hotel rooms. Know how to report a fire. Be sure you know where the nearest fire exit and an alternate are. Count the doors between your room and the nearest exit -- this could be life-saver if you have to crawl through a smoke-filled corridor.


In countries where there is a pattern of tourists being targeted by criminals on public transport, this information is mentioned in Consular Information Sheets.

Taxis: Only take taxis clearly identified with official markings. Beware of irregular cabs.

Trains: Well organized, systematic robbery of passengers on trains along popular tourists routes is a serious problem. It is more common at night and especially on overnight trains.

If you see your way blocked by someone and another person is pressing you from behind, move away. this can happen in the corridor of the train or on the platform or station.

Do not accept food or drink from strangers. Criminals have been known to drug passengers by offering them food or drink. Criminals may also spray sleeping gas in train compartments.

Where possible, lock you compartment. If it cannot be locked securely, take turns with your traveling companions sleeping in shifts. If that is not possible, stay awake. If you must sleep unprotected, tie down your luggage, strap your valuables to you and sleep on top of them as much as possible.

Do not be afraid to alert authorities if you feel threatened in any way. Extra police are often assigned to ride trains on routes where crime is a serious problem.

Buses: The same type of criminal activity found on trains can be found on public buses on popular tourist routs. For example, tourists have been drugged and robbed while sleeping on buses or in bus stations. In some countries whole bus loads of passengers have been held up and robbed by gangs of bandits.


When you rent a car, don't go for the exotic; choose a type commonly available locally. Where possible, ask that markings that identify it as a rental car be removed. Make certain it is in good repair. If available, choose a car with universal door locks and power windows, features that give the driver better control of access to the car.

An air conditioner, when available, is also a safety feature, allowing you to drive with windows closed. Thieves can and do snatch purses through open windows of moving cars.

Keep car doors locked at all times. Wear seat belts.

As much as possible, avoid driving at night.

Don't leave valuables in the car. If you must carry things with you, keep them out of sight in the trunk.

Don't park you car on the street overnight. If the hotel or municipality does not have a parking garage or other secure area, select a well-lit area.

Never pick up hitchhikers.

Don't get out of the car if there are suspicious individuals nearby. Drive away.


In many places frequented by tourists, including areas of southern Europe, victimization of motorists has been refined to an art. Where it is a problem, U.S. embassies are aware of it and consular officers try to work with local authorities to warn the public bout the dangers. In some locations, these efforts at public awareness have paid off, reducing the frequency of incidents. Ask your rental car agency for advice on avoiding robbery. Where it is a problem, they are well aware of it and should tell you how best to protect yourself.

Carjackers and thieves operate at gas stations, parking lots, in city traffic, and along the highway. Be suspicious of anyone who hails you or tries to get your attention when you are in or near your car.

Criminals use ingenious ploys. They may masquerade as good Samaritans, offering help for tires that they claim are flat or that they have made flat. Or they may flag down a motorist, ask for assistance, and then steal the rescuer's luggage or car. Usually they work in groups, one person carrying on the pretense while the others rob you.

Other criminals get your attention with abuse, either trying to drive you off the road, or causing an ■accident■ by rear-ending you or creating a 'fender bende'r.

In some urban areas, thieves don't waste time on ploys, they simply smash car windows at traffic lights, grab your valuables or your car and get away. In cities around the world, 'defensive driving' has come to mean more than avoiding auto accidents; it means keeping an eye out for potentially criminal pedestrians, cyclists, and scooter riders.


To avoid carrying large amounts of cash, change your travelers checks only as you need currency. Counter sign travelers checks only in front of the person who will cash them.

Do not flash large amounts of money when paying a bill. Make sure your credit card is returned to you after each transaction.

Deal only with authorized agents when you exchange money, buy airline tickets, or purchase souvenirs. Do not change money on the black market.

If your possessions are lost or stolen, report the loss immediately to the local police. Keep a copy of the police report for insurance claims and as an explanation of your plight.

After reporting lost items to the police, report the loss of:

  • travelers checks to the nearest agent of the issuing company
  • credit cards to the issuing company
  • airline tickets to the airline or travel agent
  • passport to the nearest U.S. embassy or consulate


When you are in a foreign country, you are subject to its laws and under its protection--not the protection of the U.S. Constitution.

You can be arrested overseas for actions that may be either legal or considered minor infractions in the United States. Be aware of what is considered criminal in the country where you are. Consular Information Sheets include information on unusual patterns of arrests in various countries.

Some of the offenses for which U.S. citizens have been arrested abroad are:

Drug Violations: More than 1/3 of U.S. citizens incarcerated abroad are held on drug charges. Some countries do not distinguish between possession and trafficking; many have mandatory sentences -- even for a small amount of marijuana or cocaine. Although we know of no U.S. citizens who have been arrested abroad for prescription drugs purchased in the United States for personal use and carried in original labeled containers, a number of Americans have been arrested for possessing prescription drugs, particularly tranquilizers and amphetamines, that they purchased illegally in certain Asian countries and took to some countries in the Middle East where they are illegal. Other U.S. citizens have been arrested for purchasing prescription drugs abroad in quantities that local authorities suspected were for commercial use. If in doubt about foreign drug laws, ask local authorities or the nearest U.S. embassy or consulate.

Possession of Firearms: The places where U.S. citizens most often come into difficulties for illegal possession of firearms are nearby--Mexico, Canada, and the Caribbean. Sentences for possession of firearms in Mexico can be up to 30 years.

In general, firearms, even those legally registered in the U.S., cannot be brought into a country unless a permit is first obtained from the embassy or consulate of that country. (Note: If you take firearms or ammunition to another country, you cannot bring them back into the U.S. unless you register them with U.S. Customs before you leave the U.S.)

Photography: In many countries you can be harassed or detained for photographing such things as police and military installations, government buildings, border areas, and transportation facilities. If in doubt, ask permission before taking photographs.

Purchasing Antiques: Americans have been arrested for purchasing souvenirs that were, or looked like, antiques and which local customs authorities believed were national treasures. Some of the countries where this has happened were Turkey, Egypt, and Mexico. In countries where antiques are important, document your purchases as reproductions if that is the case, or if they are authentic, secure the necessary export permit (usually from the national museum).


If you plan to stay more than two weeks in one place, if your are in an area experiencing civil unrest or a natural disaster, or if you are planning travel to a remote area, it is advisable to register at the Consular Section of the nearest U.S. embassy or consulate. This will make it easier if someone at home needs to locate you urgently or in the unlikely event that you need to be evacuated in an emergency. It will also facilitate the issuance of a new passport should yours become lost of stolen.

Another reason to contact the Consular Section is to obtain updated information on the security situation in a country.

If you are ill or injured, contact the nearest U.S. embassy or consulate for a list of local physicians and medical facilities. If the illness is serious, consular officers can help you find medical assistance from this list and, at your request, will inform you family or friends. If necessary, a consul can assist in the transfer of funds from the United States. Payment of hospital and other medical expenses is your responsibility.

If you become destitute overseas, consular officers can help you get in touch with your family, friends, bank, or employer and inform them how to wire funds to you.

Should you find yourself in legal difficulty, contact a consular officer immediately. Consular officers cannot serves as attorneys, give legal advice, or get you out of jail. What they can do is provide a list of local attorneys who speak English and who may have had experience in representing U.S. citizens. If you are arrested, consular officials will visit you, advise you of your rights under local laws, and ensure that you are held under humane conditions and are treated fairly under local law. A consular officer will also contact your family or friends if you desire. When necessary, consuls can transfer money from home for you and will try to get relief for you, including food and clothing in countries where this is a problem. If you are detained, remember that under international agreements and practice, you have the right to talk to the U.S. consul. If you are denied this right, be persistent; try to have someone get in touch for you.

Thank you for taking the time to become an informed traveler. We wish you a safe and wonderful journey

For general travel information, the following pamphlets may be ordered from the Superintendent of Documents, U.S. Government Printing Office, Washington, DC 20402; tel: 202-783-3238. e-mail at

Your Trip Abroad

Travel Tips for Older Americans

Tips for Americans Residing Abroad

Country specific information can be found in the following publications:

Tips for Travelers to Sub-Saharan Africa

Tips for Travelers to the Caribbean

Tips for Travelers to Central and South America

Tips for Travelers to the People's Republic of China

Tips for Travelers to Mexico

Tips for Travelers to the Middle East and North Africa

Tips for Travelers to South Asia

Tips for Travelers to Russia

The following publications may be ordered from the Consumer Information Center, Pueblo, CO 81009

Foreign Entry Requirements

Passports--Applying for Them the Easy Way

Family Vacations & Reviews, Air Travel Advice

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