Smart Things You Can Do To Avoid Unsafe Situations
Safety & Security While Traveling
Personal safety and security concerns like street crime and terrorism exist all around the world, including in the United States. Just like in the United States, it is important that you are vigilant and take commonsense precautions to safeguard yourself while on your study away program. Indeed, it may be even more important to be vigilant while studying abroad, as you may not know all of the nuances of your host country’s local laws and cultural norms.
There are proactive steps you can take to help make sure you have a safe trip abroad. Here are a few of the best practices to follow while abroad:
Try to fit in. Don’t stand out. While “safety in numbers” is a good rule to follow, traveling as an identifiable group of American students may attract unwanted attention. Try to fit in with the surroundings and be “invisible,” as much as possible. Try to act like the locals. Whenever possible, speak in the local language and/or memorize helpful words and phrases in that language. Dress inconspicuously and avoid flashing expensive gadgets (e.g. laptops, iPhones, etc.), clothing with conspicuous American branding, money, jewelry, and other valuables in public. Avoid displaying conspicuous American logos/branding on your belongings and/or clothing, especially athletic wear. Make sure you understand the basic layout and orientation of your host city and know which areas and neighborhoods to avoid. If you’re not sure, ask program staff or trusted local sources.
Be cautious and alert. Practice heightened situational awareness when out in public. Immediately report any suspicious activities or persons to local authorities. Be wary of strangers. Don’t share information about yourself or other students. Don’t give your own or anyone else’s address, telephone number(s), or other personal information to people you don’t know; and don’t discuss your class or field trip schedule or other plans. Don’t accept food or drinks from strangers and keep a watch on your (and your friends’) drink(s).
Watch your valuables. Keep all valuables on your person in a discreet place, preferably stowed away in a money belt or a pouch that hangs around your neck and under clothing. Don’t carry more money than you need for your daily expenses. Deposit excess cash in a bank if possible or in a hotel safe or deposit box. Take good care of bank, credit, and calling cards, as well as your passport. Never leave a handbag or backpack unattended and keep such bags away from passing traffic when walking down the street. If the item has a shoulder strap, wear it crossing the strap over your body. Do not put valuable items in the exterior pockets of book bags, backpacks, or bags that are open at the top.
Be a wise traveler. Try to avoid arriving late at night in unfamiliar cities and take along a reliable guidebook that lists resources and hotels/hostels. It’s always preferable to travel with another person. It is not advisable to sleep on a train if you are traveling alone. Do not agree to watch the belongings of a person whom you do not know. Do not borrow suitcases and ensure that nothing is inserted into your luggage. Do not hitchhike. Let your program director, host family, and friends know your itinerary when traveling.
Use the buddy system and stick with a group. When going out at night, make sure you go with at least one other person. When with a large group, make sure everyone stays together and don’t leave anyone behind.
Be streetwise. Avoid deserted areas and exercise caution in crowds. Avoid impairing your judgment due to excessive consumption of alcohol. Be aware that pickpockets tend to prey on people who look lost or who do not seem to be paying attention. Pickpockets often have an accomplice who will jostle you, ask you for directions, or distract you in another way.
Be sure that your program director/support staff know how to contact you and that you know how to contact them if needed.
Political Strife. It may be possible that you will find yourself caught in the midst of political strife while on your study away program, which may take the form of protests, rallies, demonstrations, strikes, etc. While these events will most likely not be directed at you personally, or even at you as an American, nevertheless they can be very dangerous as an incidental risk, and thus should be avoided. If you find yourself in a situation where such an event is forming around you, you should exit the area as quickly as is safely possible. You should not attempt to watch such events from the sidelines or photograph them.
Terrorism. While terrorist attacks are often indiscriminate in nature and can happen anywhere in the world, there are steps you can take to help increase your personal security. Be sure to follow the personal security best practices mentioned above, but also:
- Minimize unnecessary time spent around potential terrorist targets. For example: government/military buildings, transportation services and hubs, Western embassies/consulates, high-profile tourist sites and cultural/religious institutions, large gatherings of people/crowded public areas, busy entertainment venues, religious gatherings and sites, etc.
- When in public, be cautious, exercise heightened situational awareness, and report any suspicious activity or persons immediately to local authorities. As the saying goes: If you see something, say something.
- Comply with directives from program staff as well as local authorities.
- Closely monitor local news sources. Be aware of days that may have religious significance.
- Dress inconspicuously and avoid ostentatious displays of wealth. Try to blend in with the local population.
Unfortunately, there is always the risk of a sudden or random attack, but following these guidelines should help you better increase your personal security while abroad. In the event of a terrorist attack in your host city, your program director, working closely with Duke/GEO personnel, local police, U.S. government personnel, and local support staff, will develop and institute all necessary security measures. As indicated above, you must follow all directives from local authorities and program staff during or after such events.
U.S. Government Travel Advisories: The U.S. Department of State routinely publishes official travel Warnings and Alerts to warn U.S. citizens about areas of danger or unrest around the world. These travel advisories, as well as other announcements and country-specific travel information, can be found at travel.state.gov/.
Smart Traveler Enrollment Program (STEP). STEP is a free service that allows U.S. citizens traveling abroad to enroll their trip with the nearest U.S. embassy or consulate in their host country. Once enrolled, the U.S. diplomatic services in your host country will be able to push out alerts and other information to you, especially in emergency situations, such as during or following a natural disaster, civil unrest, or other such events. Additionally, you will receive important safety and security information from the State Department via email. GEO strongly recommends that you enroll in STEP at this website: step.state.gov/step. It will only take a few minutes. Non-U.S. citizens should check with their home country’s embassy/consulate to see if they offer similar services for their citizens abroad.