What to do if you get into legal trouble abroad

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By Christopher Elliott

Oh, the legal trouble Americans get themselves into when they’re abroad.

“They dress immodestly,” says Sheryl Hill, the executive director of Depart Smart, a nonprofit organization dedicated to improving travel safety. “They bring banned medications. Or they make inappropriate gestures. I’ve heard it all.”

No joke. A few years ago, Qatar ran a campaign to remind tourists to dress modestly, in accordance with its Islamic laws.

More recently, a Utah woman landed in a Mexican jail after bringing Sudafed on her Puerto Vallarta vacation.

One of the most famous cases of cultural misunderstanding occurred in 1985, when five Americans were arrested outside the Vatican. Their crime? Making the signature gesture of the Texas Longhorn football team, a clenched fist with the index finger and little finger extended. It is an obscene gesture in Italy.

“All the rules change when you’re in another country,” Hill says.

But there are ways to stay out of trouble, and steps you can take to help yourself if you should fall into it.

What’s the most effective way to avoid violating a foreign law while you’re on vacation? Do a little research before your trip, advises Sasha Shulman, a criminal-defense lawyer in South Florida who frequently deals with international visitors.

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“When traveling abroad, make sure you understand the local laws and regulations,” she says. “There are many laws abroad that are similar to those in the United States. However, thorough research prior to travel is important.”
The State Department’s country-specific pages offer an overview of important local laws. Many travelers don’t realize that popular tourist destinations have laws that can seem quirky to Americans. These include regulations against stopping on the autobahn (Germany), jumping into city fountains (Italy), chewing gum (Singapore), driving in flip-flops (Spain) and insulting the royal family (Thailand).

Register with the U.S. Embassy or Consulate

Another pre-departure step you should consider: registering with a U.S. Embassy or Consulate. “In my opinion, that’s the first thing you should do,” says Renata Castro, an immigration lawyer based in Pompano Beach, Fla. Castro says it’s harder for the government to help if it doesn’t know you’re in the country, and, as it turns out, the U.S. Consulate can offer you vital assistance in the event of trouble.

The State Department’s Smart Traveler Enrollment Program (STEP), a free service, allows U.S. citizens and nationals traveling and living abroad to easily enroll their trip with the nearest U.S. Embassy or Consulate. Enrollment in STEP allows you to receive emails with travel conditions in your destination country, gives the U.S. Embassy a way to contact you, and helps family and friends reach you in an emergency, such as if you’re detained or jailed.

Helping arrested or detained citizens is one of the embassy’s top priorities. Among other services, the embassy or consulate can supply a list of English-speaking attorneys, contact family and friends on your behalf, visit you on a regular basis to help ensure that you are being treated well, confirm that prison officials are providing appropriate medical care, if needed, and offer an overview of the country’s judicial system. You can find a complete overview of the State Department’s services on its website.

Travel insurance typically doesn’t cover legal problems. But a company such as International SOS, which offers assistance to international business travelers, can help members who get into trouble abroad. Through its 24-hour help line, International SOS connects travelers with a local attorney or a lawyer who understands international law, depending on the situation. It can also find a lawyer who can get you out of jail or back home.

International SOS is used mostly by big companies with international travelers and schools with study abroad programs, but individual memberships are also available. (Related: Never use these five cringeworthy phrases when you ask for help.)

Get a good lawyer

Having a good lawyer can make the biggest difference. That’s what Leslie Fischer, a website publisher from Houston, discovered when a friend got into a fender bender in Germany. “He tapped a traffic sign with his car while backing up,” she remembers. “He got out of his car, inspected the sign, saw there was no damage, and left.”

But a passerby reported him to the police for leaving the scene of a crime, and he subsequently received a notice in the mail, charging him with a crime. “Since he is an American, he was not necessarily aware of the seriousness of the charges, his rights or what he may have done wrong,” Fischer says. “Policemen are often not excellent speakers of English. Trying to talk with them in a foreign language is not a good idea.”

Fischer says her friend hired an attorney who accompanied him to the police station. Travel insurance generally doesn’t cover your legal costs if you get into trouble, but it can provide you with a referral. And most of the embassies of English-speaking countries keep lists of attorneys on their sites.

“Instead of communicating with a serious language barrier in the heat of frustration, the attorney was able to speak with the police in their language and get the charges dropped. My friend simply showed up and sat silently,” she recalls. (Here’s how to fix your own consumer problems.)

But that’s not how most people want to spend their vacations. With a little pre-travel homework, you can avoid legal drama and spend your time abroad enjoying your trip.

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Christopher Elliott

Christopher Elliott is the founder of Elliott Advocacy, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization that empowers consumers to solve their problems and helps those who can't. He's the author of numerous books on consumer advocacy and writes three nationally syndicated columns. He also publishes the Elliott Report, a news site for consumers, and Elliott Confidential, a critically acclaimed newsletter about customer service. If you have a consumer problem you can't solve, contact him directly through his advocacy website. You can also follow him on X, Facebook, and LinkedIn, or sign up for his daily newsletter.

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