By Scott Stewart
In light of the current U.S. State Department global travel warning, it seems an opportune time for a discussion on how to prepare to travel safely. Perhaps the most important key to remaining out of harm's way while traveling or working abroad is to know and understand — in advance — some of the idiosyncrasies of each country's bureaucracy and the security risks that have been identified for your destination. This knowledge and guidance will then allow you to decide whether to even travel to a particular destination. If you do decide to travel, it will help you plan and implement proper precautions for the environment you will be visiting. Fortunately, finding safety and security information for your destination country is easier than ever in the Internet age.
Travel Advisories and Consular Information Sheets
One of the most important first steps U.S. travelers should take before beginning a trip is seeing what the U.S. government says about your destination country. A great deal of information can be obtained from the U.S. government. Travelers accordingly should read the consular information sheet and check for travel warnings and public announcements pertaining to their destination countries before embarking. Such information can be obtained in person at passport agencies inside the United States or at U.S. embassies and consulates abroad. This information can also be obtained by calling the U.S. State Department, but the quickest and easiest way to obtain it is online: The State Department publishes them all on its website here.
A "travel warning" is a document recommending that travel to a specific country be deferred or avoided. A "public announcement" is intended to disseminate information about short-term conditions that could pose a risk to American travelers. Public announcements can be issued even when the U.S. government is not sure Americans will be specifically targeted but is concerned that a potential threat exists. The State Department often will issue public announcements regarding terrorist threats, coups and large public demonstrations, and sometimes will publish them to note upcoming anniversaries of significant past terrorist events.
The State Department issues travel warnings for only a handful of countries. Many countries do not have any active public announcements pertaining to them, but the department maintains a "consular information sheet" for every country, even countries the United States does not have formal diplomatic relations with, such as Iran. The consular information sheet is a useful document that provides information not only about what documents you need to enter the destination country but also on crime, safety, security, political stability, in-country medical care, currency regulations and road safety. It also contains contact information for the U.S. embassy and U.S. consulates (if any) in the country. The consular information sheet also usually contains a link to the local U.S. embassy's website.
It is a good idea for travelers to print out a copy of the consular information sheet and take it with them on their trip. At the very least, travelers should be sure to print out or write down the phone number of the U.S. embassy — including the after-hours phone number (which generally rings into the Marine security guard on duty at the embassy's security command center, normally referred to as "Post One," or to the embassy's duty officer). The paper with the embassy contact numbers should be kept separate from the traveler's wallet so that if the wallet gets lost or stolen, the contact information will not be lost with it.
Significantly, consular information sheets generally do not provide advice or security recommendations to travelers. They are intended to provide just the facts, and travelers are then supposed to use the information provided in the consular information sheets to make their own judgments and determine their own courses of action. Because of this, if the consular information sheet for your destination country actually breaks this protocol and does make a recommendation, you should take that recommendation seriously.
It is also prudent for American travelers to register with the U.S. State Department before leaving the country. This will be helpful not only in case something happens to you while abroad or if there is a crisis in the country you are visiting, but also if there is a family emergency in the United States and someone needs to locate you. Registration is free, is accomplished via a secure website and only takes a few minutes. You can register online at with the State Department here. Foreign citizens should also register with their respective embassies if their countries offer similar programs, like Australia's "Smart Traveler."
Other Government Travel Reports
In order to ensure that I am getting a balanced look at a specific country and to obtain more detailed information, I generally like to look at travel advice from several additional countries — namely, the British, Canadian and Australian governments. The British travel advice website can be found here, the Canadian website here and the Australian website here.
The U.S. State Department's Bureau of Consular Affairs coordinates daily with the British, Canadian and Australian governments, so the four countries will have largely the same big picture of the security environment in a specific country. It is very unlikely that you would find a U.S. travel advisory warning against travel to country X and then visit the British travel advice site and read that visiting country X is fine because everything is "just ducky" there.
However, the real value to be gained by reading these different reports is at the granular level. The anecdotal cases the foreign governments discuss in their travel sheets may differ from those contained in the U.S. consular information sheet. For example, while compiling a travel briefing for a client once, I noted in a British advisory that British citizens in a particular city had been victimized by local criminal gangs who had begun to engage in "express kidnappings" — something that the U.S. consular information sheet did not note. Express kidnappings, which are short-term kidnappings meant to drain the contents of the victim's bank account via his or her ATM card, were new for that country. Even though we had seen the tactic used elsewhere in the region, it was helpful to be able to warn our customer of the new threat. So in that case, reading the British advisory in addition to the U.S. consular information sheet was well worth my time.
Another great source of granular crime and safety information is the annual crime and safety report issued by the American Regional Security Officer for a particular country or city. Sometimes, these reports can be found on the embassy's website, but they can also be read on the Overseas Security Advisory Council's website here. While some OSAC material is for constituent use only, crime and safety reports can be read by anyone and no login is required.
It is also important to remember that conditions in your destination country can change. Because of this, if government travel sites were checked far in advance of the trip, they should be checked again shortly before departure to ensure that no critical changes have occurred.
When travelers leave the United States, they are no longer subject to U.S. laws and regulations but to the laws of the country they are visiting. Therefore, travelers need to learn as much as they can about those local laws before they travel.
Travelers should also keep up with the political situation in their destination country and that of the region it is in. Many websites, including Stratfor, are excellent sources of information pertaining to political, terrorism and security information. General information on the country, its government, culture, customs, etc., can be found at the library or online through any number of websites such as the National Geographic Society and the CIA's World Factbook.
Travelers should also familiarize themselves with maps of the areas they will be visiting. This will not only help them avoid being victimized by unscrupulous cab drivers and identify key locations such as their hotel or embassy, but can also help keep them from wandering into dangerous areas.
The destination country may also have informative government websites, such as a site run by the government department of tourism or the country's embassy in the United States. For obvious reasons, these sites should be read carefully. In most cases, the host country government will want to be as positive as possible to encourage tourism. Therefore, such sites rarely provide any information on crime and security because they fear it could scare tourists (and their money) away. If such sites do acknowledge security problems, this is a strong indicator that the problem is too large to ignore and you should pay close attention to any warnings the sites provide.
Prior to travel, you should also go the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's travel health information site, which can be found here. This site provides a wealth of information about vaccinations required for specific countries and regions and provides important tips about avoiding insect-borne diseases such as malaria and dengue fever as well as food- and water-borne ailments such as cholera and amoebic dysentery. The CDC also issues travel health precautions and warnings as well as information on sporadic outbreaks of dangerous diseases.
Travelers should also consult with their doctor well in advance of their trip to ensure their vaccinations are up to date and that they have time to receive all the required vaccinations for their destination before they depart. Your doctor can also prescribe anti-malarial medication if required. Even travelers in good health need to ensure they have the appropriate vaccinations and should take measures to avoid contracting dysentery and other food- and water-borne illnesses. (It is very difficult to have fun on a vacation when you are sick and unable to leave your hotel room.) Many times, travel health clinics will not only give vaccinations but will also issue handy medical travel kits that contain adhesive bandages and an assortment of over-the-counter pharmaceuticals such as pain relievers and anti-diarrhea medicines. Sometimes these kits will even contain prescription antibiotics for use in case of severe dysentery.
Another consideration is insurance. You should check your homeowner's insurance policy or call your insurance agent to determine if your property insurance policy will cover losses or theft abroad. It is also prudent to find out if your health insurance will cover you overseas. In many instances, insurance companies will pay for all or a portion of medical coverage overseas, but you will often have to pay for the services at the time they are provided and then get reimbursed by the insurance company once you return home. Therefore, you should ensure that you have a way to pay for any necessary medical treatment. The U.S. embassy can provide assistance in the way of emergency loans to pay for your medical treatment, but such assistance requires a lot of paperwork.
You should also determine whether your medical insurance will pay for the cost of medical evacuation (medevac) in the case of a dire medical emergency. For example, a colleague of mine at the State Department had to be medevaced from Khartoum with cerebral malaria because local medical professionals could not stabilize him and did not have adequate facilities to care for him in Sudan.
Travelers going to a country with very poor in-country medical care and whose insurance will not pay for medical evacuation should give serious consideration to purchasing a medical insurance policy for the trip that will cover the cost of medical evacuation, which can run into the tens of thousands of dollars. Chances are, you will not need to be medically evacuated. But if you do, the cost of not having the coverage can be staggering.
Editor's Note: This Security Weekly is a condensed version of a chapter from Stewart's book, "Shrewd as Serpents and Innocent as Doves: A Practical Security Guide for Christian Travelers."