It is impossible to get through an episode of National Geographic’s Locked Up Abroad without yelling at the screen. When will travelers learn, if you smuggle drugs over a border and get caught—and you will get caught—then you go to jail. Lesson: do not smuggle drugs.
Unfortunately, situations where a traveler brushes up against local law abroad are not always black and white. Take for instance a recent storyline of the hit TV show, teased as “(the) decision to fly to Mauritius with a pair of shoes given to her by an acquaintance lands her in a women’s prison full of drug addicts and cockroaches.” New lesson: do not travel with gifts given by sketchy acquaintances.
Realty TV aside, the percentage of Americans who get in trouble abroad is relatively low. The U.S. Department of State estimates approximately 2,500 travelers are arrested abroad each year, with 30% of those cases related to illegal drugs. But drugs aren’t the only area where a traveler can cross the line.
While laws and penalties from driving and cycling to alcohol consumption differ immensely around the world, what doesn’t change is this simple fact: When traveling abroad, you are subject to all rules in the destination. It is your responsibility to be familiar with local regulation.
Travelers can learn more about destinations through the State Department’s country specific guides. And, while breaking some rules may not land you jail, getting fined, kicked out of a country, or lectured in a language you don’t understand isn’t high on any traveler’s bucket list.
Smart travelers follow the rules in these areas:
Did you know that possessing any amount of MDMA could get you a life sentence in Kuwait? Worldwide, penalties for recreational drug use range from hefty fines, imprisonment, and even execution in some places to a warning or treatment prescription in others. Get caught in Italy with a small amount of cannabis for personal use, you may pay a small fine. Get busted with the same amount in Thailand, and you could go to prison for up to five years or receive a hefty fine.
The DrugAbuse.com study From Lashing to Death: Examining Drug Possession Penalties Around the World features an interactive guide allowing readers to see how consequences differ by country and substance. According to spokesperson Ayana Lage, Singapore, South Africa, and the UAE lead the world for harsh drug-related prison sentences.
Closer to home, Mexico applies consistent penalties for both hard and soft drugs. “The possession of marijuana, cocaine, heroin, and amphetamines are all subject to 10 months to 3 years of imprisonment,” says Lage. “The lack of distinction between hard and soft drugs in Mexican law is likely the biggest concern for travelers from the United States.”
Overall, Lage says the variance of punishment severity for marijuana is most notable. “In the United States for example, recreational marijuana use has been legalized in several states,” she says. “Meanwhile in countries like Malaysia and Iran, we found that penalties were intense and ranged from lashings to death depending on the the amount of marijuana in question.”
Even legitimate prescription drugs can get you in trouble in some countries, so always carry original packaging.
You must be at least 21 years of age to drink legally in the U.S., but that age requirement isn’t consistent worldwide. According to AlcoholProblemsandSolutions.org the average minimum legal drinking age around the globe is 15.9. The nonprofit says the minimum age is lower than the most common standard of 18 in fifty countries while higher in 12 countries.
Sometimes even specific states within a country vary. To make matters more confusing, some places have different rules for the consumption of beer, wine, and hard liquor.
India is an important case study. According to India Times, in Delhi and Punjab, 25 is the minimum while in Goa it’s 19. In Maharashtra, you must obtain a special permit to consume alcohol, often provided by bars and hotels.
Even within America, there are a surprising number of counties, known as “dry,” meaning the sale of alcohol is prohibited. Other factors to consider are zone specific rules. For instance, many beaches ban adult beverages completely.
The U.S. State Department says driving without a valid license and insurance is illegal in most countries. Many destinations do not recognize a U.S. driver’s license, but do accept an International Driving Permit (IDP).AAA says 150 countries worldwide accept the license, giving drivers peace of mind. Plus, AAA points out the license speaks the language even if you don’t, translating your identification information into 10 different languages.
Be sure to follow insurance requirements in each destination. In addition, motorcyclists should be aware of regulations regarding daytime running lights and helmets. Never drink and drive while traveling (or at home), and, be aware that in some places drinking and cycling is illegal too.
As more travelers become cyclists through bike share programs around the world, Mia Kohout, CEO and Editor-in-Chief of Momentum Magazine says of the roughly 1,000 available programs, mandatory helmet laws only apply to those in Australia (Brisbane and Melbourne) and Vancouver, BC.
Seattle’s King County is the only place with a mandatory helmet law for adult cyclists in the U.S. Fines are relatively low in Seattle, but get caught in Australia and the fine is over $300. Rules are usually stricter for riders under 18.
Kohout cautions that bicycles are defined as motor vehicles in most places, meaning the same rules apply. “I would recommend to use common sense and follow the rules of the road: ride with traffic, ride sober(ish), don’t ride on sidewalks, stop at stop lights, use lights at night, etc.,” she says.
For motorcyclists, the World Health Organization provides detailed information on motorcycle helmet laws around the world. For instance, in Albania, drivers and passengers of any age must wear a helmet, while in Mexico, there’s only a requirement for children.
The U.S. State Department warns travelers to avoid large-scale demonstrations and protests in other countries due to the potential for violence. But, as the world has often seen (as recently as January), large numbers of people can come together peacefully for a common cause. So is attending a protest illegal?
As with topics above, rules and regulations vary greatly around the world. Spain recently enacted harsh regulation affecting protestors called the Citizen Security Law. Columbia Journalism Review summarizes the law by saying it, “criminalizes demonstrations in front of some government agencies and public buildings, and includes stiff fines for documenting the police response.” While protests are not strictly prohibited, it does raise the stakes for anyone involved.
According to an index of protest punishments around the world compiled by Hopes and Fears, join a demonstration in Moscow and you could get fined up to $30,000, whereas in Istanbul, you may be headed to jail – and to a starring role in your own episode of Locked Up Abroad.
Bottom line: Know the rules in your specific destination. Research, ask questions, exercise caution.
Image: Eugene Wineblat, CC-BY
Jess Simpson is a full-time digital nomad, grateful for bylines in Paste, Mental Floss, Bustle, UAB magazine, Birmingham magazine, and more. Follow her travel secrets and tales at Paste as well as on Facebook and Instagram.