Traveler Beware: What are your Rights in a Foreign Country

Many of you will remember an event in the mid 90s when an 18-year-old American boy convicted of vandalism in Singapore, was sentenced to a harsh punishment of flogging. The flogging was to consist of six strokes on the buttocks with a moistened rattan cane that draws blood and leaves permanent scars on the skin. The boy was also sentenced to four months in jail and a $2,200 fine. While this seemed like a harsh sentence to Americans and drew national media attention, In Singapore this was a standard sentence. The simple lesson to be learned is to know the laws of the country you are going to. Sometimes innocent actions such as selling personal effects, such as clothing, cameras, or jewelry may be a violation of local regulations. Learn the local laws and stick to them because the penalties you risk may be severe.

For example, while it is natural for tourists to photograph scenes from their trip abroad, some countries are particularly sensitive about photographs. Given this fact it is a good rule to avoid photographing police and military installations and personnel, industrial structures including harbor, rail, and airport facilities, border areas, and scenes of civil disorder or other public disturbance. You could be detained, your camera and film confiscated, and made to pay a fine.

For information on photography restrictions, check with the country’s tourist office or its embassy or consulate in the United States. The State Department’s Bureau of Consular Affairs recommends that, once abroad, you should check with local authorities or at the Consular Section of the nearest U.S. embassy or consulate.


Americans should not take their basic rights for granted when they travel abroad. For example, in Japan there is no appreciation of the rights guaranteed to American citizens by the Fourth, Fifth, Sixth, Seventh, and Eighth Amendments to the Bill of Rights. Among other things, Japanese police can search citizens at will, an arrested suspect can be detained without bail for up to 28 days before a prosecutor must bring him before a judge, and suspects who insist on standing trial do not have a right to a jury.

About 3,000 Americans are arrested abroad each year. Of these, approximately one-third are held on drug charges. Many countries have stiff penalties for drug violations and strictly enforce laws.

Be warned! Americans are subject to foreign, not United States, laws overseas, and you have no U.S. constitutional rights. If arrested, you will find that: Few countries provide a trial by jury; pretrial detention is often in solitary confinement and may involve months of incarceration in prison conditions that lack even minimal comforts – bed, toilet, and wash basin; officials may not speak English and trials are conducted in the language of the foreign country; prison diets are often inadequate and require supplements from relatives and friends; and physical abuse or inhumane treatment is possible.

Drug convictions can result in life imprisonment or the death penalty in some countries. Persons required to take medication containing narcotic drugs should carry a doctor’s certificate attesting to the fact and should keep medicines in their original and labeled containers. Commonly used medications such as amphetamines, barbiturates, codeine, captagon, and many other substances that are not considered drugs in the United States may be considered drugs elsewhere. To avoid potential problems, the Bureau of Consular Affairs advises that travelers carrying such medicines should consult the embassies of the countries they will visit before leaving the U.S.


Unless you are rich and powerful, there is little that a U.S. consul can, or wants to, do for you if you encounter legal difficulties. What American officials can do is limited by both foreign and U.S. laws. For example, a consular officer cannot get you out of jail or intervene in a foreign country’s court system or judicial process to obtain special treatment.

If you are arrested, ask the authorities to notify a consular officer at the nearest U.S. embassy or consulate. Under international agreements and practice, you have the right to talk to the U.S. consul. However, don’t expect too much. If you are denied this right, be persistent and try to have someone get in touch for you.

When alerted, U.S. officials will usually eventually visit you, advise you of your rights according to local laws, and contact your family and friends if you wish. They will do “whatever they can” to protect your legitimate interests and to ensure that you are not discriminated against under local law. Consuls can transfer money, food, and clothing to the prison authorities from your family and friends. They will try to get relief if you are held under inhumane or unhealthy conditions or treated less favorably than others in the same situation.

Wise travelers can avoid potential legal complications if they will learn and respect the laws and the cultural and moral values of foreign nations visited. Remember, it makes no difference that you are a citizen of the United States if you are arrested. Ignorance of the criminal justice system and its laws is not an acceptable excuse abroad.

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