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What to Do if you are Detained or Arrested Outside the USA

None of us set out to get into trouble when traveling but sometimes we may break a law or have a simple misunderstanding while out of the States....what do you do? Whether you are traveling for business or pleasure to a new city, here are some safety tips to keep in mind.

Foreign travel is a beast unto its own. Many Americans naively think that because they are American citizens and enjoy freedom at home that they should expect consideration everywhere they go.

Last year, I was detained in a Scottish airport for over 6 hours locked in a room with 2 men, fingerprinted, photographed, locked up with a full-time male guard standing outside, and all my possessions gone through piece by piece, eventually denied access and my passport held until I got onto the plane....all because the border patrol man said I couldn't prove I wouldn't be working there while visiting. I have since learned that I had quite a few more rights than I knew I did. It was one of the most dehumanizing things I've gone through.

So, what if we travel to a land that has strict laws concerning apparel, language, sacred grounds, and more?

  • Common sense says to research the HELL out of wherever you are going. Jump on the internet and go to that country's customs site to learn as much as you can. Also, go to and make sure that there are no alerts posted for the region you are going to.

  • Be respectful when in another country. I can't tell you how many times I've winced at hearing an American be loud and aggressive to a culture that is often hundreds of years older than ours. Nothing draws attention to you faster than being loud.

  • Have all your documents always open and ready to hand to someone in customs asap. Don't be the one who is fumbling for your visa or passport or immunization records. Have your itinerary, return ticket, hotel address....everything all in one place. Be organized because the less time you spend answering questions at customs, the better.

So, what happens if you are detained or even arrested while abroad? What are your rights? What is the first thing you should do? What if your phone is taken away? Do you know the numbers of your family and friends to get them to help you?

Here are some things you need to have ready and need to do to get through this amazingly stressful time.

Don't play the "do you know who I am?" routine.

Yes, they know who you are. Yes, they know you have certain rights in America. Yes, they are sure that you will make sure they are all fired.

Nothing will get you further into trouble or make the wheels of progress run slower for you than acting like an arrogant American. Match your tone level with theirs, make eye contact, remain calm, act professional. There is no need to cower or break into sobs hoping they will take pity on you either. Be an adult. Act responsibly and you will get through it.

Ask to Call the American Embassy Right Away.

In every country, it is your right to call the American Embassy straight away. They are required to give you a phone and allow you to call them. The Embassy knows exactly what to do and have protocol in place to guide you step-by-step in what to do and say next. Trust them. Do EXACTLY what they say.

The Embassy can:

  • Provide a list of local attorneys who speak English

  • Contact family, friends, or employers of the detained U.S. citizen (with their written permission)

  • Visit the detained U.S. citizen regularly and provide reading materials and vitamin supplements, where appropriate

  • Ensure that prison officials are providing appropriate medical care 

  • Provide a general overview of the local criminal justice process

  • Upon request, ensure that prison officials permit visits with a member of the clergy of the religion of the detainee’s choice

  • Establish an OCS Trust, if necessary, so friends and family can transfer funds to imprisoned U.S. citizens

They cannot:

  • Get U.S. citizens out of jail 

  • State to a court that anyone is guilty or innocent

  • Provide legal advice or represent U.S. citizens in court 

  • Serve as official interpreters or translators

  • Pay legal, medical, or other fees

For more information about the Embassy's role, click here.

Worst Case Scenario It

Assume the worse...sorry to say. When you are in the middle of it all, that is the worst time to be thinking of what you need.

Consider keeping in your wallet/purse/backpack....

  • A written list of phone numbers for family and friends.

  • If you are taking daily medication, make sure that you have at least 2 to 3 days worth are on you.

  • Photocopy of your passport and birth certificate in case they are stolen or taken away with your luggage.

Don't be Afraid to Ask for Basic Rights

As a woman in America, we expect certain decency to be observed when being detained or in custody. A female officer is present at all times. A female officer is only allowed to search you or escort you to the restroom, etc. This is not the case in all countries.

I was locked in a windowless room for 3 hours with 2 men before suddenly it became important that a female was present when they began videotaping their interrogation. I should have been smarter and demanded that the door either be kept open or a woman be present. Don't be a bitch about it but you have the right to protect yourself while in custody.

If it's Considered a "Friendly" Country, Don't Worry...No!

As my example above in Aberdeen, Scotland, you can come across drama for no reason at all. After all, working in customs cannot be a fun thing (why anyone would want to do it is beyond me!) when you are being lied to every day and hated or feared by most travelers. Anytime you step out of the USA, be prepared. You could be a bystander that jumps into a situation to save someone and get arrested along with the rest of the crowd. A shop owner may thing you tried to steal something. It doesn't have to be a third-world country to have a detention or arrest happen.

Be smart. Be prepared.


Living in America often brings a kind of blindness when it comes to international travel. The whole world at any moment and in any place can erupt into chaos, even our neck of the woods...with bombers, shooters, and government coups. Just make sure you go into any country with your eyes wide open and your travel plans well thought out.


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