Safety and security for U.S. youth traveling abroad

Photo by Sergey Nivens /
Photo by Sergey Nivens /

Courtesy of the Federal Bureau of Investigation Counterintelligence

During the summer break before going off to college, many students may take this final opportunity to travel with friends or even on their own through summer student programs within Europe or abroad.

Living and traveling in another country is an enriching and rewarding experience, especially if you are prepared and take certain precautions.

 “Act Smart. Be Safe.” An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.

Before You Go

Familiarize yourself with local laws and customs in the areas you plan to travel. You are expected to obey their laws, which may include dress standards, photography restrictions, telecommunication restrictions, curfews, etc.

Plan your wardrobe so that it does not offend the locals, nor draw unwanted attention to yourself. Americans are perceived as wealthy and are targeted for pick pocketing and other crimes. Do not wear expensive looking jewelry and avoid wearing American team sports shirts or baseball caps that might indicate you are an American.

Do not take unnecessary identification or credit cards in case they are stolen. Take only what is necessary.

Establish points of contact for your family to contact and for your foreign hosts to contact in the event of an emergency. Register your trips with the State Department, called the Smart Traveler Enrollment Program or STEP (

Make copies of your passport, airplane ticket, driver’s license, and credit cards that you take with you. Keep one copy at home; carry a second copy with you but separate from the originals. This will help speed the replacement process if they are lost or stolen.

Take any necessary medications with you in their original containers and keep them in your carry-on luggage (not checked baggage) during the flight. Verify you have adequate medical insurance.

Obtain specific pre-travel country risk assessments for the country/countries you plan to visit from the installation Safety or Security Offices, the State Department, and/or the FBI. There may be specific issues you should be aware of and prepare for that will ensure your safety and peace of mind.

During Your Stay

Protect your passport! Theft of American tourist passports is on the rise. It is recommended that you carry your passport in a front pants pocket or in a pouch hidden in your clothes, and that it remain with you at all times. Some hotels require you to leave it at the desk during your stay and they may use it to register you with the local police—a routine policy. Ask for a receipt and be sure to retrieve your passport before continuing your trip. If your passport is lost or stolen, report the situation immediately to the nearest U.S. Embassy or Consulate.

Do not invite strangers into your room.

Be courteous and cooperative when processing through customs. Do not leave your bags unattended. Stay alert.

Use only authorized taxis. Passengers have been robbed or kidnapped when using “gypsy” taxis.

Avoid traveling alone, especially after dark. Be conscious of your surroundings and avoid areas you believe may put your personal safety at risk. Be wary of street vendors and innocent-looking youngsters. While one person has your attention, another may be picking your pocket.

Do not carry large amounts of cash. Always deal with reputable currency exchange officials or you run the risk of receiving counterfeit currency. Keep a record of your financial transactions.

Beware that theft from sleeping compartments on trains is common.

Do not leave drinks unattended—someone could slip a drug into it that causes amnesia and sleep.

Avoid long waits in lobbies and terminals, if possible. These areas may harbor pickpockets, thieves, and violent offenders. Laptop theft is especially common in airports.

Avoid civil disturbances and obey local laws. If you come upon a demonstration or rally, be careful; in the confusion you could be arrested or detained even though you are a bystander. Be mindful that in many countries, it is prohibited to speak derogatorily of the government and its leaders. It may be illegal to take photographs of train stations, government buildings, religious symbols, and military installations. Avoid actions that are illegal, improper or indiscreet.

Avoid offers of sexual companionship; they may lead to a room raid, photography, and blackmail. Do not attempt to keep up with others in social drinking. Do not engage in black market activities. Do not sell your possessions. Do not bring in or purchase illegal drugs or pornography. Do not seek out political or religious dissidents. Do not accept packages or letters for delivery to another location.

If you are arrested for any reason, ask to notify the nearest U.S. Embassy or Consulate. A consular officer cannot arrange for free legal aid or provide bail money, but they can assist you. Do not admit to wrongdoing or sign anything. Do not agree to help your detainer.

Keep a low profile and shun publicity. Do not discuss personal or family information with local news media, and as a general rule, be careful what information you share with foreigners. They may have been directed to obtain information about you for duplicitous purposes and may use what they learn to target or use against you.

Evade criminals and terrorists by being aware of your surroundings and alert to the possibility of surveillance. Take mental notes of anyone following you and promptly report it to the appropriate security officials. In general, criminals will strike when their target seems most vulnerable and lax about his/her security. If anyone grabs you, make a scene— yell, fight and try to get away! If you are kidnapped, remain alert and establish a program of mental and physical activity for yourself; try to remain calm and non-threatening.

Beware of new acquaintances who probe for information about you or who attempt to get you involved in what could become a compromising situation.

Do not gossip about character flaws, financial problems, emotional relationships, or other difficulties of your fellow Americans or yourself. This information is eagerly sought by those who want to exploit you or your fellow travelers.

Beware that your conversations may not be private or secure. Unlike the U.S., most other countries do not have legal restrictions against surveillance. Most foreign security services have various means of screening incoming visitors to identify persons of potential intelligence interest.

Phone & Laptop Security: If you can do without the device, Do Not Take It!

Do not leave electronic devices unattended. Do not transport them (or anything valuable) in your checked baggage. Shield passwords from view. Avoid open Wi-Fi networks if you can. In some countries they are controlled by security services; in all cases they are insecure.

Sanitize your laptop, telephone, & PDA, prior to travel and ensure no sensitive contact, research, or personal data is on them. Backup all information you take and leave that at home. If feasible, use a different phone and a new email account while traveling.

Use up-to-date protections for antivirus, spyware, security patches, and firewalls. Don’t use thumb drives given to you – they may be compromised.

Clear your browser after each use: delete history files, caches, cookies, and temporary internet files.

In most countries, you have no expectation of privacy in Internet cafes, hotels, airplanes, offices, or public spaces. All information you send electronically (fax, computer, telephone) can be intercepted, especially wireless communications.

Beware of “phishing.” Foreign security services and criminals are adept at pretending to be someone you trust in order to obtain personal or sensitive information.

If your device is stolen, report it immediately to the local U.S. Embassy or Consulate.

Change all your passwords including your voicemail and check devices for malware when you return.

Cyber criminals from numerous countries buy and sell stolen financial information including credit card data and login credentials (user names and passwords).

Report any unusual circumstances or noteworthy incidents via iReport/iWatch app on your mobile phones or online at If you are traveling with an organized group or study program, report it to your program manager also. Notifying officials through the easy reporting apps will help ensure that future travel advisories take into consideration the circumstances and incidents you encountered.

Reminder: Our country will be judged by the impression you make. As an American abroad, you serve as a spokesperson for the United States.