How To Avoid Ending Up in Jail When Traveling

by brian on August 13, 2009

… or What To Do When Bill Clinton Isn’t Coming To Your Rescue!

The cases of Euna Lee and Laura Ling in North Korea and the 3 hikers currently being held in Iran shows the difficulty when you run into trouble abroad.

In both cases it appears more and more that they caused their own bad situations. The reporters now admit they stepped into North Korean territory and the 3 hikers were warned not to go to the border area between Iran and Iraq…and yet they still went.

He’s PROBABLY not coming to get you if you get in trouble…just saying!
Bill Clinton How To Avoid Ending Up in Jail When Travelingcredits: wikipedia

If you or I are being held in jail while traveling, the odds that a former President of the United States will not be coming to get us and fly us home on a private jet. What can we do?

Register With Your Embassy Before Your Trip

I admit that I did not do this when I went around the world. Trust me I would do that now. The embassy may be your first and last line of help in a foreign country. They know the lay of the land, they know who to talk to, can bail you out of jail and arrange for legal representation. Your tax dollars are paying for them. Register your next trip and use them if you need to. I posted on this before.

DO NOT Accept Packages To Carry
DO NOT Let Anyone Pack Your Bags

I’ve talked about Locked Up Abroad on The National Geographic Channel, the ‘Scared Straight’ program of international travel. Whether desperate for money or just naive, these folks end up in custody, usually for carrying drugs. While US and European drug laws can seem harsh, drug laws in many other places are downright brutal, with prison conditions that are considered inhumane by many.

If you are that desperate for money, go to your embassy for help. It’s even better to beg on the streets than try to smuggle drugs. You’re asking for trouble that can’t be fixed with a simple call.

Not on your vacation itinerary…

Heed the Warnings of Locals

I don’t know if it was arrogance, stupidity, overconfidence or a combination all of the above that caused the reporters and hikers to venture into forbidden territory. The hikers in Iran were warned beforehand. Lee and Ling definitely had to know the consequences of getting caught inside North Korea. This is not Americans getting caught crossing over the border in Canada, or even Mexicans getting caught crossing over into America. At least the Mexicans will get 3 square meals while being held and then get deported back to Mexico. That happens everyday.

You can’t reason with dictatorships like North Korea…unless you call a photo-op with Bill Clinton ‘reasoning’.

Ask your taxi driver, the person at the front desk of your hostel or hotel, any random person on the street, what are the do’s and don’ts. Don’t be afraid to ask. And when they tell you something, listen.

This was a rarity in Tokyo, a police car. I was so surprised to see one I took a photo. As long as I’m not taking a pic from the backseat.

 How To Avoid Ending Up in Jail When Traveling

Know What the Laws Are

Here in NYC, there was a big stink about taking pictures of the subway system after 9/11. I haven’t heard many stories about that in a while, but it was big news when native New Yorkers were being arrested.

Being a drug mule is the extreme and obvious case, but countries and individual cities and regions have their own laws that may seem ridiculous to you, but could land you behind bars. You can Google or ask when you hit the ground what laws you as a foreigner should be aware of.

Don’t be paranoid about it, but keep your hands where everyone can see them and be respectful of the culture you’re in, even if you don’t agree with everything in it.

Remember the kid who was caned in Singapore for spitting chewing gum AND spray painting cars? Don’t talk badly about the Thai royal family. Here are 12 other things you shouldn’t do while traveling.

Your best bet, stay away from drugs and that is more than half the battle.

When I was in Egypt a few years back, a friend and I got the bright idea to rent a car and driver and try to roll to Southern Egypt, close to the Sudanese border. Someone else on the trip, not a local but a frequent traveler to the country, ‘politely’ told us that is was a bad idea. Sometimes our love of adventure and new experiences has to be tempered by practicality.

As much as I advocate solo travel, your best bet SOMETIMES is going with a tour group, especially in developing countries, countries that have a history of political violence or war, or countries that would have a problem with your citizenship.

There are guided tours of Afghanistan, North Korea, Iraq and Iran. Google them, they are out there. Would I consider one of those? Absolutely. Would I go to any of those places by myself? Nope, not right now at least.

But if you do it smartly and know where you can go and where you can’t, you can go anywhere and come home without causing an international incident.

Any more ideas on how to stay out of trouble while traveling abroad? Let us know in the Comments below.

{ 11 comments… read them below or add one }

Chris August 13, 2009 at 4:25 AM

The American kid in Singapore was caned for spraying graffiti on cars. A bit more serious than spitting gum on the ground.

Just sayin'

Yes, littering in Singapore will probably get you fined. But chewing gum is not illegal–it's selling chewing gum that's illegal (except for the nicotine gum to help you stop smoking–you can get that with a prescription: thank the US/Singapore Free Trade treaty for that). Most of my Singaporean friends who like to chew gum bring some back when returning from abroad.

Anyone who would try to smuggle drugs through Singapore or any of the other Southeast Asian countries is just plain stupid and probably has a death wish.

That being said, if you have one of those bags that has lots of zippered pockets on the outside make sure you lock every one of them as airport personnel could slip something INTO them while your baggage in on its way to the plane. The thought is that their confederate on the other side will slip the packet out of the bag but if the confederate doesn't do that you might get bunged up for smuggling.


Kymbugs August 13, 2009 at 8:35 AM

Great post Brian!
Another thing I must add is that you mustn't ASSUME the locals are stupid and you can pull the wool over their eyes. This is in reference to the 2 British backpackers who were arrested in Brazil for an insurance scam. Full article here


brian August 13, 2009 at 9:55 AM

Vandalism was the major offense and I made that change in the post. I don't know why I thought gum was the offense. Maybe because it just seemed so ridiculous at the time that it stuck in my mind.

Drugs abroad in any form or fashion, just say NO!

Good point about the baggage. Don't give people a chance to involve you in their schemes, accidentally or not. Another reason for just carry-ons!

The two Brits in Brazil: I saw that story.
Yeah, fraud abroad is not the way to go.


rhonalala August 14, 2009 at 8:00 AM

I have no new ideas on how to say safe. What you outlined is great.
For myself, I made sure that I was aware of the customs and mores in a country or cit I visited. I have and had no intention of doing anything illegal. Crazy.
Excellent post.
I have to say that I never considered Iran a place to visit. TOo many risks but maybe in the future, if things are a bit better, I would consider a tour group also.


brian August 15, 2009 at 5:05 PM

Amazing that pretty much anywhere on the planet that others deem forbidden is accessible if you've got the courage and the cash for it.


nohurrycurry August 16, 2009 at 11:23 AM

Hey Brian – as my fiancee and I get closer to leaving, posts like this are a huge help! Also am printing out that tipping article a few posts ago. Thanks for the info!

(Sorry, we've switched our own blog on you…)


brian August 16, 2009 at 10:17 PM

Glad to help! I think it is great that you guys are taking off soon. There is never the "perfect" time. Just do it.


Ruthe November 17, 2009 at 2:44 AM

Wow I've never thought of registering with the embassy before … or getting arrested at all when traveling. Thanks for the tips!


brian November 17, 2009 at 11:53 AM

Yeah it is something we don't think about.

We really should not worry if we stay out of trouble…but things happen.


Adrienne July 24, 2010 at 10:30 AM

This was a great post. I was referred here by a friend of yours. I am in Israel right now, headed to Egypt and Jordan. I registered with the State department, just in case. I would love to go to Iran and Iraq, just for the sheer thrill of it. My mother would probably have a heart attack though. She freaked out about Israel but got over it in a day or so. She hates it that I travel alone. Doesn’t help being the baby girl :)


brian July 27, 2010 at 8:42 PM

Moms can be wonderful, loving people and they can guilt trip you into doing/not doing things. Mom is going to have to get over it. My Mom did and I’m the oldest.

How was Israel? Would love to have you write a post about. Contact me directly.


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