When Traveling Abroad, Be Sure To Learn The Law

Most people who live in the United States have a pretty good idea as to what’s legal, and what isn’t. Most Americans also have a basic idea of the freedoms that the Constitution affords us. These freedoms include freedom of speech, freedom of religion, and the right to peaceably assemble, among others. Criminal defendants also enjoy significant protections, including the right to a court-appointed defense attorney, a strong presumption of innocence, and trial by jury.


Many Americans, perhaps somewhat unfortunately, take these freedoms for granted, and assume that they apply everywhere in the world. This is most definitely not the case, however.


If you are an international traveler, you should make a point to educate yourself on the basics of the laws and legal systems of the countries you’ll be visiting. Obviously, you don’t need to become an expert in the laws of every country you’re going to visit – but some cursory research on the basics is definitely a good idea.


This article will give a few interesting and amusing (and some scary) real-life examples illustrating just how wildly laws can vary from country to country, and some general information on what to do if you’re actually arrested in a foreign country. Every year, about 3,000 Americans are arrested abroad, most on relatively minor drug charges. Many of these arrests could be avoided if they informed themselves. First and foremost, I should make one point clear: when you are in a foreign country, you are subject to that country’s laws, regardless of where you’re from.


With that in mind, here are a few examples.


–          In Singapore, it’s illegal to spit on the street, or to chew gum in public.

–          In most Muslim-majority countries, the sale, possession, and consumption of alcohol are subject to severe restrictions, if they’re not outright illegal. In Saudi Arabia, alcohol is completely prohibited, and possession of alcohol carries some fairly harsh criminal penalties. In Dubai (a wealthy, tourist-friendly city in the United Arab Emirates), alcohol can only be sold in licensed establishments, which tend to be extremely expensive.

–          In Japan, anyone who is arrested (regardless of the reason) can be held without bail for 28 days before a prosecutor must bring charges, and if you do go to trial, you have no right to a jury. Criminal trials in Japan have some of the highest conviction rates in the world – well over 90% – so if your case makes it to trial in Japan, your fate is all but sealed.

–          Going back to Singapore: that island city-state has some of the most stringent drug laws in the world. Importing even modest quantities of illegal narcotics into the country carries a mandatory death sentence. Singapore has the highest per-capita execution rate in the world, and on the average year, about a third of the people executed in Singapore are foreigners, so they clearly have no compunctions about applying their laws to everyone equally.

If you are arrested in a foreign country, there is a single piece of practical advice that applies everywhere: remain calm, and obey the instructions of the arresting officer.


If the officer does not speak English, and you don’t speak the local language, you should do your best to communicate this fact such as speaking slowly and calmly in English. The officer won’t understand what you’re saying, of course, but should take the hint that you don’t understand what he or she is saying, either.


Once you are in custody, and are able to speak with authorities through an interpreter, you should request to speak with a representative from the nearest U.S. consulate or embassy. Most countries are parties to international agreements giving foreigners the right to speak with a representative of their home country when arrested on a signatory’s soil, so your request will probably be granted eventually.


However, you should realize that there isn’t a whole lot that this representative will be able to do for you. Their purpose is not necessarily to get you released, to help you avoid the legal consequences of your actions, or to secure special treatment. They will try to ensure that you are treated fairly, and the conditions you’re being held in do not violate international law (such as the Convention Against Torture). They will also try to contact your family back in the U.S., and keep them updated about your situation. Furthermore, they sometimes help people secure a local attorney, though they won’t help pay for the attorney’s services. If the government of the country you’re in will not provide you with a defense attorney then pop over to these guys for legal help.


If you end up being tried and convicted, you will have to serve whatever sentence the local court hands down, and in most cases, there is very little that the U.S. government is able or willing to do in order to prevent this from happening.


I should also note that the examples of strange foreign laws that I posted above is far from exhaustive, and was simply meant to illustrate how different the laws of foreign countries can be from those of the U.S. To avoid being arrested in a foreign country, you need to avoid accidentally breaking the law. And to do that, you need to educate yourself on the relevant law in the first place.


John Richards is a writer for and the Law Blog. The above article is for general informational purposes only, and should not be construed in any way as legal advice relevant to your particular situation. The only person qualified to give you legal advice is an attorney licensed to practice in your jurisdiction, who has been apprised of all the relevant facts of your situation.

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