If you’ve seen a Liam Neeson action movie, you might have nightmares about abductions, drug rings, and mafia crimes abroad. These instances of violence are incredibly uncommon for study abroad students, but you should have a plan in case of an emergency. To stay safe overseas, you don’t need much more than common sense. Wise travel is safe travel.
Attend to your luggage.
In our post-September 11 world, airport security has never been tighter. It’s not likely that you’ll be a target in the airport, but remove all doubt. As a study abroad student, you’re carting more luggage through the airport than the average traveler. Keep an eye on those bags.
Keep your documents in a safe place.
You definitely need your passport and visa on the days you intend to travel by bus, plane, or train. Otherwise, most countries don’t require that you carry your passport with you at all times. Make do with a driver’s license and a copy of your passport instead. You might also want to take a picture of your passport bio page and save it on your phone. Keep your passport in a locker at your hostel or hotel or in a safe place in your home unless it is otherwise required of you.
Use marked cabs.
Uber is available in 76 countries. You may feel safe using it at home or at college, but think twice about using it abroad. Uber does not use official taxis or registered taxi drivers; anyone with a car can sign up to be a driver. This usually isn’t an issue since Uber customers can rate and report their drivers, but to ensure the safest ride, travel exclusively in cabs that are marked. You’ll know if a taxi is registered if the side doors display a company name and a registration number. In other countries, some taxis won’t have a meter. Be sure to negotiate cab fare with the driver before you start the journey. Some drivers will take advantage of tourists and foreigners by taking them on roundabout journeys to rack up extra fare. Keep a map in your purse or on your phone, and follow along to make sure that you won’t have to pay the driver more than necessary.
Travel in groups.
Band together with other students and travelers for sightseeing, cab or bus rides, and nighttime excursions. Small groups of two to four people are best if you want to avoid being an easy target for a mugger or pickpocketer. Similarly, try to speak in the target language as much as possible, even amongst yourselves. Avoid stopping in the street to unfold a map or check your GPS. Instead, step into the privacy of a kiosk or store.
Avoid protests or incidents of civil unrest.
Some countries and political groups abroad harbor anti-American sentiments. Do not interfere or try to change minds. It could put your safety at risk. Avoid demonstrations and protests, where your chances of becoming a target increase.
Have a plan for emergencies.
Just as an emergency could happen at home, any kind of accident or crisis can happen while you’re abroad, even if you make safe, thoughtful choices. You’re already prepared to handle emergencies on your home turf. You know the quickest route to the hospital, and you have a primary care doctor, for example. Anticipate the same emergencies abroad. Write down the address and phone number of your study abroad program’s headquarters and the nearest hospital, doctor, and pharmacy. Keep a copy in your wallet, one at home, and one in your phone. Research natural disasters that affect your region. Is it on a fault line? Is there a risk of hurricane or tsunami? Know the emergency number for your destination (9-1-1 is not a worldwide code; your destination will have its own emergency telephone number).
Exhaust safety resources available to you.
While rare, a few U.S. students do die tragically each year while studying abroad. Their grieving parents help their legacies live on. Some have founded foundations to support safer study abroad trips. Use these resources exhaustively. They aren’t there to scare you; they are there to support you.
- For fire safety: JUSTICE was started by parents who lost their daughter to a fire in Paris. They give study abroad students the tools to choose apartments that comply with fire code and to identify fire escape routes.
- For country-specific safety: Sara’s Wish began when a U.S. student was killed in a bus crash in India. Her parents offer scholarships for other women who commit to traveling safely. The scholarship recipients then write safety tips for specific destinations, which are compiled on the website.
- For personal safety: The ClearCause Foundation advocates on behalf of multiple students who died abroad from accidents, natural disasters, or murder. They have downloadable safety checklists, and they recently launched an app that lets students send their GPS coordinates to emergency contacts.
If you go out to restaurants, bars, or clubs at night, be especially cautious. Watch your drink and never leave it unattended. Stay in a group. If you decide to leave the bar or club, let your friends know exactly where you’re going. Revive the buddy system you used in elementary school. When it’s time for you and your friends to leave the bar and head home, send each other texts to say you arrived home safely. Sharing a cab is even better. You can watch each other get into your apartments, and the last person to arrive home can send a text. You might be tempted to save money by walking home from the club, but your safety is worth the splurge, especially if it’s 3 a.m. and you’ve been drinking.
Bring a flashlight or headlamp.
If you will be traveling to a rural destination, keep in mind that at night you won’t have any city lights to guide you. On rocky mountain trails or gravel roads, you can easily trip and fall. Otherwise, on nights when the moon isn’t so full, you may have a hard time distinguishing the right path to take. Don’t lose your way at night. Bring a flashlight or a headlamp.
Take care when exchanging money or banking.
Foreign transaction fees and low exchange rates can make using ATMs in foreign countries expensive. Travelers often want to avoid the bank fees that accumulate after multiple small transactions. They will often withdraw large sums of cash all at once. If you decide to do this, be alert. Only use ATMs and banks located in familiar areas, and only frequent them during the daytime. Try to have a friend with you as well. As soon as you receive your money from the ATM, divide it into several wads and hide them in different secure pockets: one in your wallet, one in your zippered coat pocket, one in your sock. Be as discreet as possible when you’re doing this. It’s a good idea to avoid walk-up ATMs. Instead, you should look for ones that are located inside the atriums of banks. If you’ve spent all day walking around the city, make sure that your trip to the bank is at the end of your to-do list. You don’t want to be a walking moneybag for hours on end.
Forfeit your wallet if you’re mugged.
Petty theft and pickpocketing are common in many study abroad destinations, such as Barcelona, Buenos Aires, Rome, Rio de Janeiro, and St. Petersburg. Thieves usually want cash or fancy cell phones they can pawn. If you’re mugged, hand over your wallet or purse quickly—or better yet, toss it on the ground and run or lie down, depending on if the thief has a weapon. Don’t try to negotiate. If you don’t comply with a thief’s demands, you will put yourself at risk for a violent attack. After you’re robbed, you may feel upset, anxious, angry, or sad. Try to focus through the whirlwind of emotions. First, you should find a police officer and report the theft. Itemize everything that was taken from you (e.g., $60, phone, passport, etc.). The more specific the list, the more likely your items will be returned to you if they’re found. Next, you should cancel your credit cards. In many destinations, especially in developing countries, identity theft and cybercrime are less common than they are in the United States. Thieves really do want fast cash, and they may toss your credit card without a second thought, so no need to outright panic. If your wallet is stolen, contact your bank as soon as you can and cancel your banking cards. They can be replaced. In fact, everything can be replaced, even important travel documents.
Get new travel documents as soon as possible if they are lost or stolen.
You cannot return to the United States without a passport. If it is lost or stolen abroad, you will need to contact the nearest U.S. embassy or consulate. Inform the attendant about the crime committed against you and your upcoming travel plans. The consular staff may need to expedite your request for a passport so that you can make your flight home. Expedited requests are more expensive and produce a valid one-year passport that you can extend to the full ten years upon your return to the United States.
Stow an extra debit card in a safe place at home.
If you’re mugged abroad and you call to cancel your debit and credit cards, your bank can issue you new ones. They may, however, be delayed because of slow international mail. It’s a good idea to request a second debit card (and a second credit card) from your bank before you leave for your study abroad trip. These cards, while active, should be kept in a safe place in your apartment, dorm, or host family’s house. If your wallet is lost or stolen, you will rest assured knowing that you already have replacement cards waiting for you back at home.
Trust your gut if you don’t feel safe.
No one is judging you if you “have a bad feeling” about something. It’s best to be safe than sorry. If you feel unsafe, remove yourself from the situation as soon as possible. If your bus or taxi driver swerves into the lane for oncoming traffic, get out of the car and catch the next one. He or she might be drunk driving. If you suspect that a stranger is following you on your way home, duck into a store or pharmacy and alert the security guard. If a roommate or classmate makes an unwanted pass at you, talk to your study abroad program about switching dorms or classes. You went abroad to find an adventure, but never should your adventure compromise your safety and comfort.
Page last updated: 12/2016