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Experience Magazine

“Papers, Please”

David Z Kaufman


  • Valuable insights and advice on what to do if you find yourself in a legal or safety issue while traveling abroad.
“Papers, Please”
Chuyn via Getty Images

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“May I see your passport, please?” may just be the most intimidating and frightening thing you can hear if you’re traveling outside the United States. You have no rights. Don’t even bother asking for them—those civil rights you’ve been told are God-given don’t exist.

And don’t demand to see the U.S. ambassador. It won’t help. All the United States will do is ensure that you’re treated no worse than any other citizen of whatever country you’re in.

Don’t believe me? Ask Brittney Griner, the world-famous professional basketball player languishing in a Russian jail on charges of trying to import two vape cartridges containing CBD oils, purchased on the recommendation of her doctor.

She was sentenced to nine years in a Russian prison after pleading guilty and explaining the cartridges were accidentally included in her luggage. The U.S. Department of State says Griner is being held unjustly and maybe as a pawn to force a prisoner exchange. But it can’t help her.

Here’s a detailed explanation of the services you will and won’t get from the U.S. government if you’re arrested abroad.

Side note: I believe Griner’s explanation. I once represented a Spanish doctor who was unexpectedly routed home through the United States after a six-month polar expedition.

Although he’d left his .44 magnum revolver at the expedition, he had a couple of cartridges in one of his parka pockets. Oops! The U.S. government wasn’t very understanding.

The Role of the Embassy

When you get into trouble—any kind of trouble—overseas, the U.S. embassy isn’t always the place to go for help. But sometimes it is. When? And when is it a really bad idea to contact the embassy?

Embassies can help travelers in limited and specific situations, such as getting an emergency passport (yes if your passport is stolen, but no if it’s confiscated by the local authorities). It can also help navigate such serious emergencies as a revolution or outbreak of war.

Don’t rely on the presence of the embassy to solve your problems for you. The embassy isn’t your personal concierge. It won’t help locate lost luggage, mail items back to the United States, or help pay local bills. You can find a complete list of services for travelers on the U.S. State Department website.

The bottom line is simple: Embassies are for true emergencies only. If you absolutely must reach out, in the United States or Canada, call 888-407-4747; overseas call +1-202-501-4444.

Side note: Be sure you have travel insurance, a medical evacuation plan, and have prepared for other emergencies.

Don’t believe these common misconceptions:

  • No, the U.S. embassy can’t (usually) send you home in a crisis. The embassy may help citizens with an emergency evacuation, such as after a natural disaster or during civil unrest. But we’re talking about civil war, plague, or the equivalent. Usually, the embassy works with the local authorities. You’re on your own. No helicopters will swoop down to save you. And there are no free rides. You’ll be billed if the embassy evacuates you.
  • The embassy can help a bit with a medical emergency overseas. Its aid is limited to helping find a hospital, doctor, or medical services. The embassy won’t become your patient advocate. If you’re lucky and they’re willing and have the time, embassy staff might advise family or friends back home that you’re having a medical emergency. And they might help you get money sent from home. Again, medical emergencies are on your dime.
  • Good news! The embassy will help replace your lost or stolen passport so you can return to the United States. Report it to the consular section as soon as possible, and they’ll try to help you get a replacement quickly. You’ll need to apply in person, supplying a passport photo.
  • Good news again! The embassy will help if you’re the victim of a crime—but not too much. If you’re robbed, assaulted, or otherwise victimized in a foreign country, embassy staff can help you find local lawyers who speak English.

These lawyers will then, with your permission, contact family and friends, keep you updated on your case, and put you in touch with local medical or emergency services, if needed.

The embassy won’t investigate, act as interpreter, or provide you with any legal advice. That’s the local lawyer’s job.

  • Bad news! The embassy can’t and won’t help you if you get in trouble with the law. Carrying an American passport isn’t a get-out-of-jail free card. Just ask Griner. When you’re traveling abroad, you’re subject to the local laws—and if you break them, you may have to pay the penalty. Nonetheless, contact the embassy as soon as the authorities allow.
  • The embassy can do little more than if you’re a victim. The biggest difference between being a victim and being an accused is that, if you’re accused, the embassy will also visit you in jail to make sure you’re receiving adequate food, water, and medical care. Everything else is up to your lawyer (whom the embassy helped you find). The embassy can’t get you out of jail, serve as your official interpreter, provide legal advice, pay your legal fees, or intervene in any way.

To Register or Not?

So how can you be safe when you travel? Start with the Overseas Security Advisory Council. This State Department website is specifically designed to provide advice and assistance and is invaluable in determining what’s going on.

Its travel advisories for each country assess crime by general location. They include general descriptions of dangers from kidnapping, drugs, pickpockets, terrorism, and other security issues.

Read it. Take notes. And be aware that it may be a little out of date. One experienced traveler recommends reading the U.S. security assessment of their destination and then comparing it to its counterparts in Canada and the United Kingdom, respectively the Official Government of Canada Travel Information site and Foreign Travel Advice.

The discrepancies may surprise you. When I made a random check on Egypt as a test, I was pleased with the ease of use and comprehensiveness of the Canadian and UK sites. The U.S. site is harder to use, and the experienced traveler was quite correct—there are surprising and disconcerting differences.

If you’re traveling without a net, meaning on your own and not with a travel group or cruise, the U.S. Department of State’s Smart Traveler Enrollment Program enables you to receive current information about your destination, alerts from the U.S. embassy about local safety and security situations, updates to the country’s travel advisory, and emergency communications from friends and family at home.

Finally, if you sign up for STEP and a true emergency occurs, the embassy will be better able to reach you. Just recall how many Americans were unreachable when we suddenly evacuated from Afghanistan in 2021.

So should you sign up for STEP? We’re lawyers, so it all depends. If you’re traveling with a net, there’s no need. The organization in charge of your trip will take care of it.

If you’re traveling without a net, it’s more complicated. Do you have family or friends where you’re going? How are your language skills? How is your physical ability to walk and carry things? How will you travel once you reach your destination? Walk? Hike? Bus? Private car?

And what exactly is your destination? Western Europe? Eastern Europe? Central America? South America? Japan? Southeast Asia, including Thailand and Vietnam? Sub-Saharan Africa? The Middle East?

Each area requires a different risk assessment. There are checklists to help you do that. Australia’s [travel-risk-assessment-checklist.pdf] is a good example, but there are others.

As a general rule, if you’re traveling without a net, don’t have the language down, and are going beyond the first world, I’d use this program. When I was hiking in the Himalayas, I used it.

Fortunately, while my timetable and route were completely wrong (and I was lucky to find a few people who spoke English), I never needed it. You may never need it, either. But if you do need it, you’ll need it badly.

The Risks of Sloppy Packing

Pack your own bag, and know what’s in it—no exceptions. Photograph the bag’s contents and its exterior to create a record in case of loss. Take another quick photo of the bag after the ticket agent has tagged it.

Assess what drugs you may be taking with you on your trip, both prescription and nonprescription. Make a list of all your drugs and then check each country you’re visiting to be sure they’re legal. Don’t assume. Be sure all the drugs you’re traveling with are in their original containers. Don’t take chances.

Over-the-counter brands like Sudafed contain pseudoephedrine, a decongestant but also a major ingredient in making meth. Even small quantities may be illegal in some places. Griner was actually carrying CBD oils and may have thought they were legal in Russia, just as they are in many places in the United States.

Note: The legal regimen of CBD is complicated. Many states have legalized it, but the federal government still has it black-listed. If you travel with CBD in the United States, you risk legal issues from the feds.

Do you usually pack a pocketknife, scissors, or knitting needles? Not on a plane, you don’t. And don’t try to sneak them on, either. In some countries, even things that are OK for the U.S. Transportation Security Administration are verboten.

I lost a small cigar lighter I carried in my pocket when I flew into Nepal. It was TSA fine but not Nepal fine. Oops!

In some countries, usually in Africa, Asia, and Central or South America, cameras, binoculars, laptops, tablets, phones, and other electronic devices are very problematic. Check what you can bring before you go. Some countries get upset about that.

I once had to answer questions in Israel about my iPad. And in one African country, my laptop was sealed and placed in the custody of my host, who would’ve gone to jail had the seal been broken. Another time, returning to the United States, customs agents asked me about my business laptop clearly marked with my firm’s name. It was a fight to keep them from confiscating it.

Put copies of your passport and other identifying documents in your checked luggage. Send a copy of your passport to your email for easy access in case of emergency.

Most luggage tags have room for your name, phone number, etc. Having someone call your home or office when you’re traveling is a waste. Put your hotel destination, address, and phone number on the luggage tag. Then change the tag on your return trip. And always turn your tag over so the information you’ve entered isn’t exposed to roving, curious eyes.

Safety on the Spot

Once you’re in-country, take appropriate precautions. Go back to those travel advisories and search for your destination, say France. As I write, there are three results for demonstrations and security alerts for nightclubs and concerts.

Then check the security report for assessments on general crime (pickpockets and muggings, mostly). Finally, check the traveler toolkit for issues in France. If none, continue.

I suggest you download the OSAC Risk Matrix, the pdf you can find at the bottom of the aforementioned link. It’s nine pages, very detailed, and far more than you want or need. But it should give you some things to think about.

Having identified the possible dangers you might encounter, what precautions should you take? Where will you be going, and how exposed will you be? Are you traveling with or without a net? Will you be walking? Backpacking? Taking the subway? Taxi? Public bus? Are you going to concerts? Nightclubs? Tourist destinations like the Louvre? Are you staying in a hotel? Rental?

Each has different safety issues. The decision is up to you, but the risks and security needs of each are both different and similar at the same time. Stay tuned.