International Laws and Safety
Yes, there are many fun aspects of your upcoming study abroad adventure to day dream and drool over - mornings coupled with espresso in Nice, riding elephants in Chiang Mai, or mastering the tango in Buenos Aires. Other aspects may not be as romantic, such as getting your visa or figuring out what to pack. But one other small, yet highly-recommended-if-not-deemed-necessary aspect of preparation many study abroaders tend to overlook is this: understanding the legal system in your host country.
Being a foreigner and not being informed about the laws of your host country, or even the norms of local behavior, may ultimately increase your odds for becoming a victim of petty crimes. In other cases, you may find you are committing a crime without even realizing it. Judicial systems in other countries can be complicated and intimidating. Do not make the costly mistake of assuming that simply being a foreigner, a student, or an American citizen in another country will excuse your association with any illegal acts. None of these factors make you immune to the laws of your host country. Additionally, it is possible that the penalties for a crime in your host country can be much harsher than a comparable infraction in the US.
According to the U.S. Department of state, if arrested abroad, a citizen must go through the foreign legal process for being charged or indicted, prosecuted, possibly convicted and sentenced, and for any appeals process.
Outside of contacting your family or providing you with contact information for local attorneys, there is limited assistance US embassies and consulates can offer to US nationals who break laws in foreign countries. However, if you do find yourself arrested or in a situation that involves local law enforcement, you do have certain rights as a foreign national citizen.
- Ask to be taken to the closest American consulate or embassy.
- If a visit is refused, demand a telephone call.
- (Regardless if these first two requests are fulfilled or not, your local consular will be informed of the situation, following the Vienna Convention.)
- Do not admit or deny anything, be it formally or informally, orally or written.
- Remain respectful and polite with the officers, follow instructions but insist your consular rights are fulfilled.
Protect your passport while studying abroad!
Hopefully, these tips will only come in handy in extreme cases. Though it may seem difficult, try your best to not break any laws while studying abroad. I can confidently say your life will be a lot easier if you entirely avoid the inevitable headaches associated with foreign law enforcement officers.
The far more likely (though still hopefully rare) situation you may find yourself in is being a victim of crime rather than causing it. While being an international traveler is exciting, the distance from home also gives study abroaders a reason for caution and concern. It is up to you to educate yourself about safety and security so that you can thoroughly enjoy the places you visit. Here are a few recommendations to help ensure your safety while abroad:
- Protect your passport
This is the most valuable document you will carry while you are abroad. Some countries require that you carry your passport at all times as an identity document, while in others it will only be needed when exchanging money or crossing borders. When you must carry your passport, hide it securely on your person. Carelessness may result in a lost or stolen passport, which can be a costly interruption to travel plans.
- Make copies of your passport and visa
It is a good idea to give a copy of your travel documents to your on-site program providers and to leave a copy with your parents back home. Even having a few extra copies for yourself may come in handy. These are especially useful as a record if your passport becomes misplaced.
- Travel with a pal(s)
While the appeal of independent adventure is understandable, for first time travelers, it's recommended you go about it in a group. If you do decide to take the jump and travel on your own, you will need to take extra precautions. Criminals are far more likely to target and attack an individual than they are to go after a pair or a group.
- Avoid going out alone at night
Dark streets + lone foreigner. You do the math. Stick to well-lit or busy streets, or as mentioned in #4, grab some friends! Always remain alert when walking, be aware of your surroundings and avoid social distractions.
- Tell others your whereabouts
Use caution when going anywhere by yourself - even if it is for a jog or a run. Tell at least one person where you are headed so that they expect your return, or have useful information about your intended destination should something happen. Leave a schedule and itinerary if you are traveling, even if only overnight.
- Be contactable in case of an emergency
Make sure your program director, host family, or other persons responsible for your welfare have an established method of reaching you should anything important happen that you need to know about.
- Be careful with alcohol
Alcohol does add fun to the mix - but carrying an open container, or appearing under the influence may make you more susceptible to crime. If you do decide to drink, do it with a few friends you know and trust, and who are equally concerned about your safety.
- Use legal taxis ONLY
Another recipe for disaster - if you use an illegal taxi, you may end up in the middle of nowhere, or worse, in an extremely dangerous situation with no easy way out.
- Have sufficient funds
Having extra money in the bank or a credit card will help finance any unexpected turns while studying abroad - such as emergency flights or hospital visits. Avoid carrying excessive amounts of money on your person, and always keep it in multiple places, such as in a money pouch, your wallet, your sock - get creative!
- Be mindful in large crowds
Crowded spaces are hot spots for pick pocketing - it'd be hard to fund those unexpected expenditures if you end up getting your cash flow swiped.
- Avoid political involvement
Finding yourself in demonstrations, rallies, or protests, even as an onlooker, can potentially result in fatality or being arrested. It's best to watch it all go down from the comfort of your own sofa.
- Keep a low profile
Try to avoid attracting excess attention to yourself - simple things such as the way you dress, talk, or behave make increase your chances of being a target of crime.
In any given situation, common sense is going to serve as your best friend. Think before you act! Oh, and have fun!
- Country specific security-related information database, courtesy of the State Department.
- NAFSA's informative page for responsible study abroad.
Photo Credit: Scott / BigStockPhoto.com and Kalulu / BigStockPhoto.com.