Legal Advice for Americans Traveling Abroad

Every year approximately 7,500 Americans are arrested in foreign countries. Many are travelers who have assistance or travel insurance coverage with a legal consultation and referral benefit. Having access to a legal hotline operating 24/7 gives “peace of mind” to individuals who know where to turn for help in times of legal peril.

Callers range from teens to seniors. Some are arrested for crimes they did not know existed. For example, we received an emergency call through an assistance company, informing us that two U.S. study abroad students in France had been arrested after they snowboarded down a prohibited ski slope and caused a massive avalanche. One of our network lawyers in France successfully represented them. A conviction could have hampered their future travel plans and included incarceration. Another caller, a U.S. physician, also with travel insurance coverage, was cited in France for using a radar detector, which is illegal there. Ignoring the citation could have resulted in an arrest warrant with the probability of detention the next time he tried to enter France. Our network lawyer had the case dismissed.

Young travelers, including study abroad students, regularly get into trouble for alcohol-related activities in countries which legalize alcohol consumption at age 15 or 16, or which have no age limit whatsoever. “Disorderly conduct” and “malicious mischief” are typical charges, and without appropriate legal advice, convictions and harsh sentences are much more likely.

The further away from the U.S. a traveler goes, the greater the likelihood that the local laws will substantially vary from U.S. laws. In one memorable case, an insured middle-aged U.S. citizen traveling in Bangkok rushed to the airport when he received a call that his father was in the hospital with a heart attack. Aggravated by a lengthy wait to pay the departure tax, he ripped up a 50 baht bill and dropped it on the ground, whereupon he was immediately arrested. Because the Thai king’s image was on the money, destroying it was a serious violation of the “Respect for the King and the Royal Family” law. The traveler was suddenly facing 15 years in a brutal Thai prison. After extensive efforts here, including consultation with a forensic psychologist, our Thai lawyer obtained his release from custody and dismissal of the criminal charge.

There are many other culturally-based laws. For instance, we have had several hotline calls from U.S. travelers who were arrested after they purchased souvenirs in Turkey. When customs authorities determined the items to be “antiquities,” each traveler was arrested and faced a lengthy prison sentence. Fortunately, we obtained competent legal help for them and saved each of these callers from a stint in a notorious Turkish prison.

Many travelers presume, quite inaccurately, that U.S. constitutional protections follow them wherever they travel. Most travelers expect the U.S. Embassy to come to their rescue. As a practical matter, this does not happen. Consular officials visit Americans in jail, contact their families, and monitor court proceedings, but not much more. U.S. Embassies may distribute a list of local lawyers, but they give no guarantees and make no recommendations. Many foreign lawyers do not speak fluent English, if they speak any English at all. In many countries, bail for a foreigner is prohibited.

The most frequent foreign criminal charge facing Americans is possession of illegal drugs, typically a small amount of marijuana. Amsterdam is a safe haven, but not Greece, Turkey and most other countries. Mexico, a most popular vacation destination, every year is the country with the most Americans arrested and imprisoned for drugs. Even a small amount of marijuana can bring about a minimum of six years in a hell-hole Mexican prison, with a significant chance of beatings and/or severe illness and other disastrous consequences.

Making sure that there is an emergency number to call to access legal help is critical. Obtaining competent legal representation in a foreign country is vital. Many people acting on their own, or through family or friends, get “ripped off” by unscrupulous lawyers who take their money and disappear, with disastrous consequences.

In some Latin American countries, including Mexico, drivers of vehicles involved in an auto accident where there are serious injuries are arrested and are typically locked up in a primitive local jail until the police determine which person is at fault, a process which can take months. Immediate legal defense involvement in these cases is crucial in avoiding such detention.

U.S. travelers also get into civil legal difficulties. Problems with grossly inflated car rental charges are common. Problems with excessive charges on hotel bills are routine. Skiing and other sports accidents, auto accidents, slip and falls in hotels and restaurants and other places are common occurrences that can easily ruin a vacation or business trip. Travelers are usually quite relieved to have legal advice promptly available concerning how to deal with such situations. Should they remain in the country? How can they locate a competent English- speaking lawyer? Those are our routine cases, even though they are not as dramatic as the criminal incidents.

In accident cases in most foreign jurisdictions, “no win – no fee” arrangements are not common, but most of our network lawyers agree to such arrangements. With competent representation, recoveries frequently occur even though the amount may not be on a par with similar case results in the U.S. Sometimes the traveler becomes a defendant in an accident-related lawsuit and needs counsel. Since foreign laws and procedures in civil cases are also substantially different than in the U.S., access to a knowledgeable local attorney is an invaluable asset.

While it is not typically described as a primary benefit of travel insurance policies or assistance services, a legal hotline, with 24/7 emergency consultation and referral can prove to be a critical and valuable included service.


Dick Atkins
Member of USTIA through International Recoveries, LLC, has provided emergency legal services for thousands of travelers in foreign countries since 1980, mostly clients of assistance and travel insurance companies. He is a noted author and lecturer on foreign civil and criminal legal problems, appears on numerous network television shows and is recommended by various travel magazines and guides. "NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC ADVENTURE MAGAZINE" calls him "The Houdini of fast escapes from international prisons."