Personal Security Overseas
When traveling overseas, whether for business or pleasure, being aware of one’s surroundings and taking steps to ensure one’s personal security are very important. While the movie Taken with Liam Neeson may exaggerate the dangers for two teenage girls traveling alone in Paris, one valid message contained in the film is that one should never take one’s security for granted, even in a first-world Western European country. When overseas, you are operating in a world that is not your own. The best way of getting out of dangerous situations is to never get into them in the first place. As a citizen in your own country, you understand instinctively how things work. It’s part of your culture. In a foreign culture you might not pick up that you are entering a dangerous situation until you are stuck in it. And getting out of it could be tricky. Assuming you aren’t rich enough to have your personal security detail, what follows are some tips for staying secure while overseas.
1.) Understand the security situation in the country you are traveling in.
For American citizens, typically the U.S. State Department will have commentary on various countries and issue travel warnings where they deem it necessary. Inform yourself about these prior to your trip. For example, my father and I traveled to Albania a few years ago. The U.S. State Department had a warning about traveling to the south of that country due to the drug trade. We were staying in north anyway, but being aware of this warning meant that we weren’t going to be heading to that region.
Beyond these warnings, study up on the country you are going to. Become aware of things like the political system, possible corruption, or anything that could generate instability and cause your trip to become memorable for all of the wrong reasons. If traveling to a specific city, try and understand the dynamics of that city. The internet makes researching these factors easier than ever before.
And try to ignore the hype and the headlines. The news business is first and foremost a business which uses sensationalism to get you to read the article. To take Albania as an example, it has a bad reputation both in film (see the aforementioned movie Taken) and print. However, doing some internet research along with a call to a friend who lives on the border with Albania, the U.S. State Department, and some common sense which indicated that the existence of an Albanian tourist industry for Italians implied a certain level of basic security, I obtained what I felt was a fairly accurate understanding of the security situation in that country. And that it was a country that was not too dangerous to spend a few days in.
2.) Check in at your embassy.
When you arrive in your country, be sure to check in at your embassy/consulate if there is one nearby. The consulate is ostensibly there to help you, a citizen, with things that you might need while you are in the foreign country. It is good to let someone know where you are, where you will be staying, and when you plan to leave the country. In countries with lower levels of security, this can be used to create a paper trail of where you were if you should disappear. In a world of cell phones and tracking apps that can report on your location in real time to your family and friends around the world, this step may not seem as critical. But any attempt by your loved ones to use diplomatic staff to resolve your situation will be made easier if they have a record of you having been there.
If you are going to be staying in the country for awhile, then get involved and attend any and all events that the consulate may put on for the public/expats. Get to know the consular staff. If something should happen, they are more likely to go out of their way and try really hard for someone who they actually know, rather than some random American whose family is looking for him/her.
3.) Try and blend in.
If traveling in any country, but especially those in less secure parts of the world, blending in is a key part of any security strategy. Any criminal elements or corrupt local authorities are more likely to target foreigners than they are local citizens who understand how the “game” is played. To that end, you need to try and appear as local as possible. In some cases, this might be difficult if your race/ethnicity is substantially different from that of the country that you are in. But even in these cases there are certain steps you can take to lower your profile such as the following:
A.) Study the fashion of the country that you are visiting and try and match it.
This doesn’t mean that you dress the way that stereotypes tell you to dress. If you get off the plane in Saudi Arabia in an Arab headdress, you are probably going to be picked out immediately as a tourist or that you are making fun of them, neither of which is going to lower your profile or increase your security. Instead, watch several YouTube or TikTok videos posted by people actually traveling in those countries in different social situations and look at the people strolling around in the background. This should give you some idea of how you should be dressed so as to not stand out.
B.) Plan your routes before you leave the hotel and try to look like you have been there before.
In other words, try not to look lost or like you don’t know what you are doing. When walking, don’t gawk or look around amazed at all of the architecture. Keep your head focused straight ahead and use the movement of your eyes to check out the sites (if you must). To somebody looking at you from a distance, you are going to look like someone who knows what they are doing, and this will make you much less of a target of opportunity for someone looking to make mischief. Even if you are in a country in which your race/ethnicity is substantially different from the locals, looking like you know what you are doing will make you appear to be an expat with some local experience and will reduce the chance of you being targeted. I once discovered that I actually accomplished this quite well during my first two days ever in Italy (Milan) when I had no less than 7 different individuals (some foreign and some Italian) come up to me and ask me (sometimes in Italian which I speak, or English) for directions to this place or that place. Whatever else was happening, I must have appeared to be either a local or someone with a significant amount of local experience.
C.) Try to be out on the street with as little as possible.
Sometimes it isn’t safe to leave things in a hotel room (if possible, try to get a room with a safe). But, if possible, don’t be out on the street carrying large bags, luggage, or a large backpack (a purse for ladies and maybe at absolute most a small backpack for men or women). Ideally a woman will have a purse and men won’t have anything beyond a wallet. If you are in a place with lots of pick-pockets, there are pants with pocket zippers you can get for your wallet to thwart these types. Regardless, being on the street without much on you pegs you as a local who has no need to carry around a lot of items.
D.) Be sure to test whether you really are blending in.
As you are walking, make sure to stroll by some locals. As you pass them, take note if they start looking at you. After you have passed them by a few feet, turn your head suddenly (but not your body) and see you catch them looking at you. Do this several times with different groups of locals. If you don’t catch anybody watching you, then you are probably doing a good job of blending in. If you repeatedly catch people looking at you, then you are standing out and you need to figure out what you are doing wrong and correct it.
4.) Stay away from the nightlife (unless you are in a tourist resort).
In my view, one of the most dangerous places to be in a foreign country, but okay with local friends, is out at a bar or nightclub. The first problem is that ingesting alcohol alters your perception and dulls your reflexes at precisely the time when you need all of your wits about you and your reflexes at their most efficient. While this is true anywhere in the world, going to these places in your home country often isn’t as risky because you are part of the culture and you likely understand what is going on. This is often not the case in a foreign country.
Another problem with these establishments (especially the nightclubs) is that they often have underworld connections and won’t have a problem exploiting a clueless foreigner. Given that some countries are not as scrupulous about following the law, a bar/nightclub is likely to have an understanding (at the very least) with local law enforcement meaning that the cops aren’t likely to help you out if you end up having a problem with the club’s ownership and his “friends”.
And this doesn’t even include the problem that someone may spike your drink, or that someone may deliberately accuse you of something that you didn’t do in order to take advantage of you. The fact is that there really isn’t anything good that can come out of an interaction in a nightclub for you.
Now if you are in a paid resort that has its own bar/nightclub/nightlife, then feel free to take part. Not only does the resort likely have its own security staff, but it has a vested interest that you have a safe/secure time. A resort that gets a bad reputation for taking advantage of its guests won’t be in business very long. So, the resort bar/nightclub will go out of its way to make sure that nothing bad happens to you.
5.) Do NOT get involved with a foreign man/woman, even if you meet him/her in your hotel.
When you are overseas, it’s generally a good idea to avoid anything that could end up with you in an awkward situation. While an exception might be made in Anglophone countries such as Canada, U.K., New Zealand, Australia, etc. where the culture is similar enough to the U.S. that you will probably be okay navigating the cultural landscape, in many other countries such interactions can be fraught with peril.
In many countries around the world, a woman approaching a man is very unusual unless they are in a certain type of profession. And that profession is often controlled by underworld types; specifically the sorts of folks that you probably don’t want to be involved with. And as with the bars/nightclubs, these businesses often have ties to local law enforcement meaning that there is little recourse should you fall afoul of them.
And even in the case where perhaps the woman in question really isn’t part of a business that would like to shake you down for cash, being involved can come with cultural expectations that you are probably not prepared to meet. Nothing can endanger your personal security faster than outraged male family members confronting you because you dishonored their cousin, sister, daughter, etc.
6.) Vary your routes.
Once you are in country, it is good to not have an established pattern of behavior. While we all have a rhythm of life to some extent, being overly predictable is not good. When traveling to and from certain places back to your hotel or other residence, use different routes to get to locations that you visit repeatedly. While you are likely not to be targeted, alternating routes makes in harder plan an ambush or attempt a kidnapping of you.
7.) Barricade your hotel door.
One of the basic security measures that you can take when you are in a hotel room is to barricade the hotel door with luggage, a cabinet, a desk; really anything that can make it difficult for an attacker/attackers to get at you. While such a barricade may not be enough to stop a determined attack, it could buy you time to either escape out the window/balcony, get to the door to push against the attackers to try and prevent them from getting in, or grab a weapon (maybe coins and a bar of soap inside a sock to swing at someone’s head) and prepare and mount a defense. Regardless, the sounds of a fight (and a call to the front desk) could bring security forces to your location which can probably only benefit you. Even if the local thugs have ties to law enforcement, a loud public kidnapping in the middle of a hotel will probably be stopped by whatever law enforcement is on scene as not even the most corrupt regime wants that sort of reputation. It goes without saying that even if such a thing is stopped by local law enforcement, the local thugs clearly lacked a fear of law enforcement when they launched an attack on your hotel room which implies some sort of connection. Your immediate move is to get out of the country on the next available flight going anywhere.
8.) Have a plan of escape.
Before embarking on any trip to certain parts of the world, it is important to walk through in your mind several scenarios for getting out of a situation/country if things going horribly sideways. Bear in mind that in a difficult situation, the fact that you are an American citizen is going to mean absolutely nothing. Unless you are connected to someone very high in the American government (say Joe Biden’s cousin or something), the chances that the U.S. government will care enough to use whatever leverage it has to get you out of a situation is close to zero. While this may imply that it is useless to check into the U.S. embassy, the purpose of checking in is to leave a trail of where you have been if someone comes looking for you. The reason to be skeptical of the U.S. government’s willingness and/or ability to help you is to dissuade yourself of the notion that you are actually backed by the most powerful nation on earth, when in fact you are not. The skepticism might keep you safe in your dealings overseas.
As for planning an escape, envision how you would get out of your hotel without being seen. How might you get to an airport? Is there an overland route that might work? Is there anybody local that you can trust to help?
Many of these factors won’t likely be known until you are in the country. But by having thought through scenarios and having been observant in looking at different possible options when you arrive, you will be ahead of the game if you are ever in a position where you have to get away.
These are only some of the steps you may want to take when overseas. Note that every security situation is different, and you may need to develop some different tactics to the ones laid out here. And this isn’t to imply you should be petrified to set foot outside of the U.S. Most folks will travel to all sorts of countries (even potentially dangerous ones) and be perfectly fine. However, it is important to think through possible security implications of what you are doing and where you are going. And it is important to practice some basic security awareness while you are over there. In so doing, you can help ensure that your trip, for whatever purpose, will also be a safe one.