Your Rights Abroad

Couple with map


In Bali, Indonesia, you can be imprisoned and executed by firing squad for drug possession. In certain Middle Eastern countries, holding hands in public is against the law, as is public drunkenness. “Americans take so many freedoms for granted and are often ill-prepared when they go abroad,” says attorney Mark Kodner of Kodner, Watkins, Muchnick, Weigley & Brison. “It’s an entirely different ballgame over there. If you don’t know and respect the laws in your host country, you can get in big trouble.”

    Before traveling to a foreign country, check the U.S. Department of State Web site. “You’ll find information about some of the risks you might face abroad, including which countries are downright unsafe for Americans to visit,” Kodner says. “Heed that advice.” Also available on that site are the phone numbers of U.S. embassies and consulates around the world. “Never visit a foreign country unless you’re carrying the number of the local U.S. embassy or consulate,” he warns. “If you get arrested, the first thing you have to do is ask for embassy representation. Under international law, they have to provide you with that connection. If you don’t speak the language, show them your passport and repeatedly ask to speak to their American ambassador. And if you lose your passport or it’s stolen, get your butt to the American embassy immediately!”

    Don’t resist arrest—it only makes matters worse, Kodner says. “If arrested, give your name and show your passport, but don’t say anything else until you get representation by the American embassy. Not every country has Miranda rights, so keep your mouth shut.” You have the right to demand an interpreter and representation, he adds, “but you’ll probably have better luck securing these things if you’re arrested in a major city. If you’re in the sticks, like somewhere in rural China, you can sit in jail for days without assistance. Just keep repeating ‘I speak English’ or ‘I’m an American.’”

    Always keep a $100 American bill in your wallet, Kodner advises. “I know this sounds awful, but sometimes a bribe can clear up a misunderstanding, providing you haven’t actually broken a law. You’ll know the right time to use it. My son was in Mexico recently, and got picked up for a minor infraction involving a colored wristband. As the cops were hauling him away, he yelled, ‘American money! American money!’ It did the trick.”

    But Jennifer Schwesig, international practice group leader at Armstrong Teasdale, urges travelers to think twice before they start waving money around. “Bribes are a violation of the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act when presented to a foreign government official,” she says. “There’s an exception made for what’s known as ‘grease payments,’ but it can be a gray area. Use common sense. Better yet, respect local laws and don’t get in trouble in the first place!”

    Foreign countries with the strictest laws include China, Dubai, parts of Central and Latin America, Saudi Arabia, Singapore and Thailand, Schwesig says. “Don’t be an idiot—what might be remedied with a slap on the wrist in the U.S. could get you years of hard labor or the death penalty elsewhere. There’s no right to a speedy trial, either, so you might languish in prison for a long time.”

    Schwesig recommends registering with the State Department before you travel, especially if you’re visiting a high-risk country. She also suggests leaving copies of your passport and visa with relatives in the U.S.—“If the real thing is lost or stolen, it will be easier to replace.” And always leave a detailed itinerary with a friend or relative in the U.S.: “If you don’t come home on time and haven’t contacted them, they’ll know to get in touch with the embassy.”

    Travel isn’t as carefree as it was in less perilous times, Schwesig says. “But there’s no need to stay home if you exercise reasonable caution. Remember that the minute you cross a border, you’re subject to a different set of laws. Ignorance is no excuse. Over there, you’re guilty until proven innocent.”